“Steeped in Romanity” — Fr. Victor-Alain Berto

Articles written, translated or selected by John S. Daly

The guiding star of this site is fidelity to Rome.

From torrid south to frozen north,
The wave harmonious stretches forth,
Yet strikes no chord more true to Rome’s,
Than rings within our hearts and homes.
Cardinal Wiseman

The Life and Writings of Dionysius the Areopagite

It was held for the bulk of the Christian centuries that Saint Paul’s convert, Dionysius the Areopagite, later became the first Archbishop of Paris and wrote a number of extant works of spiritual theology. More recent scholars are all but unanimous in dismissing both of these claims. The present summary, originally written as an appendix to Dion and the Sibyls (the greatest of Christian novels), examines whether it is really necessary to reject the traditional view.

THE EPONYMOUS HERO of Myles Keon’s Dion and the Sibyls is presented by the author as the great Saint Dionysius of Christian tradition: a member of the Athenian council of the Areopagus, converted by Saint Paul,1 who became first bishop of Athens, was later sent by Pope Saint Clement I to Gaul where he was first bishop of Paris, and who was also author of numerous ancient writings in Greek, notably On the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, On Divine Names, On Mystical Theology, and of a series of Epistles. In these writings he recounts his experience of the solar eclipse which occurred at the time of the Crucifixion, and describes as an eyewitness the appearance of Our Blessed Lady. He was finally martyred for the faith on 9th October 117 at the very beginning of the reign of the emperor Adrian. For a thousand years the whole of Christendom, East and West, agreed in recognising and venerating this man. But in the Renaissance era, when textual scholarship was kidnapped at birth by the forces of doctrinaire scepticism, the world was informed that no one man answering to this description had ever existed. Saint Paul’s convert Dionysius had lived and died unnoticed, without ever leaving Athens; the Dionysius who was first bishop of Paris had belonged to the third century, but was not Greek and left no writings, and finally the works attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite were in fact composed in the fourth if not the fifth century by a pious fraudster. This view, of three different Dionysii conflated into one by gullible writers of the dark ages, has prevailed and since the turn of the twentieth century practically no scholar can be found to oppose it and the opprobrious epithet pseudo is all but invariably prefixed to the name of Dionysius as the author of the works listed above.

However it should not be thought that Mr Keon was an obscurantist adhering stubbornly to romantic but long-exploded theories. The truth is that the evidence alleged for rejecting the long-standing tradition is almost entirely negative and tenuous—the silence of writers who might be expected to have mentioned Dionysius, matters of literary style and vocabulary or supposed historical probability. Nor has there been any want of serious writers in defence of the single Dionysus: Baronius and Bellarmine, Fr. Pierre Halloix S.J.,2 Cardinal Lorenzo Cozza,3 the Abbé Darras,4 Vidieu,5 Dom Prosper Guéranger, Parker6 (English translator of the works of the Areopagite), Archbishop Darboy,7 Mgr Guerin8 and others. And despite frequent careful revision by the most learned and critical scholars, the Roman Martyrology continues to commemorate, on 9th October, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, first bishop of Athens and first bishop of Paris. Rather than encumber this work with what would be a necessarily lengthy appendix in defence of the traditional view espoused by Mr Keon, we here transcribe some extracts from the Petits Bollandistes9 on the subject:

“We know that some writers of the seventeenth century have keenly disputed the account of the mission of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite to the Gauls. They claim that the Dionysius who suffered martyrdom at Paris, and whom we [the French] recognise as our apostle, was not the celebrated disciple of Saint Paul, but another, more recent, sent only in the days of the emperor Decius [c. 250 A.D.]. But the agreement between the Greek church and the Roman is so great, in their assurance that our great Apostle was the same as the Areopagite—as Hincmar,10 archbishop of Rheims, observed in a letter to the emperor Charles the Bald11— that it cannot seriously be called into doubt. The tradition was already very ancient in the reign of Louis the Debonair,12 the father of Charles the Bald, as appears from what was written on the subject by Saint Venantius Fortunatus,13 bishop of Poitiers, Saint Eugene II, archbishop of Toledo,14 the venerable Bede15 (who was very learned in ecclesiastical history), saint Simeon Metaphrastes,16 celebrated author of the Lives of the Saints, Saint Methodius, patriarch of Constantinople,17 Michael Syngele, priest of Jerusalem, Anastasius the librarian,18 the Abbot Romanus and the council of Paris, held in 825, in a letter to Pope Eugene II. But it becomes all the more certain when it is known that Hilduin, abbot of Saint-Denis19 in France, after undertaking painstaking researches at the command of the emperor Louis the Debonair, established the truth by authentic public testimonies which proved irrefutable. Subsequent to that time, more than eight centuries passed in the same conviction, without any opposition being made thereto. On the contrary, everyone was thoroughly persuaded that, in revering the Apostle of the Gauls, they revered the blessed Areopagite. Only the criticism of our own days, which has made it a point of honour to arouse scruples as to the acceptance of even the best established historical traditions, has succeeded in renewing objections long since answered and assuaged, and in challenging once again our claim to have so great a man as our first bishop. But no matter how strenuous the efforts of this modern scepticism, it will never destroy an opinion so strongly founded upon antiquity and so deeply imprinted within the hearts of the French.

