The little Winfrid discovered in the Benedictine cloister the secret to overcoming self, barbarism and hell. From his apostolic zeal, crowned by martyrdom, the Germanic people would be born to Christ.
Superb military parades, exquisitely organized cities, succulent sausages, forests notable for the impeccable regularity of their arrangement: these are some of the indisputable charms of Germany.
They radiate an innocence in battle array, which captivates, impresses and arouses admiration. These and countless other aspects – authentic fruits of a civilized people fond of discipline – have flourished under the blessings of the Holy Church, in the ardour of courageous souls that have marked history.
We will undertake in these lines to contemplate one of them: the providential man whose mission it was to Christianize the peoples beyond the Rhine and to offer his life in holocaust for them.
A medieval biographer wrote of this tireless apostle: “All the inhabitants of Germania may call the holy Bishop Boniface their father, because he begot them for Christ by the words of holy preaching, confirmed them by his example, and finally gave his life for them, which is the greatest proof of love.”1
A Benedictine at five years of age
Let us now go back to the end of the seventh century, when the sublime, disciplined and highly elevated life of the Benedictine Order was spreading throughout Europe. Their abbeys, true refineries of heroes, formed men and women in a regime of equilibrium and sacrality, conducive to ordering the tendencies of nature towards lofty ideals.
Souls who were sanctified within them, in fidelity to their founder, their charism and their rule, were apt for the most daring journeys and deeds, the greatest advances in art and thought, the most formidable sufferings and martyrdoms, for God’s glory and the benefit of others.
England too, recently Christianized by St. Augustine of Canterbury, had been captivated by Benedictine graces. And it was there that, around the year 680, a boy was born who was quick to become enthused for this way of life. At only five years of age, Winfrid, of an Anglo-Saxon family, asked to enter an abbey. His father resisted, judging him to be still too young, but two years later allowed him to enter the monastery of Nursling.
Educated in the wise rule of “ora et labora”, the little one learned Latin, metrics, poetry and exegesis. While yet a youth, he became a teacher of Latin Grammar, composed several poems in that language and wrote some treatises.
He becomes a sacral man
Along with his brilliant education, his soul was honed in the virtues proper to a religious. Through obedience he gained dominion over his own will; through chastity he emulated the Angels; through humility he learned to want the most – not for himself, but for God’s glory; through prayer and contemplation he soared to Heaven, carrying out all his activities with his mind set on the highest supernatural planes.
He thus became a sacral man who was not content to possess the sublimity of grace within himself, but wished to conquer the whole earth for God. A sign of the authenticity of his longings was his willingness to overcome every obstacle and to face all interior and exterior challenges.
Winfrid was ordained a priest in the year 710, when he was probably thirty years old. When the Council of Wessex was convened, he received a sensitive mission from the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was crowned with such success that his fame soon began to spread. Perceiving this, he asked his abbot’s permission to be a missionary, thus renouncing all worldly prestige.
The first mission fails
The gaze of the holy priest turned to an uncultivated but vibrant people. And, having previously entrusted himself to several religious communities that agreed to pray for the outcome of his undertaking, in the year 716 he landed on the coasts of Frisia, near present-day Utrecht.
After a few months of assisting Bishop St. Willibrord in his apostolate, he was forced to return to his homeland, without having obtained much success. But Winfrid’s soul, tempered by the austerities of the cloister, was dauntless in the face of failures. Taking this setback as a challenge, he decided to better prepare himself and wait for a propitious occasion to return to the task.
Aiming to equip himself with the most powerful means, which neither hell nor Heaven could resist, he went to Rome in 718 to request letters of support from Pope Gregory II. Noting the capacity of this priest, the Pontiff kept him for a time in his service, and in the following year, with a letter dated May 15, 719, sent him to Germania with the aim of bringing the Word of God to the peoples still immersed in the darkness of idolatry. In order to consecrate this mandate, he gave him the name of Boniface.
Felling the sacred oak
Upon reaching the heart of the German territory, Boniface beheld the immense labour ahead of him. The small Christian community there was in such decadence that its members took part in cults and banquets in honour of the god Thor.
He tirelessly set out to draw them to the true religion and, as a first measure, asked for help from his dear monks in England, many of whom, heeding his appeal, hastened to those lands which were savage and uncharted for them. Thanks to these monks, the regions of Hesse and Thuringia became the field of constant preaching and missions.
At a certain moment, the Saint decided to cut down the “sacred” oak of Thor, to demonstrate to those souls the powerlessness of idols and to uproot the false religion from within them.
Standing on the mountain of Gudenberg in Geismar, west of Fritzlar, this oak was the symbol of Germanic paganism. But Boniface, audaciously defying the rage of the barbarians, took an axe and began to strike the symbolic tree. The heavens showed themselves to be in favour of his enterprise: at that moment an impetuous wind began to blow and knocked it down, breaking it into four pieces.
Seeing this manifestation of the true God, a jealous God who judges with justice, a great number of pagans converted to the Catholic Faith. A chapel dedicated to St. Peter was erected on the site where the oak had once stood.
He had to demonstrate to those souls the powerlessness of idols and to uproot the false religion from within them!
Bishop and organizer of a spiritual army
After Boniface had completed three years of fruitful apostolate, Gregory II called him to Rome to bestow on him the dignity of the episcopate, which he had repeatedly declined. The Pontiff declared that he did this “so that he could, with greater conviction, correct and lead back to the path of truth those who had gone astray; so that he might feel supported by the highest authority of apostolic dignity and be the better received in the office of preaching, the more he demonstrated this to be the motive of his ordination to the apostolic prelature.”2
The same unpretentiousness that had led the Saint to so earnestly refuse this honour now impelled him to bow before the will of the Vicar of Christ. On November 30, 722, the Supreme Pontiff ordained him Bishop of Germania, a vast diocese which included the entire region beyond the Rhine River.
