Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Boniface, St Lioba, Martyrdom and Legacy-Final Overview

Contacts with the world of Islam-by Willibald

Willibald, who wrote the life story of Boniface, his brother, Wynnebald and one other, set off on pilgrimage of Jerusalem. Only eighty years earlier, this area had been part of the Christian Roman Empire but had been overrun and captured by the Moslems (Caliphate of Damascus). Christian-Msolem relationships were peaceful and more settled, but the Christians wary. Once more there was trade between the two . Travel was possible but they needed papers of identification (mediaeval-style passports) They reached Cyprus, and found passage to Tartus in Syria(formerly the Christian city of Antaradus)They got to Emesa in the Orontes Valley . Two Roman emperors were born right here and then it had been a bishopric . Since 636 AD it had been an Arab city under the name of Homs, although there were still many churches and a large number of Christians. Willibald and Co were immediately arrested as spies as they did not know where they had come from . Luckily the local rular realised hey were on their own ‘Hajj’(pilgrimage) according to their own faith and they applied to him for papers, but he put them in prison instead. He looked after them well, even taking them to Mass on Sundays as Christians and Jews were allowed to follow their won religion on payment of special taxes. These men were according to Geoffrey Hindley, ‘young, handsome and beautifully dressed’ and caused quite a stir in Homs. Eventually they set off for their goal . Willibald attributed this to the workings of God. Sadly a century later, less benevolent Moslems got control and power. The churches were destroyed and the Christians put to the sword or ‘purged’, ‘cleansing’ it for Moslems.

Bands of Moslem raiders attacked Europe soon after Willibald settled into his work in Germany. A letter of the 740’s from Boniface reveals his opinion of them as ‘punishment of God on a sinful people’. It is then he warns an abbess friend not to travel to Rome, which was itself attacked for a while and there was a terrorist threat from them too.All through the Middle Ages, even South English ports were raided and slaves and so forth taken. The whole issue was not stopped until 1571 at Laponto when Don John of Portugal led a Papal fleet against the Moslems to stop the attack of Italy by a superior Muslim fleet again attacking. They entrusted the sea battle to the Blessed Virgin Mary and were victorious and this put a stop to their attacks for a while. Suliman and the Ottomon Empire also attacked and laid siege to Vienna later on, but were also unsuccessful.

Problems of Boniface in the church

Back to Boniface.He was also, as an older man having problems in his work.

1)There was resistance to the mission. Sadly the Saxon heartlands were slow in coming forward for conversion. They were only ‘won over’ by the campaigns of Charlemagne and many Saxons died in them.

2)The conduct of his converts gave cause for concern. Boniface had to contend with corruption and debasement of the image of Christians . He told off AEthelbald for his immoral life and caused scandal in pagan areas where sexual faithfulness was enforced.

Hindley quotes the following from Ayerst and Fisher ‘Records of Christianity’ 1971

Thus in Old Saxony if a married woman was caught in adultery , they sometimes cause her to kill herself by hanging , and when the body is cremated, they hang her seducer over the pyre’.

Obviously to contrast this with the behaviour of Ethelbald’s leniency with csome adulterous Christians was scandalous where they were trying to convert.There were problems with Bishops, Frankish kings who were not really grounded in the faith and married several times, believing that ordination gave them special rights, such as those enjoyed by the Merovingian kings. Boniface reported lewd behaviour of some deacons, had illegitimate children and still became bishops and celebrated Mass. At that time, the Church allowed clergy to enter the church on a one wife basis at that time, and what Boniface could not bear were pagan celebrations even in front of St Peter,where crowds gorged themselves with food and paraded through the streets in January, tables full of wine and women as ornaments, hawked pagan amulets and bracelets on them’

Priests sometimes drank too much

Even the missionaries themselves had become lax. The English clergy seemed to have attracted a certain reputation on the continent-especially the behaviour of drunken parish priests (in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury)and even drunken bishops who seemed to be encouraging binge drinking among them!!Boniface complains that only the heathens and Anglos Saxons seemed to indulge in this and not other races.-not even the Gauls (Roman Celts of France) and the Franks.However he was not against drink-only excess as he sent two small casks of wine to Archbishop Echberht (Egbert)of York to be consumed’on a merry day with the brethren’.

Love of Learning and Books by Boniface

These were a great solace to him, but he asked for larger letter books as his eyesight was failing,which could be got in England but not in Germany. Geoffry Hindley points out that he was entering old age in exile, and even his determination could be challenged. He wrote to a friend of his youth in Crediton ‘Boniface, also called Wynfrith asks for your prayers and pity for …an old man worn by tribulations in the land of the Germans’

Women’s Ministry in the German Mission-

Saint Lioba(699-niece of Boniface)

Boniface had a great regard for Saint Lioba , just one of the great Anglo Saxon Women of the Church.Others were

Abbess Hilda of Whitby Abbey
Abbess Ethelburga of Barking in Essex
Abbess Etheldraeda (Audrey) daughter of King Anna of the East Angles, who founded a monastery at Ely. She was succeeded by her sister St Sexburga, dowager Queen of Kent.