“Admittedly there exist certain difficulties with regard to this mission to France of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, as there do with regard to all ancient traditions the circumstances of which have not been transmitted to us with as much exactitude as we might wish. But whoever takes the pain to read the learned authors who have written meanwhile on this subject—including Baronius, Sponde, Du Saussay, Germain Milet, Hugues Menard and Natalis Alexander O.P., Mgr. Freppel, the Abbe Darras, M. Faillon, Fathers Halloix, Lanssel, Cordier, Chifflet, etc. will find these difficulties resolved with much light and learning. Upon what grounds has it been alleged that Saint Dionysius, or Denis, of Paris was not the same person as the great Areopagite who was Saint Paul’s disciple ? The grounds put forward are simply that the faith was preached among the Gauls only much later, under the Emperor Decius, a claim in support of which Sulpicius Severus and Gregory of Tours are advanced. But this view is quite unsustainable, being opposed to all probability. Are we really to be told that the Gospel had been borne among the Scythians, the Brahmans, the Indians, the Ethiopians and the Moors of Africa while the Gauls alone, at the very gates of Rome, were so far neglected and abandoned by the Apostles and the Sovereign Pontiffs, even during those periods when the Church enjoyed some truce to her persecution by the Roman Emperors so that nothing would have been easier than to bring them succour ?


“The extant writings of Saint Dionysius are: his books on the Celestial Hierarchy, on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, on the Divine Names and on Mystical Theology together with eight letters to various persons, but his writings on symbolic theology, the soul, sacred hymns, theological information, the just judgement of God and the things known by the sense or by the intelligence have perished. Cardinal Bellarmine, with reference to those of his writings that survive, does not hesitate to say that learned and Catholic men hold them as being indubit4ably from the pen of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite and that only heretics and a few dilettanti deny their authenticity. This is not the place to establish this historical truth, let us say only that pope Saint Gregory the Great, pope Saint Martin, Pope Saint Agatho, Pope Saint Adrian and Pope Saint Nicholas I, and several general councils, together with a large number of Fathers and Doctors, including Saint Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, Saint Anastasius of Sinai, Blessed Albert the Great, Saint Thomas and Saint Bonaventure attribute these works to him. And it even seems that God was pleased to confirm their authenticity by miracles, for when these precious books, of which the emperor Michael the Stammerer20 sent the manuscripts to Louis the Debonair, were brought to Saint-Denis by one of his legates, Theodore, deacon and steward of the Church of Constantinople, that very night, by their virtue, nineteen miraculous cures took place of well-known persons living not far from the abbey. Moreover, two centuries later, saint Mayeul,21 abbot of Cluny, came to Saint-Denis, and requested the book of the Celestial Hierarchy to read, but he fell asleep over the work and let fall his candle on the book, yet the candle burnt itself right down, in contact with the book, without burning it or even leaving the slightest mark.”


  1. Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17:34.

  2. Illustrium ecclesiae orientalis scriptorum vitae et documenta, Douai, 1633.

  3. Vindiciæ Areopagiticæ (1702)

  4. Histoire de St. Dénis l’Aréopagite, premier évêque de Paris (Paris, 1863).

  5. St. Denis l’Aréopagite, 1889.

  6. Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897) pp. 202-208. “Objections to genuineness”.

  7. Œuvres de saint Denys l’Aréopagite, traduites du grec (Paris, 1845).

  8. Les Petits Bollandistes.

  9. Mgr Paul Guérin (ed.), Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament, (pp. 199, 200, 208) tome XII, Bar-le Duc, 1875.

  10. 806-882 A.D.

  11. 823-877 A.D.

  12. 778-840 A.D.

  13. 535-605 A.D.

  14. † 647 A.D.

  15. 673-735 A.D.

  16. Believed to have lived in the tenth century.

  17. 800-847 A.D.

  18. 810?-879 A.D.

  19. † 22nd November, 840.

  20. † 829 A.D.

  21. 906?-994 A.D.

© Copyright John S. Daly 2017