Saint Fabiola: A Fourth Century Saint for 2017
I have had the good fortune – or, better, the grace – to live for a time in my grandmother’s hometown in central Sicily. Southern Italy’s temporal adversities spanning the country’s Freemasonic revolution and unification to the present are no secret. Not as well-known, however, is the slow but steady erosion of its thoroughly Catholic culture since the Second Vatican Council; the gradual wearing away of the constant spiritual sustenance and sure refuge of meridional Italians since the apostolic journey of St. Paul there in the First century AD (cf. Acts of the Apostles, 28:12). Sadly, I have personally borne witness to this ongoing spiritual-cultural degradation.
Yet I have also had the contemporaneous joy of experiencing the continued Catholic traditions and various manifestations of popular piety. Despite negative trends within the Church and society, most Italian newborns still receive a Christian name at their baptism. Indeed, some of their holy Patrons were previously unknown to me. Among these, is a saint of the early Church. A holy woman, whose acquaintance I made after meeting a namesake of hers.
Truly, as the Italians describe Divine Providence “le vie del Signore sono in nite!” (Literally: the ways of the Lord are in nite). Or as we Anglos would say, God works in mysterious ways. This saint is named Fabiola, almost lost to history and to this day all but unknown. Yet as we shall discover, how much do we need this saint, especially in today’s post-Amoris Laetitia Church and world!
The Historic Existence of the Saint
From the outset, some background information is necessary. It is important to recognize that we have limited knowledge and historical evidence of St. Fabiola’s life. While celebrated on Dec. 27, Fabiola’s name does not appear in that day’s entry in the Roman Martyrology. For our saint, there is no proper Mass in the Missal or Office in the Breviary, even among those allowed to be celebrated in certain places. Yet this should not discourage us or cause us to doubt her existence, much less her heroic virtue. Holy Mother Church has never proposed the Martyrology as an exhaustive register of her saints; rather the text itself daily commemorates the innumerable deaths “in other places” of “many other holy martyrs, confessors, and virgins.”
At the same time, we need to acknowledge our deep debt of gratitude to the great Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome. We no doubt recall his translation of the Sacred Scriptures and his precious other writings. But we must recognize, too, his fundamental role in preserving the memories of several saints, including Fabiola. Indeed, it is only thanks to Jerome’s writing of or to Fabiola in several of his letters (namely Letters 55, 64 and 77) that we know something of her life.
The Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, himself quotes St. Jerome’s Letter 77 in Part Two of his Contra impugnantes (Against the Assailants of the Worship of God and Religion). Jesuit hagiographers Rosweyde and Bolland inserted Letter 77 into the Vitae Patrum, a collection of lives and writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and other early saints, where the account of Fabiola appears as “Life No. 25.”
The Background and Early Life of Fabiola
Fabiola, as her name indicates, was born to one of the most noble patrician dynasties of ancient Rome, the Fabii or Fabia family. The Fabii were a clan renowned for profound patriotic courage, sacrifice, and valor. Fabiola’s most famous ancestor, mentioned brie y in Jerome’s Letter 77, was Quintus Fabius Maximus (Cunctator), Roman general, consul, and dictator. While the exact date of Fabiola’s birth is unknown, it is certain that she was born in the Fourth century AD, the era of the decisive Constantinian victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312, the Edict of Milan in 313, and the First Council of Nicaea in 325.
Fabiola belonged to a family apparently already converted to the Catholic Faith. While the details of her baptism are unknown, Fabiola must have been baptized in her infancy or youth as her eventual return to full communion with the Church presupposes the reception of the sacrament. Fabiola grew up in a well- to-do household, never wanting for anything. The particulars of her growing up are also lost to history. She married at a young age.
A Bad Marriage, She takes a second ‘Husband’
We do not know how their marriage came about, or if its beginning was happy. But Fabiola’s first husband, a most difficult and abusive man, is known to have been guilty of the grave sins of adultery and sodomy. According to St. Jerome, “so terrible were the faults imputed to her former husband that not even a prostitute or a common slave could have put up with them.” (Letter 77) Unable to continue living with her husband, Fabiola obtained a civil divorce under Roman law. Shortly thereafter, she ‘married’ a second time outside of the Church. According to Jerome’s Letter 55, she felt “compelled” to do so, perhaps due to her young age and need for male protection.
