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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume XI: November. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

November 17

St. Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, Confessor

ST. BASIL and other Greeks usually honour this holy prelate with the epithet of The Great: and he is called by St. Athanasius, the Doctor of the Catholic Church. His parents were rich and of high rank in the world: according to the patriarchal chronicle of Alexandria, published by Abraham Echellensis, he was by birth a Sabaite, of one of the principal families of that country in Arabia Felix. Alexandria, which seems to have been the place of his education, was then the centre of the sciences, and Dionysius, whilst yet a heathen, ran through the whole circle of profane learning, and professed oratory. 1 Falling, at length, upon the epistles of St. Paul, he found in them charms which he had not met with in the writings of the philosophers, and opening his heart to the truth, he renounced the errors of idolatry. He assures us, that he was converted to the faith by a vision and a voice which spoke to him, and by diligent reading, and an impartial examination. At the same time that his understanding was opened to the heavenly light, he turned his heart so perfectly to God, that he trampled under his feet all the glory of the world, and the applause which his merit, quality, senatorial dignity, and prefectures, drew upon him from the most honourable persons. He became an humble scholar in the catechetical school of Origen, and made such progress that he was ordained priest; and when Heraclas was made bishop, the care of that school was commited by him to our saint, in 221, who, upon his death, in the beginning of the year 247, the fourth of the Emperor Philip, was chosen archbishop. Though the reign of this prince was favourable to the Christians, soon after the exaltation of St. Dionysius, the populace, stirred up by a certain heathen false prophet, at Alexandria, raised a tumultuary persecution: on which, see the life of St. Appollonia, February the 9th. When Decius had murdered his master, Philip, and usurped the empire, in 249, his violent persecution put arms into the hands of the enraged enemies of the Christian name. Many of all ages, ranks, and professions, were put to the most exquisite tortures: multitudes fled into the mountains and woods, where many perished by hunger, cold, wild beasts, or thieves, and several falling into the hands of the Saracens, were reduced to a state of slavery worse than death itself; but the most dreadful affliction to the holy bishop was the apostacy of several, who, in this terrible time of trial, denied their faith. The scandal, indeed, which these gave, was, in some measure, repaired by the invincible constancy wherewith others of both sexes, and of every age and condition, maintained their faith under the sharpest torments, and most cruel deaths, and by the wonderful conversion of several enemies; for, some who scoffed and insulted the martyrs, were so powerfully overcome by the example of their meekness, and courage in their sufferings, that they suddenly declared themselves Christians, and ready to undergo all torments for that profession. Two did this under the judge’s eyes, with such undaunted resolution that he was strangely surprised, and seized with trembling; and sentence being passed upon them, they went out of the court rejoicing to give so glorious a testimony to Christ. 2  1
  Decius’s sanguinary edict reached Alexandria in the beginning of 250. Dionysius was particularly active in arming and preparing the soldiers of Christ for the combat, and though Sabinus, the prefect of Egypt, despatched a guard in quest of him, he escaped by lying four days concealed in his house; then left it by divine direction, as he assures us, with a view of seeking a safe retreat; but, with several persons who accompanied him, fell into the hands of the persecutors, who, by the prefect’s orders, conducted them to a small town called Taposiris, in the province of Mareotis, about three leagues from Alexandria. A considerable body of peasants taking arms and making their appearance there in defence of the bishop, the guards were alarmed and fled, leaving the prisoners behind them. The bishop, who was every moment waiting for death, was carried off by them by main force, and set at liberty to choose a safe retreat. St. Dionysius, attended by Peter, Caius, Paul, and Faustus, made his way to a desert in the province of Marmarica, in Lybia, where he lay concealed with Peter and Caius, two priests, till the end of the persecution in the middle of the year 251; but, during that interval, often sent priests with directions and letters for the comfort of his flock, especially of those who suffered for the faith. Our saint was returned to Alexandria when he was informed of the schism formed by Novatian against Pope Cornelius. The antipope sent him notice of his election in form. St. Dionysius, in his answer, said to him: “You ought rather to have suffered all things, than have raised a schism in the church. To die in defence of its unity would be as glorious as laying down one’s life rather than to sacrifice to idols; and, in my opinion, more glorious; because, here the safety of the whole church is consulted. If you bring your brethren to union, this will overbalance your fault, which will be forgot, and you will receive commendation. If you cannot gain others, at least save your own soul.” Our saint wrote thrice to the clergy and to those confessors who supported the schism at Rome, and had the satisfaction of seeing the confessors abandon it before