The account of the extraordinary election of Pope Saint Fabian was related by Eusebius, the fourth century author of the Ecclesiastical History of the Church (Volume VI, c. 29).
With the death of Pope Anterus in 236, crowds of Christians came to Rome to see who would succeed him. One of these was a farmer named Fabian. As the electors, who then were the clergy of Rome (there were no cardinals yet), were considering illustrious candidates known for their wisdom, governing experience, and zeal for the Faith, a dove was seen to descend and remain upon the head of the unknown farmer in the crowd. Although this is hard for us to imagine today, back then the bishops took it as a sign from God. Fabian the farmer was elected pope. He assumed the Chair of Peter and was consecrated after being ordained deacon, priest, and bishop.
Pope Fabian’s reign was a blessing of peace, symbolized beforehand by the dove. One of the ten major persecutions of the Church, that of Maximin the Thracian, ended in 238. It was followed by a peaceful lull when the new emperors Gordian III and, after him, Marcus Julius Philippus, known as “the Arab,” ruled the Roman empire in the middle of the third century (238-249). This was when Fabian was pope.
Not much is known about this pope. We do know that he divided Rome into seven districts and appointed seven deacons just to take care of the poor, the orphans, the sick, and widows. He also instituted the four minor orders of Porter, Lector, Exorcist, and Acolyte. He also is reponsible for collecting the Acts of the Martyrs, appointing seven subdeacons to achieve that wonderful work. He did much to restore the catacombs of Rome as well. It is recorded by Eusebius that the controversial scripture scholar and father of the Church, Origen, tried to defend his orthodoxy before Fabian who, apparently, passed no judgment upon what he had heard from him. Further information on this, however, is so scant as to be unreliable as any kind of testament.
Persecution of the Church returned in 249 in full fury during the two year reign of Emperor Decius. Pope Fabian was martyred on this day, January 20, under that cruel tyrant’s decree against Christians.