THE APOSTLE TO FRISIA
c.675 - 754
"Let us never be dogs that do not bark, or silent bystanders, or hired servants who flee at the approach of the wolf. Instead let us be watchful shepherds, guarding the flock of Christ. And as God gives us strength, in season and out of season, let us preach to the powerful and powerless alike, to rich and poor alike, to all people of every rank and of whatever age, the saving purposes of God."
So wrote Boniface in 747 to the Archbishop of Canterbury after endless years of working zealously for the reform of the church and conversion of pagans. Boniface belongs to that group of pioneering but pious English Christians in the post Augustine days who converted not only much of England but also the Low Countries and Frisia, Bavaria, and Hesse (now Germany) and Gaul. So unceasingly did Boniface work to bring the Gospel to this part of Europe, he is known as the apostle to the Germans.
Born c. 675 in Crediton, Devon, and baptised as Wynfrith, he took the name Boniface when he entered the Benedictine monastery at Exeter and then at Nursling, Winchester. After he was ordained at 30 he did not want a safe ecclesiastical career in England but sought most earnestly to be a missionary in some heathen part of Europe. Thus in 716 he set out to join Willibrord, another Englishman from Northumbria, in Frisia, but the political situation aborted this attempt, and he was forced to return to his monastery. With the death of the abbot of his community upon his return, Boniface was elected to take his place, but he refused, knowing his calling was for missionary work. As a result in 718 he travelled to Rome where Pope Gregory II commissioned him to preach to the pagans in Teutonic lands.
"You are to go forth to preach the word of God to those still enslaved in paganism. You are to instruct them in the service of God's kingdom by persuading them to accept the Truth in the name of Christ, our Lord and God. You will imbue them with the Old and New Testaments in a spirit always of love and moderation, and in a manner of argument appropriate to their comprehension." How very similar are these words to those given by Gregory the Great to Augustine.
Full of hope Boniface set out from Rome, crossed the lower Alps, and travelled through Bavaria to Hesse where he preached successfully. Hoping that he would have greater success if their leader were converted, Boniface returned to Frisia and worked with Willibrord who soon wanted Boniface as his coadjutor and successor. However Boniface declined because his commission had been to all the Teutonic peoples, which was reinforced in 722 when he was recalled to Rome to be consecrated as a regionary bishop for these peoples. Gregory gave him a special letter to deliver to the powerful Charles Martel. The delivery of this letter en route back to Germany won for him the valuable concession of a sealed pledge of protection from Martel. Upon his return in Hesse, Boniface decided to strike at the root of pagan superstition, belief in Thor, the god of war. Therefore he publicly announced in advance his decision to chop down Thor's oak. The crowd at Geismar watched as he hacked at the oak until it toppled, and was awe-struck when there was no lightning, no thunderbolt to revenge what they regarded as an act of sacrilege. Acknowledging the powerlessness of their own gods, they were converted to Jesus Christ.
Having succeeded in Hesse, Boniface moved on to Thuringia. Although there were some Christians living here, Boniface asked English monks and nuns to join him as missionaries to Germany. For the rest of his life, he relied heavily on the support of his friends and thus for many years parties of monks and nuns crossed the sea to place themselves at the disposal of Boniface who established a missionary centre at Thuringia. English monasteries sent books and vestments for the new centres. Two existing monasteries were enlarged and new ones founded to accommodate all the missionaries. Among their numbers were Saint Lull, who succeeded Boniface in the see of Mainz; Saint Eoban, who shared Boniface's martyrdom; Saint Burchard, the first bishop of Würzburg; Saint Wigbert, abbot of Fritzlar; Saint Thecla, first abbess of Ochsenfürt Abbey; Saint Walburga, sister of Saints Willibald and Winebald; and Boniface's beautiful and erudite young cousin, Saint Leoba, who supervised all the convents founded from the monastery of Bischoffsheim.
In 731 Boniface was sent the pallium by Pope Saint Gregory III and constituted metropolitan of Germany beyond the Rhine [later see of Mainz]. He was authorized to create new sees and went to Bavaria to organize a church hierarchy and establish new sees. He became a mentor and support to the Carolingians, and he reformed the Frankish Church, which Charles Martel had plundered. Boniface made a third journey to Rome to report on the progress being made. At that time he was appointed papal legate and recruited Saint Willibald at Monte Cassino. Returning to Bavaria as papal legate, Boniface organized its hierarchy, weeded out unworthy priests, and corrected abuses. Then he continued on with his missionary work, founding other sees at Erfurt for Thuringia, Buraburg for Hesse, and Würzburg for Franconia. Later he established a seat in Nordgau at Eichstätt.
