Friday, May 16, 2008

St Boniface embarks on his Great Mission


The Stste of Christian Churches in Germanic Countries

There was a patchwork church at that time in the German kingdoms. Irish monks had achieved green martyrdoms east of the Rhine, but many communities, when the monks ran out began to revert to Pagan practices , and many prince bishops, jealous of their independence found local priests who would turn a blind eye to pagan practices for the sake of keeping the peace within their boundaries. Laws about marriage were dubious and there were many errors in what was being taught as Christianity. In a way, this was also a factor in the Northern German tribes embracing Luther and his ideas, in order to break the authority of the Pope in those lands in the sixteenth century.The Anglo Saxon mission to the German tribes was a continuous stream of men and women, West Saxons, Mercians and Northumbrians who in the eighth century travelled to these areas and re established genuine Christian teaching. Pope Gregory had begin by sending a mission to the Anglo Saxons and now in the eighth century Theodore of Canterbury and Wilfrid of York sent three generations of English nuns and monks to Germanic lands.

Willibrord of Northumbria

Many of these monks and nuns travelled across to Europe for the best part of a century, working among pagan tribes or newly converted tribes bordering on the Merovingian Empire and in England a great deal of interest in the mission, particularly of course, in the mission to the East German Saxons (niedersachsen) and the Frisians. These were the Old Saxons, the kinsfolk of the English Saxons. I will leave the story of Willibrord for the moment as we are dealing with Boniface, but it was the case that Willibrord prepared the ground for Boniface’s mission. When yet another war broke out between the Merovingian kingdoms, the paganRadbod of Frisia seized his cance and ravaged the Christian enclaves which the Franks had made into his territories and drove Willbrord out and the old man retired to Echternach for the present.

Peace 719AD

Four years later in 719 all was changed. Charles Martel was the power behind the puppet king’s throne. Radbod died that year and Willibrord willingly went back to try again. He was now sixty but had a dynamic new young assistant,burning with love for Christ in Wynfrith of Crediton, known to history as St Boniface.

Saint Boniface

Boniface or Wynfrith (which itself means ‘Lover of Peace’) was in his forties. Young enough to be strong but old enough to be mature in the faith. Boniface had made one incursion into Holland three years earlier and when Boniface had gone to London he found a the captain of a ship who would take passengers.They waited for the shipmaster and landed at Dorestad, about twelve miles from Utrecht. It was 716 and Boniface ound the war between the Franks and Frisians going on.He returned to Exeter to consider what he should do.

Advice for the Mission, from Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury

Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave very good advice to would be missionaries travelling to Holland and Northern Germany.

1)Listen with interest to their claims to be descended from gods, then point out that beings generated from males and females can hardly be eternal, so they cannot be gods but men who die.

2) If these gods have divine powers why do they allow Christian peoples to occupy the south of Europe rich in wine and oils while they and their gods live in cold and inhospitable climates?

3)The Frisians were to be constantly reminded of the superiority of the Christian world, even though Muslims were constantly attacking it at this time. Boniface later had to stop an Abbess from going to Rome until the Muslims had stopped attacking it.

Boniface leaves England forever, but keeps up correspondence with home

Boniface returned to Lundenevic and sailed on a small swift ship to Quentovic (Calais) although Geoffry Hindley does mention that is strange that he did not sail from Southampton (or Hamwic) as it was known and sail up the Seine. Calais was as now the principal channel port and arrangements to go to Rome from there were easier. Lodgings were a problem and they needed to pitch tents for shelter’.

Wynfryth receives his name of Boniface from Pope Gregory II

The Greek word 'Apostolo' means 'One who is sent (by God)'King Alfred, the great Saxon Christian King, was to describe St Peter as having received the Earldom of Rome from God. This is what St Biniface did in eighth century Germany as the Pope, Gregory II ‘commissioned him to preach to the unbelieving gentiles’and is the earliest documentary evidence there is of this order.

The document said, that any new baptisms must be carried out according to the Catholic rite and that Wynfrith, now renamed Boniface by Gregory had to report back to Rome. At the end of his life he had made more than 100,000 converts.

Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and Him who hung thereon' Crediton (Anglican)

Ayerst and Fisher in their Book 'The Anglo Saxons 'said of Boniface:

‘What gave Boniface’s work lasting success, compared with that of the earlier attempts by the loyal Irish monks who had preceded him, was his care for organisation and the realisation that it was necessary to enlist the help of the state as well as the church.

