Saint Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, may not be well known in the United States, however he brought Catholicism to Germany. He is greatly admired in Germany and other European countries. He is venerated not only by the Catholic Church, but by the Lutherans, as well as the Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox.
We’ve said this before, but when there is a crisis in God’s Church, he raises up a powerful Saint to do the task. In this instance, He chose a young man filled with the Spirit, from what is today known as Great Britain. He sent him to what is today Germany to evangelize and convert the Old Saxons, the people of Germany who were Catholic but had lost their way. And that was just the beginning. Before his life was over, he had evangelized all of Germany, and had become Primate of Germany. If that wasn’t enough, when that was done, he went over to France to convert and bring back to the Faith those who had left. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.
Boniface was born in Crediton in Devonshire, England in 675-680 and baptized Winfrid. His was a noble family. He was given an early training in our Faith. He felt a calling to the religious life at 5 years old. His spirituality attracted the attention of various religious men, who suggested he study under the brothers and priests. At 7 years old, he went to a monastery where he excelled in learning scripture, Latin and lecturing. At 14 years old, he graduated to the next level, a Benedictine Abbey.
This is where his father tried to put a stop to all this education in religion. He had plans for the young man that did not include becoming a Benedictine monk. But between Winfrid’s pleading, and the convincing of some Benedictines who visited their home, the father was persuaded to let the young man enter the abbey.
The abbot, aware that this was a chosen young man, took him under his wing. Young Winfrid went on to become a very popular instructor, a lecturer and ultimately director of the school. If that’s not enough, he also wrote a Latin grammar, the first to be written in the history of England.
Winfrid lived an austere life in the Benedictine community. It was as if God was grooming him for the great task He had planned for him. During his time at the Abbey he advanced in his knowledge of scripture, history and public speaking. This would do him well in the labor he would find in the field the Lord had chosen, Germany. After having made his profession as a Benedictine monk, and been ordained a priest at age 30, he became well-known as a preacher.
His talents were brought to the attention of ecclesiastical figures in the Church. He was being groomed for great things within the Benedictine community. But the Lord was grooming him for something else. He had a longing to go to the area of Northern Europe, Germany, where the Faith was not well accepted. His dream was to regenerate the Frankish Church in Friesland which had become a combination of Catholicism and paganism.
Winfrid went to Friesland, where there had been some groundwork at evangelizing the pagans by previous evangelists, most especially St. Killian and the missionaries from Ireland. He thought he would do well in his efforts to bring about conversion and continue to bring more people into the Church. It didn’t turn out that way. He found it necessary to abandon his evangelization work in Germany and return to England. This was to be a temporary measure because he felt sure that the Lord was calling him to convert the Old Saxon Church there in Friesland.
He returned to his Abbey in England. He was so well regarded by the Abbot that he wanted him to take his place as the abbot was getting old. Winfrid never wanted to be burdened down with a position such as Abbot. He had a calling and it was to evangelize. But when the Abbot died and he was unanimously elected to become the new Abbot, he knew had to move. He was able to get the Bishop of the Diocese to convince the monks to elect another to be Abbot, so that Winfrid could follow his dream. There was no question in Winfrid’s mind that his work had to be commissioned by the Pope. He went to Rome to plead his case to Pope Gregory II towards the end of 718. He stayed in Rome for a few months while His Holiness considered his proposal, and got to know who Winfrid was. The pope gave him his commission to preach the word of God to the heathen in Germany, to the right of the Rhine River. He renamed him Boniface.
Boniface set out in the spring of 719 on his appointed task to assess the situation in Germany. He saw a great deal of progress had been made by his predecessors in bringing the Word of God to Bavaria. He worked his way up to the center of the country, Thuringia, which was supposed to be Christian. He found that not to be the case. St. Killian, the Irish evangelist, had toiled in this land unsuccessfully. He was followed by two other zealots who were murdered for their attempt to spread the faith. What St. Boniface found was a mixture of heathens, or a combination of Christianity and idolatry. He tried to rekindle the flame of faith of some of the priests of the area, without much success.
