Towards the decline of the fourth century, the Church was desolated by one of the most deadly heresies that it had ever experienced. Pelagius, the author and propagator of this heresy, denied original sin and the necessity of the grace of Jesus Christ. In a word, he strove to undermine the very foundations of our holy religion.
At first he did not dare to avow himself and his errors openly, for he dreaded that he might thus shock the feelings of all Christendom, by denying the ancient and universally received doctrine. In order, therefore, to pervert the souls of the faithful, he enveloped his perfidious teachings in equivocal language, hoping thus to succeed in his fatal project. Pelagius was aided by a disciple of his named Celestius, who contributed largely to the diffusion of the errors disseminated by this impious sect; one of them dogmatized the East, and the other made Africa and Italy the scenes of his unholy labors.
During that time, one of their disciples named Agricola, sowed the seeds of this new heresy in England, which was then known by the designation of Great Britain. The Catholics of that island, terrified by the spread and progress of the heresy, had recourse to the French bishops, whom they besought to send them orthodox priests to check the torrent of evil that swept over the whole country. The prelates whom they addressed, assembled in 429, to deliberate on the means by which they could succor and save the Britons. In that assembly, held, as it would appear, in the city of ArIes, Saint Germain of Auxerre, and Saint Lupus of Troyes, were chosen to proceed to Britain for the purpose of combating the heresy.
The two Saints having set out for England, passed through Nanterre, a village situated about two leagues from Paris. Scarcely had they arrived, when they were surrounded by a vast multitude, imploring their benediction. In that assemblage was a young girl, aged seven years. Her name was Genevieve, and she was born in that very village of Nanterre towards, the close of the year 422.
Her father was called Severus, and her mother Geronce. Although there was nothing extraordinary in the appearance of the child, Saint Germain, enlightened by the Holy Ghost, signalled her out of the crowd that pressed around him. He caused her and her parents to approach him, and to the latter he foretold the future sanctity of their child. He added that she would carry out the resolution she had formed of serving God, and that her example would promote the sanctification of others. On hearing this, Genevieve told him that she had long before made up her mind to live in perpetual virginity, and to have no other title than that of spouse of Jesus Christ. “Be of good heart, my child,” said the holy prelate; “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.” On the spot he blessed her, and consecrated her to God; he then conducted her to the Church of Nanterre, whither he was followed by a vast crowd of spectators.
During the chanting of the Psalms, that is to say, during the time they were reciting Nones and Vespers, Saint Germain kept his hands stretched out over Genevieve’s head. He detained her near his person during the repast, and did not dismiss her till her parents had promised to bring her back to him on the day before his departure from Nanterre. Severus and Geronce conducted their child to Saint Germain at the appointed hour. “Daughter,” said Saint Germain to her, “rememberest thou the promise thou didst make to God yesterday?”
“Yes,” replied the holy child, “I do remember, it, and I hope to be faithful to it through God’s good grace.”
The bishop, charmed by this beautiful answer, exhorted her to persevere in the same sentiments. He then gave her a copper medal, on which was engraved the figure of the cross, telling her to wear it always round her neck, that it might serve to remind her of the consecration she had made of her person to God. “Thou art now,” said he, “the spouse of Jesus Christ, and as such thou must put away from thee necklaces of pearl, bracelets, gold and silver trinkets, and all wordly adornments.”
This exhortation of the holy bishop would lead us to believe that Saint Genevieve was of a noble and opulent family; but the ancient breviary of Paris, and the immemorial tradition of the place of her birth, incline us to think that her father was a shepherd. It is probable that he belonged to a class of persons who were rich, and tended their flocks according to the venerable patriarchal custom.
Ever since the day of her interview with Saint Germain, Genevieve looked on herself as separated from the society of men, and notwithstanding her extreme youth she had no longer desire for anything except excercises of Christian piety.
Let us record a singular instance of this fact. Her father, going one day to the Church of Nanterre, refused to take his daughter along with him; all the importunities of the poor child were unavailing, and the mother, in a moment of thoughtlessness and passion, dealt her a blow. But God immediately punished this hasty act, by depriving Geronce of sight. She remained blind for twenty months. God, at last, was pleased to restore her vision after she had washed her eyes twice or thrice in water which her daughter had brought from a well, and over which she had made the sign of the cross. Herein originated the devotion to the well of Nanterre, the water of which, according to the tradition of the country, was blessed by Saint Genevieve.
As soon as the Saint had attained her fifteenth year, she was presented, along with two other maidens, to receive the sacred veil of religion from the hands of her bishop. Although Genevieve was the youngest of the three, the bishop gave her the first place, observing at the same time that the Lord had already sanctified her. These words evidently alluded to what had occurred in the presence of Saint Germain and Saint Lupus.
