During his general audience on March 11, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on the early Christian writers of the East and West. He spoke about St. Boniface, who was born in England but is renowned as the Apostle of the Germans.
Boniface embraced the monastic life and was ordained a priest. Despite a promising career as a scholar, he felt called to proclaim the Gospel to the pagans on the continent, eventually evangelizing the Germanic peoples. He worked tirelessly to spread the faith and promote Christian morality. He crowned his witness to Christ by a martyr’s death.
Today, Boniface continues to inspire Christians by his example of missionary zeal, his fidelity to the word of God and the Catholic faith, his strong sense of communion with the Apostolic See, and his efforts to promote the fruitful encounter of Germanic culture with the Roman-Christian heritage.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will reflect on St. Boniface, a great missionary of the eighth century, who spread Christianity throughout central Europe, particularly in my homeland, where he is renowned in history as the “Apostle to the Germans.”
Thanks to the diligence of his biographers, we possess quite a bit of information regarding his life. He was born in Wessex around 675 into an Anglo-Saxon family. His baptismal name was Winfred.
As a very young man, he entered the monastery, attracted to the monastic ideal. His intellectual abilities were noteworthy, and he seemed to be headed to a tranquil yet brilliant career as a scholar. He taught Latin grammar, wrote several treatises, and even composed a number of poems in Latin.
Ordained a priest at around the age of 30, he felt called to an apostolate among pagans on the continent.
Great Britain, his homeland, had been evangelized barely a hundred years earlier by the Benedictines under the guidance of St. Augustine yet demonstrated a faith solid enough and a love ardent enough to send missionaries to Central Europe to proclaim the Gospel there.
In 716, Winfred, along with some companions, went to Friesland (modern-day Holland), but they encountered opposition from the local chieftain, and their efforts to evangelize ended in failure.
Returning to his homeland, he did not lose heart. Two years later, he went to Rome to speak with Pope Gregory II and seek his direction.
According to an account of one of his biographers, the Pope received him “with a cheerful countenance and smiling eyes,” and during the following days, they had several “important conversations” (Willibaldo, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. Levison, pp. 13-14).
Finally, after bestowing the new name of Boniface upon him, the Pope gave him official letters of recommendation to preach the Gospel among the peoples of Germany.
Apostle to Germany
Sustained and comforted with the support of the Pope, Boniface set about preaching the Gospel in those regions, battling against pagan cults and reinforcing the foundations of Christian and human morality.
With a great sense of responsibility, he recorded the following words in one of his letters: “We stand firm in the fight on this day of the Lord because days of affliction and misery have arrived. ... We are not mute dogs, or tacit observers, or mercenaries who flee before the wolves! Instead, we are diligent pastors who watch over Christ’s flock and who proclaim God’s will to important people and ordinary people, to the rich and the poor ... in both opportune and inopportune moments.” (Epistulae, 3,352.354: MGH).
Through his tireless activity, his organizational skills, and a flexible and amiable personality that was coupled with firmness, Boniface obtained great results.
The Pope then “declared that he wanted to confer upon him dignity of a bishop, so that with greater determination he could correct those who were in error and return them to the path of truth, feel the support of the greater authority of this apostolic dignity, and be more widely accepted in his work of preaching, since it would be more apparent that he had been ordained by the apostolic prelate for this very reason” (Otloho, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. Levison, lib. I, p. 127).
Pope Gregory II also consecrated Boniface a “regional bishop,” that is, the bishop for all of Germany, and Boniface redoubled his apostolic efforts across the territory entrusted to him and even extended his work to the Church in Gaul.
With great prudence, he restored Church discipline, convened various synods in order to ensure the authority of the sacred canons, and reinforced the requisite communion with the Roman Pontiff, which was particularly dear to his heart.
Pope Gregory II’s successors also held Boniface in the highest esteem. Gregory III appointed him as archbishop of all the Germanic tribes, sent him the pallium, and granted him authority to organize the Church hierarchy in those areas (see Epist. 28: S. Bonifatii Epistulae, ed. Tangl, Berolini 1916).
Pope Zachary confirmed him in this office and praised him for his commitment (see Epist. 51, 57, 58, 60, 68, 77, 80, 86, 87, 89: op. cit.).
Pope Stephen III, shortly after his election, received a letter from Boniface in which he expressed his filial homage (see Epist. 108: op. cit.).
Renewal of the Church
This great bishop, besides his work of evangelization and organization of the Church through the establishment of dioceses and the organization of synods, also did his utmost to found numerous monasteries — some for men and some for women — that would be a beacon for spreading the faith and for spreading throughout the territory a culture that was both Christian and humane.
He called upon the help of monks and nuns from the Benedictine communities in his homeland to do so. Their help was fruitful and invaluable in the effort to proclaim the Gospel and spread science and the arts throughout the population. Indeed, he insisted — and rightly so — that any work in favor of the Gospel should also be a work for a truly human culture.
The monastery of Fulda, founded around the year 743, was the heart and the center for spreading spirituality and religious culture. There, the monks, through their prayer, work and penance, strove to attain holiness, dedicated themselves to study both sacred and profane subjects, and prepared themselves to proclaim the Gospel — to be missionaries.
