French religious figure Saint Genèvieve (c. 422–512) lived a life of constant prayer and charity as well as self-imposed austerity. She became known as the "Patron Saint of Paris" after she supposedly helped avert an attack by Attila the Hun and prevented famine by penetrating a military blockade with boatloads of grain. Accounts of her life mix fact with legend.
Much of the information available about Genèvieve—its validity and worth—has been the subject of controversy. Her biography, not written until many centuries after her death, is considered unreliable. Still, the Celtic cult that developed for her began in ancient times—a reference to it can be found as far back as 592 AD in the Martyrology of Jerome—and it endured for years. Further, there is no doubt that she actually lived.
For many years, traditional thought held that Genèvieve was a shepherdess born of peasant parents. But evidence suggests this is a myth promulgated by the way Genèvieve was typically portrayed in paintings. She was often depicted as a shepherdess holding a candle, a book, or torch. Such portrayals may have been merely symbolic.
The more likely scenario, scholars indicate, is that Genèvieve came from a wealthy family. Her exact date of birth is not known but is placed around 422. She was born in Nanterre, a small village outside of Paris, France. Her father was Severus, her mother Gerontia, and it is believed that they were wealthy and respectable citizens.
Consecrated by Saint Germain
Genèvieve's biography recounts several key events. The earliest of these events, and the one that appears to have had the biggest impact on her life, took place in the village of her birthplace when she was about seven. In 429, Saint Germain (also known as Germanus), Bishop of Auxerre, ventured from Gaul into Nanterre en route to Great Britain, where he intended to fight Pelagiansim, which was a belief system that was considered heretical at the time, as it denied the concepts of original sin and Christian grace.
In the village, the worshipful Nanterre inhabitants gathered around Saint Germain, who was a much revered religious figure, and he gave them a sermon as well as his blessings. As he was addressing the crowd, a pious child caught his attention. It was Genèvieve, and Germain motioned for her and her parents to approach him. Saint Germain told her parents that she was resolved to serving God and would compel people to follow her example. Her life would be one of sanctity, and she would foster that quality in others, Germain said.
After his sermon, Saint Germain encouraged Genèvieve to remain virtuous. When he asked her if she desired to serve God as a perpetual virgin, and to be espoused only to Jesus Christ, she answered in the affirmative. In response, he reportedly told her, as captured on the Catholic Community Forum website, "Be of good heart, my child, act with earnestness, and struggle to prove by thy works that which thou believest in thy heart, and professest with thy lips; the Lord will sustain thee, and will give thee the strength that is required to carry out thy holy resolution."
Genèvieve then expressed her wish that Saint Germain would bless her. Granting the child's wish, Saint Germain took her to a local church where he performed the consecration. The next day, before he continued on his journey, Saint Germain gave Genèvieve a brass medal engraved with a cross. He instructed her to always wear it around her neck, in remembrance of her consecration to God and devotion to Christ. Further, he told her to be content with only the medal, and to wear it instead of more showy ornaments such as gold and silver bracelets, and necklaces. She kept the medal all her life, never giving it up even when she badly needed money. She lived a life of fervent devotion and penance. As there were no convents near her village, Genèvieve practiced her religious virtue and prayer at home.
Moved to Paris
Eventually, she formally received the religious veil (or the habit of the nun), when she was either 15 or 16 years old; the exact date is not certain. This popular account holds that she and two other young girls received their veils during a ceremony the bishop of Paris conducted. Though Genèvieve was the youngest of the three, the bishop attended to her first, as she had already been sanctified by heaven, due to her consecration from Saint Germain.
The veiling followed the death of Genèvieve's parents and occurred after she had moved to Paris to live with her godmother, Lutetia. During this period, Genèvieve was admired for her piety, devotion, and charitable works. She liked to go to church alone at night, praying by candlelight. One night, a gust of wind blew out her candle, and she attributed this to the devil trying to frighten her. The story took on a life of its own and, later, in paintings, Genèvieve would often be depicted as holding a candle while an irritated devil lurked in the background.
Her spiritual regimen included severe penances and austerities. She followed a vegetarian diet and would eat merely twice a week (on Sunday and Thursday), and she drank only water. According to accounts, her meals included only a small portion of barley bread and beans. She adhered to this diet until she was 50 years old, when a counsel of bishop finally advised her that it would be best for her to eat more frequently. She obeyed, but only by adding a little milk and some fish to her diet.
Endured Jealousies and Hostility
While living with her godmother, Genèvieve sometimes made trips of charity to French cities including Meaux, Laon, Tours, and Orleans. Legend says she performed miracles, experienced visions and made prophecies that proved accurate. Genèvieve, however, experienced the jealously and even hatred of some neighbors, who accused her of being a hypocrite and a fraud.
At one point, Genèvieve's enemies even plotted to drown her. Saint Germain, however, heard of the conspiracy and intervened. He helped change the hostile attitudes of those around her. During this visit, he also encouraged Genèvieve to lessen the harshness of some of her own penances. Afterward, the bishop of Paris appointed Genè vieve to protect the welfare of the city's virgins who had dedicated their lives to God. She inspired the young women, which seemed to fulfill the forecast Saint Germain made when he met the seven-year-old Genèvieve in Nanterre.
