Pope Fabian and the Dove Election

(written 1/20/2020)

Pope Fabian dove
Jaume Huguet the Elder, “The Election of Pope Fabian”

Anyone see The Two Popes? The filmmakers depict the papal conclaves of 2005 and 2013, with plenty of papal politicking thrown in.

In the papal election of AD 236, however, St. Fabian became pope with no politicking at all. Rather, as the electors met to choose the twentieth pope, a dove descended from above, like at the Baptism of Christ. It landed on Fabian.

Fabian had to heal a schism in the Church. Remember this was before the Fathers met to formulate the precise Trinitarian doctrine in the Nicene Creed. Before Fabian’s election, there had been an “antipope,” not duly elected, who had actually made more-cogent theological arguments than the popes who preceded Fabian.

A persecution had led to the exile of both Pope Pontian and antipope Hippolytus. They wound up working together as slaves in the mines of the Isle of Sardinia. The two of them reconciled there, with Hippolytus renouncing his false claim to the papacy. Then they both died as prisoners. Once Pope Fabian had been elected successor, he brought both of their remains back to Rome and buried them with honor.

Then, fourteen years later, Fabian died as a martyr, too–1770 years ago today. The Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christians to burn incense to the pagan gods of Rome. Fabian of course refused.

Pope St. Fabian’s remains lie in the Church of St. Sebastian outside the ancient walls of Rome. The church sits on top of an ancient catacombs. I said Mass there with two priests friends, back in 2005.

Being there takes you back to those early centuries of the Church, when so many heroes unhesitatingly gave their lives for the Gospel. May they all pray for us.


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