Monasteries containing Monks and Nuns

Double monasteries with monks and nuns were common in the Celtic Church, with monks and nuns often marrying and having children. In the English church however, they maintained strictly celibate lives. Nuns often ran these monasteries too, but this practice ended with the conquest of England by Normans. There was a far greater equality between men and women in these institutions than afterwards under the Normans.Christine Fell in ‘Women in Anglo Saxon England’ writes that women could set up businesses on their own account in embroidery and these women got contracts for the upkeep of ecclesiastical vestments, and so employed craft workers.In the reign of Edward the Confessor Elfgith (Aelfgyth) was paid to teach the king’s sherrif’s daughter the art of gold embroidery.

Laws to protect women

This was subject to harsh penalties, but the women came off wore than the men. Under Canute’s laws a man could be required to forfeit his land, but a woman faced bodily mutilation.However from the earliest days women did have rights. A rapist would be fined heavily but short of rape there were also fines for sexual harassment.The ‘morning gift’ a man paid to his wife on the morning of their marriage was hers alone for life to dispose of as she wished and could be a lot of money or land. Ethelred II in 1008 passed a law to protect womenfrom forced remarriage after widowhood,saying she must remain unmarried for a year and could remarry a man of her own choice after that if she wished. Some became nuns. Many noblewomen could already read and write and they could be offered advancement unknown in lay society. They could have peace and quiet, paint glorious manuscripts as we have heard and some became abbesses.

Saint Lioba

Boniface enjoyed the company of women, like St Jerome, but Boniface kept a wide correspondence with nuns and abbesses, many of them of noble birth, like him. (aethel-mod German ‘Adel’=’noble’) Boniface had written to Eadburga at Thanet you will remember for the beautiful St Peter books and she also sent him a great deal of money, church furniture and books. The woman who impressed Boniface the most was the Abbess Lioba, actually his niece. At his request she was sent out (also from Crediton) to head a party of thirty nuns (friends and relatives) , all able to read and write Latin, as a sort of ‘missionary back up team’. Lioba was born about 699 in Crediton in the Land of the English. Her parents had almost given up on having children but Lioba’s birth (seen by her mothers nurse in a dream)seemed a gift from God. They vowed Lioba to God’s service and rewarded the nurse (a household slave )with her freedom. Lioba entered Wimborne convent under Abbess Tetta, sister of the King and well known to Boniface. The community had come through a bad time. Tetta kept a strict house, guarding the nuns from priests and bishops but her deputy was very strict and annoyed the young nuns, all aristocratic and used to deference. When she died, there was, unfortunately enormous relief and Tetta had taken over rulling wisely and encouraging mercy and prayers from the young nuns who were seen jumping on the deputy’s grave!!!

Lioba was to become an icon of spiritual commitment and wisdom among the nuns –truly a saint. Boniface knew about his niece (on his mother’s side) and wrote to Abbess Tetta to ask her to release Lioba for the German mission . He was continually building new monasteries in Germany and needed religious of the highest order in them. They were to be houses of prayer and scholarship as well as centres for the scattered rural communities of believers. Tetta released Lioba unwillingly but Boniface made her Abbess at the convent of Tauberbishofsheim and general superintendant of nuns throughout Germany. She was young and by the end of her time there, there was hardly a convent in the region that did not have one of her pupils as abbess.

Liobas Qualities

St Rudolf of Fulda writes:’fur Full of love she looked after children and families in need. Lioba was always careful not to try to teach others anything, she did not follow herself. Her speech was pleasing, her spirit bright and her energy great. Her faith was all-powerful, her hope was full of great patience and her love was directed towards her neighbour.’

Lioba was described as beautiful (angelic)in appearance, did not drink much (her personal drinking cup was known as Lioba’s little one’ and very good natured. She also had her own money and was generous in hospitality, hosting feasts for her guests even when she fasted. In summertime she took an afternoon siesta, observing that lack of sleep dulled the mind, especially for learning. Even when sleeping she asked to have the Bible read and the nuns took it in turns to try and trick her, stop or leave out verses, but she always caught them out! She never laughed out loud, but was a great favourite at court, with Charlemagne’s wife who became a friend.

In 754, when Boniface was preparing a missionary trip to Frisia, where he would suffer martyrdom, he gave his monastic cowl to Leoba to indicate that, when he was away, she was his delegate.

In the next years, she was involved in the foundation of nunneries in Kitzingen and Ochsenfurt. She had a leading role in evangelizing her area, and, during her life, she was credited with quelling a storm with her command. Additionally, bishops in Fulda consulted with her, and she was the only woman allowed to enter into monasteries in Fulda to consult with the ecclesiastical leaders on issues of monastic rule.

