St. Boniface, Bishop and Martyr, Pray for Us!

SAINTS & ART: The English Benedictine missionary St. Boniface taught the faith throughout Germany in the eighth century and sealed it in the blood of his martyrdom

Emil Doepler, “Bonifacius,” ca. 1905
Emil Doepler, “Bonifacius,” ca. 1905 (photo: Public Domain)

He’s known as the “Apostle to Germany” but he was born in England. He lived in a time that most people know little about: the so-called “Dark Ages” (which, in some ways, really were not so “dark”). 

Boniface was born sometime around 675 and was martyred in 755. His birthplace is also unknown, though most people attribute it to Exeter or at least the Devonshire region of England, located on that little leg of western Britain that reaches out toward Ireland. He came from a noble family but early on showed a talent for learning and a desire to pursue the religious life. As the primary form of Catholic religious life in the seventh century was the Benedictine Order, he made his profession, took charge of the monastic school, and was ordained a priest around 705. 

Though his natural abilities and supernatural progress might have marked out an ecclesiastical career in England, Boniface long felt a calling to be a missionary and continue to evangelize the Germans. Eventually, he obtained permission.

The region we today call “Germany” had previously been evangelized but the faith had not put down deep roots and many had lapsed. Remember, these were centuries of great social dislocation and upheaval. Historians usually cite A.D. 476 as the year the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed, though it had been fighting back against Germanic incursions along its northern borders earlier. While the Eastern Roman Empire continued in Constantinople (until 1453, when the Muslims conquered the city), what had been Western Europe fell apart. Transportation, communications, and government all disintegrated. People accuse the Church of a power grab but the truth is that the Church was the only supra-local organization in Western Europe that had anywhere near the reach to try to put Humpty Dumpty together (or at least patch him up), a process that would find its first expression in the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

But that’s a century in the future, and the lands of Germany still needed evangelizing. Worship of the old Norse gods had returned. Paganism was rife. 

Boniface made his first journey in 716 to Friesland, a region running along the North Sea coasts of what today are Germany and the Netherlands. He was soon back in England and, with the death of the local abbot, some tried to keep Boniface at home by electing him as successor. He refused and sought to return to Germany. This time, he did so via Rome, having obtained Pope Gregory II’s faculties for ecclesiastical work east of the Rhine. (The Rhine had been the old Roman imperial border: you can still find ruins of Roman fortifications south of it, e.g., Augusta Raurica near today’s Basel, Switzerland.)

The Apostle to the Germans covered lots of German territory: Bavaria, Thuringia, Frisia, Hesse. Upon Gregory III becoming pope, Boniface sought his approval for his work and found himself named an archbishop with authority to erect other dioceses. Over the next two decades, Boniface worked tirelessly to organize the Church in Germany, occasionally running into conflict with bishops of established dioceses. He also convened synods to establish ecclesiastical discipline in Germany. In 747-8, Pope Zachary appointed Boniface archbishop of Mainz and Primate of Germany, and while he continued to cope with intra-ecclesiastical struggles, he eventually managed to reconcile the German bishops with Rome. Boniface was also largely responsible for the Benedictine Abbey in Fulda.

Boniface’s last hope was to re-convert the Frisians — the North Sea region where he first entered the Germanic world — to the faith. In 754, he resigned as Archbishop of Mainz and headed north as a missionary. While gathering converts for Confirmation in 755, he and somewhere between 35-52 companions were murdered by local pagans. His body was taken back for burial in Fulda, where it remains today. St. John Paul II visited his grave during his 1980 pilgrimage to Germany.

We know relatively a lot about Boniface’s labors in Germany because he was the subject of a number of vitae, or “lives” — biographies — written about him in his day or relatively contemporaneously thereafter. 

Our saint is depicted in art by Emil Doepler (1855-1922), a German illustrator. The illustration, from 1905, shows St. Boniface holding a crucifix in one hand and an axe in another alongside a felled tree.

“Donar’s Oak” (Thor’s Oak) was a huge oak tree in Geismar, near Fritzlar, in Hesse, central-west Germany. Tree groves were sites at which German pagans gathered to pray and worship, and this tree was dedicated to Thor (some say Jupiter). When Boniface decided to clear the site, the Germanic tribe we see in the background expected Thor to send a lightning bolt down on the bishop. Instead, with just a few blows of his axe, the huge oak tumbled down, shattered into four pieces. Boniface used its lumber to erect a Catholic chapel on the site. The felling of the tree contributed to the eradication of paganism in that part of Germany. The axe Boniface used to fell the tree is typically part of the saint’s iconography.

(For a more detailed life of St. Boniface, see here. For texts from his time about St. Boniface, see here.)

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The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’” (CCC 1906)