St. Ansgar

(801? - 865)

This great missionary to Scandinavia was born just a short distance from Amiens in northern France. His Frankish parents, noble and prosperous, sent him to be schooled by the Benedictine monks of the nearby Abbey of Corbie. During his school years he had a vision of Our Lady and of the death of Emperor Charlemagne. This experience so shook him that he became more serious, and at length he joined the community of Corbie as a monk, with the dream of becoming a missionary and a martyr.

In 822, Corbie sent out a group of monks to populate a daughter monastery, New Corbie (Corvey) in northwest Germany. Dom Ansgar was one of the founding party. Now he was able to undertake missionary work.

Around 826, Harald Klak, King of Denmark, having converted to Christianity, took Ansgar and another monk of Corvey back with him to preach the Gospel in Denmark. This mission had the support of the Frankish King, Louis the Pious. After he had preached to the Danes for two years, Ansgar was named the first archbishop of Hamburg, in nearby Germany. Also named abbot of Corvey, Bishop Ansgar used it as headquarters for over a decade. Meanwhile, far from neglecting his work in Germany proper, St. Ansgar, as papal legate to the North, also laid the framework of Christian organization in Sweden and Norway.

Unfortunately, heathen Vikings invaded Hamburg in 845. They destroyed all that the archbishop had established, and the Danish and Swedish converts fell away from Christianity. Only when Louis the Pious united the sees of Hamburg and Bremen was St. Ansgar able to start again as head of both sees. Then, when King Haarik of Denmark became a Christian, the saint was able to return to Denmark and revive the faith of the backsliders.

He was next invited to Sweden. Sweden’s superstitious King Olaf, uncertain whether to readmit missionaries, decided to cast lots for a decision. The lots said yes, so Ansgar was able to return to that kingdom. Here he was able to establish churches and put dependable priests in charge of them.

His one other dream remained unfulfilled: to become a martyr; but I am sure that Ansgar’s accomplishments as “apostle of the North” gave him ample reason to rejoice.

St. Ansgar was a modest and self-effacing man. He was a gifted preacher and yielded to none in his solicitude for the poor and ailing. Self-denial had long since become his second nature. Respected and admired by all, he had a problem sometimes with preventing his loyal disciples from overpraising him. One day, he overheard an associate lauding the miracles he had performed. Ansgar cut in abruptly, “Were I worthy of such a favor from my God, I would ask that He grant me one miracle, that by His grace He would make of me a good man!”

After the saint’s death, fickle Scandinavia once more relapsed into paganism. Only in the eleventh century were St. Sigfrid and a later generation of missionary monks able to make the Christianization of the three Nordic nations stick.

Then came their true Catholic renaissance. Most of the churches in Sweden even today date from these years. Religious orders were introduced. The glory of Sweden was St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-73), who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, and was international in her influence.

Unfortunately in the sixteenth century the Scandinavian political leaders introduced Lutheran Protestantism. Only in recent times have Catholics once more been able to make a small beachhead in these northern lands. But we may be sure that Ansgar, now past worrying in heaven, still works constantly for a complete return to the faith of his mission field.

For as St. Paul said of preaching the Gospel, it often achieves its end only gradually; “I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. This means that neither he who plants nor he who waters is of any special account, only God, who gives the growth.” (2 Cor. 3:6-7).

--Father Robert F. McNamara