January 3 is the feast of Saint Genevieve, virgin (422-500). We will read a short biographical account of some episodes of her extraordinary life:
Genevieve was famous worldwide. While still living, her renown and virtues were already known even in the East. Atop his column, Saint Simeon Stylites had a vision of this spiritual sister and corresponded with her.
The capital of France was entrusted to her. She was a simple shepherdess protecting the destiny of Paris just as a poor farmer, Saint Isidore, watched over the Spanish capital.
In the fifth century, one of Gaul’s greatest bishops reported upon how this young woman from Nanterre became Christ’s spouse.
Around the year 430, Saint Germain of Auxerre was heading for Great Britain to fight the Pelagian heresy. Accompanied by Saint Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, whose mission he was to share, they stop at the village of Nanterre. The two prelates head for the church, where they want to pray for the success of their journey. The faithful people surround them with pious curiosity.
Illuminated by divine inspiration, Saint Germain perceives a seven-year-old girl in the crowd. He realizes that the Lord has chosen her in a singular way. He asks the child’s name and has her brought into his presence. She approaches with her parents:
“Is this your child?” Germain asks them.
“Yes, sir,” they answer.
“Happy parents of such a daughter!” replies the bishop. “When this child was born, know that the angels celebrated with great joy in Heaven. This young girl will be great before the Lord, and by the holiness of her life will free many souls from the yoke of sin.”
Then, turning to the child, he says,
“Genevieve, my daughter.”
“Holy Father,” she replies, “your servant listens.”
“Speak to me without fear. Would you consecrate yourself to Christ as His spouse in unblemished purity?”
She answers: “Blessed are you, my Father! What you ask of me is the dearest wish of my heart. It is all that I want. Please deign to ask the Lord to grant it to me.”
“Have confidence, my daughter,” answers Saint Germain, “be firm in your resolve, may your works be consistent with your faith, and the Lord will combine your strength with your beauty.”
After these prophecies, she became the great Saint Genevieve who saved Paris from an attack by the barbarians with the Blessed Sacrament.
Thus, she becomes one of the greatest figures in history at that time. I will now comment on this account.
The first thing that stands out is the admirable blossoming of holy souls in the Middle Ages. Look at the people in this story. First, there is Pope Saint Boniface. He sends Saint Germain of Auxerre to defend England against the Pelagian heretics. Saint Germain picks another saint, Saint Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, as his traveling companion. Thus, there are two saint bishops sent by a holy Pope to defend a country threatened by heresy.
By this scene, you can sense the warmth of holiness and the intensity of the spiritual life of those times. Indeed, the Middle Ages was gradually built upon an enormous collection of saints, the accounts of which fill volumes.
While traveling, they stop at a small town called Nanterre. They do not look for a hotel, hostel or place to entertain themselves. The first step at this stop on their stressful trip is to go to a church to pray. These saintly figures are so illustrious and celebrated that they attract the attention of the townspeople as they enter the church. The people surround them as they pray. Thus, the faithful peasants, not unlike those at the time of Saint Joan of Arc a few centuries later, surround the two bishops as they kneel very recollected before the Blessed Sacrament in a small chapel. The people look on and marvel at the bishops who are intensely absorbed in prayer.
How seldom do we see today two holy bishops praying in a chapel of the Blessed Sacrament with the people looking and marveling.
In that atmosphere of fervor, a visible grace from Heaven suddenly descends upon one of the bishops. It is not visible with the eyes but discerned by the souls. These two saints, sent by a third saint, perceive by grace the presence of yet another great saint, a seven-year-old girl. Before the amazed crowd, Saint Germain prophesies about the girl saying that “When this child was born, know that the angels celebrated with great joy in Heaven.”
Imagine the amazement of the whole village. The population is already excited by the sensational fact that the bishops arrive in their little village. Suddenly, the bishop speaks about the little girl they have always seen running barefoot up and down the street. They say there was great joy in Heaven when she was born! Yet no one doubts or asks for evidence from the bishop. Everyone believes him because, in those blessed times, people had faith.
Thus, everyone, including the girl and her parents believe. Indeed, it is so natural for there to be joy in Heaven when a holy girl is born! These were times when saints are frequent and numerous. The saints have such continuous contact with Heaven that they know what is happening there. With such regular communication between Heaven and Earth, it is only natural for them to know!
How different this is from our times! There is a huge distance that separates us from the supernatural and Heaven. Today, our contemporaries arm themselves to the teeth to keep from admitting that something comes from Heaven. Occasionally, they are reluctantly forced to acknowledge without much enthusiasm that some things come from Heaven.
We see the contrary in the case of our saint, who immediately perceives the girl’s vocation and helps her respond to this divine calling.
“Young girl, do you want to consecrate yourself to God?”
“My father, it is the dearest wish of my heart!” she replies.
The saint facilitates her later entry into a convent. Thus, a furrow of light opens up in that town. From that moment forward, the town is born into history because a great supernatural event happened there.
When she was later received into the religious life, we can imagine her arrival at a convent before a saintly abbess. Upon being told that she is there to be received as a nun, the abbess does not comment on how pretty she is or other triviality, but instead might have said: “This girl seems to have the spirit of God!”
Saint Genevieve might have said, “Yes, I do indeed” without the slightest note of pride. Yet the abbess might have asked her mother or another accompanying her: “Why are you bringing this girl?”
“Because Saint Germain of Auxerre and Saint Lupus of Troyes said that she has a vocation,” would be the reply. At this answer, the abbess needs nothing else—no certified letter or other requirements. She has faith in the saints and receives the girl in the convent, where she sanctifies herself.
The girl enters and grows like a cedar of Lebanon. She fills the landscape with her presence and ways. She blossoms like a flower in the center of the spiritual garden of the West. Oh, what happiness! Although there is no press, radio, or television, news of her fame spreads everywhere.
Indeed, in Asia Minor on the other end of the Christian world, Saint Simeon Stylites hears of her. He was the famous saint who lived atop a column for years and never descended from it. He prayed there all the time and was a true hermit. He has a vision of her. He hears about her virtues, and with those radars which the saints have to sense one another, he realized that she was his spiritual sister. From far away atop his column, he corresponds with this flower born in the sweet land of France.
Such contacts travel over oceans, islands, mountain ranges, deserts and populated expanses. In this way, these two saints formed a kind of voltaic arc of holiness at that time. This story teaches us the beauty of those times when saints walked the Earth.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on January 3, 1966. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.