St. Boniface, Martyr

(672? - 754 A.D.)

Although Christianity had already reached into Germany before him, St. Boniface deserves to be called its apostle because it was he who organized the German church. “Germany,” in his time, included the domains of the Frankish monarchs, the present Belgium and Holland among them.

Boniface himself was an Englishman. He was born in Wessex and baptized Winfrid. Taught by the English Benedictines, he was captivated by their scholarship, devotion to the pope, and missionary spirit. He therefore joined a monastery at Nursling, near Winchester, was ordained a priest, and named director of the monastery school.

Brilliant though he was as a teacher, Winfrid yearned for the mission. In 716, he tried his wings as a missionary to Frisia in the present Holland. Since conditions were adverse there, he returned to Nursling and was elected abbot. But his heart was still in the mission field, so he soon resigned his office, and going to Rome in 718-719, he asked Pope St. Gregory II to commission him formally to preach to the German peoples. The pope gladly complied, giving him a new Latin name, Boniface.

Boniface first went to Thuringia, in north central Germany, and sought to persuade the leaders to promote and reform the Church. Then he went back to Frisia for two years to work with St. Willibrord, the English missionary at Utrecht, and to study his methods. In 721, he entered Hesse, a deeply pagan district north of Frankfort. His gentle approach to the Hessians won many converts, and he established a monastery among them as a symbol of Christian presence. Then he returned to Rome to report on the religious situation in Germany.

This time, Pope Gregory consecrated Boniface a bishop (722), with authority to organize the German church. Armed also with the all-important safe-conduct of the Frankish ruler, Charles Martel, he returned to Hesse. There on the advice of the Hessian Christians, he personally chopped down the oak of Geismar. This dramatic destruction, with impunity, of their sacred tree, moved many pagans to embrace the Catholic faith. The bishop then went on to Thuringia.

Admiring the zeal and loyalty of Boniface, the Holy See raised his rank to archbishop in 732 and named him papal legate in 738, with the duty of setting up dioceses throughout Germany and convoking councils for the enactment of norms and reforms. In 747, the pope assigned him a see, the diocese of Mainz, and designated him primate of Germany.

Boniface had founded a monastery at Fulda in 744. One of the secrets of his success in Germany was the setting up of many abbeys. Not only were they bulwarks of the Faith; they also housed many Englishmen and Englishwomen whom he invited to people them. This English personnel served to further the missionary work. One fact that favored the whole German enterprise was that the Anglo-Saxon language, then spoken by Englishmen, was not all that different from the Germanic tongues spoken in Frisia and in “upper” Germany.

Even after he had been assigned a fixed see and the German primacy, Boniface, though now on in years, was still a missionary at heart. In 752, indeed, he resigned the diocese of Mainz and set out on one last missionary journey to Frisia. At first his efforts met with success, and he scheduled a ceremony of confirmation for new converts at Dokkum in northern Holland. However, while he and his party were there preparing for the rite, they were beset on June 5, 754, by a crowd of pagan Frieslanders. Archbishop Boniface refused to allow his attendants to defend him. He urged them to trust in God and welcome the grace to die for the faith. When the pagans attacked, they massacred him and his 53 companions.

The body of this revered leader was brought back in stages to the monastery of Fulda. His tomb there has ever since been regarded as the center and heart of German Catholicism.

--Father Robert F. McNamara