In St. Jerome’s Letter 77, a eulogy of Fabiola addressed to her relative Oceanus, the Doctor compares Fabiola’s good motives in remarrying with her choice’s ultimate sinful character. He wrote that: “Fabiola therefore was fully persuaded in her own mind: She thought she had acted legitimately in putting away her husband, and that when she had done so she was free to marry again. She did not know that the rigor of the gospel takes away from women all pretexts for re-marriage so long as their former husbands are alive; and not knowing this, though she contrived to evade other assaults of the devil, she at this point unwittingly exposed herself to a wound from him.”
Given that she would have bared her soul to St. Jerome, her spiritual father, and reading Jerome’s own words, it is in the very least highly doubtful that Fabiola invalidly took a second ‘husband’ intentionally, that is, out of purposeful disregard for the Commandments of God and His Church. We can only speculate that once Fabiola realized the sin she had committed by entering into this second union, she felt it necessary to remain with her consort out of necessity, or duty, or both. But, as St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans - cited at the end of Jerome’s Letter 77 – “where sin abounded, grace did more abound.” (Romans 5:20). The grave of conversion stirred in Fabiola’s soul.
Death of her Consort, Repentance
Eventually, her second ‘husband’ died. Fabiola, open to the grace of the Holy Ghost, resolved to seek to the mercy of God. As St. Peter writes in his Second Epistle: “The Lord delayeth not His promise, as some imagine, but dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Fabiola knew that while Almighty God mercifully and patiently awaited her, ready to forgive, that she must humbly and contritely return to Him through His holy Church.
On Holy Saturday Fabiola, well-known in the city of Rome for her noble upbringing and social status, appeared at the gates of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome. Dressed in the penitential garb of sackcloth and ashes, “with disheveled hair, pale features, soiled hands and unwashed neck” she “stood in the ranks of the penitents ... before bishop, presbyters (N.B. priests) and people – all of whom wept when they saw her weep.” (Letter 77, Section 4). The Bishop of Rome, Pope St. Siricius, reconciled her to God and formally received her back into full communion with the Church, the “household of the Faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
Works of Charity as atonement; saints beget saints
Financially well-off from her youth and now enjoying the inheritance and other resources of her deceased consort, Fabiola apportioned these to the Church. She traded her patrician robe of fine silk for an inexpensive, plebeian tunic and set about dedicating herself to the service of Christ in His “least brethren,” (Matthew 25:40) the “treasures of the Church” as St. Lawrence called the sick and the poor, opening a hospital in Rome.
As Jerome described in Letter 77, “(Fabiola) was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want.” Proceeding to list the horrible maladies to which Fabiola herself tended, Jerome extolled her charity, that virtue which “covereth a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8): “Even Rome was not wide enough for her pity. Either in her own person or else through the agency of reverend and trustworthy men she went from island to island and carried her bounty not only round the Etruscan Sea, but throughout the district of the Volsci” (N.B. in modern-day southern Lazio). Fabiola was also a benefactress to a number of early religious houses. It is quite possible that during this period of reversion to the Faith, Fabiola was acquainted with St. Augustine and St. Monica.
Under the Spiritual Tutelage of St. Jerome; A Stay in the Holy Land
It is unclear as to when exactly St. Fabiola became a spiritual daughter of St. Jerome, although this must have followed her return to the Church as the Catholic Encyclopedia states in its entry on St. Fabiola, that at the time of Jerome’s stay in Rome (from 382-384) she was not among his followers.
The French historian Thierry held that the unnamed woman whose own question accompanied a communication of the priest St. Amandus to Jerome, had been Fabiola. St. Amandus was later bishop of Bordeaux, France, and was himself the teacher of St. Paulinus of Nola. Jerome’s reply, the above-mentioned Letter 55, is said to have been written about the year 394 A.D. This, then, would be the first association of Fabiola and Jerome in writing.
Fabiola wrote, quoted by Jerome in Letter 55: “ask him if a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite, and has found herself compelled to take another, may in the lifetime of him whom she first left, be in communion with the Church, without doing penance for her fall.” Among the many beautiful and understanding words that Jerome addressed her was an unambiguous answer in the negative.
A spiritual relationship developed. Fabiola inherited from Jerome a great love for Sacred Scripture, often asking him to explain various biblical passages. Devout and docile, Fabiola even memorized a lengthy epistle of her master, his well-known Letter 14 to the priest-monk St. Heliodorus, later bishop of Altino near modern-day Treviso in northern Italy.
