Converted as he mocked Christian baptism on the stage? Historians debate whether St. Genesius, said to have become a Christian under such dramatic circumstances, was a real person or a stirring fictional character. Here is the story.
Emperor Diocletian, author of the last and greatest of the Roman Empire’s persecutions of Christians, came to Rome at one point (he lived in Yugoslavia), and was given a festive welcome. Part of the celebration was a play. Genesius, the producer and comedian, had thought that the emperor, bent as he was on exterminating Christians, would be pleased by a play mocking the martyrdom of a follower of Christ. In preparation for the skit, Genesius learned how a person is baptized into the Church.
At the start of the playlet, the actor lay down on the stage as one sick. Two other actors asked what ailed him. Genesius said he felt a great weight that he wanted removed. The friends concluded that he wanted to take off some extra flesh. “No,” said Genesius, “I am resolved to die as a Christian, that God may receive me on this day of my death as one who seeks His salvation by turning from idolatry to superstition.”
Hence, two other actors, dressed as a priest and exorcist, were called in. They asked what the star wanted. Now, at that moment, it seems, Genesius received a divine call that prompted him to say, “I desire to receive the grace of Jesus Christ and to be born again, that I may be delivered from my sins.” Thereupon, the two clerics went through the rite of baptism, even putting on him afterwards the customary white robe.
The playlet continued when two additional actors, dressed like Roman soldiers, seized Genesius and led him before the emperor himself to be questioned as Christians were usually questioned by persecutors.
The actor then spoke to Diocletian and all present. All his life, he said candidly, he had detested and reviled Christianity, and he had studied its rites for that play only for the purpose of further mocking the Christian faith. But when he had been asked prior to the staged baptism whether he believed, he had answered “yes” with all his heart. Thereupon, he said, he saw a vision of angels bearing a book with all his sins inscribed. They plunged this book into the water with which he had just been baptized and showed him that all the sins written there had been washed away. Therefore he urged the emperor and all present to believe with him that Jesus Christ is the only true Lord, and that through Him they could win forgiveness of sins.
Diocletian, furious at the unexpected twist of this comedy, ordered that Genesius be beaten and tortured by the prefect of the praetorium. In the midst of his pains, Genesius kept crying out that he would cling to Jesus even if it meant suffering a thousand deaths: “Bitterly do I regret that I once detested His holy name, and came so late to His service.” Finally his head was cut off.
If the story of Genesius happens to be true it should be pointed out that the “baptism” he received was not truly a sacrament. Christian baptism can be administered by a non-Christian, and validly, as long as he intends to do what the Church does in that ceremony. In this case the mocking “baptizers” could not have intended to confer a Christian sacrament. Genesius’ baptism then would have been a baptism of desire and of blood, which can serve as worthy substitutes of the real baptism.
The gripping tale of Genesius’ conversion and death may be a devout fiction, (although a St. Genesius was venerated in Rome in the fourth century). But God can bring about an instantaneous change of heart in the least likely persons. Take St. Paul the Apostle. God called him to His own service when he was bound for Damascus to arrest and punish the Damascus Christians.
I like to think that God also changed the play-acting of Genesius that day into a reality. Actors would understand that. They have long since considered him their patron saint.
–Father Robert F. McNamara