Saint Denis (or Dionysius) of Paris was a third-century martyr and Bishop of Paris. In his time, Paris was under the control of the Roman empire. He was part of a pioneering group of missionaries that brought the gospel to France, and he was very successful in bringing the pagans to Christ. He was beheaded during one of the Roman Empire's persecutions of Christians. Saint Denis gained a devoted following in France, and was particularly revered by French royalty. The Saint Denis Basilica, the church built on the place his body was buried, served also for many centuries as the royal tombs of France.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Prof Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we celebrate St Denis, Bishop of Paris. Denis is the French variant of the Latin Dionysius or the English Dennis. I will just refer to him as St Dennis in this podcast, since I don’t want to mess up the French pronunciation.
Saint Denis lived in the third century, very early in the history of the Christian faith. Paris in Saint Denis’ time was known as Lutetia, under the Roman Empire. Saint Dennis was a missionary to the people living in the Paris area, and brought many pagans living there to Christ. Saint Dennis was Bishop of Lutetia in a time of Roman persecution, and so was behaded, one of the early martyrs of the Christian church.
Let us read an account of his life from the English Hagiographer, Rev. Alban Butler
THE FAITH is said by some to have been planted in part of Gaul by St. Luke, and especially by St. Crescens, a disciple of St. Paul. The churches of Marseilles, Lyons, and Vienne were indebted for the light of the gospel to Asiatic or Grecian preachers, though they had received their mission and orders from the apostolic see of Rome. For Pope Innocent I. positively affirms 1 that no one had established churches in the Gauls, or in Spain or Africa, but persons who had been ordained bishops by St. Peter and his successors. The history of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, in 177, 2 proves the nourishing state of those churches in the second century. St. Irenæus very much advanced the faith in Gaul, and left many eminent disciples behind him, though two of the most illustrious among them, Caius and St. Hippolytus, left Gaul, and displayed their abilities and zeal in Italy and other foreign countries. Nevertheless, the light of the gospel did not spread its beams so early upon the remoter parts of Gaul, as is expressly affirmed by St. Sulpicius Severus, 3 and in the Acts of St. Saturninus. St. Germanus of Paris and seven other French bishops, in a letter to St. Radegondes, 4 say, that the faith having been planted in Gaul, in the very birth of Christianity, made its progress slowly till the divine mercy sent thither St. Martin in 360. Numerous churches, however, were established before that time in most parts of that country, by seven bishops sent thither by the bishop of Rome to preach the gospel. 5 1
Of all the Roman missionaries sent into Gaul, St. Dionysius carried the faith the furthest into the country, fixing his see at Paris, and by him and his disciples the sees of Chartres, Senlis, and Meaux were erected, 6 and shortly after, those of Cologne and others, which we find in a flourishing condition and governed by excellent pastors in the fourth century, witness St. Maternus of Cologne, &c. SS. Fuscian and Victoricus, Crispin and Crispinian, Rufinus and Valerius, Lucian of Beauvais, Quintin, Piaton, Regulus or Riticius of Senlis, and Marcellus are called disciples or fellow-labourers of St. Dionysius, and came from Rome to preach the name of Christ in Gaul. We are assured in the acts of the martyrdom of St. Dionysius that this zealous bishop built a church at Paris, and converted great numbers to the faith. A glorious martyrdom crowned his labours for the salvation of souls, and the exaltation of the name of Christ. He seems to have suffered in the persecution of Valerian in 272, though some moderns defer his death to the beginning of the reign of Maximian Herculeus, who resided chiefly in Gaul from the year 286 to 292. Ado calls the judge by whom he was condemned Fescenninus. The Acts of his Martyrdom, St. Gregory of Tours, Fortunatus, and the western Martyrologists inform us, that after a long and cruel imprisonment he was beheaded for the faith, together with Rusticus, a priest, and Eleutherius, a deacon. The Acts add, that the bodies of the martyrs were thrown into the river Seine, but taken up and honourably interred by a Christian lady named Catalla, not far from the place where they had been beheaded. The Christians soon after built a chapel over their tomb. In 469, through the pious exhortations of St. Geneviève, a church was raised upon the ruins of this chapel, which was a place of great devotion, much resorted to by pilgrims, as appears from the works of St. Gregory of Tours, in many places, by which it is clear that this church stood without the walls of the city, though very near them. By a donation of Clotaire II. it appears that here was then a religious community governed by an abbot. Dagobert, who died in 638, founded the great abbey in this place in which he was interred, and which has been for many ages the usual burial-place of the French kings. Pepin and his son Charlemagne were principal benefactors to this monastery, which was magnificently rebuilt by abbot Suger. The relics of SS. Dionysius, Rusticus, and Eleutherius are kept here in three silver shrines. 