Saint Boniface, Apostle to the Germans

June 5

Today is the feast day of Saint Boniface. Ora pro nobis.

by Michael Durnan

If you are German-speaking or descend from German emigrants and you call yourself a ‘Christian,’ you owe this fact to Boniface, an English monk who lived in the 8th century. The first archbishop of Mainz, Boniface is known as the “Apostle to the Germans.” He also is the patron saint of Germany, and is credited with conceiving the idea of the Christmas tree.

St. Boniface was born in the year 675 AD in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, and given the baptismal name Wynfrid. Wessex occupied the far west and south of modern-day England. By the seventh century, St. Augustine of Canterbury and Lindisfarne monks St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert had converted the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Wynfrid was to be one of the beneficiaries of this flowering of early Christian culture and learning.

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic warrior people who arrived from Northern Europe after the Romans left Britannia in 410 AD. Christianity transformed them by calming and pacifying the wilder aspects of their pagan culture, and by appealing to their noble and virtuous qualities. Culture and learning flourished in Christian Anglo-Saxon England under the guidance and patronage of the newly converted Christian kings and the monks of Lindisfarne and Jarrow.

The Life of a Brilliant Scholar

Wynfrid entered the monastic life when he was around seven years of age, attracted by the monastic ideal and the opportunity for a first-class education. The monks discerned his academic and intellectual ability, and he seemed destined for the life of a brilliant scholar.

He became a teacher of Latin grammar, wrote several treatises, and also composed Latin poetry. Eventually, Wynfrid’s talent was rewarded when he was made head of the abbey school. Wynfrid’s reputation as an outstanding teacher and scholar, coupled with his personal popularity amongst his students, meant that many travelled great distances for the chance to study under his tutelage.

At about the age of thirty, Wynfrid was ordained priest. Although he loved teaching his young students, he also felt called to travel as a missionary amongst the pagan Germanic tribes of mainland Europe and to bring them the light of Christ, mindful that only 100 years earlier his forebears had lived in pagan darkness.

In 716 AD Abbot Winbert granted him permission to travel, and he set forth to Frisia in the Netherlands. Upon his arrival he met with great opposition from the local chieftain, so his mission to bring the Gospel of Christ failed. He returned to Wessex, but did not lose heart.

What the Pope Told Boniface

Two years later he made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he had an audience with Pope Gregory II (715 – 731).

In a letter to his disciples, Wynfrid wrote that Pope Gregory had received him with “a smile and look of full of kindliness,” and had held long, important conversations with him during the following days, conferring upon him his new name, Boniface, and assigning him, in official letters the mission of preaching the Gospel to the German peoples.

Encouraged, inspired, and comforted by the Pope’s support and wise counsel, Boniface journeyed to the Germanic lands, preaching and campaigning against pagan worship and practices, such as human sacrifice to the Norse gods, Odin and Thor, as well as teaching and reinforcing the foundations of Christian morality and ethics.

When Archbishop Boniface returned to Germany from Rome, for Christmas 723, he discovered the Germans had turned back to their pagan ways and were getting ready to celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young person under Odin’s sacred oak. Archbishop Boniface felled the oak, thus demonstrating the victory of Christianity over the pagan gods. This historically documented story eventually gave rise to the legend of the first Christmas tree. According to the legend, St. Boniface replaced the felled oak with a spruce he found growing amidst the tangle of oak branches.

‘We Are Not Mute Dogs’

With a profound sense of duty and commitment, Boniface wrote in one of his letters,

“We are united in the fight on The Lord’s day because days of affliction and wretchedness have come….We are not mute dogs or taciturn observers or mercenaries fleeing from wolves! On the contrary, we are diligent pastors who watch over Christ’s flock, who proclaim God’s will to the leaders and ordinary folk, to the rich and the poor, in season and out of season.”

With his tireless efforts, persistence, and gift for organisation, Boniface achieved remarkable results converting the pagans he encountered. The pope rewarded Boniface by consecrating him a regional bishop of the entire Germanic lands.

He continued his apostolic efforts with the same dedication and commitment, and extended his mission to the land of the Gauls. Pope Gregory II’s successor, Gregory III, appointed him Archbishop of all the Germanic Tribes. Archbishop Boniface also founded abbeys for monks and nuns to be beacons of learning and culture throughout the Germanic lands, as they had in his native Anglo-Saxon England. The Monastery of Fulda, founded in 743 AD, was the heart and epicentre of outreach for religious spirituality and culture.

