October 4, 2023

SAINT DIONYSIOS THE AREOPAGITE: The all-wise hierarch and patron saint of Athens who died in Athens by fire

By Aristeides G. Theodoropoulos

Among the first Athenians who embraced our Lord Jesus Christ after the fiery sermon on the crucifixion and resurrection by the Apostle to the Nations Paul in 51 AD on the Areopagus of pagan Athens, with its magnificent marble temples and elaborate statues, was Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, this leading judge and president of the Supreme Court, who after his conversion to Christianity became a "fit vessel of the All-Holy Spirit," was granted to behold the immaculate and life-begetting body of the Most Holy Theotokos, and with his martyrdom by fire he became the heir of the Heavenly Kingdom in order to intercede to God for the salvation of all Christians.

Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, honored on October 3rd, the glorious hieromartyr of Christ, was born in the eponymous city of Athens around the end of the first decade of the 1st century. His parents were pagans of aristocratic origin and financial prosperity, which contributed to his obtaining an excellent education. His rich education, famous eloquence and virtuous state made him a wise Athenian aristocrat and one of the nine wise and impartial Areopagites of great fame and prominence in Athenian society. That's why he was characterized as having "managed justice in a balanced manner, and ruled over Athens most uprightly" (Michael Synkellos, Oration on Dionysios the Areopagite). In fact, according to ancient tradition, he emerged as a leading judge and president of the Supreme Court.

However, during the time that Dionysios held the highest position as a judge, correctly administering justice, the Apostle to the Nations Paul arrived in Athens to preach the gospel of Christ to the Athenians. After ascending the Areopagus, he referred to an altar, on which the Athenians had written the phrase "Ἄγνωστος Θεός" (Unknown God) and worshiped Him before they knew Him. Then the Apostle Paul took the opportunity to speak about the one and true God as the Creator of the visible and invisible world, while he invited the Athenian philosophers to understand Him and meet Him by touching Him, since as he said, according to the philosopher "in Him we live." In his fiery sermon the Apostle Paul spoke about our Lord Jesus Christ and his earthly course, but when the Athenians heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them began to mock him as a babbler and that he was talking nonsense, while others left saying "we will hear from you about this again." But the words of the Apostle Paul about Christ and His Resurrection seduced Dionysios the Areopagite with his enviable good morals and excellent education and touched his mind and heart. Dionysios was moved by Paul's crucifixion/resurrection sermon, because listening to his exciting speech, he found the longed-for answer to the supernatural and inscrutable phenomenon that he had experienced while visiting Heliopolis in Egypt at a young age with other wise compatriots. At that time, the Jews had crucified Jesus Christ and the paradoxical event occurred that darkness spread over the whole earth and the sun's rays were hidden: "And darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining" (Luke 23:44). The supernatural phenomenon of the eclipse of the sun was noticed in Egypt as well and Dionysios, observing this paradoxical event with admiration, exclaimed: "Either God is suffering or the whole world is perishing." In fact, he even noted the day and time when the supernatural phenomenon of the eclipse of the sun occurred. But as soon as Dionysios heard the exquisite sermon of the Apostle Paul on Areopagus, he discovered the greatness of the true God and finally found the cause of the supernatural eclipse of the sun, which covered the whole earth. Thus he fully understood the omnipotence of the one and true God and embraced the crucified and resurrected Lord. That is why the following is mentioned in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (17:32-34): "So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysios the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them."

After Dionysios believed in Jesus Christ, he was baptized a Christian by the Apostle Paul. This fact also motivated others to embrace the Christian faith, seeing the leading judge and president of the Supreme Court with unsurpassed morals, insurmountable wisdom and a prominent position in Athenian society to abhor false idols and be clothed in the Lord Jesus Christ. The convert to Christianity Dionysios was more deeply indoctrinated in the greatness of the doctrines of the Christian faith by Saint Hierotheos, the wise and blessed hierarch of the 1st century, who had been ordained by the Apostle Paul as the first bishop in the renowned "glorious city" of Athens. After the death of the first hierarch of the Apostolic Church of Athens, Saint Hierotheos, his disciple, Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, was elected bishop of the city of Athens, who was ordained by the Apostle Paul. Thus, the previously secular and national ruler of Athenian society became a shepherd of rational sheep with enviable humility and special devotion to the arduous task of spreading the message of Christian truth, and in fact to such an extent that he emerged as a "co-laborer and co-sharer" in the preaching and pastoral work of the Holy Apostles.