St. Jerome was by now leading an eremitical life in Bethlehem, living in the cave of Our Lord’s Nativity. In 395, Fabiola set sail for the Holy Land with Oceanus. Arriving in Bethlehem and intending to stay there, she stayed at the hospice of St. Paula, while searching for a more suitable, permanent accommodation and received direction from Jerome.
St. Paula, widow of the Roman senator Toxotius, and her daughter St. Julia Eustochium had first met Jerome in Rome, later following him to the East. Paula pilgrimaged in Egypt and throughout the Holy Land, and settled with her daughter in Bethlehem, where they lived an early form of religious life with other women. Jerome was to eventually write Paula’s life, eulogizing her in Letter 108, later inserted into the aforementioned Vitae Patrum.
Return to Rome, Her charitable efforts continue
During this time however, St. Jerome fought with St. John II, Bishop of Jerusalem, over the teachings of Origen. It was a polarizing polemic, and while Oceanus unmistakably supported Jerome, Fabiola avoided the controversy. Coupled with this sad episode was an invasion of Palestine by the Huns. Jerome and his friends hastened to the coast at Joppa, hiring an escape boat, but the Huns quickly abandoned their efforts and retreated. While Jerome returned with Paula and Julia Eustochium to Bethlehem, Fabiola left for Rome.
Home again, St. Fabiola joined forces with the former senator St. Pammachius. Belonging to the well-known Furii (or Furia) family of Rome, he had studied rhetoric with Jerome in their youth. Together, Fabiola and Pammachius opened a hospice at Porto at the mouth of the Tiber River, opposite Ostia. The hospice could well have been modeled on that of Paula. Within a few months, it acquired an excellent reputation throughout the Empire.
Her Final Years and Death
In her last years, Fabiola remained in contact with St. Jerome. Although completed only after her death, his last communication to her (now known as Letter 78) was a requested treatise on the 42 Mansions or Halting-places of the Israelites. Jerome sent it to Oceanus along with her eulogy (Letter 77). Fabiola also communicated with St. Augustine. In his one extant letter to Fabiola, the Doctor of Grace praised her giving “ first place to the longing for our heavenly country where we shall not be separated by earthly distance, but shall rejoice always in the contemplation” of God.
It is said that the magnanimous and fervent Fabiola was not content with remaining in Rome, but that shortly before her transitus was contemplating another voyage or pilgrimage, undoubtedly in which to assist others with her alms. But this was not to be. St. Fabiola died in the Eternal City, some sources giving the year as 399 or 400 AD. Her funeral was massive, with all the city’s Christians turning out in full force, in grateful esteem of the deceased benefactress. Lauding their sister’s goodness, they praised God for Fabiola’s life with jubilant Alleluias.
While it seems that the vox populi quickly acclaimed her a saint, Fabiola faded into obscurity, almost completely forgotten for more than a millennium. However, we should not be shocked or scandalized, as this has been the fate of several saints – among them the great virgin and martyr St. Philomena, and the daughter of Our Lady of Good Success, the Servant of God Mother Mariana of Jesus Torres of Quito. Divine Providence has happily willed that these holy women reemerge in our times and for our times.
A ‘Fabiola Revival’
Upon the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England with the papal bull Universalis Ecclesiae of 1850, Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman was appointed first archbishop of Westminster by Blessed Pope Pius IX. Wiseman was no static prelate, rather he was a zealous pastor who played a dynamic role in the exciting Catholic revival of “Mary’s dowry,” as England has been traditionally known. These were the years following the famous Tractarian, or Oxford Movement, which saw many conversions to the Faith, the most famous being that of the Oratorian Cardinal, Blessed John Henry Newman.
Cardinal Wiseman and other key gures of the era recognized the importance and potential of good, instructive Catholic literature, fiction and non-fiction alike. This led to the creation of the Catholic Popular Library Series, a collection of volumes written from 1854-1861. Aimed at bolstering the day’s embattled Catholics subject to constant discrimination – and as a partial response to Charles Kingsley’s very anti-Catholic Hypatia of 1853 – the library was launched with the 1854 publication of Wiseman’s Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs. Based loosely on Fabiola’s life, the novel of historical fiction incorporated other Roman saints like Agnes, Sebastian, and Tarcisius and described the early, intimate Christian community of Rome where mutual charity and support reigned. Cardinal Wiseman masterfully captured the beauty and adventure of Catholic life, the journey to holiness, and the personification of the Gospel that is the life of the saints. The book quickly became a huge international success, translated into various languages. Fabiola must have been thought-provoking for the Anglican Protestants, too, in its descriptions of early Catholic heroes; for as Newman stated, “to be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant”!