The Death of Boniface

At the age of about 80, with 52 monks, Boniface wrote to Bishop Lull of Mainz, as he set forth to renew his failed mission to Frisia:

“I wish to bring to a conclusion the purpose of this journey; in no way can I renounce my desire to set out. The day of my end is near and the time of my death is approaching; having shed my mortal body, I shall rise to the eternal reward. May you, my dear son, ceaselessly call the people from the maze of error, complete the building of the Basilica of Fulda that has already been begun, and in it lay my body, worn out by the long years of life.”

On 5 June 754 AD, Boniface started the celebration of Mass in a place called Dokkum in the present-day Netherlands, when a gang of pagans attacked him. Forbidding his fellow monks to retaliate, he exclaimed:

“Cease, my sons, from fighting, give up warfare, for the witness of Scripture recommends that we do not give an eye for an eye but rather good for evil. Here is the long awaited day, the time of our end has now come; courage in the Lord!”

These were his last words before his assailants struck him down.

WHERE BONIFACE WAS MURDERED: Dokkum in the Frisian islands today. At the age of 80, Boniface was attacked and murdered by a gang of pagans here.

His remains were taken to the Monastery of Fulda, where he was given a burial fitting for a martyr and saint. Since then, St. Boniface has been known as “The Apostle to The Germans.”

by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

St. Boniface, the great Apostle of Germany, was a native of England. He was baptized under the name of Winfrid but received the name Boniface from the Pope, on account of the great good which he did. Boniface means one who does good. When scarcely 5 years old, he requested of his parents to be sent to a monastery, in order to be instructed by the monks as well in religion as in other sciences. His father opposed this wish, but falling sick and believing it a punishment sent by God, he gave his consent and recovered immediately. Winfrid received the instruction he desired in two monasteries, and took the habit of the religious of St. Benedict. How greatly his virtues and learning were esteemed by the brethren of this order, may be seen from the fact that in the course of a few years, they unanimously elected him successor of their late Abbot. Boniface, however refused to accept the dignity, and on making known his desire to preach the Gospel to the heathens, he succeeded so well in representing everything connected with his plan, that the monks not only abstained from further efforts to persuade him to yield, but gave him permission, with several others whose hearts were filled with the same desire, to go to Rome and offer himself to the Pope for so holy a work. Hence, Boniface bade farewell to his brethren and left England with his companions. Gregory II., at that time Pope, was greatly rejoiced when Boniface informed him of his intention, and after having had several conversations with him on the subject, he gave him the powers of an Apostolic missionary, with full permission to preach the Gospel everywhere, especially in Germany. He presented him at the same time some relics and dismissed him with his pontifical blessing. Boniface, leaving Rome, went first to Bavaria, then to Thuringia, where the Christian faith was, almost extinguished, and where idolatry and wickedness prevailed. In the space of 6 months he led the Christians to a better life, and cleansed almost the whole of Thuringia from idolatry.

During this time, Boniface received news of the death of Radbod, Duke of Friesland, an arch-enemy of the Christian faith, during whose reign the Saint had preached a short time in Friesland, but finding that he could do but little good, had quickly returned to England. Inspired, however, by God, he determined, now that circumstances had thus changed, to go once more to Friesland and endeavor to convert the inhabitants. On arriving at Utrecht, he went to St. Willibrord, first bishop off the church there, and spent in the city and neighboring places three years in preaching and instructing the people. His success was so great, that all the inhabitants became Christians, all the idolatrous temples were overthrown or changed into Christian churches. After this, the indefatigable apostolic preacher went to Hesse, where in a very short time he converted many thousands to the Christian faith, built many churches and supplied them with pious priests. He also built several monasteries and convents for those who desired to serve God more perfectly. As however the Saint could not supervise so much work unaided, he called from England several zealous priests, who lent a willing hand to the work he had begun. He also invited some pious virgins, to govern the convents which he had erected. Several of his fellow-laborers were sent to Rome to inform the Pope of the progress of Christendom. The Pope was highly rejoiced and desired to see Boniface himself. The Saint therefore went a second time to Rome, was most kindly received by the holy Father, and consecrated bishop. It was at this time that his name Winfrid was changed into Boniface.

