This article is part of our series, “Cloud of Witnesses: Stories from the Church.” Read more from the series here.
To be truly important in the Roman Empire, you needed wealth, political influence, and military success. To achieve these aims led to power, but any missing aspect could hinder a man’s chance to advance in society. Julius Caesar is a prime example. At the age of 42, Julius had achieved two of the three aims: he had money and he had held the highest political office in Rome; he lacked only military glory. To make up for this deficiency, Julius led an unprovoked attack on the Gauls (a people who live in what is now France). He engaged in eight long years of war and conquest only in order to cement his status as a glorious military commander. When he came back to Rome, Julius boasted killing one million people and enslaving one million more. This cemented his status as the most important, powerful, and praiseworthy Roman.
In ancient Rome, there was no place for the weak and lowly, no pity for the poor and sick. Amazingly, these deep-rooted Roman values would be challenged and successfully overthrown by a small religious sect that worshiped a criminal named Jesus, from the backwater town of Nazareth.
The Crushing Power of Crucifixion
To the Romans, Jesus must have been a criminal because he was executed like one. Crucifixion was reserved for the dregs of society. It was such a violent form of execution that the Romans didn’t really talk about it, but they used it frequently because it was a powerful tool of control. The humiliating act of crucifying somebody demonstrated that the Romans had absolute power and dominance. In contrast, a person who was crucified was weak and therefore shameful. This is one reason why Christianity perplexed the Romans. Why would anyone worship a man who had been crucified? Stranger still, the followers of Jesus were claiming that he had come back to life three days after being crucified. Could someone so weak and lowly as to be crucified have power over death? That was unthinkable.
Understanding the intended message of crucifixion helps us to see just how radically counter-cultural Christianity was when it began to arrive on the scene in Rome. Christianity was a religion that valued the weak and shameful. This contradicted typical Roman attitudes about the poor, women, and the enslaved. Christians believed that the cross showed all people have value, even the lowest in society.
In the fifth century A.D., one woman who followed Jesus of Nazareth took this message to heart and did something groundbreaking. Her name was Fabiola. She valued the poor and the sick, like her Savior Christ. So, she decided to open the first-ever hospital.
What we know of Fabiola’s life comes from a eulogy delivered by the church father Jerome (c. 347 – 419/420 A.D.). In it, he calls her, “the praise of the Christians, the marvel of the gentiles.”
Though eulogies tend to highlight only the good characteristics and positive achievements of the deceased, Jerome doesn’t shy away from the controversial aspects of Fabiola’s life, presenting a holistic and realistic portrait. Specifically, he addresses the fact that she divorced her first husband and remarried. It seems there was some debate over whether she had violated the rules the New Testament lays out for divorce and remarriage and Jerome felt the need to clear the air. Regarding her first husband, Jerome argues that her divorce was legitimate, on biblical grounds, because her husband had been unfaithful to her. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32). Jerome reasons that this verse must apply to women as well as to men, thus validating Fabiola’s decision to divorce her husband. Beyond this, Jerome gives some dark hints that Fabiola’s first husband was quite horrible to her, though he refuses to give specifics.
Apparently, Fabiola was still young when she divorced her husband and desired to get remarried. Jerome held to the position that the Bible forbids remarriage. Despite this belief, he shows much understanding and grace to Fabiola for her decision to get married again saying, “I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity.” Fabiola’s remarriage was, in Jerome’s eyes, a far better option for her than remaining single. Though he spends a bit of time making a case for this from several Scripture passages, he is quick to move on to tell the story of Fabiola’s conversion.
Fabiola seems to have converted to Christianity shortly after her second husband’s death. She devoted herself to serving Christ and began her Christian life with several public displays of penance. I would imagine that to most of our sensibilities this sounds quite intense. Fabiola put on sackcloth, went to church, and tearfully confessed her sins before all the church leaders and congregation. As he describes it, this fact allows Jerome once and for all to put the divorce and remarriage controversies to bed: “As Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, so He shall not be ashamed of her in heaven.” Jerome believed that the grace of God was sufficient to forgive all her sins. Having dealt with the controversial aspects of Fabiolia’s life, he tells us of the wonderful things she did after her conversion.
Founder of The First Hospital
Driven by her newfound faith, Fabiola sought to be like her Savior Christ by serving the poor and sick. After her second husband died, she was a wealthy woman. Rather than continuing to live a luxurious, upper-class life, she decided to sell everything that she could and give her money to the poor. Upon becoming a Christian, she exchanged the Roman system of valuing the powerful for the Christian attitude of love for all, especially the weak and needy.
Her compassion for the poor and sick led her to create something that had never existed before—a hospital. Certainly there were doctors and places for the sick to go, but throughout history these services were reserved for the elite and the wealthy. Fabiola founded the hospital in the sense we think of: a place for anyone who is sick or hurt to come and receive medical care. Fabiola is remarkable for this innovation, yet she’s even more inspiring when we learn that she did more than just finance the hospital. Jerome tells us,
“Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand, and moistened the scarce breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid.”
Fabiola was hands-on in her service to Christ. She emulated her Savior by caring for those with the greatest need, all at the expense of her own comfort and safety.
Fabiola’s Final Years
One day, much to the consternation of her friends, Fabiola declared that she would be traveling to Jerusalem. There she met Jerome and embarked on a voracious study of the Bible. In his eulogy for Fabiola, he fondly recalled, “[W]hat zeal, what earnestness she bestowed upon the sacred volumes! In her eagerness to satisfy what was a veritable craving she would run through Prophets, Gospels, and Psalms: she would suggest questions and treasure up the answers in the desk of her own bosom.” In fact, Jerome tells us that her questions were so insightful that they sometimes stumped even him. When the threat of invasion from the Huns became imminent, Fabiola returned to Rome, and sometime after, she passed into the presence of the Lord.
The amount of lives Fabiola touched is evident by the turnout at her funeral. According to Jerome, all of Rome turned up to pay their respects:
I seem to hear even now the squadrons which led the van of the procession, and the sound of the feet of the multitude which thronged in thousands to attend her funeral. The streets, porches, and roofs from which a view could be obtained were inadequate to accommodate the spectators. On that day Rome saw all her peoples gathered together in one, and each person present flattered himself that he had some part in the glory of her penitence. No wonder indeed that men should thus exult in the salvation of one at whose conversion there was joy among the angels in heaven.
– Luke 15:7, 10
This tribute speaks volumes of Fabiola as an individual, but more than that, to the cross of Christ. Fabiola was a woman who grasped the radical, value-altering implications of the crucifixion of the Son of God. She cared for the poor and needy at great cost to herself. She gave up status, wealth, and ease so that the downtrodden in society could experience healing through her generosity and sacrifice. May we all be a bit more like Fabiola as we contemplate the cross upon which our Savior hung, take up our own, and follow him.
 Jerome is perhaps best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate.
 The entire Eulogy can be read online here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001077.htm.
 It is worth noting that today many, perhaps most, theologians would disagree. The primary argument is that when Jesus names sexual immorality as a valid reason for divorce in Matthew 5:32, he is saying that remarriage in that case is not committing adultery (as it would be if the divorce was for illegitimate reasons).