After the death of Pope Anterus, a new Papal election was called (around 236 AD) and Saint Fabian travelled to Rome to participate. According to the Liber Pontificalis, Saint Fabian grew up in a wealthy, noble Roman family as the son of Fabius, but very little else is recorded of his early years. Eusebius of Caesarea wrote the story of the Papal election in Volume 29 of Church History. When Fabian arrived at the election, he was not considered a candidate and Eusebius actually wrote that he was "in the mind of no one". However, after thirteen days of debate and consideration for the other candidates, a dove suddenly descended and landed on the head of Saint Fabian. The electors immediately recalled the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove onto Jesus at his baptism and proclaimed him Bishop by acclamation.
Now the Pope, Saint Fabian used his influence at the Roman court to return the bodies of martyrs from Sardina and persuaded the exhumation and return of the relics of Pontian and Hippolytus. Saint Gregory of Tours recorded later that Saint Fabian was responsible for sending the seven bishops from Rome to Gaul to preach the Gospel, the so called "Apostles to the Gauls" (Gatianus of Tours, Trophimus of Arles, Paul of Narbonne, Saturnin, Denis, Austromoine, and Martial). A key event during his Papacy was the dividing of the Christian communities of Rome into seven districts, each supervised by a deacon. He also appointed seven sub deacons who were to aid in collecting the acta of the martyrs (the reports of court proceedings during their trials). Saint Fabian expanded the catacombs, cleaning and rebuilding the tombs of buried martyrs.
On January 20th, 250 AD, right at the beginning of the Decian persecution, Saint Fabian died. The Emperor Decius had demanded all subjects of the Empire give sacrifice to the Roman gods and Saint Fabian soundly stated he would not under any circumstance. Saint Fabian was laid to rest initially in the catacomb of Callixtus in Rome, but were later moved by Pope Clement XI to San Sebastiano fuori le mura. He celebrates a joint feast day with Saint Debastian, though the the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates his feast day on August 5th.
Saint Cyprian referred to Saint Fabian as "incomparable".