ST. BONIFACE: Apostle of Germany
673 – 754
Monk in England
One of the great figures in the annals of Christian mission Boniface spent the first half of his life as a monk in England. Born in 673 of a good family at Crediton, Devonshire in Southeast England he was baptized Wynfrith (Winfrid), a name which meant “Joy and Peace.”
When he was only five years old he decided to offer his life to the Lord after hearing the conversation of some monks who visited his home.
So at the age of seven he started on the road to being a monk by being educated by the Benedictines at the monastery school at Exeter then to the Nursling abbey in Winchester (famed for learning) under the abbot Winberht. Upon completion of his course he so distinguished himself as a brilliant scholar that the Abbot appointed him to teach.
A very popular teacher many scholars came to the school attracted by his teaching skill. His lecture notes were even copied by his students and circulated to other schools. For them he wrote a famous Latin Grammar textbook, which was the first to be used in English schools. He was eventually named director of the monastic school.
After he was ordained in 715 at the age of 30 Boniface, a noted preacher, began delivering inspiring homilies that were all based on the Bible which was his delight throughout his life.
Boniface was already a well-known scholar and teacher in the Benedictine order when he decided at the age of forty that what he wanted above all else was to be a missionary, his true vocation as revealed to him by God. So seized with a missionary fervor Boniface, in 1716 following the example of other Saxon kinsmen monks set out as missionary after his abbot reluctantly gave his consent. An Anglo-Saxon by birth his long standing wish was to convey the gospel to Friesland, (now Northern Netherlands) where his co-Saxon people remained un-persuaded by the spreading Christian religion. However his first evangelical mission to Friesland failed probably because of the hostility of Radbod, king of the Frisians, who said he had no wish “to go to heaven with a handful of beggars.” Reluctantly he was forced to return to Nursling. Delighted to have him back, his fellow monks elected him abbot from 716 to 718 after Winbert died. However Boniface, still felt he was called by God to evangelize in a foreign land.
Mission to Evangelize Germany
Convinced that a papal commission was essential to his success as a missionary Boniface made the first of his three visits to Rome. First Boniface presented in 718 his proposed mission to Pope Gregory II who not only changed his name from Wynfrith to Boniface (meaning “doing good”) but also gave him a wide missionary commission. He was told to go forth “to those people who are still in the bonds of infidelity . . . . to teach them the service of the kingdom of God by persuasion of the truth in the name of Christ, the Lord our God.”
Pope Gregory II sent him in 719 to evangelize the heathens in Germany as the vast majority of the people still worshipped pagan gods.
In Germany he was able to engage in missionary work so successfully for three years under his countryman Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht.
Consecrated a Regional Bishop
Then in 722 he successfully converted and baptized great numbers in Hesse and Thuringia. When he sent word about his extraordinary results to the pope he was summoned back to Rome where he was consecrated a regional bishop for all of Germany. Not only was he able to eliminate paganism in much of the country but he founded churches and Benedictine monasteries and successfully asked English monasteries to send many monks and nuns to act as teachers to help him establish churches.
Demolishes the Oak of Thor
Because Boniface particularly was opposed to idolatry he deplored the worship of trees which was a common feature of the folk religion of Germany.
In a famous incident, so the legend goes, to undermine the pagan superstition Boniface in front of an awestruck crowd axed down the sacred oak of Donar called The Oak of Thor which stood at the Summit of Mount Gudenberg. It was an object of pagan worship as sacred to the god Thor. The crowd of onlookers were aghast expecting the heavenly punishment of their gods to rain down in lightning bolts on Boniface for his sacrilege.
When nothing happened, the people interpreted it to mean that Boniface had the more powerful god and so a wave of conversions ensued. Boniface used the wood of the famous tree to build a Christian chapel on that very spot. He named the church Saint Peter’s.
From then on the work of evangelization went on steadily and even more new churches and converts were established throughout the country. He was thus popularly known as the “St. Paul of Germany” because through him Germany became a Christian country.
Founded the Abbey of Fulda
In 735 Boniface and his disciple St. Sturmi founded Fulda, the chief monastery they co-founded, which later became the German Monte Cassino – a great monastic and learning center for northern Europe. Today Fulda is still the annual meeting place for the German Bishops.
Revitalizes the Church in France
In the meantime the Church in France was in great need of revitalization. Under Charles Martel, the Frankish King, the Church was so neglected that many ecclesiastical abuses prevailed and were rampant throughout the country.
Thankfully when he died in 741 his sons were convinced to call a synod to deal with these abuses. Boniface who presided over 4 of such assemblies was able to instill fresh vigor into the Church of Gaul (France).
In just five years he was able to regenerate the Frankish church: to reform and revitalize the Church in France to her former greatness.
So when in 747 Boniface was summoned by Pope Zachary to come once more to Rome he made him not only archbishop of Mainz and designated him Primate of Germany but named him apostolic delegate for Germany and Gaul.
Since to his dismay the Germans were “lapsing” Boniface already nearing eighty, resigned his see and once more hit the road to return to his first love – missionary work – to reconvert his Saxon kinsmen in Friesland who had turn pagans.
It was here while quietly reading in his tent at Dokkum while waiting to confirm new converts that a band of hostile pagans came and attacked Boniface and his 53 companions – killing them all.
In the famous monastery of Fulda lies not only his remains but the blood-stained book that Boniface raised over his head to protect himself from the brutal sword cuts that martyred him on June 5, 754.
Boniface’s organizing genius even more than his missionary zeal has left a lasting mark upon the German and French churches throughout all the middle ages.
Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury wrote of Boniface, his contemporary: “We in England lovingly count him as one of the best and greatest teachers of the true faith.”
He is rightfully called the patron and Apostle of Germany because to him belongs the credit of “systematically evangelizing and civilizing the great regions of central Germany . . .” so that through him Germany became a Christian country. It’s no wonder he is popularly known as “St. Paul of Germany.”
His other great achievement was the regeneration of the Frankish Church.
His feast day (June 5) was extended to the universal church by Pope Pius IX in 1874.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. II pp 477 – 481
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia – pp 129
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 82 – 83
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – pp 38 – 39
A Calendar of Saints – p. 107
All Saints – pp 246 – 247
Saints for Everyday – pp 190 – 192
A Year With the Saints – June 5
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 261 – 263
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp 239 – 240
My First Book of Saints – pp 118 – 120
Saint Companions – pp 203 – 205
Saints for Our Time – pp 119 – 121
Saint of the Day – pp 130 – 131
Lives of the Saints Part I – pp 169 – 175
Children’s Book of Saints – pp 115 – 118
Saints – A Visual Guide – pp 190 – 191
Voices of the Saints – pp 298 – 299
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives – Group 6 Card 14
The Everything Saints Book – pp 76 – 77
The Lion Treasury of Saints – p 211, 124 – 125
Best – Loved Saints – pp 61 – 64
The Way of the Saints – pp 82 – 83
Book of Saints – Part 4 pp 18 – 19