Protected Paris from Attila the Hun
Another significant and often-reported event in Genèvieve's life occurred around 451, when the barbarian Attila and his army of Huns marched across the continent, intending to take control of Gaul away from the ruling Visigoths. After Attila crossed the Rhine and neared Paris, the Parisian citizens were ready to flee the city in terror. Genèvieve, however, advised them against evacuation. She told them that if they kept their faith in God, fasted, prayed and performed penance, the city would be protected by heaven and their lives would be spared.
The citizens were doubtful, however, as they all knew that Attila was a vicious and merciless warlord who left devastation in his wake. His soldiers were an equally cruel band of marauders who raped, looted, killed and destroyed. Still, many of the citizens passed days and nights in prayer with Genèvieve in the baptistery. But when the crisis neared its peak, and Attila seemed to be right outside the city walls, the people became panic-stricken, and they turned against Genèvieve. They accused her of being a false prophet who would bring about their deaths as well as the destruction of their beloved city, and they threatened to stone her.
Again, Saint Germain's intervention helped her. News of the situation reached him as he lay near death in Ravenna, Italy. In response, he sent his archdeacon, Sedulius, to help calm the citizens. Sedulius counseled them to listen to Genèvieve, saying she was not a prophetess of doom but the means of their salvation.
Still, some inhabitants abandoned Paris. Genèvieve then supposedly gathered the women who had remained behind and led them outside the walls of the city. As the sun rose, and with enemy weapons before them, Genèvieve and the women prayed for deliverance. Later that night, Attila turned away from Paris, leaving the city unharmed, and headed south, to Orleans. Genèvieve was proclaimed a savior and heroine.
Childeric and the Siege of Paris
Genèvieve demonstrated her bravery and helped the people of Paris a second time, almost similarly, more than 30 years later. In 486, Childeric, the king of the Salian Franks, a Germanic tribe, blockaded the city. The prolonged siege created a serious food shortage that brought the citizens to the starvation point.
One night, Genèvieve led 11 boats out onto the river, rowing past the enemy's siege lines. Once safely across, she went from village to village, begging for food. Later that night, she returned to Paris, again slipping safely past the blockade, with boatfuls of precious grain.
When he heard about her deed, Childeric was impressed with Genèvieve, even though he was a pagan and she was a Christian. After the siege had ended, he sent for her and, out of admiration, he asked what he could do for her. She said to him, "Release your prisoners. Their only fault was that they so dearly loved their city." He granted her wish, and later performed other merciful acts at her request.
Helped Build a Cathedral
When Childeric died, King Clovis succeeded him and consolidated control of the land from the Rhine to the Loire. He married Childeric's elder daughter, Clothilde, who was a Christian. Clovis, like Childeric, was a pagan, and his wife often tried to convert him, but without success. Still, Clovis chose Genèvieve to be one of his counselors, and she earned his trust. As Childeric once did, Clovis freed many prisoners at Genèvieve's request.
Once, as Clovis prepared to enter what he knew would be fierce battle, he promised his wife that he would be baptized in the Christian rite if he came back alive. True to his word, when his army won, he became a Christian in 496, guided in his conversion by Genèvieve. His people and servants soon became Christians as well.
Genèvieve is credited with developing the plans for a church to honor Saints Peter and Paul, to be built in the middle of Paris. King Clovis started the church, managing only to lay the foundation before he died in 511. The church was completed by Queen Clothilde. After Genèvieve died, her body was interred in the church. The church was later renamed Sainte Genèvieve and it was rebuilt in 1746.
Named the "Patron Saint of Paris"
Genèvieve died January 3, 512, only five weeks after King Clovis's death. She was in her eighth decade of life; at least one account said she was 89 years old. She was buried in a long, flowing gown with a mantle covering her shoulders, similar to the type of garments worn by the Virgin Mary. Genèvieve's burial site within the church would become a place of pilgrimage, as people had heard many stories of miracles and cures attributed to Genèvieve.
Even after her death, miracles were credited to Genèvieve. Perhaps the most famous account involved the great epidemic of ergot poisoning that afflicted France in the twelfth century. After all efforts to find a cure were unsuccessful, in 1129, Bishop Stephen of Paris instructed that Genèvieve's casket be carried through the city streets in procession to the cathedral. According to reports from the time, thousands of sick people were cured when they saw or touched the casket. The following year, Pope Innocent II visited Paris and ordered an annual feast to commemorate the miracle. Parisian churches still celebrate the feast.
In the late eighteenth century, Genèvieve's shrine and most of her relics were destroyed during the tumult of the French Revolution, but her cult carried on. Later, many churches in France were named after her. Genèvieve came to be known as the Patron Saint of Paris and, throughout the years, many miracles that favored Paris were attributed to her intercession. Her name is invoked during natural disasters such as drought, flooding, and widespread fever.
St. Genèvieve also became known as the Patron Saint of Young Girls. Also, in 1962, Pope John XXIII named her the patron saint of French security forces, a gesture that honored her many efforts to secure Paris. Her feast day is January 3, but it is not part of the general Roman Catholic calendar.
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