It is also noteworthy the fact that during his divine and fruitful priesthood, the all-wise and God-bearing hierarch of Athens, Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, went to Jerusalem to get to know the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus Christ, who was still alive. Thus he had the special blessing of seeing and admiring the beauty and holiness of the immaculate and life-begetting body of the Immortal Theotokos. In fact, seeing and hearing the supernatural events that he saw, he was ecstatic and fully understood Her presence as the Mother of the God-man Jesus Christ. But also during the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, the paradoxical event took place that she was caught up in the clouds together with the holy Apostles, Saint Hierotheos and Saint Timothy and went to Gethsemane to bury Her most holy body.

Saint Dionysios the Areopagite exhorted the people of Athens with great devotion, and his high priestly ministry was pleasant and fruitful, that is why many pagans, listening to his fiery teaching about the crucified and risen Lord, embraced the Christian faith and abandoned worship of false idols. Praised as an "excellent steward of Christ, established as an appointed and genuine healer of souls," the all-wise hierarch of Athens, Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, who became "a worthy vessel of the Holy Spirit" and proved to be "a brilliant embodiment of High Priests and a modest adornment of martyrs" was martyred with death by fire in Athens in the year 95 AD during the days of the persecution of Dometian (81-96 AD). In fact, according to the Synaxarion of the Church of Constantinople, the following is mentioned: "Having been captured by the Greeks, he was made a holocaust in the fire."

At this point it should be pointed out the incorrect identification of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite with the Saint Denis (Dionysios) of the 3rd century, who was the founder of the Church of Paris. This erroneous identification and arbitrary belief was created in the 9th century by Abbot Hilduin (+ 855) of the Holy Monastery of Saint Denis of Paris, who in the life of the Saint written by him expressed the erroneous opinion that the founder of the Church of Paris is Saint Dionysios the Areopagite. In fact, in the biography of the Saint, he presents the famous Saint of Athens moving from Athens, from where according to his opinion he was expelled by the pagans, to France, Spain and Britain to continue his missionary activity there. It is noteworthy that, in order to lend glamor and prestige to the Church of Paris, Abbot Hilduin asserted that Saint Dionysios the Areopagite arrived in France, after first visiting Rome and attending the beheading of the Apostle Paul. There he also met Bishop Clement, who motivated him to go to France with his two disciples, Rusticus and Eleutherios. The incorrect identification of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite with Saint Denis of Paris was also based on the incorrect description of his martyrdom. So according to Abbot Hilduin, Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, who was identified with Saint Denis of Paris, was martyred in Paris by beheading, then he walked with the severed head in his hands for a distance of about two miles until he handed it over to the reverend hands of a pious Christian named Catulla. This incorrect identification, as well as the fiction of the Saint's passage through Rome to France, is due to the ambition of Abbot Hilduin and the monks of the Monastery of Saint Denis to have as patron and founder of the Monastery and the Church of Paris, not the martyr Denis of the 3rd century, but Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, the eponymous disciple of the Apostle Paul with his great wisdom and his wonderful episcopal presence and activity in the "glorious city" of Athens. Unfortunately, this confusion was unfoundedly adopted by the Menaia and Synaxaria of both the Eastern and Western Churches, and in fact to such an extent that even Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite was an advocate of the view of the Saint's transition through Rome to France and the beheading martyrdom in Paris, as well as the miracles performed, that is, Saint Dionysios walking with his severed head in his hands. This is how the ahistorical identification of the two Dionysioses was created, even though the old Martyrology of Rome (Vetus Romanum Martyrologium) distinguishes the Bishop of Athens, Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, with a date of commemoration on October 3, from the Bishop of Paris, Saint Denis, whose memory is celebrated on October 9 and the transfer of his relics on April 22.

At this point it should be emphasized that Saint Denis of Paris, honored on October 9, who is the apostle to the French and the first bishop of Paris, was sent to France by the bishop of Rome Fabian to preach Christianity together with two of his disciples, Eleutherios and Rusticus. In 250 he became the first bishop of the city of Paris and was martyred there by beheading together with his two disciples in 272 or 280 during the persecution of Valerian or Decius. His remains were buried on the hill of Montmartre or, according to another tradition, in the village of Catolacus, which is near Paris and today bears the name Saint-Denis. There in 626 the famous Abbey of Saint Denis was built, where his relics were deposited.

