St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany.
Bishop and Martyr
The Son of Man, proclaimed King in the highest heavens, on His triumphant Ascension-Day, leaves to his Bride on earth, the task of making his sovereign dominion recognized here below: this is her glory. Pentecost gives the signal for the Church’s work of conquest; now does she awake, aroused by the breath of the Holy Ghost; replenished with this Spirit of Love, she is all eagerness, as he is, to be possessed at once of the whole earth. We have already seen the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, pledging in her hands, their oath of fealty to Christ, to Whom is given all power on earth and in heaven (St. Matth. xxviii. 18). Today, we see how Winfrid, realizes the fair name of Boniface, or welldoer, given him by Pope Gregory II. Lo! he presents himself before us, surrounded by the multitudes he has snatched, at one blow, from paganism and barbarism alike. Thanks to the Apostle of Germany, the hour is nigh, when the Church may constitute in this world, apart the spiritual dominion of souls, an empire more powerful than any that has ever been or is to be.
The Eternal Father draws to his Son (St. John, vi. 44.–Ps. ii. 6, 8), not men only, but nations; these are on earth, no less his inheritance, than heaven is for all eternity. Now, the good pleasure that God takes in the Word made Flesh could never be content with merely seeing nations to come, one here, another there, offering an isolated homage of recognition to His Christ, as their Lord and Master. No; it was the whole world that was promised as His possession, without distinction of nations, without limits, save the confines of the round orb itself (Ps. ii. 6, 8): recognized or not, His power is universal. In the case of many, no doubt, the contempt or the ignorance of this regal claim of the Man-God, is to last on throughout ages; for revolt, alas! is always possible and to all. Yet, did it behove the Church to profit, as soon as might be, of her influence over baptized nations, so as to gather them together in one public acknowledgement of the Royalty of Christ, the source of every kingly power. At the Pontiff’s side, there seemed to be a fitting place for a mailed chieftain of Christendom, such an one, that is, as should be but lieutenant of Christ, who alone is Lord of lords and King of kings. Thus would be realized, in all its plenitude, the magnificent principality announced by the Prophets (Ibid. lxxi), for the Son of David.
Such an institution was indeed worthy of the name it was to receive of the Holy Empire: in it we have the final result of our glorious Pentecost, as being the consummation of the testimony rendered by the Holy Ghost to Jesus, both as Pontiff and as King (St. John, xv. 26). In a few days, Leo III. the illustrious Pope called by the Holy Spirit to crown this, His divine work, will proclaim, to the joy of the whole world, the establishment of this new empire beneath the sceptre-sway of the Man-Grod, in the person of Charlemagne, the representative of the King of kings. This marvellous work was not prepared on a sudden. Vast regions, destined to form the very nucleus of this future empire, for long centuries knew not so much as the very name of the Lord Jesus; or, at best, preserved but confused notions of truth, derived from some earlier evangelization that had been stifled in its birth, by the turmoil of invasions, a mere mixture of Christian practices and idolatrous superstitions. At length we behold Boniface arise, endued with power from on high (St. John, xv. 26), the worthy precursor of Saint Leo III. Born of those “Angel-faced” Angles, by whom ancient Britain was transformed into the “Island of Saints,” he burns to carry into the heart of Germany, whence his ancestors had sprung, the light which first shone upon them, in the land of their conquest.
Thirty years of monastic life, begun in childhood despite the tears and caresses of a tender father, had braced his soul. Matured by this long period of retreat and silence, filled with divine science, and accompanied by the prayers of his cloistered brethren, he could now in all security set forth, to follow the attraction of a divine call. But first and foremost, Rome beholds him at the feet of the Sovereign Pontiff, submitting his plans and prospects to him who is the only source of all “mission” in the Church. Gregory II, in every way worthy of the great Popes that have borne that name, was at that time, watching with apostolic vigilance over the Christian world. Amidst the rocks and shoals of Lombard astuteness and of the heretical infatuation of Leo the Isaurian, his firm and prudent hand was safely guiding the bark of Peter, towards the glorious sovereignty that awaited the Church, in the coming eighth Century. In the humble monk prostrate at his feet, the immortal Pontiff could not but recognize a potent auxiliary sent to him by heaven; and so, armed with the Apostolic benediction, Winfrid, now become Boniface feels the powerful attraction of the Holy Spirit, drawing him irresistibly to conquests, of which ancient Rome had never dreamed.
Beyond the Rhine, farther than Roman legions ever penetrated, the Bride of the Man-God now advances into this barbarous land, along pathways tracked for her by Boniface; overturning in her victorious march, the last idols of the false gods, civilizing and sanctifying those savage hordes, the scourge of the old world. This Anglo-Saxon, a true son of Saint Benedict, gives to his work a stability that will defy the lapse of ages. Everywhere, monasteries arise, rooting themselves to the very soil, for God’s sake; and by force of example and beneficence, fixing around them its various nomad tribes. From the river banks, from the forest depths, instead of cries of war and of vengeance, is wafted the accent of prayer and of praise, to the Most High. Sturm, the beloved disciple of Saint Boniface, presides over these pacific colonizations, far superior to those of pagan Rome, planted though they were by her noblest veterans and manned by the best forces of her Empire.
