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St. Boniface: missionary zeal

by Jun 5, 2024Friar Reflection

The readings for the memorial are an option for today and are well chosen for the life of St. Boniface. The account of St. Paul before King Agrippa and the gospel message of Jesus as the good shepherd capture the missionary endeavors, trials and tribulations – as well as the steadfast loyalty of shepherd for the flock.

Boniface, a Benedictine monk, was noted for his missionary efforts in the Netherlands (Frisia) and Germania in the 8th century.  Born in or near Exeter, England, around 675 AD, and named Winfrid, he was of a respected and prosperous family. Against his father’s wishes he devoted himself at an early age to monastic life. He received further theological training in the Benedictine monastery near Winchester. As a monk, he taught in the abbey school until the age of 30 when he was ordained. It was expected that he would become the next abbot, but upon the death of his abbot, Boniface declined and instead volunteered for a mission to the people of Frisia. The first year was a bust, complicated by ongoing warfare.

A year later (~720 AD), Winfrid saw fit to gain papal approval of a mission to Frisia. Gregory II renamed him Boniface and appointed him missionary bishop for Germania. It is believed he was so named as a homage to St. Boniface of Tarsus, an early Christian martyr. One wonders if Gregory thought that Winfrid’s fate would likely be the same. In 723 AD, in the region of Hesses, in what is modern-day Germany, Boniface perhaps tempted that fate.

The Donar Oak, also known as the Thunder Oak, was a sacred tree dedicated to the pagan god Thor, or Donar. It held immense religious and cultural significance for the local Germanic tribes who worshiped Thor and conducted their rituals around the oak tree. The tree was seen as a symbol of their pagan faith and was deeply ingrained in their religious practices.

With the aim of challenging and eradicating pagan beliefs, St. Boniface saw the Donar Oak as a significant obstacle to the spread of Christianity in the region. He believed that by striking down this revered symbol, he would be able to weaken the influence of paganism and pave the way for the acceptance of Christianity.

Gathering a group of followers and local converts, St. Boniface approached the Donar Oak. As the pagans gathered to witness the confrontation, Boniface dramatically swung his axe and felled the mighty tree. The act was seen as a direct challenge to the pagan gods and a demonstration of the supremacy of Christianity.

The fall of the Donar Oak had a profound impact on the local population and became a turning point in the region’s religious history. Many witnesses were astonished that Boniface remained unharmed after desecrating the sacred tree, interpreting it as a sign of divine intervention. This event generated a wave of conversions to Christianity among the pagan tribes, as they began to question the power and relevance of their own gods.

News of St. Boniface’s bold act spread throughout Europe, establishing his reputation as a powerful missionary and religious reformer. The downing of the Donar Oak became a symbol of his missionary zeal and his dedication to dismantling pagan practices.

One of his most significant accomplishments was the reformation of the Frankish Church, which had been plagued by corruption and lax religious practices. By asserting the authority of the papacy and enforcing strict adherence to ecclesiastical laws, Boniface revitalized the Church in the region. Beyond his religious activities, Boniface played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural and political landscape of the Anglo-Saxon world. He worked closely with the Anglo-Saxon kings, notably King Ine of Wessex, and used his influence to promote education, establish schools, and enhance the overall intellectual climate. He emphasized the importance of literacy and fostered a love for learning among both clergy and laity.

Over the course of time, Boniface was assigned as the Bishop of four dioceses in Bavaria where he was to serve as archbishop and metropolitan.

Boniface had never relinquished his hope of converting the Frisians, and in 754 he set out with a retinue for an evangelizing mission. He baptized a great number and summoned a general meeting for confirmation at a place not far from Dokkum. Instead of his converts, however, a group of armed robbers appeared who slew the aged archbishop. The vitae mention that Boniface persuaded his companions to lay down their weapons: “Cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for evil but to overcome evil by good.

It seems that Pope Gregory II was prescient in renaming Winfrid to Boniface.

St. Boniface’s martyrdom further solidified his legacy. His courage in the face of persecution and his unwavering commitment to his beliefs inspired generations of missionaries who followed in his footsteps. Today, St. Boniface is remembered as one of the great evangelizers of the early medieval period. His influence on the Anglo-Saxon missionary efforts and the Christianization of Europe cannot be overstated. His commitment to education and the reformation of the Church paved the way for a more organized and unified Christian presence in the region. St. Boniface’s life serves as a testament to the transformative power of faith and the enduring impact of missionary work.

Image Credit: Catholic News Agency.  The imagery of the sword through what appears to be a Book of the Gospels is from the account of Boniface’s martyrdom. When the brigands attacked the Saint, Boniface held up the book later found on the field. The book was slashed and cut by a sword.

Note: some traditions credit Boniface with the creation of the Christmas tree tradition.