Journey of Inspection

He went out inspecting churches in Thuringia and Bavaria and consolidated what was there . To the West of Bavaria were already German aristocracy who had embraced Christianity and he enlisted their help, and created networks with the other Christian communities . There were many settlements begun by Irish monks and a few Christian churches built by Christian lay lordlings. All these he networked together . He also went to Lombardy but we don’t know whether he visited the monastery at Bobbio near Pavia, founded by the Irish monk Columbanus a century before. It should be said that Ireland or ‘Little Britain’ as it used to be called as opposed to ‘Greater Britain’the larger of the British, could send missionaries all over. It’s existence had nt been weakened by fighting Saxons and having endless monks and nuns arrive and burn the monastic settlements, killing the leading teachers. Its monasteries were second to none in Europe, and as centres of learning they were unparalled.They could be outward looking as their home base was secure, whereas the Romano British church in the British Isles had to consolidate and protect itself from an initially Anglo Saxon heathen brood.

Friesland/Frisia 719

In 719 Boniface again returned to Frisia and worked with Willibrord of Northumbria for three years, preaching and re-establishing gospel teaching , adapting pagan temples and shrines and making church buildings out of them. Willibrord was getting tired and wanted to make his friend the Bishop of the Frisians and his second in command, because he could see he was charismatic, dynamic and vigorous, whilst also humble and holy.Boniface was initially not keen. He pointed out that Gregory had sent him from the Apostolic see and had not given permission for him to dedicate himself to Frisia alone. Reluctantly Willibrord let him go back to the German missions.

Amoeneberg in Hessen, (German land)
At Amoeneberg in Hessen Boniface found two brothers, the rulers of the area and I quote ‘practising the sacriligious worship of idols under the cloak of Christianity’. Willibald does not explain this further . Willibald was the record keeper and biographer of Boniface.Boniface won enough converts to establish a chapel and got a messenger to report back to Rome.By return the Gregory II the Pope asked him to come to Rome immediately. Gregory questioned him about his teaching and creed but there seemed to be a problem in the Englishman’s understanding of the Pope’s Italianised Latin, that was evolving in the Papal court. Saying he needed to write it down as he was not familiar with this Italian form of Latin, he wrote his profession of faith in clear ‘polished, learned and eloquent phrases’.Gregory was delighted and consecrated him a Bishop without a diocese on 30th November 722.

Boniface's Devotion to Peter and Rome

Boniface pledged his loyalty to St Peter first, then his vicar on earth, the Pope.His mission was always pledged to Rome. He pledged to uphold Catholic teaching and report any Bishop found deviating from the teaching to Rome. Unity of belief was directly commanded by Christ-you could not have people going off and doing their own thing. The Pope sent a letter of Commendation to the ‘Old Saxons’,’Duke Charles’ the power behind the Merovingian throne , and the Thuringians. The letter said the new Bishop was charged ‘with preaching the faith to the peoples of Germany and Frisia (included Holland at this time) who dwell on the Eastern Bank of the Rhine , some of whom are still steeped in the errors of paganism’. Charles Martel gave Boniace a letter of protection and Boniface returned to the land of the Hessians, where they were still practising pagan rites and incantations of a Druidic nature.He made a big impact by cutting down a Druid sacred oak at Geimar, so he tackled the job with extreme vigour!There could be no mixing of such rites with the Christian faith. Boniface had t lead them away from practices like burning male virgins in wicker sacrifices and explain that the Final Sacrifice had already been made for the new Christians to reach what they called the 'Otherworld'. Indeed there was much to build on in the Druid religion, but some cruel practices to leave behind too.

Tomorrow TRINITY SUNDAY!Special Post and Monday we will go on with Boniface through Germany!! Don't miss the new Podcast on St Illtyd the Warrior Saint. Make a Pilgrimage to Llantwit Major or Mamhilad Church. Next Sunday is Corpus Christi. If you have any photos of processions in Gwent please send to

Llantarnam Abbey CwmbranCORPUS CHRISTI SUNDAY


Great Corpus Christi procession at Llantarnam Abbey next Sunday afternoon (25th May)Llantarnam Abbey is on the old Pontypool Road. If you turn off M4 at for Cwmbran, at the seond roundabout turn left and then right at the third and this will take you to the road, half way down the hill.Plenty of Parking. Sisters of St Joseph have refreshments after procession and Mass (at 3 I think)

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