January 20: Fabian, Bishop and Martyr of Rome, 250

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

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About this Commemoration

In 236, an assembly was held at Rome to elect a pope as successor to Antherus. In the throng was 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.  In spite of the fact that he was both a total stranger and not even a candidate for election, the people unanimously chose Fabian to be pope, shouting, “He is worthy! He is worthy!” Fabian was ordained to the episcopate without opposition.

During his fourteen years as pontiff, Fabian made numerous administrative reforms.  He developed the parochial structure of the Church in Rome, and established the custom of venerating martyrs at their shrines in the catacombs. He appointed seven deacons and seven sub-deacons to write the lives of the martyrs, so that their deeds should not be forgotten in times to come.

When Privatus, in Africa, stirred up a new heresy, Fabian vigorously opposed and condemned his actions. He also brought back to Rome, for proper burial, the remains of Pontian, a pope 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 the Church in 239 and 240, probably the first persecution to be carried out in all parts of the empire. Fabian was one of the earliest of those martyred, setting a courageous example for his followers, many of whom died in great torment.

Cyprian of Carthage, in a letter to Cornelius, Fabian’s successor, wrote that Fabian was an incomparable man. “The glory of his death,” Cyprian commented, “befitted the purity and holiness of his life.”

Fabian’s tombstone, the slab which covered his grave site, still exists. It is in fragments, but the words “Fabian … bishop … martyr” are still dimly visible.

Collects

i Almighty God, who didst call Fabian to be a faithful pastor and servant of thy people, and to lay down his life in witness to thy Son: Grant that we, strengthened by his example and aided by his prayers, may in times of trial and persecution remain steadfast in faith and endurance, for the sake of him who laid down his life for us all, Jesus Christ our Savior; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

ii Almighty God, you called Fabian to be a faithful pastor and servant of your people, and to lay down his life in witness to your Son: Grant that we, strengthened by his example and aided by his prayers, may in times of trial and persecution remain steadfast in faith and endurance, for the sake of him who laid down his life for us all, Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons

2 Esdras 2:42–48

1 Corinthians 15:31–36,44b–49

Luke 21:20–24

Psalm

126

Preface of  a Saint (3)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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12 Responses to January 20: Fabian, Bishop and Martyr of Rome, 250

  1. Nigel Renton says:

    The subtitle might be improved by using “Reformer, Pope, and Martyr”. (If we show that someone served as an Anglican Archbishop, shouldn’t we also grant Popes the dignity of their rank?)

    Line 1, first paragraph: I suggest beginning as a separate first paragraph “We have no record of the date and place of Fabian’s birth, but it was probably in Italy, close to the end of the Second Century.”

    Line 4, third paragraph: since the persecution began in 239 & 240, how can we claim that Fabian “was one of the earliest to be martyred” ?

    Line 5, fourth paragraph: add “He died in Rome on January 20, 250”.

    Line 2, sixth paragraph: if we use quotation marks, the words on the tombstone should be in the original language, presumably Latin. (An English translation could be shown in parentheses, but probably that would be redundant.)

    • John LaVoe says:

      I hope you don’t start giving us quotes in Latin! Everything in the commemoration should be accessible to those hearing about the person commemorated. There are still one or two in my congregation who don’t read Latin. (Yeah, right.)

    • Philip Wainwright says:

      “If we show that someone served as an Anglican Archbishop, shouldn’t we also grant Popes the dignity of their rank?”—a good question, which gives me another opportunity to say that rank has no place in a Christian commemoration. It’s never, I hope, even a contributing reason for a commemoration, and with so little space available in the bio, better to keep the main thing the only thing.

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    Collect. I know that this collect was re-written. But I am not sure why. For what reason was the old collect unworthy?

    Lesser Feasts and Fasts 06 Collect:
    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.

  3. John LaVoe says:

    Michael’s posting of the OLD collect is a significant contribution. (“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….”)
    The old one applied to anyone praying the collect, and in fact to all the baptized. It applies to “any ministry in the Church,” in actual and practical ways.

    The new collect’s petition is just the opposite: (“Grant that we … may in times of trial and persecution remain steadfast in faith and endurance….”)
    The new one applies to “WE” — a radically reduced application in contrast to “those whom you call to any ministry in the Church”, and to my ears means “us” — or even a self-absorbed “me” — and only in the contingent possibility of “trial and persecution,” and only in regard to staying “steadfast in faith and endurance.”

