Tuesday, June 05, 2007

St. Boniface of Mainz, Bishop and Martyr

Almighty God, you called your faithful servant Boniface to be a witness and martyr in Germany, and by his labor and suffering you raised up a people for your own possession: Pour out your Holy Spirit upon your Church in every land, that by the service and sacrifice of many your holy Name may be glorified and your kingdom enlarged; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, Apostle to Germany, and martyr. Although no one knows the exact date, he was probably born between the years 672 and 675 in Devonshire, England. He was born Wynfrith (Friend of Peace), or Winifred in modern English. His family were nobles and had planned a fine secular career for him since he showed such promise as a scholar. Wynfrith had other ideas; he was inspired by a visit of missionary monks and felt that God was calling him to the same vocation. After much difficulty he finally obtained his father's permission to enter the monastery in Exeter, where he was trained under the direction of Abbot Wolfhard. Seven years later he was transferred to to the Abbey of Nutshalling, where he led an austere and studios life under the direction of Abbot Winbert. It is written that he "Rapidly advanced in sanctity and knowledge, excelling especially in the profound understanding of scriptures." He also studied history, grammar, rhetoric, and poetry. He became a member of the Benedictine Order and was placed in charge of the monastery school. He was ordained a priest at the age of thirty.

His fame as a scholar and preacher spread throughout academic and ecclesiastical circles, and he had every prospect of a great career. But, just as he had derailed his parents plans for him, Wynfrith had no interest in pursuing the path to academic and ecclesiastical glory. Instead, he wanted to bring the Gospel to the Old Saxons in Germany. After many requests, he finally obtained the permission of his abbot to be a missionary to Germany. He set out for the mission in Friesland in the year 716. Wigbert, Willibrord and others had been spreading the gospel in Friesland, so Wynfrith was expecting things to go well and the Good News to be well received, but terrible political disturbances made it quite difficult to preach there. King Radbod had declared war upon the Christians and his army destroyed churches and monasteries, driving Willibrord into exile and the remaining Christians into hiding. Wynfrith tried to convince King Radbod to let him and his companions preach by he was unsuccessful and was forced to return to England and the monastery. The next year Abbot Winbert died and Wynfrith was elected Abbot. He declined the election and left for Rome to see Pope Gregory II to gain permission to attempt another mission to Germany. On May 15, 719, Pope Gregory gave Wynfrith full authority to preach the gospel in Germany east of the Rhine. He saw the the Church was flourishing in Bavaria and moved on to Thuringia, where he discovered that many were mixing Christianity and the Old German religion in a synchristic faith, so he educated them and corrected their heresies. When he learned of the death of his nemesis, King Radbod, he returned to Friesland and spent many years rebuilding the Church after the many years of persecution. He later returned to Thuringia where he established monasteries and churches, including a Missionary Center for the training of native clergy in Upper Hessia. In the year 722 he returned to Rome to report on his missionary endeavors. The Pope consecrated him a Regional Bishop and gave him the name Boniface, the name by which he was known from that moment on.

He returned to Upper Hessia and discovered that many of the new Christians were weak in the faith and had fallen back into the old religion. He decided that he had to find a way to show the people the powerlessness of their old gods. He went to Geismar where an oak tree sacred to Thor, god of thunder, stood. Boniface took an ax to the tree, felled it, and had a chapel built from its wood. He dedicated the chapel to St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. The Germans were astonished that no thunderbolt came from the sky, striking Boniface dead or at least setting the chapel on fire! Many were converted and this event marked the end of the old religion in Germany. He continued on to Eschwege and destroyed the idol of the god Stuffo. When he finally returned to Thuringia he learned that some Celtic Christian missionaries were there, teaching rites which were different than the Roman rites Boniface had introduced, so he chased them out of Germany (and we've had nothing but trouble with German Christians ever since). In 733 he was made Archbishop of Germany by Pope Gregory III. Boniface was close to the Charles Martel, king of the Franks, and he was asked to help organize the Frankish Church. In 742 Boniface called a Synod of the German church which established many decrees and established the importance of subjection of the clergy to their bishops and also forbid clergy to carry arms or participate in warfare. He called another Synod in the year 744, where Boniface was given authority over the churches of Germany and the Franks. In 748, Pope Zachary I appointed Boniface Archbishop of Mainz and Primate of Germany. As Archbishop he continued to work to strengthen the Church and held many synods to establish doctrine and authority. He also worked at strengthening and establishing true religious life in the monasteries. He spent much time settling disputes between dioceses and strengthening the canons of the German Church. In 754, at the age of 73, he decided to once again take up that campaign which meant so much to him in his youth: the conversion of the Frisians. He resigned his See, and, after ensuring that his disciple Lullus was named bishop, returned to Friesland, where he was quite successful in his missionary endeavors. On June 5, 754, he called all new converts in Friesland to Dorkum, where they would be baptized in the River Borne and confirmed. While waiting for the many baptizands to arrive, an army of heathens attacked and murdered Boniface and fifty-two companions. His companions wanted to fight, but Boniface told them to trust in God and to welcome death for their faith. Soon afterwards, the Christians who had scattered at the approach of the army, returned and found the body of the martyr Boniface with a bloodstained copy of St. Ambrose's essay On the Advantage of Death. The body was taken to Utrect. Later, through the influence of Bishop Lullus, the body was brought to Mainz. Sometime later, according to a wish expressed by Boniface during his lifetime, his body was brought to the Abbey he had established in Fulda. This was the era in which the relics of the saints were believed to contain great spiritual power, so portions of his body are spread throughout the Germanic provinces. Portions of his relics are at Louvain, Mechlin, Prague, Bruges, and Erfurt. A considerable portion of his arm is kept at Eichfeld. His grave became a sanctuary and was visited by crowds on his feast day.

Boniface obviously felt a strong call to mission throughout his life; the fact that he would resign as Archbishop at the age of 73 so that he could return to the mission field to which he felt called at an early age is a sure sign of his devotion to his call and his dedication to the Great Commission. He is called the Apostle to Germany. He brought not only the faith of Christ to the Germans, but other than that nasty business with the Celtic Christians, he also brought Western civilization to that portion of Europe. He put his faith on the line, destroying the old gods which had held the people in darkness and he died bringing the light of Christ to the people of Friesland. So, let us remember Wynfrith of Devonshire, whose faithfulness led him to become St. Boniface, Apostle to Germany and martyr.

1 comment:

Aghaveagh said...

As one who has been stationed in the Fulda Gap during the Cold War, I give thanks for good ol' St. Boniface, "Good-Doer."

And for Padre Mickey, whose hagiography is always appreciated!!

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