Saint Dionysius of Alexandria

Despite a number of our members mistakenly believing that we are named after Dionysus, the Greek god of wine -- which probably says a lot about our drinking habits! -- we are in reality named after St. Dionysius of Alexandria, otherwise known as St. Dionysius the Great.

Born c. 190 in Alexandria, Dionysius studied under Origen at the catechetical school there. Origen is now recognised as one of the founding fathers of the ecclesiastical church, and Dionysius was one of his most exceptional students, undertaking studies in philosophy, theology and both pagan and Christian thought.1 Dionysius went on to become the head of the school in 231, following the banishment of his teacher Origen by the then Archbishop Demetrius.2 He was appointed Archbishop of Alexandria in 247 and held the position for nearly 20 years (4 of them in absentia) until his death in 265.

During the last year of the reign of Philip, 249, a major persecution was carried out in Alexandria by a pagan mob, and hundreds were assaulted, stoned, burned or cut down on account of their refusal to deny their faith. Although Dionysius managed to survive this persecution and the civil war that followed, the new Emperor Decius issued a decree for a legal persecution in January 250. The letters of Dionysius and Cyprian tell us of the outpouring of hatred within Alexandria and Carthage. Many Christians sacrificed their faith in fear, others attempted to obtain false documents affirming their sacrifice. Others who would not sacrifice their faith faced public ridicule and shame among their family and friends, and if they were found by the authorities, they faced brutal torture and all manner of martyrdoms. The vast majority of those who managed to flee the city would die within days, of exposure, hunger, thirst, or attacks by bandits or wild animals.

Dionysius himself was hunted by the prefect Sabinus, who had sent out an assassin to murder him on sight. Dionysius spent three days in hiding in his secluded home before departing on the fourth night of the Decius' decree with his servants and loyal members of his brethren. After a short brush with a group of soldiers, he managed to escape with two of his followers, and set up a residence in the Libyan desert until the end of the persecution the following year.

In March 251, Cornelius was elected to the papacy, and Novatian, the power-hungry Archdeacon of Rome, took exception. Within days he had announced that the Bishopric of Rome was in opposition to the new Pope, and he set himself up as a rival Pope in an effort to cause a schism within the Christian world. It was Dionysius' vocal and unwavering support of Pope Cornelius that defused the situation within a few months. When Novatian wrote Dionysius to ask for his support, he replied:

"Novatian can easily prove the truth of his protestation that he was consecrated against his will by voluntarily retiring; he ought to have suffered martyrdom rather than divide the Church of God; indeed it would have been a particularly glorious martyrdom on behalf of the whole Church; if he can even now persuade his party to make peace, the past will be forgotten; if not, let him save his own soul."

By the end of the year, Dionysius' letters indicated that all the churches in the East had been unified under Pope Cornelius, probably due largely to his own influence. Pope Cornelius ordered Novatian excommunicated and replaced him as Archdeacon of Rome with Stephen, a dissident of Novatian's clergy, who would go on to become Pope Stephen I in 254.

Between 252 and 257, Dionysius' life took several unexpected turns. In 252 an outbreak of plague ravaged Alexandria, and Dionysius, along with other major priests and deacons, took it upon themselves to assist the sick and dying. These same priests and deacons often perished in their efforts to give succour to the infected, but Dionysius remained, and lauded their efforts and deaths as being worthy of martyrdom. Dionysius spent much of the next few years authoring critical commentaries on Revelations, the last chapter of the Bible, following a claim by Nepos, an Egyptian bishop, that there would be a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, and it would include earthly (read: sexual) delights for the faithful. Dionysius' two treatises "On the Promises" refutes this Chiliastic prophecy by way of allegorical analysis rather than literal, and his "higher criticism" is reputed as one of the greatest of its time, and has since challenged philosophical scholars to this day.

In 257, the Emperor Valerian authorised a new persecution, and took Dionysius to a show trial with a few of his loyal clergymen. Valerian ordered Dionysius and his followers banished to Kephro in the Mareotis region, where he spent three more years in exile until the persecution was lifted by Gallienus in 260. He was involved in a controversy later in his life, when in his efforts to reject Sabellianism he used the wrong expression to quantify the Trinity, thus giving rise to the Arianist doctrine.3 This caused him to write two further treatises, entitled "Refutation" and "Apology", wherein he laments his poor use of terminology and instead speaks of the "Trinity in Unity" and the "Unity in Trinity", clearly outlining the consubstantiality of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

Dionysius is recorded in the Roman Martyrology as having died of natural causes on November 17th 265, but he may also be recognised on October 3rd (by way of a mistaken menology), being the day that he is recognised along with his compatriots who escaped the Decian persecution of 250.

Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia

(1) A brief summary of Origen and his works can be found at:
(2) Heraclas became head of the school for a short time, until the death of Demetrius shortly afterwards, at which time Heraclas became Archbishop, and Dionysius took over the school.
(3) Sabellianism is the notion that the beings of the Trinity (other than God) are not distinct, thus the Trinity is not a valid function of the "true faith". Dionysius responded by saying that the Son is "something made" and "distinct in substance" from the Father, "even as is the husbandman from the vine, or the shipbuilder from the ship". Arianist scholars captalised on this, interpreting Dionysius to mean that the Son is made by the Father and therefore lesser than Him, thus also causing the downfall of the concept of the Trinity.