Enjoying the esteem of the Pope and counting on the valuable support of Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, Boniface endeavoured to conquer more souls for the flock of Christ. In addition to Hesse and Thuringia, Bavaria and other parts of the Germanic territory also benefitted from his zeal.
The venerable bishop founded the Monastery of St. Michael of Ordhuff, establishing his residence there. And, knowing how efficacious the example of religious life was in civilizing these peoples, he built numerous monasteries. From 740 to 778, twenty-nine were built in Bavaria.
At the head of this spiritual army he placed his faithful Anglo-Saxon collaborators, who had responded to his call at the beginning of the mission and had persevered with him. Worthy of special mention among them is St. Lullus, who would later succeed him in the Episcopal See, and the Abbess St. Leoba.
Reform of the Frankish Church
Boniface’s zeal knew no limits and went beyond the already enormous boundaries of his diocese. At the request of Carloman, son of Charles Martel, he travelled to Austria and convoked the synod that would go down in history under the name Concilium Germanicum.
Moral laxity was great in those regions inhabited by the Franks, still governed by the Merovingian dynasty. By means of this Council and other Synods convoked later, the holy bishop restructured the dioceses, gathered all the monasteries under the Benedictine rule and charism and obtained a partial restitution of the Church’s property, used by Charles Martel in his constant wars. With the help of the counts, he also forbade the still extant pagan customs.
In order to complete and safeguard these reforms, he convoked the General Council of the French Empire in the year 747, at which the unity of the Faith was established, and he concluded it with a letter of submission and fidelity to the See of Peter.
“In this place, with Your Holiness’ consent, I intend to be laid to rest after death.”
Foundation of the Abbey of Fulda
Over the years Boniface had been nurturing the desire to build a monastery in which his remains would rest and in some way perpetuate his presence among those people, his children.
With the help of St. Sturm, from a noble family in Bavaria, and educated by Boniface from an early age, he chose a quiet place in the middle of the forest, in the present state of Hesse. Having been gladly granted the property by the royal authority, the disciple and seven other monks took possession of the place and, on January 12, 744, they began to erect with their own hands the famous Abbey of Fulda, alternating the work with prayers and singing of Psalms.
This is what St. Boniface wrote to Pope St. Zacharius about the new foundation: “A savage place, in the wilderness of a vast silence, among the peoples entrusted to our preaching. When we built the monastery, we placed monks there who live according to the rule of the Patriarch St. Benedict, in strict observance, eating no meat and drinking no wine or beer, and without servants, content with the work of their own hands.”3
And a little further on, he adds: “In this place, with Your Holiness’ consent, I intend to restore, with a little repose, the body broken by old age, and to be laid to rest after death. For it is known that around this place dwell four peoples, to whom, helped by the grace of God, we proclaimed the doctrine of Christ; through your intercession, may I be of service to them as long as I am alive or sound. Indeed, I desire, through your prayers and by the grace of God, to persevere in communion with the Roman Church and in your service among the Germanic peoples, to whom I have been sent, and to obey your command.”4
During the lifetime of its first abbot, Fulda came to house four hundred monks, constituting a font of sacrality and virtue from which germinated many of the Germanic splendours of the Middle Ages.
“This is the day we have longed for!”
Approaching his eighth decade of life, St. Boniface did not feel satiated by his love for God. His heart burned with a desire for new conquests for the Holy Church.
Leaving St. Lullus as his successor in the Archdiocese of Mainz, St. Boniface decided to once again face the challenge with which he had begun his mission: the conversion of Frisia. “I wish to accomplish the purpose of this journey; I cannot in any way renounce the desire to depart. The day of my end is near and the time of my death is approaching; leaving the mortal body, I will ascend to the eternal reward. But you, most beloved son, […] tirelessly summon the people from the abyss of error, finish the construction of the basilica already begun at Fulda and in it bury my body grown old by many years of life,”5 he wrote to his successor.
“This is the day we have longed for, the time of our end has come; have courage in the Lord!”
In the spring of 754 he departed for Frisia, accompanied by about fifty monks, to evangelize people even more savage than those with whom he had lived until then.
After some months of arduous but fruitful apostolate, the Saint decided to gather all the converts in the city of Dokkum, in present-day Holland, in order to administer to them the Sacrament of Confirmation. It was the year 755. At the appointed time, the men of God witnessed the arrival of a ferocious troop of bandits instead of the Christians.
The faithful bishop was in his tent, reading a book. As he saw the bestial horde advancing, he arose with courage and said: “This is the day we have longed for, the time of our end has come; have courage in the Lord. Be strong, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the immortal spirit; rejoice in the Lord and set the anchor of your hope in God, who will soon give you the recompense of the eternal reward and a place in the heavenly Kingdom with the citizens of Heaven, who are the Angels.”6 While using the book to defend himself, he was struck on the head and appeared before his Lord to receive the much-deserved reward.
Upon learning of the event, the Christians of Frisia hastened to collect the precious relics of the martyrs: St. Boniface and the fifty-two who victoriously ascended with him to Heaven. The body of the father of the Germanic peoples was transferred to Fulda Abbey, not without opposition from the faithful of the Diocese of Utrecht and Mainz, who wished to keep him with them.
Thus culminated the glorious epic of that boy who, in the silence and discipline of the Benedictine cloister, discovered the secret of the triumph over self, barbarism and hell. ◊