the end of the year. To oppose the heresy of Novatian, who denied in the church the power of remitting certain sins, he ordered that the communion should be refused to no one who asked it at the hour of death. Fabian, bishop of Antioch, seemed inclined to favour the rigorism of Novatian towards the lapsed. The great Dionysius wrote to him several letters against that principle; in one of which, he relates that an old man called Serapion, who had offered sacrifice, and had therefore been refused the communion, and detained among the penitents, in his last sickness lay senseless and speechless three days: then, coming to himself, cried out: “Why am I detained here? I beg to be delivered.” And he sent his little grandson to the priest, who, being sick, and not able to come, sent the holy eucharist by the child, directing him to moisten it, and give it to his grandfather: for, during the primitive persecutions, the blessed sacrament was allowed to be so carried and received in domestic communion. When the child entered the room, Serapion cried out: “The priest cannot come: do as he ordered you, and dismiss me immediately.” The old man, expires with a gentle sigh, as soon as he had swallowed it. St. Dionysius observes that his life was miraculously preserved that he might receive the holy communion. In 250, a pestilence began to rage, and made great havoc for several years. By St. Dionysius’s direction, many, in Egypt, died martyrs of charity on that occasion. 3  2
  The opinion that Christ will reign on earth with his elect a thousand years before the day of judgment, was an error founded chiefly on certain mistaken passages of the Apocalypse or Revelations of St. John. Those who, with Cerinthus, understood this of a reign in sensual pleasures, were always deemed abominable heretics. But some Catholics admitted it in spiritual delights; which opinion was for some time tolerated in the church. Nepos, a zealous and learned bishop of Arsinoe, who died in the communion of the church, propagated this mistaken notion in all that part of Egypt, and wrote in defence of it two books entitled, On the Promises. This work St. Dionysius confuted by two books against the Millenarian heresy. He also took a journey to Arsinoe, and held a public conference with Coracion, the chief of the Millenarians, in which he confuted them with no less mildness and charity, than strength of reasoning, and with such advantage, that Coracion publicly revoked that mistaken interpretation, which was exploded out of the whole country, and was unanimously condemned upon examination into the sound constant tradition, which could not be obscured by the disagreement of some few persons or particular churches. When Pope Stephen threatened to excommunicate the Africans for rebaptizing all heretics, St. Dionysius prevailed with him by letters to suspend the execution. St. Jerom was misinformed when he attributed, the opinion of the Africans to St. Dionysius, who, as St. Basil testifies, 4 admitted even the baptism of the Pepuzeni, which was rejected in Asia, because the heretics (who, as it were, by a constant rule, differ from themselves in different ages and countries) in certain places corrupted the essential form of baptism, which the same sect retained in others. 5 The persecution being renewed by Valerian, in 257, Emilian, prefect of Egypt, caused St. Dionysius, with Maximus a priest, Faustus, Eusebius, and Queremon, deacons, and one Marcellus, a Roman, to be apprehended and brought before him, and pressed them to sacrifice to the gods, the conservators of the empire. St. Dionysius replied: “All men adore not the same deities. We adore one only God, the Creator of all things, who hath bestowed the empire on Valerian and Gallien. We offer up prayers to him without ceasing for the peace and prosperity of their reign.” The prefect attempted in vain to persuade them to adore the Roman deities with their own God: and at length sent them into banishment to Kephro, in Lybia. And he forbade the Christians to hold assemblies, or go to the places called Cemeteries; that is, the tombs of martyrs. St. Dionysius converted the pagan savages of the country to which he was sent; but, by an order of the prefect, the saint and his companions were afterwards removed to Collouthion near Mareotis, now called the Lake of Alexandria. The neighbourhood of that city afforded him in this place an opportunity of receiving from and sending thither frequent messages and directions. His exile continued two years, and during it he wrote two paschal letters.  3
  The captivity of Valerian, who was taken prisoner by the Persians in 260, and the peace which Gallien granted to the church by public edicts, restored St. Dionysius to his flock. But the region of this lower world is stormy, and one wave perpetually presses upon the neck of another. The prefect, Emilian, seized upon the public store-houses of Alexandria, which were the granary of Rome, and assumed the imperial dignity. This revolt filled the city and country with the calamities which attend on civil wars, till Emilian was defeated by Theodotus, whom Gallien sent against him; and, being taken, he was sent to Rome, and strangled. A trifling incident gave occasion to another sedition in that populous city. A servant to one of the civil magistrates happening to tell a soldier that his shoes were finer than another man’s, he was taken up, and beaten for this affront. The whole town ran to arms to revenge this quarrel, the streets were filled with dead bodies, and the waters ran with blood. The peaceable demeanour of the Christians could not screen them from violences, as St. Dionysius complains; and, for a long time, a man could neither