Saint of the week

St Denis, 9th October

St Denis – or Dionysius – was a third century missionary bishop who was martyred in Paris along with two companions.

According to St Gregory of Tours, writing in the sixth century, this first Bishop of Paris was born in Italy and was one of six missionary bishops dispatched in year 250 to evangelise the French province of Gaul.

Along with St Rusticus, a priest, and the deacon St Eleutherius, he penetrated deep into the territory until he reached Lutetia Parisiorum where they established worship on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine, preaching the Gospel to the Parisii.

Their ministry unsettled the local Roman governor and they were arrested at a time when the Emperor Decius was persecuting Christians.

They were beheaded by sword following a long period of imprisonment at the highest hill in Paris, and possibly a site of Druidic worship.

Their executions there caused the placed to be re-named Montmartre – literally the mount or hill of the martyrs.

The bodies of the three martyrs were thrown into the Seine but were recovered and given an honourable burial. Later a chapel was built over their tomb and the relics of St Denis were enshrined there in 626.

In 638 the Frankish King Dagobert founded a monastery on the site and this developed into the great abbey of Saint-Denis, a burial place of French kings and queens.

By the sixth century Venantius Fortunatus had recognised St Denis as the saint of Paris par excellence and today he is recognised as a Patron Saint of France.

In the succeeding centuries, a “tissue of fables”, as Butler’s Lives of the Saints describes it, evolved concerning the Acts of St Denis, helped in no small part by Hilduin, an Abbot of Saint-Denis, who deliberately conflated the identity of the saint to include that of St Dionysius the Areopagite, who in Chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles is named as one of the citizens of Athens who became a Christian after hearing St Paul preach the Gospel.

He then adds a third person, by signing spiritual works as “Denis the Areopagite”. The texts are today referred to as Pseudo-Denis or Pseudo Dionysius but have been influential in their own right.

According the narrative proposed by Hilduin, St Denis left Athens for Rome where Pope St Clement I commissioned him to evangelise the Parisii.

St Denis goes on to endure a long martyrdom at the hands of the pagans, who try to kill him with wild beasts, fire and by crucifixion before finally beheading him at Montmartre.

Yet the corpse of St Denis rose to its feet and was led by singing angels to his burial site, his severed head preaching repentance as he carried it along the way in his hands, leading to the characteristic depiction of St Denis in art.

The cult of St Denis was strong in the Middle Ages and even in England some 40 churches were dedicated to him.

St Denis is also a Patron Saint of the French people and Paris and his intercession is invoked against headaches and diabolical possession.