Lo! another sight: here, where violence has hitherto reigned supreme, in these savage wilds, a novel kind of army is organized, formed of the gentle Brides of Christ. The Spirit of Pentecost, like a mighty wind, has blown over the land of the Angles; and, even as in the Cenacle, holy women had a share in its influence, consecrated Virgins, obedient to the heavenly impulse, have quitted the land of their birth, yea even the monastery that has sheltered them from childhood. Having for a while administered only, at a distance, to Winfrid’s needs, and copied out for him, the sacred books in letters of gold; they at length come to join the apostle. Fearlessly have they crossed the sea, and guided by their divine Spouse, have come to share the labours undertaken here for His glory. Lioba is at their head; Lioba whose gentle majesty, whose heavenly aspect uplifts the thought from things terrene; Lioba, who by her knowledge of the scriptures, of the Fathers, and of the sacred Canons, is equal to any of the most celebrated Doctors. But the Holy Ghost has still more richly gifted the soul of Lioba with humility and Christian heroism. Behold the chosen Mother of the German nation! Germany’s scornful daughters, athirst for blood, who on their wedding-day disdained all other gift save a steed, a buckler, and a lance (Tacit. De mor. Germ. 18), are to learn from her the true qualities of the valiant woman. No more shall they be seen, intoxicated with slaughter, leading back to the field of battle, their vanquished husbands; but the virtues of the wife and of the mother shall replace in them the fury of the camp; family life is to be founded on the Germanic soil and therewith, the “Fatherland”.
This was the thought of Boniface, when he called to his aid Lioba, Walburga, and their companions. Worn out with toil, but still more with the incessant wear and fret of petty jealousies, (never spared to men of God, on the part of such as would cover their paltry complaints under the cloak of false zeal,) our athlete of Christ was not ashamed to come to Lioba, his well-beloved daughter, humbly seeking from her, that enlightened counsel and comfort, never denied. Estimating at its true worth, the share she had borne in his work, he was desirous that she should be laid to rest in the same tomb, prepared for him in his Abbey of Fulda.
But not yet was his labour ended, nor the evening of life at hand. The spiritual weal of his numberless converts must be secured, and at their head must be placed such as the Holy Ghost designated for the government of God’s Church (Acts, xx. 28). By his means, the hierarchy was constituted and developed; the land was covered with churches; and, beneath the crosier-sway of holy bishops chosen by God, these once wandering tribes, now began to live a life of glory to the Most Blessed Trinity, in a country, but yesterday, pagan, and wherein Satan had hoped to perpetuate his own domination.
Nor was this our saint’s only work in Germany: in certain isolated parts on the confines, the seeds of Arianism and Manicheeism had been silently taking root, by means of an intruded clergy, half pagan and half Christian in their rites; and these would inevitably prove a serious scandal to his recent converts that came within reach of their influence. Even as Christ, armed with a whip of cords, drove the buyers and sellers from the temple, so did Boniface, by vigorous measures, rid the land of these sectarian priests, who, with hands polluted by heathenish sacrifices to the vanquished deities of Valhalla, dared to offer also the spotless victim to the Most High.
The powerful action of Boniface, as the precursor of the Holy Empire, was not confined to preparing the German race alone, for its share in so high a destiny. His beneficent influence was now to be exercised, and at a most critical moment, upon France, the eldest daughter of the Church; for she was chosen, in the person of her Princes, to be the first to bear the emblem of Christ’s universal kingship. The descendants of Clovis had preserved naught of his royal inheritance, save the vain title of a power that had now just passed into the hands of a new family, a more vigorous branch of his stock. Charles Martel, the head of this race, measuring his strength with the Moors had crushed their entire army, near Poitiers: but, in the flush of victory, the hero of the day had well nigh brought the Church of France to the brink of ruin, by distributing to his comrades in arms, the episcopal sees and abbeys of the land! Unless a situation, no less disastrous than would have been the triumph of Abderahman, was to be accepted, these usurped crosiers must at once be wrested from the hands of such strange titularies. To effect this, as much gentleness as firmness were needed, together with an ascendency belonging only to virtue, if the hero of Poitiers and his noble race were to be gained over, to respect the rights of holy Church. This victory, more glorious than had been the defeat of the Moors, was won by Boniface, a veritable triumph of disarmed holiness, as profitable to the vanquished as to the Church herself! Of this fierce warrior, he was to make the worthy father of a second dynasty, the glory whereof should far surpass the brilliant hopes of the first race of Frankish kings.