7 The miraculous cure of Pope Stephen II. in this church has been already related. 8 St. Dionysius of France is commonly called St. Denis,. A portion of his relics is said to be possessed by the abbey of St. Emmeran at Ratisbon. 9 2
Those apostolic pastors who converted so many nations to Christ were men filled with his Spirit, who regarded nothing but his glory, and acted and lived for him alone. Christ on earth never entertained any regard but for the glory of his Father, to whom he offered himself and his kingdom. Whoever becomes his minister, must, in like manner, have no aim, no intention but to advance the divine honour: for this he must be dead to the world, and have bid adieu to it, that is, to all desires of honours, applause, pleasures, riches, or any earthly goods whatever. Such a one sees nothing in this world which he hopes or desires; nothing that he much fears; he seeks no composition with it while he is engaged in the cause of his master; no threats or apprehensions of terror from its persecution can damp his courage in defending the honour of God, or cool his zeal for the salvation of souls. 3
We can also read a more detailed account of the martyrdom of Saint Dennis, from another English hagiographer. This is an excerpt about Saint Denis from Ælfric's Lives of Saints, a 10th century text.
Then he provided himself with companions, and he went courageous
through the Holy Ghost, preaching to the heathen
Christianity and baptism, until he came to a city
called Paris, amidst the heathen
in the Franks' kingdom, and the Saviour succoured him
with signs and wonders, so that he subdued the heathen,
and very speedily converted the citizens to the faith.
Then he bought land of a believing man,
and there quickly raised a church by his skill,
and consecrated God's servants, that they might serve
the heavenly God in monastic life.
Then Dionysius daily converted
many to the faith by his fair lore,
and subjected to his Lord those whom he snatched from the devil,
and men sought the church eagerly with faith.
So many wonders wrought the allwielding God
by the holy man, that the wonders converted
the opposing heathen to the Saviour's faith
quite as much as his preaching, as books tell us.
He sent some of his companions to Spain,
and to other lands, to sow God's lore,
and he himself continued fearlessly with the Franks,
who especially erred in the devil's worship.
Often the idolaters who were there the fiercest
assembled their congregations and stirred up a tumult,
and came armed to the venerable man.
But as soon as they saw his shining countenance
with its heavenly light, then the heathen laid
their weapons down, and, with wondering, prostrated themselves
to the holy bishop, entreating forgiveness.
Or if any of them would not even then believe,
then was he terrified and fled away.
Wondrous (is) God's grace, that these savage men
could not withstand with weapons the weaponless man;
but the Franks and distant Northmen bowed themselves
to the winsome yoke of the King of glory.
Then were broken in pieces, widely throughout the land,
the houses and images of the gods of the heathen
by the hands of those men who had made and founded them;
and God's church waxed exceedingly in the faith.
The old devil who is filled with envy
took great wrath against the man of God
for the people's conversion from his foul worship,
and considered how he might in some manner extinguish
the wide-spread Christianity by his stratagems.
Then at last the savage idolaters
were stirred with anger, even as the devil incited them,
and sent to Domitian, the diabolic emperor,
who after Nero oppressed the Christians,
making known in letters about the holy man,
how through his lore the country folk were turned,
and all the citizens, to Christ's worship,
and prayed him privately that he would find some plan
on behalf of his venerable gods, that the rather their remembrance
might not be put out through Dionysius' teaching.
This writing came to the Caesar in Rome,
and he was verily soon stirred up,
so that he bade kill all the Christians
whom he could hear of, in all lands,
desiring that no man who was a Christian should be left.