Contributions to Culture
Thanks to Boniface, therefore, and to his monks and nuns (women also played an important role in this work of evangelization), this human culture, which is inseparable from faith and reveals its beauty, also flourished. Boniface himself has left us some significant intellectual writings.
First and foremost, he was a proliferate letter writer whose pastoral letters are intermingled with some official letters and letters of a private character, revealing information of a social nature and, above all, his rich human temperament and his profound faith. He also compiled a book called Ars Grammatica, in which he explained the declensions, verbs and syntax of the Latin language.
Thanks to him, this work also became an instrument for spreading faith and culture. Also attributed to him are the Ars Metrica and an introduction to the composition of poetry, as well as various poetic compositions and a collection of 15 sermons.
When he was advanced in years (close to 80), he prepared himself for a new evangelizing mission. With about 50 monks, he returned to Friesland, where he had begun his work.
In what is almost a foreshadowing of his imminent death and alluding to his life’s journey, he wrote the following words to Bishop Lullo, his disciple and his successor in the Diocese of Mainz: “My wish is to complete the journey on which I have set my heart, and nothing can prevent me from doing so. The day of my departure from this life draws near, and the time of my death is approaching. In a short time, I shall lay aside the burden of my body and receive the prize of eternal bliss. But you, my dear son, must earnestly recall the people from the paths of error, finish the construction of the basilica at Fulda, which is now in the process of being built, and bring there this body of mine, now wasted by the toil of years” (Willibaldo, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. cit., p. 46).
On June 5, 754, as he was preparing to celebrate Mass at Dokkum (in the northern part of Holland), he was attacked by a gang of pagans. Facing them with a serene demeanor, he “forbade his companions to fight back. ‘Sons, cease fighting,’ he said. ‘Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good. The hour to which we have long looked forward is near, and the day of our release is at hand. Take comfort in the Lord, and endure with gladness the suffering he has mercifully ordained’” (ibid. pp. 49-50).
These were his last words before succumbing to the blows of his aggressors. The remains of the bishop and martyr were carried to the monastery of Fulda, where they were interred with dignity.
Already at that time, one of his biographers expressed the following judgment regarding him: “The holy Bishop Boniface can be called the father of all the inhabitants of Germany, because he was the first to engender them in Christ with the word of his holy preaching; he confirmed them with his example and finally gave his life for them; greater love than this cannot be given” (Otloho, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. cit., lib. I, p. 158).
The Word of God
Centuries later, what message can we draw from the teachings and the prodigious activities of this great missionary and martyr?
The first thing that is evident vis-à-vis Boniface is the central importance of the word of God, lived and interpreted in the faith of the Church, a word that he lived, that he preached, and to which he bore witness, even unto the supreme gift of self in martyrdom.
He was so in love with the word of God that he felt the urgency and the obligation of sharing it with others, even at his own personal risk. On the word of God he based his faith, which he had made a solemn pledge to spread when he was consecrated a bishop: “I profess the purity of the holy Catholic faith in its entirety and, with the help of God, I want to remain in the unity of this faith, in which, without any doubt, all of the salvation of Christians rests” (Epist. 12, in S. Bonifatii Epistolae, ed. cit., p. 29).
Fidelity to the Holy See
The second obvious point that emerges from the life of Boniface — a very important one — is his faithful communion with the Apostolic See, which was a firm, central principle of his missionary work.
He always upheld this communion as the rule for his missionary activity and, in a sense, left it as his legacy to us.
“I never fail,” he affirmed in a letter to Pope Zachary, “to invite and to submit to the obedience of the Apostolic See those who want to remain in the Catholic faith and in the unity of the Roman Church and all those whom God gives me in this mission as students and disciples” (Epist. 50: in ibid. p. 81).
One result of this commitment was the firm spirit of cohesion around the successor of Peter that Boniface transmitted to the churches in his mission territory, uniting England, Germany and France to Rome, and thereby making a decisive contribution to establishing the Christian roots of Europe that would bear abundant fruit in the following centuries.
Thirdly, Boniface promoted the encounter between Roman Christian culture and Germanic culture. Indeed, he knew that humanizing and evangelizing the culture was an integral part of his mission as a bishop. Transmitting the ancient heritage of Christian values, he implanted in the Germanic peoples a more humane lifestyle, thanks to which the inalienable rights of the person enjoyed greater respect.
A true son of St. Benedict, he knew how to unite prayer and work (manual and intellectual), pen and plow.
Boniface’s courageous witness is an invitation to all of us to welcome the word of God into our lives as an essential reference point, to love the Church passionately, to feel a joint responsibility for her future, and to seek her unity around the successor of Peter. At the same time, he reminds us that Christianity, by favoring the spread of culture, promotes the progress of mankind.
Now it is up to us to show ourselves worthy of such a prestigious legacy and make sure that it bears fruit for the good of coming generations.
His ardent zeal for the Gospel always impresses me. At the age of 40, he left behind a beautiful and fruitful life in the monastery — the life of a monk and a professor — to proclaim the Gospel to simple people and to barbarians.
At the age of 80, he once again left his comfort zone, entering one in which he could foresee his martyrdom. Comparing his burning faith and zeal for the Gospel to our faith, which is so often lukewarm and bureaucratized, we see what we have to do in our times in order to renew our own faith and to pass on the precious pearl of the Gospel as a gift. Register translation