Soon after this, the bishop returned to Germany. Hesse abounded yet with people still in the darkness of paganism. An immense tree which stood there was called the power or might of Jupiter, and it was worshipped as a god. The holy bishop could not endure this sacrilege, and although the pagans threatened to kill him if he touched the tree, he went to the place where it stood, and seized an ax to fell it. At the first stroke, the power of Jupiter, the immense tree, fell to the ground and was split into four parts. This visible miracle opened the eyes of the heathens and moved them to abandon idolatry. The bishop erected, in the place where the tree had stood, a chapel in honor of St. Peter. In Thuringia, whither he went next, he built a church in honor of the Archangel Michael on the place where the latter had appeared to him and exhorted him to continue bravely in the work that he had begun. Divers affairs of the Church made a third journey to Rome necessary; and Gregory III., who then occupied the chair of St. Peter, showed great honors to St. Boniface, and sent him back to Germany, after having bestowed on him, among many other graces, the title of apostolic legate. When, on his return, the Duke of Bavaria invited him to remain some time in his Dukedom, the holy man acquiesced, as this gave him an opportunity to convert the remaining heathens and lead those Christians, who had been seduced from the true faith by godless impostors, back upon the right path.

By his holy conduct and incessant preaching he arrived at the desired end, and divided the whole country into four bishoprics, in order to give the newly converted better opportunities to be instructed and preserved In the faith. Salzburg, Friesingen, Regensburg and Passau were the four cities where he established bishoprics, providing them with able men. The same he did soon after at Eichstadt and Wurzburg in Franconia, where he for some time labored to the great benefit of the heathens. The sea of Eichstadt he gave into the charge of St. Willibald, that of Wurzburg to St. Burchard. He founded many convents and churches, as well in the above-named States as also in Thuringia and Hesse, especially at Fritzlar, Ehrfurt, Amoeneburg and Fulda. He erected monasteries especially with the intention to educate such men, in them as would be able to defend the true faith, to instruct the faithful in leading a Christian life, and to bring to the true Church those who were still heathens. He himself was created by the Pope archbishop of Mentz, where he remained for seven years in continued apostolic labor for the salvation of those in his charge.

Meanwhile, the greater part of the inhabitants of Friesland had again, for some unknown reason, forsaken Christianity, and returned to their former idolatry. No sooner had St. Boniface heard this, than he determined to proceed thither. Hence, with the permission of the Pope, he resigned the see of Mentz to his disciple Lullus, and set out for Friesland, accompanied by some zealous men, foremost among whom were Eobanus and Adelar. On arriving there, he began forthwith to preach, and converted a great number of the inhabitants to Christ. He baptized those whom he had sufficiently instructed, and others, who had been seduced to forsake the true faith, he reconciled with God and the Church. Happy in the consciousness of such great success, the Saint appointed a day on which he would publicly administer the holy Sacrament of confirmation to strengthen the newly converted in the faith. No church was large enough to contain the number of those who desired to be confirmed; in consequence of which tents were erected in an open field not far from the river Borne. The appointed day had come, and a large crowd of Christians had assembled, eager to receive the sacrament. Suddenly, however, came a band of heathens, who, incited by their idolatrous priests, had vowed to kill Boniface, as the greatest enemy of their idols. Armed with weapons they approached the holy man and his companions. When Boniface perceived them, he thanked God with a loud voice for having vouchsafed to him the long desired opportunity to die for Christ’s sake; then having encouraged his companions bravely to suffer pain and death, he went to meet the barbarians, with the gospel, which he carried almost constantly with him, in his hands. He spoke fearlessly to them; but, not willing to lend ear to him, one of them stabbed him with his sword with such force, that he sank dead to the ground. The companions of the Saint suffered the same death.

Thus gloriously did this truly, apostolic man finish his laborious career, in the year 754, or according to other historians, 755, in the fortieth year after his arrival in Germany. How much he endured during these forty years, in wandering through so many lands and converting so great a number of people; how unweariedly he labored; what persecutions he suffered from heathens, from heretics, and even from wicked Catholics, is more easily imagined than described. But nothing could daunt his great heart, which, filled with love of God and man, untiringly executed what his apostolic zeal dictated. He seemed never satisfied with the work he had already performed, or with the suffering he had borne for the honor of God and the salvation of man. His insatiable desire to save souls incited him constantly to more work and more suffering. He feared no danger, but fervently desired to conclude his labors by receiving the crown of martyrdom. God granted his wish; after having lived for the Almighty alone, he was permitted to shed his blood for Christ. He was first buried at Utrecht, then removed to Mentz, and at last brought to Fulda by the Archbishop St. Lullus. (2)

Image: Saint Boniface by Cornelis Bloemaert, c. 1630 (11)




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