Fabian, who was from a noble Roman background, became Bishop of Rome in 236, having only recently arrived in the city. After 13 days of deliberation the Church elders had not reached an agreement on who should become the new pope. Then a dove suddenly landed on the shoulder of Fabian: the Holy Spirit had chosen for them.
Fabian became pope at a time of fairly good relations with the empire and was able to bring back to Rome the bodies of his predecessors who had died in exile. He also did much to expand the record-keeping of the papacy, in particular the records of martyrdom. In fact, so cordial were relations with the imperial court that he was rumoured to have baptised the Emperor Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus). Regardless of whether this is true, things took a turn for the worse when Philip died in 249 and was replaced by Decius. There followed one of the last great persecutions of the pagan era in Rome.
The new emperor decreed that all citizens were “required to sacrifice before the magistrates of their community ‘for the safety of the empire’”, thus proving their loyalty to Rome. Those who refused were killed. A number of Christians went to their deaths rather than betray God – among them was Fabian. He was put to death in 250.
Eventually his remains were transfered to Rome’s Church of St Sebastian, named after another 3rd-century martyr with whom Fabian shares a feast day.
That century was a grim one: to make matters worse for the Christians, Rome was hit by a plague that year and up to 5,000 were dying daily in the city. But Christianity would prevail.