Painter Jean Jacques Henner, an alumnus of the French academy in Rome, produced a portrait of Fabiola in 1885. The work became the definitive depiction of the saint, although certainly a fictitious one. While the original painting vanished at some point in the following years, it sparked an incredible “Fabiola movement” as it were, with hundreds of copies undertaken by various amateur artists worldwide. Decades later, and following various studies by art historians, a Fabiola exhibit was held at the New York galleries of the Hispanic Society of America in 2007- 2008.
Three films, more or less based on the Wiseman novel were released in 1918, 1949, and 1960. Several famous women born in the 20th century, including the late Queen Fabiola of Belgium (+2014) were named after the saint.
Saint Fabiola and a post-Amoris Laetitia Church
The “diabolical disorientation” foretold by Sr. Lucy of Fatima in her letters of the 1960s and 1970s continues to manifest itself in the Catholic Church and our world, perhaps at its strongest yet.
We witness the public efforts of four Cardinals who have submitted dubia to Pope Francis, regarding the heterodox post-Synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). They have respectfully carried out their right and duty according to Catholic Tradition and Canon Law. While the dubia have so far gone directly unanswered publicly by Francis, other prelates have spoken and written negatively of their confreres. Is this not a fulfillment of Our Lady’s foretelling at Akita in 1973: “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see Cardinals opposing Cardinals, bishops against bishops ...”?
Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna and one of the four Cardinals, have recounted that in the last years of her life, Sr. Lucy wrote to him: “The final battle between Our Lord and the reign of satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. However, Our Lady has already crushed his head.” Had the visionary been given some premonition of the Cardinal’s future role in defending Christian marriage?
It is discouraging enough to have legalized divorce, “remarriage,” and now homosexual “marriage,” permitted by secular governments. But we now are met with unprecedented statements from the reigning Pontiff (who receives active homosexuals and transgender couples at the Vatican), well-publicized, shocking statements like “who am I to judge?” We have a Pope who has unleashed the infamous Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, permitting the reception of Holy Communion to the divorced and “remarried,” something always forbidden in the Church, yet affirming this possibility with an “I can say yes period.” An emphatic and scandalous admission which directly contradicts the perennial teaching of Christ and His Church.
Because of Bergoglio’s innovation due to this new, false doctrine, prelates and priests the world over are now permitting sacrilege; and entire national episcopal conferences are doing so – we need only think of the Argentineans, the Germans, the Maltese. But no matter the rank of the ecclesiastical innovators, we must resist. We need only recall the words of Jerome to Heliodorus, in Letter 14, the letter memorized by Fabiola: “Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord’s own lips (Apocalypse 2:6) whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans. Let a man examine himself and so let him come. (1 Corinthians 11:28) For it is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian.”
Consider Francis’ “yes,” originating from a false mercy poisonous to souls, compared to the life- giving “no” of Jerome in his truly-merciful response to Fabiola in Letter 55. Contrast the ambiguous “accompaniment” of Amoris Laetitia for couples, supposedly acting according to their (ill- formed) consciences with Fabiola’s profound prayer and penance following her return to the Church. Clearly, the example and intercession of St. Fabiola, who lived 1,600 years ago, are deeply needed in our day.
There can be various difficulties met by the divorced and “remarried” in regularizing their situation, in returning to true, full communion with the Church and their readmission to the reception of the Holy Eucharist. Yet let us take courage from the life and charity of St. Fabiola, and let us be consoled by the beautiful words of Our Lord speaking of St. Mary Magdalen: “Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.” Luke 7:47
St. Fabiola, pray for us!
(Article originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of Catholic Family News.)
All Scriptural references are from the Douay-Rheims Bible.
Letters of Saint Jerome
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/ fathers/3001.htm>.
Saint Augustine Letters, 5v. , trans. Sister Wilfrid Parsons SND
(New York: Fathers of the Church, 1951-56), 4.285-86.