Pope Fabian (+250) was put to death on this day in the persecution of Emperor Decius, for refusing to offer idolatrous sacrifice, and this after a rather long reign of 14 years characterized by its rather amicable relations with Caesar, which allowed the good Pontiff to set up the hierarchical structure of the Church in Rome.
Besides his glorious martyrdom, Fabian is also known for the manner of his being chosen: A simple layman, he went to Rome after the death of Pope Anterus, to see the man whom the Holy Spirit would choose as the next Vicar of Christ, as still happens with the crowds outside conclaves. Well, poor Fabian, for the Holy Spirit quite literally descended upon him, a dove alighting on his head, upon seeing which propitious sign, the crowds began chanting “Fabian for Pope! Fabian for Pope!” with some degree of enthusiasm (keeping in mind that choosing a Pope back then was was a more widely democratic affair, and would not be relegated to the cardinals until 1059 under Nicholas II).
As Pope Emeritus Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger, once quipped, the choice of a Pope – like that of a President – is not always the one the Holy Spirit may have chosen – although we do what we might with prayer and sacrifice.
This time, it seems it was God’s choice for Fabian, and, fortunately for the Church, Fabian acquiesced to being so chosen, in the mysterious gift of freedom which makes us like Him. We must discern the spirits, to follow those which are of God, and our way through those that are not, always freely choosing the better part.
We also celebrate Saint Sebastian (+288) on this day, a brave and courageous Roman soldier, leader of the elite Praetorian Guard, whose Christianity remained undetected until 286, when the anti-Christian Emperor, Diocletian, enraged at his apparent betrayal, ordered Sebastian tied to a tree, and shot full of arrows until dead.
Sebastian thus suffered, looking as one account has it, like a ‘sea urchin full of pricks’, but when a pious woman, Irene, went to bury him, found the soldier was still alive. She nursed him back to health, whereupon the emboldened Sebastian, perhaps realizing he would soon be caught again and killed – where was one to run to in the third century Roman empire? – returned to his emperor, catching him unguarded on a staircase. Instead of killing him, Sebastian boldly berated the earthly prince for his unbelief and cruelty; Diocletian had a moment, perhaps one in which he might have chosen a different and better path, but recovered his pagan imperial senses, and ordered Sebastian clubbed to death and thrown into a sewer. The martyr’s body was recovered, and his relics dot the Christian landscape. He is patron of soldiers, as well as a patron against the plague, perhaps since the greed god Apollo would shoot ‘plague-tipped’ arrows from heaven; or because the ‘buboe’ lesions of the bubonic plague resembled arrow wounds. With the rise of superbugs and strange viruses out of Asia, we may need Sebastian’s help sooner than we might think.
Deliver us from evil, indeed.