Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Saint Who Carried His Own Head


Saint Denis was a third century Bishop of Paris and martyr. Born in Italy, nothing is definitely known of the time or place, or of his early life. His feast day is kept on 9 October. He is the patron saint of the French monarchy. Rusticus and Eleutherius were his companions. He is usually represented with his head in his hands because the prefect, Sissinius, condemned Saint Denis.  After Denis' head was chopped off at Montmartre, Denis bent down, picked up his head, carried it   and walked ten kilometres (six miles), preaching a sermon the entire way, That, however, while still very young he was distinguished for his righteous life, Awareness of sacred things, and steady faith is  proved by the fact that Pope Fabian (236-250) sent him with some other missionary bishops to Gaul on a difficult mission. Under the persecution of the  Emperor Decius, The Church of Gaul had suffered terribly and the new messengers of Faith were to endeavor to restore it to its former flourishing state.  Denis with his intimate companions, the priest Rusticus and the Deacon Eleutherius, arrived in the neighborhood of the present city of Paris and settled on the island in the Seine.  

On the island in the Seine, Saint Denis built a church and provided for a regular solemnization of the Divine service. His fearless and indefatigable preaching of the Gospel led to countless conversions. This aroused the hatred of the city nobles and they incited the populace against the strangers and importuned the governor Fescenninus Sisinnius to put a stop by force to the new teaching. Denis with his two companions was seized and as they were scourged, racked, thrown to wild beasts, burnt at the stake, and finally beheaded.
Saint Gregory of Tours stated: "Beatus Dionysius Parisiorum episcopus diversis pro Christi nomine adfectus poenis praesentem vitam gladio immente finivit" (Hist. Franc. I, 30). The bodies of the threeholy martyrs received an honorable burial through the efforts of a devout matron named Catulla and a small shrine was erected over their graves. This was later on replaced by a beautiful basilica (egregium templum) which Venantius celebrated in verse (Carm. I, ii).

The earliest account of this Saint-Denis is found in The Life of Saint Genevieve, written in 502. Abbot Hilduin also wrote about the story of Saint Denis:
"The hour of judgment had come; the thugs (bourreaux) threw themselves on them [the evangelists] beating them cruelly with sticks and dragging them through the roads to the Hill of Mercury [Montmartre], where, after the most horrible abuse, the missionaries [athletes] had their heads chopped off with an ax blow. ... In an astonishing miracle the body of Saint Denis was seen to rise up and to gather up his head in his own hands as if he was still alive, raising it up triumphantly and carrying it for a distance of about two Gallic miles to the place where it presently reposes where the abbey of Saint-Denis is located. At the sight of this miracle the heathen, terrified, took flight. But the Christians, in awe, blessed this manifestation of divine power. There resulted the conversion of a host of the unfaithful."

Anne-Marie Romero, in her book, Saint-Denis: Emerging Powers, discusses the theories of Lombard-Jourdain. Lombard-Jourdain proposes that Saint Denis was martyred and buried in Lendit plain North of Paris, which was then part of "Montmartre."   St. Genevieve built the first basilica at the tomb where an oratory had previously been built.  This later became Saint-Denis de la Chapelle. In 627 the bodies were transferred to the site of the present Saint Denis. The pit found by Formige was used for the bodies before they were placed in the reliquary. The remains of the early church at Saint Denis are instead the remains of a church dedicated to Saint Peter and established there to offset the pagan influence of the nearby pagan shrine and Druid meeting place.



Denis' headless walk has led to his being depicted in art decapitated and dressed as a bishop holding his own chopped head in his hands.   Veneration of Saint Denis began soon after his death. The bodies of Saints Denis, Eleutherius, and Rusticus were buried on the spot of their martyrdom.
In time, the "Saint Denis", often combined as "Montjoie! Saint Denis!" became the war-cry of the French armies.  The feast of Saint Denis was added to the  Roman calender in the year 1568 and in traditional Catholic practice, Saint Denis is honored as one of the He is one of the fourteen holy helpers. (The Fourteen "Auxiliary Saints" or "Holy Helpers" are a group of saints invoked because they have been efficacious in assisting in trials and sufferings. Each saint has a separate feast or memorial day, and the group was collectively venerated on August 8, until the 1969 reform of the Roman calendar, when the feast was dropped. These saints were often represented together. Popular devotion to these saints often began in some monastery that held their relics.) Specifically, Saint Denis is invoked against  diabolical possession and headaches  and with Sainte Genevi√®ve is one of the patron saints of Paris.

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