January 19, 2017

Sts. Fabian and Sebastian, Early Martyrs for the Faith

Saint Fabian and Saint Sebastian
Saints Fabian and Sebastian, Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, c. 1475.

January 20th, the Church celebrates the optional memorials of Pope Saint Fabian and Saint Sebastian. Both victims of Roman persecution, they were martyred on the same date, 37 years apart. They have been venerated together since their names were coupled in the first martyrologies (as in the Litany of Saints today).

Pope Saint Fabian (c. 200 – 250 AD)

The opening Mass of a papal conclave is intended not only to mark the beginning of a great and most solemn process, but to prepare the hearts and minds of the participants to act in accordance with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. At the conclave of 236 AD, a dove landed on the head of a layperson Fabian, who had traveled to Rome to see who would be selected. Fabian was unanimously chosen pope because everyone present saw the actions of the dove as a sign from God.

St. Fabian served 14 years as the Vicar of Christ, the majority of which were peaceful. Admired for his ability and virtue, he expanded the Church of Rome, dividing it into seven diaconates to better serve the faithful and assist the poor He is credited with returning to Rome the bodies of Pope Pontian and antipope Hippolytus, both of whom died while exiled in Sardinian. In so doing, he ended the de facto schism between the congregations they represented. Fabian also directed attention on preserving the catacombs, where the earliest Christians were buried. His contemporary and friend St. Cyprian, wrote of his tireless zeal.

Under Fabian, the Church flourished. However, this period of cordiality between the Church and the imperial authorities ended abruptly with the ascension of Emperor Decius. He demanded that all Christians renounce Christ and worship pagan idols. While some did, Pope Fabian stedfastly refused. According to the historian Eusebius, Fabian suffered martyrdom during the wave of Christian persecution under Decius. Popular piety attests that Fabian was decapitated. He was buried in the catacomb of Callixtus in Rome. His remains were removed to the basilica of St. Sebastian, and now rest in the Chapel dedicated in his honor.

Saint Sebastian (256 – 287 AD)

St. Sebastian has been widely venerated from the early centuries of the Church. During the Middle Ages, his intercession was highly invoked, particularly as a protector against the plague. St. Ambrose asserts the holy martyr was born in Milan. As Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, he was once a favorite of the Emperor Diocletian. His noble birth and personal bravery won him great respect, power and privilege. Unbeknownst to the emperor, Sebastian was a devout Christian who assisted his fellow Christians through good works, almsgiving and prayer.

When these things came to light, Diocletian sent for Sebastian and insisted he recant. The Divine Office has this account of the events surrounding Sebastian's martyrdom: "Diocletian tried by every means to turn Sebastian from the faith of Christ. After all efforts had proven fruitless, he ordered him tied to a post and pierced with arrows. When everyone thought him dead, a devout woman named Irene [of Rome, widow of St Castulus the martyr] arranged for his burial during the night; finding him still alive, she cared for him in her own house. After his recovery he appeared again before Diocletian and boldly rebuked him for his wickedness. Enraged by the saint's sharp words, the emperor ordered him scourged until he expired. His body was thrown into a sewer."

Tradition holds that St. Sebastian's remains were later retrieved and buried in the catacombs over which was built the basilica in his name, St. Sebastian's outside the walls. Additional remains believed to be those of Sebastian are found in the Basilica Apostolorum in Rome and the Benedictine abbey in Ebersberg, Germany, where St. Sebastian's cranium encased in silver is displayed for public veneration on his feast day. May the witness of these early martyrs, born into eternal life by the shedding of their blood, inspire us to be courageous in living out our Faith. O God, glory of your Priests, grant that, helped by the intercession of your Martyr St. Fabian, we may make progress by communion in the Faith and by our worthy service. Grant also, O Lord, a spirit of fortitude, so that, taught by the example of your Martyr St. Sebastian, we may learn to humbly obey you rather than men.

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