He headed towards the court of Charles Martel, who had been defeating despots and opening up the Catholic Churches for people to worship. Boniface was advised of the death of a despot, who had persecuted the Christians terribly during his lifetime. Boniface enlisted the aid of a young monk from an abbey nearby and went into that area. They labored tirelessly in the Lord’s vineyards for three years with great success. Heathens were taught the faith; fallen-away were brought back by the thousands. Some of the converts embraced the life of the Benedictines. Boniface felt it was time to advise the Pope of his progress. He sent one of his disciples to Rome with letters to His Holiness, outlining the successes of the past three or four years. Pope Gregory II asked for him to come to Rome personally. Boniface traveled to the Vatican, more pleased with his accomplishment than the last time he had visited.
Pope Gregory received him warmly. Boniface explained the progress which had been made in the Church of Germany. He explained to His Holiness that he followed in the path of Charles Martel to the various areas of the country, where the local dictator had been deposed, and a free people and a free Church were left to be evangelized by Boniface and his followers. The Pope consecrated Boniface Bishop, and gave him letters to the Dioceses of Thuringia and Hessia, acknowledging Boniface as the Bishop, and demanding respect and obedience. He was also given a letter to Charles Martel, the powerful leader who was to stop the Turks at Tours, and turn them back from their approach into France.
Charles Martel set about the establishment of social order and endeavored to restore the right of the Catholic hierarchy. This explains the protection which in 723 was accorded to St. Boniface, a protection all the more important as the Saint himself explained to a friend that without it he could neither administer his church, defend his clergy, nor prevent idolatry. Hence, Charles Martel, who is considered the hero who united Germany, shares, to a certain degree, the glory and merit of Boniface’s great work of civilization in Germany.
Armed with this guarantee of protection, Boniface decided to strike an unthinkable blow against the pagan beliefs of the people of Hesse. He went to a mountain where an oak tree, which was sacred to the local people, stood. It was called Donar’s Oak or Thor’s Oak. Prior to arriving on the mountain, he sent word out to all the people in the area that he would strike down the pagan’s sacred tree. The place was packed with onlookers, who were sure that he would be struck dead if he touched the tree. This tree and this belief of the pagans of Hesse was very important to them. Boniface was taking his life in his hands.
Now this was a huge oak tree. It was reported by reliable sources that he did a lot of praying before he attempted to take down the tree. On the day designated, Boniface went to the mountain, as did his disciples. The pagans were there in full force. He took the axe, prayed for all he was worth, and with only a few strokes, the huge oak came down, split in four pieces. There were reports that as he struck the massive tree for the first time, a great gust of wind of the Holy Spirit blew across the area, helping to down the tree. It came down in four equal parts, huge trunks. Boniface took the wood of the tree and made it into built a little Chapel dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle on the spot. This point of Boniface’s evangelization marked the fall of Heathenism in the area of Lower Hessia.
Spurred on by this success, St. Boniface spread his wings to other areas of Germany where the faith was either weak or non-existent. He went back to Upper Hessia, where the people had lapsed back into paganism. Let us take moment and explain what Hesse is. It is a state of Germany, where today, the capital city is Wiesbaden, and the largest city is Frankfurt. We are in the state of Hesse now. Fulda would have been considered Lower Hessia.
Boniface was blessed mightily by the Lord. It was if the floodgates of the Holy Spirit had opened up in Germany. He did so well in bringing people into the Faith that he had to ask for help to handle all the new converts that were coming into the fold. He appealed to various abbeys and convents in England, and for many years, they poured into the area, helping to build convents and abbeys, and teaching the faith to the converts. He was aided by many missionaries and monks from his native land. Every abbey that he built or convent was put under the charge of one of these English colleagues. It was a glorious time for the Church in Germany.