He sent also immediately a certain prefect
called Sisinnius [Fescenninus?], an exceeding fierce devil,
with many companions, to the Franks' kingdom,
that they should kill Dionysius, God's servant, with weapons,
unless he would bow to the shameful gods.
Whereupon Sisinnius journeyed with great array
until he came to the city wherein was the bishop
teaching the lay folk zealously in the faith.
Then the cruel prefect bade men bind the holy man
and a mass-priest whom he found with him,
named Rusticus, and a certain arch-deacon
called Eleutherius, (all) together with hard knots.
These holy men had ever lived with the bishop,
until they all departed to God together.
Then Sisinnius immediately asked the holy man
with a great threat what God he worshipped.
Then said they all three as if with one mouth;
'We confess with mouth and believe in mind
in the Holy Trinity, Who is heavenly God,
that is Father and Son, and the Comforting Spirit,
and we preach to men the world's redemption
through the holy Son whom the Heavenly Father
of His own will sent to be slain for us.'
Then said Sisinnius, ' Say if ye will
obey the Caesar, and believe on his gods;
if then ye will not, I will not longer by words,
but by hard stripes, make known his bests to you.'
Then he bade men strip the holy bishop,
and scourge him unmercifully, and he sang his prayers
amidst the tortures, glorifying his Lord,
Who could easily have delivered him from those wicked men;
but the Saint was, in these short torments,
to imitate his Lord, and suffer death for Him,
even as Christ Himself did. Who gave Himself for us.
Afterwards Sisinnius bade scourge the mass-priest,
and also the deacon, Dionysius' companions,
and then commanded them to be led, in chains, together
to a lightless prison, for their fidelity.
He bade scourge them again, and afterward stretched
the bishop on an iron bed, and placed burning coals
under his naked body, as they did to Laurence;
but the Saint prayed on that bed to God.
Then the savage prefect commanded men to cast him to beasts
which were an-hungered, that they might devour the holy man;
but the fierce beasts, as soon as they came to him,
lay at his feet as if they were affrighted.
Then the judge bade men throw the Lord's servant
into a burning oven, but his prayers extinguished
all the flame, and he was left there sound.
Yet the bloodthirsty judge commanded men to make a cross,
and bade men hang the bishop ignominiously thereon;
and he, so hanging, preached the Saviour
to all bystanders, even as Andrew did.
Then after that the judge commanded men to take him from the cross .
and to take them all three to the lightless dungeon,
and many other Christians to the house of execution;
whereupon the bishop blithely allured
the Christians by teaching, in the dungeon, to God,
and celebrated mass in presence of them all. Then, as he was dividing
the holy housel, there came a heavenly light
over all the multitude, such as they had never before seen.
There came likewise the Saviour with the heavenly light,
and many angels with Him, where they were looking on,
and took the housel which was there consecrated,
and said to the bishop with blithe aspect,
'My beloved, receive this, and I with my Father
will for thee fulfil these mysteries with perfection,
because with Me there is a great reward to thyself,
and to those who hear (thee) there is salvation in My kingdom.
Now do valiantly, and thy memory shall remain in (men's) praise;
and as for the love and benignity which dwell in thy breast,
for whomsoever they plead, they shall always obtain (their boon).'
And after these words He returned to heaven.
Then soon after, Sisinnius commanded in the morning
the Saints to be fetched out of the foul dungeon,
and ordered (them) to offer their sacrifices to the lifeless gods,
if they recked of their life or were reasonable.
But the Saints continued in the Saviour's faith,
and the infuriated judge desired yet again to try,
if he might, to turn them from God's worship;
he commanded men to scourge them all again severely with rods,
and afterward to behead them for the Saviour's faith.
Then the heathen led the Saints to death,
and Dionysius thanked his Lord with praise
for all the wonders which He had wrought through him;
and they were beheaded, as the savage prefect had ordered,
with sharp axes; and there God manifested
a very great wonder through the illustrious bishop.
For there came a great light to the martyrs' bodies,
and the bishop's body arose with that light,
and took his own head, which was hewn off
upon the hill, and went him forth thence
over two miles, while the men were looking on,
praising his Lord with holy hymns;
and a company of angels also there winsomely sung
until the body came to where it desired to lie
with the head and all, and the holy angels
continually sung, as books tell us.