In her later years, she retired with a few other Anglo-Saxon nuns to an estate near Mainz in Schornsheim. The estate was given by Charlemagne for her exclusive use.Shortly after Lioba’s return from a visit to Court, she fell ill and died, and was given the Viaticum-Extreme Unction from her English priest and Confessor Torhthat. She died on September 28 in 782. Boniface's will had originally designated that Leoba was to be buried in his own tomb. However, when Leoba died, she was, instead, placed near him, but not in the same grave. Several miracles were attributed to her gravesite, and she was canonized. Her relics were translated twice and are now behind an altar in a church dedicated to Mary and the virgins of Christ in Petersburg in Fulda. Rudolf of Fulda was commissioned to write the acta of her life in connection with this second translation of relics.

Her feast day in the Catholic Church is September 28.

Martyrdom in Dokkum, Frisia

After a life of ceaseless and energetic evangelism in Germany, you might have expected Boniface to enjoy a peaceful old age. But the burning zeal for bringing the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ, never left him. The Church in Germany was stabalised, set up and properly administered, however he could not leave it there, remembering the mission to the Frisians many years before and now in his seventies he returned. So he set off with 52 companions on an evangelistic mission.
He travelled to the towns in modern day Holland where he had begun his work with Willibrord and then travelled into East Friesland.
At Pentecost, on 5 June 755 near the modern town of Dokkum in the Netherlands, they were all massacred by heathen brigands. Boniface was himself struck down by a sword which pierced the bible he had raised to shield his head. As requested in his Will, his body was taken back to the monastery he had founded at Fulda, in central Germany, where a magnificent Cathedral now encloses his tomb, and where all the Roman Catholic Bishops of Germany hold their meetings every year.
Subsequent History in Holland

St Willibrord-who had laboured his whole life in Frisia

From is Church in Mill Brabant


On St Willibrord’s day, Tourist and pilgrims flock to Echternach on 7th November, but for Catholics, the day had greater significance and Willibrord and his great assistant Boniface means much more than a holiday. In 1583 the archbishopric of Utrecht was dissolved by the Protestant States General and Catholicism outlawed, following the tyranny of the former ruler Philip II of Spain. The faith went underground. Its spiritual leader was a priest from Delft , Sasbout Vosmeer with his headquarters in Utrecht. According to the German historian, Michael Imhof (information from Geoffrey Hindley again) Boniface and Willibrord led to a resistance and their cults flourished there and Vosmeer himself compared himself to them surrounded by heathens and heretics. So at the time where the Catholic Church in England was also persecuted, two Englishmen were the inspiration of the Dutch and venerated as spiritual champions, giving heart to the oppressed Catholic people.

Subsequent History in Germany

The Church in Germany flourished vigorously. Interesting that the areas of Germany slowest to join the church, were the first to fall away during the time of Luther. During the time of the Counter-Reformation there were many pictures or stautes of him and his martyrdom, or brandishing the sword which pierced the gospel with which he had tried to defend himself. A fine statue of Boniface stands in Fulda town square. Geoffrey Hindley adds’ It is nice to think that an Anglo Saxon gentleman from Wessex , whose kin no doubt caroused to the lays of Beowulf, also found himself, under the auspices of the nineteenth century greater German nationalism listed with Luther, Goethe,Beethoven, Mozart and other Germanic worthies as Walhalla Genossen ‘Companions of Valhalla’ the hall of the gods in German legend.

Relics and tomb

Boniface’s relics were taken to Fulda, as it was full of spiritual power and wold provide powerful protection, a powerful magnet for pilgrims and miracles. Mainz and Fulda both wanted it.After a vision by a deacon that Boniface wished to be buried at Fulda, this was done.There was some quarrel about it but all returned to normal and Fulda became a great centre for learning under Abbot Rabanus (803-40)a pupil of Alcuin.

Boniface and the English Missionaries

It was written at that time, that England was a country ‘productive of holy men and women. where laymen could be found devoted to the service of God, virgins of exceptional virtue and monks of outstanding generosity’ Many had left their country ‘for the Lord’s sake, either to expiate their sins or benefit pagans and Christians by their teachings’. Many of these were fired by the call of Boniface to come over and help their cousins, ‘The Old Saxons’ into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Badge of St Boniface-the Bible pierced with the sword which killed him.

To sum up about Boniface:
1 A great Englishman who devoted his whole life to the service of God
2 A great missionary to other lands, where the Gospel had hardly been heard
3 A great planter, encourager and reformer of churches and Christian communities
4 Someone committed to Christians working together in unity, within the structures of church authority, so that their witness would be effective
5 A great leader himself, and a great trainer and selector of good leaders to follow him
6 Someone who wanted the whole of society to be Christian, and so worked hard to influence the political authorities and ensure their support for the church and Christian values
7 A man of persistence, who if he failed simply prepared himself better and then went for it again
8 A man of courage, who was still prepared to risk his life by leading a mission into a dangerous area, long past the age when most archbishops would have put their feet up.

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