Saint Genesius

(martyred 303 AD):

Patron Saint of Actors

Saint GenesiusSaint Genesius was an outstanding actor, playwright and comedian in late Imperial Rome. Christians were often discouraged from becoming actors during this time because ancient Roman comedy was highly sexual, crude and offensive! In the year 303 AD, the Emperor Diocletian launched what would be the last great Roman persecution against the Christian Church. Genesius was a comedian of some reknown and decided to use the opportunity presented by the persecution to write a comedy about Christianity. He thought it might well attract the attention of the Emperor, increase his fame and make some good money in the process.

Genesius approached leaders of the Christian community in Rome and presented himself as a catechumen, seeking baptism. He was then invited into a period of instruction in the faith, in order to learn the beliefs of the Christians. He was particularly taken by the idea of Christian baptism which he discussed at great length with his teachers. When he had learned enough for his purposes, he deserted the catechumenate and returned to his acting troupe in order to compose his comedy. But a strange thing happened to Genesius as he began to work on his play which was to be a comedy on baptism. Theater pieces were collaborative were often performed without scripts by actors spontaneously interacting with each other. As Genesius began teaching the other actors about baptism, he began to believe, and a desire to be baptized grew within his heart.

The opening night of the play was a great success with the Emperor Diocletian and much of his imperial court in attendance. The first act opened with Genesius playing a sick man confined to bed with his friends gathered around him. He said, “Oh my friends, I feel a great weight and would like to be enlightened.” This line would lead to many cruel and ribald remarks on the part of the other actors. One responded by saying, “If you want to be lighter, I can use my pruning knife!” At this point he was touched by the Holy Spirit, and no longer acting, but speaking from his heart, he said, “You fools, I wish to die a Christian.” When the other actors asked him why, he said, “All my life I have been a fugitive, and only today have I found God.” Everyone, especially the Emperor laughed as Genesius spoke.

Two actors then entered, one playing a priest and the other an exorcist. When they asked Genesius what he wanted, again he repeated his heart’s true desire for baptism. He said, “I wish to receive the grace of Christ. I long to be reborn and set free from all the sin that lies around me.” The actor priest then baptized Genesius. The Emperor Diocletian could not stop laughing, and began to send small gifts of gold, food and wine up to the players. Genesius was then dressed in white and led before an actor playing a Roman judge. As other actors played soldiers, Genesius was now interrogated just like an actual Roman trial of Christians. But Genesius was no longer acting.

Genesius standing in a pulpit designed to look like the goddess Venus, began to preach to the audience. “Oh Emperor and his soldiers. Listen also people of Rome, especially if you have a mind of your own and know how to use it. Before today, whenever I heard the name Christian, it would make me sick and angry. I would make fun of them and encourage others to abuse them. Over and over I insulted them and encouraged others to be violent towards them. I so hated Christians, that I deserted my own family as a child when I realized that there were Christians among them. So much did I hate them, that I went secretly among them to learn their secrets.

O great Diocletian, I started this play as a way to deride the Christian mysteries in which I did not believe. Yet lying on that make believe sick bed and having an actor-priest, pour water over me, I found that the words I was speaking were true. I wrote this play, these are my words. But now they are the words of my heart. I believe and when I said these words today, I saw the very angels of God surround me. The angels told me that my sins were really forgiven and that water that washed over me, washed away all the evil I have done.

I came here today to please an earthly Emperor but what I have done is to please a heavenly King. I came here to give you laughter, but what I have done is to give joy to God and his angels. From this moment on, believe me, I will never mock these great mysteries again. I now know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God, the Light, the Truth and the Mercy of all who have received his gift of baptism. O great Emperor, believe in these mysteries! I will teach you, and you will know the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God.”

Diocletian was furious at the speech. He stopped the play and had the troupe arrested. He ordered that they all be beaten. Genesius’ fellow actors cursed the name of Jesus and cried out that Genesius was the only Christian among them and that he was a mad man! Genesius was condemned to be tortured until he sacrificed to the gods. Through all of his sufferings, he continued to confess that Jesus was God. When this failed to break his spirit, Diocletian ordered Genesius be beheaded. His final words were, “Our Lord Jesus Christ is God and we shall have life in His name.”

Saint Genesius was originally buried in the Church of San Giovanni delle Pigni near the Pantheon. In 1591 the church was in bad shape and Princess Camilla Peretti, the sister of Pope Sixtus V arranged for the body of Saint Genesius to transfered to the Church of Santa Susanna. The martyr was interred in the chapel of Saint Lawrence, built by the princess to commemorate her brother the pope. A special cycle of frescoes by Giovanni Battista Pozzo depict Genesius’ life and martyrdom and decorate his wall tomb. His feast day is August 25.