The year 741 was a fruitful one. Boniface founded the abbey of Fulda with his young disciple, Saint Sturmi, and Charles Martel died, leaving the way open for Boniface to work with his successors, Pepin and Carloman. As the latter was earnestly devout, he co-operated with Boniface to call a synod to deal with abuses. The first was followed by a second in 743. Pepin summoned a synod for Gaul, which was succeeded in 745 by a general council for the two provinces. Boniface presided over all of them and succeeded in carrying out all the reforms he felt were needed. Fresh vigour was infused into the Church of Gaul. After the fifth Frankish council in 747, Boniface fixed his metropolitan see at Mainz and Pope Saint Zachary created him primate of Germany as well as apostolic legate for Germany and Gaul. Soon after this Carloman retired into a monastery and Pepin united Gaul under one rule; however, he continued to give Boniface the supported he needed. As papal legate Boniface crowned Pepin at Soissons in 751.
By now Boniface was an old man and he resigned his see in favour of St. Lull in order to spend his last years during what he felt had been his mission in life to convert pagans. Frisia, where he had gone so many years before had lapsed into heathenism after the death of St. Willibrord. With a small company, he successfully converted large numbers in the previously unevangelized area of northeast Frisia. On Pentecost Eve Boniface and Eoban were preparing for the confirmation of some of Boniface's converts at Dokkum on the river Borne, in the northern Netherlands. Boniface had been quietly reading in his tent while awaiting the arrival of his neophytes, when a hostile band descended on the camp. He would not allow his companions to defend him. As he was exhorting them to trust in God and to welcome the prospect of dying for the faith, they were attacked--Boniface was one of the first to fall of the 52 who were killed for the Faith. How fitting it is that Boniface should be martyred at Pentecost when the Church commemorates the beginning of the Church's mission to the world. This holy man fought to the death for the law of his God, never cowed by the threats of the wicked; his house was built on solid rock. The body of St. Boniface was first carried to Utrecht, thence to Mentz, and lastly to Fulda, where it was deposited by St. Lullus, as the saint himself had desired and where it still rests. His bloodstained books were exhibited as relics for centuries here.
Boniface's impact on English history and church was enormous, extending beyond the simple conversion of people to Christianity. He became the great exemplar and as such sustained the next generation of missionaries, many of whom were his spiritual children. Even in England some of his pupils held high office, including Eanbald who became Archbishop of York.
He also helped to arrange alliances between popes and emperors, and the educational and literary influence from his monasteries was significant. He introduced the Benedictine rule to his monasteries, and he made sure they were not only a place of prayer but also of learning. As a young monk and a Latin scholar he wrote the first Latin Grammar in England. All through his life he corresponded with his friends in England, including his dear friend the abbot of his English order and bishop of Winchester, Bishop Daniel to whom he frequently wrote for advice. In one of his replied in723 Daniel had this advice for Boniface: "Remind the pagans frequently of the supremacy of the Christian world, and that they who cling to outworn beliefs are a dwindling band." Throughout his letters there also was an insistence on intercession to enable missionary to proceed. Writing in 738 he urged the English to pray for the conversion of their brethren: "We beg you to be instant in prayer that God and the Lord Jesus Christ may convert the hearts of the pagan Saxons to the faith. Have pity on them, for their repeated cry is 'We are of the same flesh and blood.'" His letters also reflected the many problems he faced after conversion of pagans such as marriage customs, and the place of lepers and slaves in Christian communities.
During his life he formed very close relations with Eadburga, abbess of Minster-in Thanet who constantly supplied him with books and vestments and altar plate and also with Leoba, abbess of Fulda. She was distantly related to Boniface. Just prior to his death, Boniface charged her never to leave Germany, and instructed that she should be buried beside him at Fulda.
Undoubtedly Boniface was one of the great missionaries, following in the footsteps of blessed Paul. Let Boniface inspire us to be missionaries for Christ, and to take up our cross and follow wherever it leads, and not to lay it down until death as illustrated in his words.