Making Disciples

He sat reading the letter over and over, with unbelief and a little dread.  After all, this was a letter from the Pope himself, and he’d rarely been the subject of a papal communication.  The Holy Father was ordering him to go to France and preach the Gospel there.  Leaving his Italian home would be hard, but he was a priest of God and would go wherever he was needed.  He’d take a friend and fellow-priest with him as well as a treasured deacon.  Folding the letter, he put it away and set about getting ready for his mission….and praying.

Six months later, he and his two companions were standing on the banks of the Seine, looking down at an island in the middle of the river.  That was the spot they’d chosen to plant their church.  The village of Paris spread out before the three men. Some barracks for the Roman troops who were there.  A scattering of support buildings like stables and kitchens.  Lean-to rooms of wattle and daub in small groupings on the low hills with communal cooking fires outside, where the villagers lived.  Animals and mud everywhere.  And the smell.  The churchmen knew they had their work cut out for them.  This was a place where native religion mixed with Roman idolatry.  The soldiers occupying this area were hostile to Christianity.  The pagan Celtic people, the Parisii, were a violent tribe who fought the Roman occupation at any opportunity and had made it clear they didn’t need a new God.  Paris was a violent, hostile community.  It was perfect ground for sowing the seeds of the Gospel of Christ.

The priest and his two assistants spent much of their time each day trying to get to know the villagers.  The men of the Parisii were often away, hunting for deer and boar in the forests.  The women had small vegetable gardens which supplemented any meat the men might bring home.  Wheat and barley were grown to make beer with a little of the harvest used for making a coarse bread.  It was a community perpetually on the edge of starvation.  Working so hard just to stay alive, the Parisii had little time or interest in listening to the priests talk to them about Jesus.  They had their own gods of earth and sky and their own holy men to lead them.  So Bishop Denis and his companions, Fr. Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius set about using charity as their example of Christian faith.  But both the Roman soldiers and the villagers remained suspicious and hostile to the newcomers.

For nine years, St. Denis and his companions endured many hardships on their mission of bringing Christ and His Church to Paris.  They were often imprisoned by the Romans under the Emperor Decius since Christianity was illegal and seen as a threat to the Empire.  They were also beaten and imprisoned by the local pagan priests as well, who were angered by the converts St. Denis made among the village people.  As the number in his flock grew, St. Denis and his helpers became the victims of more severe beatings and longer imprisonments.  They were scourged, racked, thrown to wolves and starved.  Finally, in or around the year 275 A.D. the local Roman governor Sissinius ordered the three men to be killed.  They were taken outside the city to Mars Hill, now called Montmartre, and were beheaded.  The story of St. Denis, Bishop and Martyr, should have ended there.  But it didn’t.

As the soldiers and witnesses watched, the headless body of St. Denis stood up.  He reached down, picked up his head, and carrying it under one arm, began walking.  Renowned for his powerful preaching, St. Denis continued his sermon as he walked, stopping at a fountain to rinse the dust off of his disconnected head.  After walking and preaching for about two miles, he stopped at a widow’s house and collapsed, finally dead.  He received his burial at the widow’s hands and later, a church was erected on the spot to house his holy relics.  The Cathedral St. Denis is a beautiful example of early Gothic architecture and is a favorite pilgrimage site for those visiting Paris.  It is the traditional burial place of French royalty.  St. Denis’ faith took him from his Italian home to a hostile pagan land.  He lived a life of charity and sacrifice as an example to the unbelievers around him.  He brought souls to Christ and for that, he met a martyr’s death.  Like all the Saints who have gone before us, we can look to his holy life as a model of courageous faith in the midst of a violent and hurting world.  St. Denis, pray for us.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19

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