St. Boniface, Archbishop and Martyr
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.
St. Boniface fearlessly meets his enemies who have come to kill him. Thus he wishes to imitate, in his last hour, the Saviour whom he had constantly followed during life. To follow Christ as closely as possible, is every man’s duty. Whoever neglects this is no true Christian, and can have no hope to be saved. “I am no true Christian,” says St. Bernard, “if I do not follow Christ.” “Vainly does he bear the name of Christian, who does not follow Christ,” writes St. Augustine. The hope of salvation if we do not follow Christ is taken from us by Christ himself by these words: “And he that taketh not up his cross and followeth me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. x.). If you, therefore, desire to be a true Christian and hope to gain salvation, endeavor to follow Christ, your Lord, as St. Boniface did. If you do not venture to follow Christ so far as to meet suffering, as this Saint did, follow Him at least so far as to carry your cross patiently. Follow Him in gentleness, in humility, in fervency of prayer, in submission to God’s holy will, in obedience, in love to your neighbor and in similar virtues.
II. During the space of 40 years St. Boniface suffered and labored for the honor of God and the salvation of souls. After this, he went through a glorious martyrdom, into the house of his eternity, where he now enjoys an indescribably great and everlasting reward. Why is it called “his eternity?” There are two eternities, one in heaven, the other in hell. Every human being will come into one of these, which is called his eternity. He cannot change from one eternity into the other, but will always remain where he entered by death. There will be his house, his abode; there he will dwell for ever. Whoever enters purgatory, belongs to the happy eternity of heaven. He dwells in purgatory only until he is completely cleansed, and after this, his house, his eternal abode is in heaven. Where will be your house, your abode? In heaven or in hell? The house, the abode of St. Boniface, is in the happy eternity of heaven. Why not in hell, like that of the rich man, the unhappy Judas, and of thousands of others? The answer to this is as follows : Because St. Boniface, during his earthly life, did not build himself a house in hell, like the rich man, Judas and thousands of others, but he built it in heaven. And how did he build it there? By avoiding sin; by good works, and by patience in sufferings and crosses.
Impress deeply on your heart what I am now going to tell you. Every man, builds himself a house in eternity, while living on earth. And in that eternity, in which he has built his house, he shall dwell. In that house, which he has built during his life, he is to dwell for ever. By sin and vice, by the neglect of good works, man builds himself a house in hell; but by avoiding sin and doing good works, he builds himself a house in heaven. Can you now answer the question I addressed to you above; where will one day be your house, your abode? in heaven or in hell? Look back on your life and see how until now you have been building your house, and you will easily find the answer. Ah! your many sins and vices are surely no materials for building a house in heaven, but for one in hell. Have you then until the present moment been building your house in hell? Will you soon take possession of it and dwell in it? Consider well what you are doing! This I may say for your comfort: by true repentance you can tear down the house, and by perseverance in penance, by avoiding sin, by good deeds, patience in crosses and sufferings, you can yet build yourself a magnificent house, nay even a palace in heaven, and dwell therein eternally. You must, however, immediately begin to tear down the old house and to erect the new one. God grants you still time and grace. “Behold now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation” (II. Cor. vi.). Soon will it be said, “Time shall be no longer!” (Apoc. x.)
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.