Then the heathen, those that heard the song
and saw the wonder, cast away their error
and believed in Christ, and likewise some of the executioners;
and none was left there who would not believe,
but turned them away, terrified at the wonder.
That was such a strange wonder, that the righteous martyr
could walk headless, praising God Almighty,
and moreover run with troops of angels;
but God desired to declare through that strange sign
that his soul lived, though the body might be slain,
and would manifest to men how great faith
the holy man had in the Saviour in life.
Saint Denis’s feast day is October 9, and he is celebrated in all Christian denominations that commemorate saints. He is of course an especially important saint in France. Most famously, the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris is named after him, football fans might recognise this place as the location of the Stade de France, where France’s national football team plays. He is the patron saint of the French Monarchy, since many French kings had a devotion to him, most notably Dagobert I. The Basilica of Saint Denis, the church built where St Denis was believed to be martyred, also serves as the place where most of France’s kings have been buried.
Let us read an excerpt from “The Cult of Saint Denis and Capetian kingship” by Gabrielle M. Spiegel, in the first issue in the first volume of the Journal of Medieval History, which discusses the devotion that the French people and French royalty had to Saint Denis.
(read from pdf)
a local cult of the
Saint soon flourished. The Passio already
speaks rather vaguely of a church elevated
by the faithful gathered around the primitive
tomb of the Saint shortly after his martyr-
dom (FClibien 1706:clxv), suggesting that a
shrine of Saint Denis existed possibly as early
as the fourth century. The first clear evi-
dence of a church constructed to serve the
needs of a reiigious community comes from
the Uita Genovefue, which records the foun-
d ition of a basilica by Sainte Genevieve
sometime around 475. The earliest miracles
appear in connection with the building of
Genevieve’s church, and they refer to the cult
of Saint Denis as an established fact (Krusch.
1596:224). In the sixth century, Gregory of
Tours speaks of custodes, or guardians of the
cult who are attached to a basilica, that is, a
church containing relics as distinct from an
ccclesia or place of liturgical assembly. The
cult, while still local, was steadily gaining
for Gregory recounts two mir-
acles relating to the Saint’s capacity for pro-
tecting his tomb from attack (Arndt 1885b:
535-36). At this time the objects of venera-
tion were the relics of Saint Denis alone; the
relics of his companions Rusticus and Eleu-
therius were added only in the seventh centu-
ry, when a special chapel to house them was
built (Crosby 1942:44).
The fame of the saints and the growth of
their cult was sufficient by the seventh cen-
tury to attract larger and larger numbers of
ilgr!ms to an annual celebration of Dears’
feast on 9 October. The grant of the Fair of
Saint Denis by Dagobert in 635 or 636, the
first royal concession of its kind, testifies to
the growth of &hecult in Merovingian Fran&
and the increasing homage paid to the Saint.
The greatest infusion to the treasury of
Dionysian miracles resulted from the ninth-
century work of Hincmar. In his Gesta Dago-
berti I regis Francorum, Hincmz, not only
recorded with almost obsessive concern the
marks of favor conferred upo~ the monastery
by this benign prince, he elaborated a series
of miracles involving Saint and monarch that
added a significantly
new dimension to the
legend of Saint Denis. In additio 7, it was
Hincmar who compiled the Mirac.cla sancti
Dionysii, which detaiied, in one convenient
place, the Saint’s miraculous
those already set forth in the history of Da-
gobert’s reign. I4
The nziracles described by Hincmar in the
Gesta Dagoberti serve to explain Dagobert’s
devotion to the monastery of
it?elf in the series of privileges and donations
given to the abbey recounted at t.he end of
the Gesta. At the same time, they establish
the Saint’s protective capacity over all those
who seek his aids in times of stress.
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O God, who sent Saint Denis and his companions
to preach your glory to the nations
and strengthened them for their mission
with the virtue of constancy in suffering,
grant, we pray, that we may imitate them
in disdaining prosperity in this world
and in being undaunted by any trial.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.