Genevieve, having lost her father and mother, took up her abode at Paris, in the house of a woman who was her godmother. Thither she brought along with her that spirit of mortification which ever since the moment of her consecration to God, enabled her to embrace the greatest penitential austerities. She seldom ate more than twice a week – Sunday and Thursday; although her food consisted only of a little barley and beans. She denied herself the use of wine, and never drank anything but water. She continued to live thus till she was fifty years of age. Then, in obedience to the counsels of some bishops, she consented to use a little milk and some fish.
To the exercises of mortification, she joined an inviolable purity of body and soul, profound humility, vivid faith, ardent charity, uninterrupted prayer and a spirit of compunction, which during her hours of prayer, gave to her eyes an abundant source of tears. The fervor with which she accomplished the precepts and counsels of the gospel, was amply recompensed by the interior consolations that are never found in the vain and fleeting joys of this world.
Nevertheless, her virtue was to be tested by tribulations, and God permitted her enemies to form a league against her. They ridiculed her mode of life, and hoping to succeed in ruining her, they flattered themselves that they had discovered the opportunity in the candid style, with which she spoke of the extraordinary favors communicated to her by the Holy Ghost. They treated her as a visionary and a hypocrite, and by means of odious and base insinuations, (means always resorted to by envious and little minded), they succeeded in exciting the indignation of the people against her. This storm continued to rage till the arrival of Saint Germain of Auxerre, who passed through Paris on his second visit to Great Britain. The holy prelate, who was intimately conversant with the knowledge of God’s mysterious ways, and who knew that even the purest souls cannot escape calumny, refused to believe the public tale. In order to confound them, he made a diligent investigation of Genevieve’s conduct, and after establishing her innocence on the most unerring information, he took up her defence, and overwhelmed the whisperers and calumniators with shame.
But this calm was not destined to last long, and the torch of persecution was soon relit. Let us hear how this came to pass. In the year 451, Attila, king of the Huns, crossed the Rhine and entered France. This ferocious conqueror who styled himself the Scourge of God, placed all his glory in destruction and desolation. He was wont to say that no harvest should ever grow where his horse’s hoofs had trampled. The news of this barbarian’s approach filled the people with terror and consternation; his fierce soldiers spread death and desolation along their line of march, which was marked by rapine, murder. and fire. The inhabitants of Paris being seized with terror, and no longer confiding in the strength of their city’s walls, resolved to abandon it, and secure themselves in some place more strongly fortified. Genevieve, inspired by that confidence in God which has rendered the names of Judith and Esther so celebrated, far from losing courage, exhorted the Parisians to works of repentance, assuring them that they should experience the effects of the Divine protection, if they would only merit it by fastings, and supplications for mercy. Some women, moved by her discourses, shut themselves up with her in the public baptistery, and there passed many days in the exercises of prayer and penance. As for the others, they treated the Saint as a false prophetess, and they carried their folly so far as to threaten her life. She was saved, however, from their fury by the intervention of the archdeacon of Auxerre, who was sent by Saint Germain to give her presents of things that he had blessed, as a sign of union and Christian love.
This marked attention on the part of Saint Germain, clearly showed how much he esteemed Genevieve; and seeing it, her persecutors began to reflect and grow ashamed of their impiety. They were brought back speedily to a sense of their duty, and they soon began to entertain sentiments more conformable to humanity and religion. They now fasted rigidly, and besought the God of hosts to avert the calamities that were lowering over them; and as soonn as they learned that Attila had altered his projected march on Paris, they found that the prediction of Saint Genevieve were realized to the very letter.
Thenceforth, their veneration for her increased daily, for, along with the gift of prophecy, she possessed the power of performing miracles, many of which God was pleased to operate through her agency in Paris, Troyes, Meaux, Orleans, and Tours. The fame of her sanctity was now wafted to distant countries, and Saint Simon Stylites sent a messenger from the East to supplicate the aid of her prayers.
The sainted creature who had so much influence with her God, most certainly deserved the confidence and veneration of the people. They fully proved that they placed great confidence in her at the time when Childeric, king of the Franks, was besieging Paris; and indeed they were not deceived. The besieged were threatened with a famine, and Genevieve placed herself at the head of those who were sent to collect food, accompanying them to Arcis-sur-Aube and as far as Troyes. They succeeded beyond their most sanguine hopes, and they returned to Paris in safety, despite the many dangers which they had to encounter. After the fall of Paris, Childeric, notwithstanding that he was a pagan, did homage to her virtue, and at her instances performed many acts of clemency. In this respect he was imitated by his son Clovis, who invariably released his prisoners when our Saint besought their liberation.
Genevieve cherished a profound devotion for Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Denis of Paris. She went frequently to venerate the relics of the former, and built in honor of Saint Denis and his companions in martyrdom, a church on the spot where they had shed their blood for Jesus Christ.
She also projected the Basilica sacred to Saints Peter and Paul, commenced by King Clovis and completed by Queen Clotilda, whose holy life has been described in this series. At length after having spend eighty-nine years in the practice of every good work, she died on the third of January, A.D. 512, five weeks after Clovis the first of the French Christian kings.
- from , by Erwin Steinback, 1905