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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Denis, Patron Of France

October 7, 2014 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

On the hill of Montmartre, the French have built a Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Sacré-Coeur de Paris. Since 1885, this church has held perpetual adoration; the practice began before construction on the church was completed in 1914. As tourists quietly walk through the church to admire the beautiful mosaics and woodwork, high above on the altar — more than 40 feet above the floor — is the monstrance holding the Sacred Host. Around the outer walls are various side chapels where Confessions are heard in various languages throughout each day.
The church was begun in 1875 — almost 100 years after the French Revolution — on the hill which is about one and a half miles north of the Seine River in Paris, also about two miles northeast of the Arc de Triomphe. This hill had once been the site where the powder to make plaster of Paris was mined. Since it was honeycombed with various mineshafts, it took ten years to fill in the shafts with cement before the church could be built.
As you sit on the walls just outside the basilica, you see the city of Paris spread out before you. Over ten million visitors annually visit Sacré-Coeur — most likely they do not know they are in the presence of the Lord. Even fewer know that over 1,700 years ago, it was the site of the beheading of St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris. The Roman presence has been verified by the ruins found on Montmartre.
Montmartre, which some claim means hill of the martyrs, became a venue for artists as well. Because of its elevation overlooking the Seine River and the city of Paris, many famous artists sat there with their palettes: Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and many more.
Little is known about the birth and early life of St. Denis except that he was born in Italy and — having demonstrated his strong faith through heroic virtue and uncommon knowledge of theology — he was sent to Gaul to convert the pagans by Pope Fabian (236-250). Since the young church of early France had suffered greatly under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius, Pope Fabian sent Denis and his companions to Paris to rebuild the Christian community.
Denis, the first bishop of Paris, arrived with his companions, a priest named Rusticus and a deacon named Eleutherius. They went to Paris, which may have been the center of one of the Druid communities, similar to those in Ireland. The three men went to an island in the Seine where they built a small church in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. (Since there are only two islands in the Seine by Paris, it is likely that it is near the same site as the world-famous Cathedral of Notre Dame.)
His long hours of preaching and counseling led to many conversions, which angered the pagan priests. Their anger and envy led them to denounce the three Christians to the Roman governor, Fescenninus Sisinnius, demanding that he force Denis and his companions to stop their evangelizing.
Since the emperor had ordered all citizens to take an oath of loyalty to him and make sacrifices, the governor had no qualms about arresting Denis and his companions. He told them to take the oath and make sacrifices, but they refused. According to reliable accounts, the three companions suffered many tortures without dying.
First they were scourged, then racked and stretched. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, the three were thrown to wild beasts that did not kill them. Attempts to burn them at the stake also failed to bring an end to the men. Finally they were beheaded, which brought an end to Rusticus and Eleutherius.
St. Denis, however, even though beheaded, did not die. In fact, when the executioners began kicking the head of Denis like a soccer ball, he walked over to his head, picked it up, and began walking away as he preached. He continued walking and preaching for six miles, before he finally died.
One of the other Christian followers, a matron named Catulla, took the bodies of the three martyrs and arranged for their burial. Rusticus, Eleutherius, and Denis were buried at the place where Denis died. She had a small shrine erected over their graves in honor of their holiness and martyrdom. Shortly thereafter, the shrine was expanded and improved.
In the seventh century, King Dagobert of the Franks (reigned 629-634) commissioned a church to be built to house the remains of St. Denis and his companions. The church had a Benedictine monastery attached to it with many improvements and other constructions added over the centuries. St.-Denis Cathedral became the first Gothic building in the world. Even today it is a place of both pilgrimage and of attraction for the student of architecture, with some of the most stunning stained-glass windows in the world.
From the 10th through the 18th century, almost every French king was buried within the confines of the cathedral. Beautiful tombs mark their burial sites with statues and other pieces of art in the crypt of the church. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette of Austria, are buried there.
Although the feast of St. Denis and his companions has been celebrated since 800, it was not formally added to the Roman Calendar until Pope Pius V did so in 1568. Their feast day is October 9. He is invoked as the patron saint of the city of Paris and the country of France. People also seek his special intercession for an end to strife and the relief of headaches, and for possessed people.
Dear St. Denis and companions, as you walked the lanes of a pagan territory, you fearlessly proclaimed the Good News and sought to win people back to the Church. We ask your intercession that we may receive the graces to evangelize fearlessly as you and your companions did nearly 1,800 years ago. May we learn to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow you who followed Jesus to die for the sake of sinners. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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