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The force of prayer against violence

· The saint of the month ·

It was the year 451. The spectre of Attila was hovering over Paris. Everyone was determined to flee, to leave the city. The one voice raised against fleeing was that of a very special woman, Genevieve. Born into a Catholic family in Nanterre and taken to Paris by her grandmother after her parents’ death, at the age of 15 she consecrated herself to religious life. Having now reached the age of 30, she was living a retired life at home, where she scrupulously observed self-imposed monastic regulations. She was a free woman, ready to take part in the city’s life and, in accordance with the family tradition, prepared to assume civil responsibilities and duties.

When the Huns arrived this woman religious made a stand, opposing the men’s cowardly decision with determination: “Are you going to let the horrendous stench of the Huns flood Paris?”. Fear is a very bad counsellor and a group of men threatened Genevieve, intending even to stone her: “Woman, don’t stick your nose in and don’t interfere in our decision to leave the city. The barbarian, whose name I tremble to pronounce, will destroy Paris with his army of monsters and no one, man or woman, young or old, will be spared. A dreadful fate awaits us! Stop stirring up our women against us. We are husbands and fathers and are endeavouring to keep our families safe from the ferocity of a demon. It is not for nothing that he has the fearful reputation of being ‘God’s scourge’. He has subjugated and wiped out entire populations. He doesn’t conquer cities: he tears them down and leaves them as smouldering heaps of rubble. We must hasten to flee and scatter in the countryside.You must not resist our decision and upset our women’s minds. Prayers? They are gossip that will certainly not frighten the barbarians. So they’ll flee, will they, on hearing your intense prayers, especially if you sing them! No, you are out of your mind and we shall not let you draw all the inhabitants of Paris into the abyss of your folly. We shall stop you now once and for all”.

“Kill me then, giving further proof of your cowardice. You flee before Attila and stone a defenceless nun”, Genevieve retorted firmly and with determination. But no one moved because of the intervention of an archdeacon of the holy Bishop Germanus: the woman they were about to kill had been recognized by the saint as forechosen by God from the age of seven. Free to act, Genevieve gathered numerous women in the baptistry to pray, having exhorted them with words of fire. This is her pithy apologue which has resonated through the centuries: “Let the men flee if they want to and if they are no longer able to fight. We women will pray God so much that he will hear our supplications”.

The women’s strength overcame their fear. Paris was not abandoned. No one fled, everyone strove to reinforce the city’s defences. Trier, Metz and Rheims had already suffered destructive sacking by the Huns who, in an encampment only a few miles away, were now preparing for the siege and assault of Paris. Attila summoned his diviners before making a move, as was his habit. They spoke to him of unfavourable omens. He asked his lieutenants what had happened. “My Lord, in Paris they are reinforcing the defences with walls and ditches. The Roman contingent has been expanded with volunteers. But they are nothing in comparison with your strength”.

“I had been told that we would encounter no resistance. What has changed that even the stars are contrary?”.

“Sire, it seems that a holy woman has intervened to change things”.

“A holy woman? Do you have to fear a woman? Who is she?”.

“They say that since she was a little girl she vowed to serve the Christian God and that she works miracles and that hosts of their angels protect her”.

Although the sacred inspired fear in the ruthless barbarian, an easy prey to superstition, the King of the Huns laughed: “Tomorrow Paris will be yours, whether the holy nun wants it or not!”.

No one knows what Attila dreamed that night but when his army moved it avoided Paris, turning towards Orleans. In the Catalaunian Fields the Huns fought the Romans in one of history’s bloodiest battles. Defeated, Attila left Gaul. Paris was unharmed and saved and Genevieve’s fame grew beyond measure. History imposes its inscrutable rules and the fall of the Roman Empire dragged the local authorities with it into the abyss. Paris, which was governed by Rome, was besieged by a Frankish people led by Merovech and his son Childeric. Genevieve, having resumed her monastic life, did not intervene on anyone’s behalf. However when famine and the effects of the prolonged siege reduced the Parisians to dying of starvation she left her cloister. She organized a convoy of 11 boats and accompanied them on the river as far as Troyes, cramming them with victuals and especially with wheat. She continued to work miracles on the journey and drove away two demons which were trying to sink the boats.

She once again saved the people of Paris. She overcame their hunger even by baking bread in her own house. Childeric conquered the city and became practically the first king of the Franks. Genevieve had already established good relations with him, as though she knew how important the Franks were to be for Catholicism and for the Gauls. In 481, when Childeric died, his son Clovis took power. Despite being elderly, strong with her great fame and profound faith the nun Genevieve forged an important relationship with him, the first absolute king of all the Franks. With the help of Clothilde, Clovis’ Catholic wife, she obtained the King’s conversion. He was the first Catholic sovereign of a kingdom in Europe, a historical fact of great importance.

Genevieve’s long life, marked from childhood by the premonitions of St Germanus and spent between the cloister and civic commitment, sketches exemplarily the passage from the Romano-barbarian Empire to the advent of the Middle Ages. It is a symbol for the whole of Christianity of active faith which overcomes every evil with prayer.

Beniamino Baldacci

Beniamino Balducci has been a family doctor in Rome for many decades, beloved by his patients as is rarely the case in large cities. Together with his high professional standard, everyone recognizes his ability to understand the souls of the sick, his patience in drawing close to each one with a willingness to listen to them, to see their burden of suffering, their defeats and their weariness, which are often at the root of illness. He has six children and six grandchildren and has written various medical articles and two historical novels: Leone. Donne e congiure (2014) [Leone. Women and conspiracy, which won a prize at the Spoleto Festival Art in the same year, and in 2017 La lupa e l’eletto [The wolf and the chosen one]. 

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