Boniface, now Legate of Pope St. Zachary, as he had formerly been of Gregory III, fixed his Episcopal see at Mainz, the better, at one and the same time, to hold fast to Christ, both Germany, the conquest of his earlier apostolate, and France more recently rescued by his labours. Like another Samuel, he himself, with his own hands, consecrated this new regal dynasty, by conferring the sacred unction on Pepin le Bref, son of Charles Martel. This was in the year 752. Another Charles, as yet a child, who was one day to inherit that throne thus firmly fixed, attracted the notice of the aged Saint, and received his benediction; it was the future Charlemagne. But, to the hand of a Sovereign Pontiff would be reserved the anointing of that royal brow; and a diadem more glorious still than that of a king of the Franks, was one day to rest thereon, exhibiting in his person the head of the new Roman Empire, the lieutenant of Christ, the King of kings.
The personal work of Boniface was now accomplished; like the old man Simeon, his eyes had seen the object of all his ambition, of all his life-long toil, the salvation prepared by God, for this new Israel. He too had now no desire left save that of departing in peace to his Lord; but, could the entering into peace, for such an Apostle, be by other gate than that of martyrdom? He understands this well: his hour has sounded: the old warrior has chosen his last battle-field. Friesland is still pagan: half a century ago, at the opening of his apostolic career, he had avoided this country, in order to escape the bishopric which Saint Willibrord, at that early date, was anxious to force upon him: but now that she has naught, save death, to offer him, he will enter this land. In a letter of sublime humility, prostrate at the feet of Pope Stephen III, he remits to the correction of the Apostolic See, the “awkward mistakes,” as he terms them, and the many faults of his long life (Epist. lxxviii); to Lullus his dearest son, he leaves the Church of Mainz; he recommends to the care of the Frankish king, the several priests scattered all through Germany, the monks and virgins who from distant homes have followed him hither. Then ordering to be placed, amongst the few books which he is taking with him, the winding sheet that is to enwrap his body, he designates the companions chosen by him for the journey, and sets out to win the martyr’s palm.
Let us now read the liturgical record
of this grand life.
Boniface, formerly called Winfrid, was a native of Anglia, born towards the end of the seventh century. From his very childhood, he turned away from the world and set his heart upon becoming a monk, his father tried in vain to divert him from his wishes by the beguilements of the world, and he entered a monastery, where under blessed Wolphard he was instructed in all virtuous discipline and every kind of knowledge. At the age of twenty nine years he was ordained Priest, and became an unwearied preacher of the word of God, wherein he had a special gift, which he used with great gain of souls. Nevertheless, his great desire was to spread the kingdom of Christ, and he continually bewailed the vast number of barbarians, who were plunged in the darkness of ignorance and were slaves of the devil. This zealous love of souls increased in him in intensity day by day, till having implored the divine aid by prayers and tears, he at last obtained the permission of the Prior of the monastery, to set forth for Germany.
He sailed from Anglia with two companions and reached the town of Dorestadt in Friesland. A great war then raging between Radbod, king of the Frieslanders and Charles Martel, he preached the Gospel without fruit: for which reason returning to Anglia, he betook himself again to his former monastery, the government of which against his will, he was forced to accept. After two years, he obtained the consent of the Bishop of Winchester, to resign his office, and he then went to Rome, that by the Apostolic authority he might be delegated to the mission for the converting of the heathens. When he arrived at the City, he was courteously welcomed by Gregory II, who changed his name from Winfrid to Boniface. He departed thence to Germany and preached Christ to the tribes in Thuringia and Saxony. Radbod King of Friesland who bitterly hated the Christian name, being dead, Boniface went a second time among the Frieslanders, and there, with his companion St. Willibrord, preached the Gospel for three years, with so much fruit, that the idols were hewn down, and countless churches arose to the true God.
Saint Willibrord urged upon him to take the office of Bishop, but he refused, so that he might the more instantly toil for the salvation of the unbelievers. Advancing into Germany, he reclaimed thousands of the Hessians from devilish superstition. Pope Gregory sent for him, to Rome, and after receiving from him a noble profession of his faith, consecrated him a bishop. He again returned to Germany, and thoroughly purged Hesse and Thuringia from all remains of idolatry. On account of such great works, Gregory III advanced Boniface to the dignity of an archbishop, and on the occasion of a third journey to Rome, he was invested by the Sovereign Pontiff with the powers of Legate of the Apostolic See. As such, he founded four bishoprics and held divers synods, among which is especially to be remembered that of Lessines held in Belgium, in the diocese of Cambrai, at which time he made his strongest efforts to spread the Faith among the Belgians. By Pope Zachary, he was named Archbishop of Mainz, and by command of the same Pope, he anointed Pepin to be king of the Franks. After the death of Saint Willibrord, he undertook the government of the Church of Utrecht, at first by the ministry of Eoban, but afterwards by himself, when being released from the care of the Church of Mainz, he established his see at Utrecht. The Frieslanders having again fallen back into idolatry, he once more betook himself to preach the Gospel among them, and while he was busied in this duty, he won the palm of martyrdom being slain by some impious barbarians, who attacked him together with his fellow bishop Eoban, and many others, on the river Born. In accordance with the wish expressed by himself during life, the body of Saint Boniface was carried to Mainz and buried in the Monastery of Fulda, of which he had been the founder, and which he has rendered illustrious by numerous miracles. Pope Pius IX. ordered his Office and Mass to be extended to the universal Church.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.