His good friend and mentor, Pope Gregory the second died, and Boniface wrote to the new Pope, Gregory the third, who sent him the palium and conferred on him the title of Metropolitan of all Germany, beyond the Rhine River. He also gave Boniface the power to institute dioceses and archdioceses wherever he felt it was in the best interests of the Church. He went on to become the Apostolic See of the Church and Papal Legate. He also traveled to the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy, which had been built by St. Benedict, and was considered the most magnificent Benedictine Abbey in the world.
Boniface brought with him some of his German disciples, so that they could see the grandeur of Monte Cassino. He also enlisted one of their monks to join him in Germany to build an Abbey in Germany. Boniface eventually built a bishopric in Fulda, where he proceeded to build the Abbey with the help of St. Sturmi, the young disciple, whom he recruited from Monte Cassino. That abbey, the Abbey of Fulda, was to become the German equivalent of the great Abbey at Monte Cassino.
While the Church in Germany flourished, the church in France was in constant decline. Charles Martel, while considering himself a supporter of the Church, let the church suffer in favor of his military campaigns. However, he was still the hero of the age, defending Christianity against the Muslims. There were many abuses to the Church in France under his reign. Ecclesiastical offices were being sold. Priests were living abusive lives, were ignorant, heretical, living in sin. Add to this that no Church Council had been held for 84 years.
But when Charles Martel died, Boniface saw a great opportunity to go into France and bring the Church back into the fold. He had the support of the reigning pontiff, Pope Zachary, and the two sons of Charles Martel, Pepin and Carloman who had taken over Charles Martel’s empire. With their help, he was able to convene two councils and then a general council to rebuild the Church of France. After a time, Pepin decided to give up his throne and live in a monastery. His brother Carloman, took over as leader of the Franks, and “Mayor of the Palace”, a term coined by Charles Martel. Carloman’s son and Martel’s grandson was Charlemagne.
St. Boniface was very blessed in that he was able to accomplish a great deal in actually organizing not only the Church of Germany but the country itself. He was getting older, but he didn’t feel old. He just felt it was time to turn to turn the controls of his huge fold to a younger man and so he named St. Lull to be his replacement.
But that did not mean he was ready to lay down his bible and go into seclusion. Like many of our bishops and archbishops who retire, they go back into active duty, so to speak. With all of his success evangelizing Germany and France, there was still one area that he had never been able to turn to the Church, and that was Frisia, a strip of land at the northern tip of Germany in the North Sea. He had begun there some forty years before unsuccessfully, and it always bothered him, that the people of that area were still not converted. With that in mind, he put together a team of missionaries to accompany him on his last mission of evangelization into that area.
Their evangelization effort proved to be very successful. Boniface and his missionaries had converted many to the Faith. There had been a great many Baptisms. Boniface planned a mass Confirmation service in an open field. All the converts were to assemble there for the great event. He sat reading a book, thought to be the Bible, when he and his missionaries were attacked by a group of bandits who thought there were great riches to be had by robbing the foreign missionaries. Boniface pleaded with his people not to fight against the attackers. He was among the first to be killed, holding his book up in the air as he was being killed, to protect it from the onslaught of the enemy.
The body of St. Boniface was brought back to his beloved Fulda, where he was interred in the Abbey Church. About a thousand years after his death, a great cathedral was designed and built in 8 years. It is the Cathedral of Fulda which is there today. In addition to his tomb, the book he was holding up when he was attacked is encased at his shrine. The sword marks can be seen, as well as blood stains from our Saint. He was immediately proclaimed a Saint by the people of Germany, but it was not until 1874 that Blessed Pope Pius IX formally canonized him for the Universal Church. His Feast Day is June 5. It is also celebrated in England on that day.
It has been said that St. Boniface had a greater influence on the formation of the history of Europe than any Englishman. He was a holy man, a reformer, a missionary, a martyr, and yet, we’re told he was a very simple man.
Family, we thank you for being with us as we traveled the life of this Super Saint. We depended a great deal on direction and inspiration from Penny Lord from Heaven above for the making of this chapter.
God bless you. We love you!!
Saint Boniface Collection