keep at home nor stir out of doors without danger. The pestilence still continued its havoc, and whilst the Christians attended the sick, with inexpressible pains and charity, the heathens threw the putrid carcasses into the highways, and often put their dying friends out of doors, and left them to perish in the streets, hoping, by their caution, to avoid the contagion, to which the apprehension which seized their imagination, exposed them the more. The heresies, which at that time disturbed the church, also exercised the zeal of our holy pastor. Sabellius of Ptolemais, in Lybia, a disciple of Noetus of Smyrna, renewed the heresy of Praxeas, denying the real distinction of the three Divine Persons. St. Dionysius, to whom belonged the care of the churches of Pentapolis, sent thither to admonish the authors of this error to forsake it; but they defended their impious doctrine with greater impudence. He therefore condemned them in a council at Alexandria, in 261. Before this, by a letter, of which Eusebius has preserved a fragment, he had given information of the blasphemies of Sabellius to St. Sixtus II., bishop of Rome, who sat from 257 to 259. 6 In his letter to Euphranor and Ammonius, against this heresy, he insists much on the proofs of Christ’s human nature, to show that the Father is not the Son. Some persons took offence at his doctrine, and their slanders were carried to St. Dionysius, bishop of Rome, who had succeeded St. Sixtus. That pope wrote to our saint upon the subject, who cleared himself by showing that when he called Christ a creature, and differing in substance from the Father, he spoke only of his human nature. This was the subject of his Apology to Dionysius, bishop of Rome, in which he demonstrated that the Son, as to his divine nature, is of the same substance with the Father, as is clearly shown by St. Athanasius, in his book On the Opinion of Dionysius. In the same work our saint established the divinity of the Holy Ghost, as St. Basil testifies by quotations extracted from it in his book on that subject.  4
  The loss of our saint’s works is extremely regretted; for of them nothing has reached us except some fragments quoted by others, and his canonical epistle to Basilides, which has a place among the canons of the church. In the first canon he mentions a difficulty then often propounded, at what hour on Easter morning the fast of Lent might be lawfully broken; and says, that though midnight was looked upon to close the fast (which is long since certain as to the church precept) yet this being not a natural or usual hour for eating, he thought it could not be excused from intemperance, to eat then, and advised the morning to be waited for, though all Christians spent that whole night in watching at their devotions. He speaks of the fasts of superposition observed in the last week of Lent, and says, that some fasted the whole six days before Easter, without taking any nourishment; others five, three, two, or one day, according to their strength and devotion, this not being a matter of precept as to the superposition of several days. He inculcates, that great purity, both of mind and body, is required in all who approached the holy table, and receive the body and blood of our Lord. 7 St. Dionysius of Alexandria, a little before his death, defended the divinity of Jesus Christ against Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, a man infamous both for his abominable heresies, and also for his intolerable haughtiness, vanity, avarice, extortions, and other crimes. St. Dionysius, being invited to the synod that was held at Antioch against this heretic in 264, and, not being able to go thither, by reason of his old age and infirmities, wrote several letters to the church of Antioch, wherein he refuted the heresiarch’s errors, but would not condescend to salute him. 8 Nevertheless, the crafty fox dissembled his sentiments, and palliated his disorders in this council, renouncing what he could not conceal, so that he continued some time longer in his station. 9 Towards the end of the year 265, soon after the Antiochian synod was over, St. Dionysius died at Alexandria, after he had governed that church with great wisdom and sanctity about seventeen years. 10 His memory, says St. Epiphanius, was preserved at Alexandria by a church dedicated in his honour, but much more by his incomparable virtues and excellent writings. See Eus. Hist. l. 6. and 7. St. Jerom, in Catal. &c. Also Tillemont, t. 4. Cave, Prim. Fathers, t. 2. Ceillier, t. 3. p. 241. Corn, Bie the Bollandist, ad 3 Oct. t. 2. p. 8.  5
Note 1. S. Maximus, M. in c. 5, l. de Hierarchia cœlesti. [back]
Note 2. See S. Dionysius, ep. ad Fabium Antioch. ap. Eus. l. 6, c. 41, 42. [back]
Note 3. See Feb. vol. 2, pp. 239, 240, and Eus. l. 7, c. 22. [back]
Note 4. S. Basil, ep. Can. 1. [back]
Note 5. S. Dionysius’s orthodox sentiments are also proved from the fragments of his letters in Eusebius, (l. 7, c. 9.) See Fleury, l. 7, c. 35, and Bie the Bollandist, § 9, p. 39, t. 18, Oct. 3, who clears him of all suspicion of Arianism. ib. § 17, 18, 19, 20. [back]
Note 6. Eus. l. 7, c. 9. [back]
Note 7. See Ep. Canon. S. Dion. Alex. inter Canones Eccl. Græc. per Beveregium. [back]
Note 8. Eus. l. 7, c. 27, 29. [back]
Note 9. St. Dionysius was certainly orthodox on the Trinity. See Bie, § 17, p. 56. Nor was he accused of any error by St. Basil. If he allows Christ not to be consubstantial to the Father, he speaks evidently of his human nature. See Bull, Witasse, Tournely, Maran, &c. [back]
Note 10. Bie shows that he never was married, and that boys [Greek], mean only young attendants, scholars or clergy. See Eus. Hist. l. 7, c. 26, Bie, § 3, p. 17. [back]