‘The authentic history of the patron saint of France is even more meagre than that of our St George. Denys was sent in the third century, perhaps from Rome, as missionary bishop to the neighbourhood of Paris, where, together with his companions Rusticus and Eleutherius, he suffered martyrdom by decapitation about 273. The Christians of Paris faithfully treasured the memory of the blessed founder of their Church, and two hundred years later St Genevieve, the saviour and heroine of Paris, built a church in his honour, at the place where the martyrs’ bodies had been buried. The shrine soon became a place of pilgrimage, thus the fame of St Denys grew and spread. Successive churches, ever more impressive, were built to enshrine him, royal burials took place there and finally St Denys’ church was the Westminster Abbey of France. He was the patron of its kings, his name their war-cry.
But from the ninth century the story of the first Bishop of Paris became greatly enlarged by confusion with that of an earlier Denys – namely, that Dionysius mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a convert of St Paul’s at Athens: “Certain men believed, among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite”. He is said to have been ordained by St Paul and become the first Bishop of Athens. After attending St Paul at his martyrdom in Rome, he was sent to France, and so finally to his own death in Paris. Then, in the sixth century great interest was taken in a mass of theological writings supposed to have been written by this Dionysius the Areopagite, whose letters were particularly appealing, for they dealt with the glorious apostolic days, and the writer claimed to have been present at the death of the Virgin Mary. With the confusion of these three persons, St Paul’s convert, mystical writer, and Bishop of Paris, the legends and miracles of St Denys lavishly increased, and there now appeared the famous one, often portrayed in art, which relates how the body of the martyr, being left to the sacrilege of wild beasts, arose, picked up its severed head, and walked two miles to Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs), accompanied by angels. St Denys was greatly venerated in England, where churches were built in his honour from Saxon times, one at Stanford in Berkshire claiming a relic’.
Sibyl Harton, 1898-1993
O God, who didst strengthen blessed Denis, thy Martyr and Bishop, with the virtue of constancy in his suffering, and didst vouchsafe to join unto him Rusticus, Eleutherius, for the preaching of thy glory to the heathen: grant us, we beseech thee, by thy example, to despise the prosperity of this world, and to fear none of its adversities; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal.
Fr Lee Kenyon