Great confusion was also caused with the so-called "Areopagite writings", which became known around the end of the 5th century in Syria and which are pseudonymously attributed to Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, as scientific research has documented. These are four great works, among the most popular of Christian literature, which profoundly influenced mystical thought and theology both in the East and in the West. These works bear the following titles: "On Divine Names" (13 chapters), "On Secret Theology" (5 chapters), "On the Heavenly Hierarchy" (15 chapters) and "On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" (7 chapters). These popular works were written in the 5th century by an eminent Neoplatonist philosopher and ecclesiastical writer, whose name is still unknown. Already from their first circulation, the questioning of the name of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite as their author was strongly expressed, since they are ignored out of sympathy with the ancient Christian tradition, and the author of these texts knows the works of the Neoplatonist Proclus (411-485) and speaks about the "Henotikon" of the emperor Zeno (482), even knowing the term "theandric energy". It is also indicative that in the Synod of 531-532 in Constantinople the president of the Synod, Hypatius of Ephesus, characterized the so-called "Areopagite writings" as forgeries and pseudepigrapha.

Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, celebrated on October 3, is honored today as the patron saint of judges, but also as the patron saint, the protector and the supervisor of the city of Athens with a relevant decree from 1936, since in the renowned "glorious city" with its glorious ecclesiastical history and long-standing hagiological tradition this illustrious Saint of the 1st century was born and martyred, but he also pastored the people of Athens with great humility and devotion. That is why he emerged as a pious and philanthropic pastor of the Apostolic Church of Athens with a rich pastoral and missionary activity ("Through you Dionysios, the most-glorious metropolis of Athens became even more renowned, for it approached Christ the King of All, in the most-sacred beginning."). Today, a well-known pedestrian street in the center of Athens, located around the Acropolis and under the Areopagus rock, bears the name of the Saint. Near this there was a church named after the Saint, which was completely destroyed by the terrible earthquake of July 1, 1651. A small church named after the Saint also existed in Kolonaki in Athens, which was built between the years 1880-1886. In 1900 it was demolished and a new larger and more beautiful church was founded in its place. Its construction was delayed for many years and the construction work started in 1925 according to neo-baroque plans by Anastasios Orlandos and D. Filippakis. The church was completed in 1931 and on May 24, 1931 it was solemnly consecrated by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Chrysostomos Papadopoulos (+ October 22, 1938). Today, the majestic church of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, located on Skoufa Street 34 in the historical Athenian district of Kolonaki, which was painted by the eminent painter Spyros Vassiliou in the years 1935-1939, is a reverential point of reference and pilgrimage for the residents of Athens, but also the focus of religious events in honor of the city's protector and patron saint. A magnificent sacred church of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, consecrated by Bishop Seraphim on June 18, 2006, adorns the central port of Piraeus, while a newly built parish church named after him has also been erected in the Zarouchleika district of Patras. Saint Dionysios the Areopagite is also honored as a protector and patron saint in the town of Gargalianoi in Messenia, where October 3rd is a local holiday. A church named after the Saint also exists in the village of Dionysi, in the district of Monofatsi, in the prefecture of Heraklion in Crete, which took its name from the church of the same name, where a great celebration is held on October 3, while the parish churches dedicated to him are in the villages of Chrysovergi of Aitoloakarnania and Keramos of Evros. Chapels in honor of the Athenian Saint have been erected in Skiathos, Tinos, Paros and Arcadia, specifically in the "Grove of Themidos" located a short distance from Tripoli, but also in Zakynthos, in the Valtos area of the village of Hartata, where the chapel of the Saint was built by the miraculous protector and patron saint of the island of Zakynthos, Saint Dionysios (1547-1622), who during his ordination as Bishop of Aegina received the name Dionysios in honor of the patron saint of Athens. The Catholic Cathedral of Athens, erected in 1853 and consecrated in 1865, is also dedicated to the name of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, which is located at the junction of Panepistimo and Homer streets and is the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Athens. Sacred relics of the Saint are kept in the monasteries of Mount Athos, such as in the Sacred Monasteries of Dochiariou and Gregoriou, where there are treasured parts of the sacred skull of the Saint, while two pieces of his sacred relic are kept in the Monastery of Dionysiou.

Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, the one who "embraced Paul's teaching", the one "zealously devoted to the desecration of idols", the one "given to the fire and counted among the Martyrs" enters in today's age to teach us and awaken us with his love for our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we may keep the flame of the Christian faith unaltered in our difficult and troubled times, in order to pass it on to the younger generations as a valuable spiritual legacy.


· Vallindras, Apostolos, Service of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, Apostolic Ministry of the Church of Greece, Second Edition, Athens 1996.

· Nikolakis, Philotheou M., Archimandritou, The Saints of Athens, Saitis Publications, Athens 2006.

· Paschou, P. V., "Saint Dionysios the Areopagite - Hymnological Approaches", Theology Magazine, Issue 3, Athens July-September 1993.

· Roussou, Vasilios AA, Heroes of Christianity, Volume October, Catholic Edition, Athens 1948.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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