The church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. Even the weakest Christians are precious in God’s sight, and death itself has no power over his people.

Decius didn’t understand that. When Decius Trajan became ruler of Rome in 249, the empire was weakening. Barbarians were threatening northern borders, and morale was low. Decius, a soldier rigid and determined, blamed Christians for the weakness and unwieldiness of his empire.

The emperor had a strategy. He thought if he removed the leaders of the church the entire fabric would dissolve. If you cut off the head, he said, the body will soon die. So in December 249, arrest warrants went out across the empire for prominent Christians, igniting the first empire-wide attack on the church. On January 20, 250, Fabian, nineteenth pope or bishop of Rome, was arrested, tried, and became the first to die.

Decius reportedly said, “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop of Rome.”

Few records remain of Fabian’s life and ministry. We know he improved the organization of the Roman church both above and below ground. He divided the city into seven congregations with a deacon in charge of each section, and he directed work on the catacombs. In those catacombs his broken body was later buried.

But the church wasn’t buried. Brave Christians in Rome wrote from prison to Bishop Cyprian of Carthage: “What more glorious and blessed lot can fall to man by the grace of God, than to confess God the Lord amidst tortures and in the face of death itself; to confess Christ the Son of God with lacerated body and with a spirit departing, yet free; and to become fellow-sufferers with Christ. Though we have not yet shed our blood, we are ready to do so.”

Decius died the next year, but the church he persecuted is still going strong.

Jesus told him: Simon, son of Jonah, you are blessed! You didn’t discover this on your own. It was shown to you by my Father in heaven. So I will call you Peter, which means “a rock.” On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have power over it. (Matthew 16:17,18)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 20.

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