How do we know he was pope?
The Liber Pontificalis (“Book of Popes”) lists Pope St. Fabian as the immediate successor of Anterus. Church historian Eusebius, writing around 325 AD, confirms the same and lists him as the 19th successor of St. Peter.
Give me the scoop on Fabian.
Fabian’s elevation to the papacy was nothing short of miraculous (more on that in a minute), and he was blessed to rule in peace for the majority of his time in the Chair of Peter. This allowed him, with the help of Roman officials, to return the bodies of Sts. Pontian (Pope #18) and Hippolytus to Rome for a proper Christian burial.
Fabian was also responsible for assigning St. Cyprian as the bishop of Carthage and leader of the Church in Africa. Incidentally, St. Cyprian is the reason we know St. Fabian was such a holy guy since the former wrote to Fabian’s successor saying so.
At the end of his papacy, a renewed Roman vitriol was ushered in by new emperor Decius (not a holy guy), resulting in another persecution of the Church and, ultimately, Fabian’s martyrdom by beheading. Fabian is commonly depicted with St. Sebastian because of their shared feast day (A week ago! January 20). His remains lie in the church of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls in Rome.
What was he known for?
We can thank St. Fabian for informing us of the origin of Sacred Chrism, that sweet-smelling oil used at priestly ordinations, baptisms, the sacrament of Confirmation, and the consecration of altars. Fabian wrote in his Second Epistle to the Bishops of the East:
“Our predecessors received from the Apostles and delivered to us that our Savior Jesus Christ, after having made the Last Supper with his Apostles and washed their feet, taught them how to prepare the Holy Chrism.”
– Pope St. Fabian
Those words indicate that the Chrism originated from none other than Christ himself (hence the name)!
According to Eusebius, Fabian was practically a stranger to papal electors when a successor to St. Anterus was being chosen. Not only did he travel from the countryside for the festivities, but Fabian was also a layman to boot. Eusebius writes that Fabian “was on the mind of none” as a possible choice for pope. Nevertheless, a dove flew in the room and settled on his head, causing the electors to take it as a divine choice and unanimously pick Fabian on the spot. Good thing he wasn’t afraid of birds.
What else was going on in the world at the time?
Fabian’s third year in office (238) was particularly tumultuous for the Roman Empire, becoming known as the Year of Six Emperors.
Coming Monday….Pope St. Cornelius
Can’t get enough papal history?
Click here for more on St. Fabian (The Pope With a Bird on His Head) from The Popecast, a short podcast about popes from the author of Popes in a Year.
SOURCES (and further reading)
– John, E. (1964). The Popes: A concise biographical history. New York: Hawthorn Books.