    The old collect is superior. The new collect has no vision of ministry, has a hypothetical petition (IF we undergo trial or persecution) and is downright myopic in terms of actual ongoing struggles in which brother and sister Christians are engaged.

    I vote for the OLD collect. If that fails, let’s have a hymn-sing instead of the new one!

  4. John LaVoe says:

    I can’t help but feel this commemoration is weak in almost every regard. The readings are about end times, not martyrdom or mission/ministry. We’re told (and would assume we know) next to nothing about his life, his origins, whether he was baptized, what his devotional life was like, any details of his martyrdom. The few things mentioned are not remarkable for a 14 year stint as pope: who couldn’t appoint an editorial board, oppose a heresy we’re not told anything about, encourage prayers in the catacombs, or make some parochial arrangements? The bird story is bizarre. The final two pagagraphs are fluff and filler. The collect, I already commented on. Burying a dead pope in Rome doesn’t strike me as inspiring, even one killed in Sardinia. The 10 or 11 years it took for him to be one of the first victims of an Empire-wide persecution is less than impressive. (What did he die from, health care reform?)

    Tomorrow’s feast also has very little substantive material and is noticably padded with drivel about the pallium. Yet, both were martyrs, and that alone deserves respect. Why not combine them? If there’s little substantive information, so be it. Don’t pad. But improve the lessons and collect, and don’t just say, “AB did xyz, help us xyz too.” Give it some traction as the church’s prayer and God’s purpose at stake in the church’s response.

  5. Philip Wainwright says:

    I also prefer the old collect, although it could use a little pruning. But the phrase ‘aided by his prayers’ gets no ‘amen’ from me, I’m afraid. In fact, it arouses the tiger in me, and might turn me loose…

  6. Steve Lusk says:

    As has been pointed out before, to call the early bishops of Rome “popes” is anachronistic and Latin-centric.
    Fabian and Agnes are ancient feasts — leave well enough alone.

  7. Steve Lusk says:

    For me, at least, the “bird story” is to the lives of the saints as the Song of Songs is to the Old Testament for Rabbi Akiva: “all the ages are not worth the single day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of all.”
    Besides, the dove knew what she was doing. Fabian divided Rome into seven districts, each administered by a deacon. These districts developed into Rome’s first parish churches. Thus, in the Roman Litany, Fabian is remembered as “organizer of the Church of Rome.” He established a commission to build and maintain cemeteries. He also appointed subdeacons to record the lives of the martyrs and the locations of their tombs. This took some courage, for his predecessor Anterus had been arrested for this very activity. Despite the on-going persecutions, Fabian somehow secured the remains of Pontianus AND Hippolytus for burial as martyrs. Fabian also found time to send a missionary, Eutropis, to the Gauls. This seems to be the first recorded instance of a bishop sending out an evangelist to convert the heathen (Earlier missionary activity had been spontaneous). And Fabian lived in difficult times: Decian’s persecution was so severe that the bishop’s chair was vacant for fourteen months following Fabian’s martyrdom.

  8. John LaVoe says:

    Steve — It sounds like my comments provoked you, but if so, to good effect. You certainly have more substantive material in your reply than I found in HWHM or LFF on Fabian. The only part I couldn’t appreciate was Rabbi Akiva’s favorite day versus Good Friday, Easter, or Christmas. I hope your information will prove useful to the Commission if the day is retained as a solo commemoration, but being adjacent to the day for Agnes, and with a dearth of information on her, a joint martyrs’ observance for the two still makes sense to me. (Praising a 12 year old for her outstanding virginity — not just as a word for “young girl” — doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. If you have perspective on why that stood out, it would help me take it to heart.) Anyway, good information — thank you! If we’re lucky, maybe we can look forward to provoking each other in the future!

  9. Steve Lusk says:

    While Roman daughters were often married off at 13 or so, the emphasis on Agnes’ virginity probably has more to do with her name (“pure”) in Greek than with her lack of sexual experience. In medieval legend, she was denounced as a Christian by a rejected suitor, but the earliest tales say she offered herself for
    “A new kind of martyrdom! Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valor while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. All wept; she alone was without a tear (St. Ambrose, De Virginibus).”
    The discourse on the meanings of her name (which is also her sole link to sheep and pallia) is hagiographer’s boilerplate, which I’m not sure HWHM realized when they wrote the bio.

  10. Dale McNeill says:

    I prefer the former collect as well, if the separate days are retained. I think it would make some sense to combine Fabian and Agnes.

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