Saint Denis is usually depicted in painting and sculpture as a man with his head in his hands and love in his heart as an example for us of the Christian way of sacrificial love.


Saint Denis, the man with his head in his hands and love in his heart, is an example for us of the Christian way of sacrificial love.

Above the three portals of the main entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris stand beautifully carved statues of biblical characters and saints too many to count. However, one in particular catches the eyes of all visitors: the man with the head in his hands. He really stands out in the crowd.

Saint Denis was the first bishop of Paris, a martyr, and the patron of France. He was sent to Gaul from Rome in the third century and beheaded in the persecution under Emperor Valerius in 258. Tradition holds that the place of his martyrdom in Paris was Montmarte which literally means “mountain of martyrs.” His popularity is due to a series of legends, especially those connecting him with the great abbey church of St. Denis in Paris.
During the early years of the Church, martyrdom was so common that in some regions being named a Bishop was considered a death sentence. We do not know the exact numbers of the ancient Christian martyrs among whom St. Denis would be counted. Some historians estimate over 2 million Christians died for our faith in the first 300 years of the Church.

But martyrdom is not simply a thing of the past. Dr. Todd M. Johnson, Professor of Global Christianity and Mission, estimates that 1 million Christians were killed between 2001 and 2010 and about 900,000 were killed from 2011 to 2020.

The head of the Catholic apostolate, Aid to the Church in Need reports that 2019 was one of the bloodiest years for Christians ever. Ever. “2019 was a year of martyrs, one of the bloodiest for Christians in history.” It culminated in the attacks on three churches in Sri Lanka that cost more than 250 people their lives. In Chile, 40 churches were desecrated and damaged. In Nigeria, the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram and ISIS continue to brutalize people. In France there were more than 230 attacks on Christian churches and institutions. For more information on Aid to the Church in Need click here.

It is not just the Church in Asia, Africa, or Europe that is facing persecution. In recent months several Catholic parishes in our own country have been vandalized and desecrated. Incidents of vandalism and desecration have occurred this year in Miami, Chattanooga, Queens, Boston, Sacramento, and Ocala. This is shocking and deeply disturbing.
 These days when we make the sign of the cross over our bodies, we are mindful of the cost of witnessing to our faith in Jesus Christ. Witness takes many forms. It always is an expression of love for God and love for neighbor. And love always, always involves sacrifice.  Any act of sacrificial love we do is a sign to the world of the sacrificial love of God. These days when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are mindful of forgiving those who do us harm. Let us pray to St. Denis and his companions to increase our faith, our charity, and our hope so that like him, we too may stand out in the crowd for our profound love.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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