October 8, 2017

Saint Denis and Companions, Early French Martyrs

Saint Denis

October 9th, is the optional memorial of Saint Denis, a 3rd century apostle of Gaul, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers who was invoked particularly in the Middle Ages against the Black Plague. He served as the first bishop of Paris, suffering martyrdom there, together with his priest Rusticus and his deacon Eleutherius. What little we know about his life and holy death come from pious tradition.

He was sent from Rome to Gaul as a missionary by Pope Clement I. Once in France, St. Denis built the first cathedral in the city and began converting its citizens to Christianity. He and his companions (Rusticus and Eleutherius) were executed under Emperor Valerius at Montmartre due to their Christian faith. Legend holds after his execution, St. Denis picked up his head, taking it to where he is buried today, thus choosing the place for his followers to build a basilica.

Historians differ on how Denis’ remains came to rest where they did. Some say that Denis and his followers’ remains were obtained by a wealthy Roman woman and interred on her private estate. Subsequent Christians erected the basilica on her land. Tests done by archaeologists, however, date the remains to the fourth century rather than the first. In addition, the remains of saints were divided among different regions in fragments to maximize their efficaciousness. King Clovis II was said to have stolen one of St. Denis’ arms, but later returned it.

Images of St. Denis as a cephalophore (holding his own head) date back to the 7th century, and are the most common portrayals identifying him. He is the most famous cephalophore saint other than Saint John the Baptist. O God, who sent your Bishop Saint Denis and his companions to preach your glory to the nations, 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, and with the Holy Spirit, one God, forever. Amen.

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