In 236, an assembly was held in Rome to elect a bishop as successor to Antherius. In the throng was one Fabian, a layman from another part of Italy. Suddenly, according to the historian Eusebius, a dove flew over the crowd and lighted on Fabian’s head. Despite his being both a stranger and not a candidate in the election, the people unanimously chose Fabian to be bishop, shouting, “Axios! He is worthy! He is worthy!” Fabian was ordained to the episcopate without opposition.
During his fourteen years as bishop, Fabian made numerous administrative reforms. He divided the Church at Rome into seven deaconries and established the custom of venerating martyrs at their tombs in the catacombs. Along with Donatus, the bishop of Carthage, Fabian issued letters condemnatory of Privatus, bishop of Lambaesis in Numidia, and of his heretical opinions. Fabian also brought back to Rome, for proper burial, the remains of Pontian, a bishop of Rome whom the emperor had exiled in 235 to a certain and rapid death in the mines of Sardinia.
The emperor Decius ordered a general persecution of Christians in 239 and 240, probably the first persecution carried out in all parts of the Roman Empire. Fabian was one of the earliest of those martyred at Rome, setting a courageous example for his flock, many of whom died in great torment.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, praised Fabian in a letter to Cornelius, Fabian’s successor at Rome, as “an incomparable man, the glory of whose death corresponded with the holiness of his life.” Fabian was buried in the catacomb of Callixtus and was later transferred to the church of Saint Sebastian. The original slab which covered his gravesite survives in fragments, but the words “Fabian…bishop…martyr” are still dimly visible.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
O God, in your providence you singled out the holy martyr Fabian as worthy to be chief pastor of your people, and guided him so to strengthen your Church that it stood fast in the day of persecution: Grant that those whom you call to any ministry in the Church may be obedient to your call in all humility, and be enabled to carry out their tasks with diligence and faithfulness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.