St Fabian (January 20)
Fabian, pope from 236 to his martyrdom in 250, inspired reverence as a deeply holy man. Yet he was also pragmatic, creating a new structure for Church government within Rome.
In the face of the many varieties of practice and belief in early Christianity it had soon become clear that a supreme authority was required to define and enforce orthodoxy.
By 150 the theoretical primacy of the Bishop of Rome was widely acknowledged. In practice, though, it proved difficult to maintain unity of faith even within the boundaries of the Holy City.
In the late second century, for example, a Roman sect called the Theodotians established a rival church dedicated to the proposition that Jesus was merely an exceptionally good man raised to divinity at the Resurrection.
The forceful Pope Victor (189-198) was able to squash that particular heresy. The effectiveness of the Church within Rome, however, depended to a dangerous degree on the personal quali ties and credentials of its bishop.
According to the historian Eusebius, Fabian had scarcely been heard of before Pope Anterus’s death in 236. Yet after a dove settled on his head during a meeting to select the new Pope, the sanction of the Holy Spirit appeared incontestable.
The early years of Fabian’s pontificate proved abundantly favourable for the Church. In 238 the Emperor Gordian III abandoned the persecution of Christians. Fabian, for his part, proved an energetic and far-sighted administrator. He reorganised the Roman clergy, dividing the city into seven ecclesiastical districts, each under the charge of a deacon who was supported by a sub-deacon and six assistants.
Fabian also undertook building works within the Christian cemeteries of Rome. Eager at once to heal former divisions and to enhance the prestige of the papacy, he arranged that the body of Pope Pontian should be returned from Sardinia, along with that of Pontian’s rival, Hippolytus.
In the same spirit Fabian ensured that precise lists were kept of former bishops of Rome, going back to St Peter.
At the beginning of 250, however, the Emperor Decius unleashed a new persecution of Christianity. Fabian was one of the first to die, most likely from illtreatment in prison.
His body was buried in the catacomb of Callistus, where a gravestone bearing his name, coupled with the Greek abbreviation for “martyr”, was discovered in 1854. At some point his remains had been moved to the church of St Sebastian, where they were unearthed in 1915.
Fabian’s contemporary St Cyprian praised him as “an incomparable man, the glory of whose death corresponded with the holiness of his life”.
It was an equally telling testimonial that, during the 14-month papal interregnum after Fabian’s death, the Church’s administrative system in Rome held firm.