Monday, January 2, 2012

Saint Genevieve of Paris

Saint Genevieve by Hugo van der Goes, 1479

Women saints are exemplars of faith whose charitable work often resulted in the creation of new institutions and new precedents that changed the course of history. Saint Genevieve (420-502), the Patron Saint of Paris, was one of these saints, and January 3 is her feast day.

This faith-fueled woman is a saint for our time, especially because she appears to have been mentored by Saint Germanus (378-448), Bishop of Auxerre, who led the Church's fight against the Pelagian heresy in Britain at the behest of Pope Saint Celestine I. Pelagius (354-420) believed that man can be sinless and good all on his own and has no need of God's grace. The story goes that on his way to Britain in 429, Germanus stopped in Nanterre, France, where Genevieve, a young girl born of well-to-do parents, confided to him that she wanted to live only for God. Germanus encouraged her and sent her the veil of a dedicated virgin. When Genevieve's parents died when she was 15, she went to live with her godmother in Paris, where she devoted her days to prayer and charity and was reportedly visited again by Germanus.

Her life of devout piety though is not why Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. In a foreshadowing of the peasant military heroine, Saint Joan, Saint Genevieve is credited with averting the destruction of Paris--twice. The first time was in 451, when the ferocious Attila the Hun was on a course straight for Paris. Genevieve told the terrified Parisians not to flee the city but to remain in their homes, fast, and pray, and she organized a prayer marathon. Abruptly Attila changed course, leaving Paris intact. The second time was when invading Franks had blockaded the city in 464. Genevieve ran the blockade to bring food to the starving Parisians. Later she pleaded successfully for Parisian prisoners of war to the Frankish King Childeric, and King Clovis liberated captives at her urging.

Hugo van der Goes painted Saint Genevieve on the outer panel for a diptych that depicted the Fall of Man on one side and the Redemption (the Lamentation of Christ) on the other, indicating the high esteem either he or his patrons (or both) had for Saint Genevieve 1,000 years later. She is also considered a patron saint of young girls.

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