Fabian, the 1st Martyr under Decius

Dan Graves, MSL

Fabian, the 1st Martyr under Decius

In Rome, there is an old slab of stone that is special. On it, worn Greek letters are still visible. Translated, they read, "Fabian, bishop, martyr." Fabian had been the Bishop of Rome (Pope) for fourteen years when the Roman Emperor Decius made up his mind to smash the unpopular Christian church. On this day, January 20, 250, the prominent and holy Fabian died for his faith.

According to tradition, he was the first person killed in the savage onslaught, which was the first persecution to include the entire Roman Empire. The bishop is said to have died bravely, setting an example for his entire flock. Unfortunately, we have no details of how he died or what he said at his death. In art, he is often shown being beheaded.

That Fabian was bishop at all is curious. When Bishop Anteras died in 236, Fabian was a farmer who came to Rome to observe the choice of a successor. Needless to say, no one in the assembly gave a thought to this layman. No one, until a surprising event took place.

The early church historian Eusebius, writing about a hundred years after Fabian's death, reported that suddenly a dove flew into the room and landed on the farmer's head. The assembly took this as a sign from God; had not a dove also descended on Christ at his baptism? Fabian was immediately chosen for the vacant position.

Fabian proved to be a good leader. He battled a North African heresy and appointed seven men to collect the records of recent martyrs. He also honored the bones of two Roman bishops who had died in exile in Sardinia's mines (Pontian and Hippolytus). As an administrative matter, he organized Rome under seven deacons. Later reports say he sent St. Denis and six other missionaries to help with the evangelization of Gaul (France).

Fabian also wrote letters. At least three of them survive. These show a man concerned for the spread of faith and preservation of church discipline: "We beseech you also to be zealous in praying in your pious supplications, that our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who will have all men to be saved, and no one to perish, may, by His vast omnipotence, cause their hearts to turn again to sound doctrine and to the Catholic faith, in order that they may be recovered from the toils of the devil who are held captive by him, and be united with the children of our mother the Church."

But Fabian's most notable action was to willingly lay down his life for Christ. In this, he became a heroic example for a church that had grown soft during the recent days of peace. Two early Christian writers of renown, St. Cyprian and St. Jerome, affirmed that Fabian died a martyr.

Bibliography:

  1. Brusher, Joseph. Popes Through the Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
  2. "Fabian, Pope, M." Saint of the Day. http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/0120.htm#fabi
  3. Meier, P. Gabriel. "Pope St. Fabian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  4. "Saint Fabian." Catholic Online Saints.

Last updated June, 2007

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