Each year the Catholic Bishops of Germany hold a meeting of their Episcopal Conference in the German city of Fulda. They do this so they can gather annually around the tomb of Saint Boniface, the great martyr and apostle of the German people, who is buried there. Saint Boniface was born in Devonshire, England, in the year 680, into a devout Catholic Saxon family, and baptized with the name Winfred. From his earliest years he longed to be a monk and a priest. He was highly intelligent, and his family saw to it that he was very well educated. When he was in his late teens he entered the Benedictine Abbey at Nursling near Winchester. He became a skillful teacher at the abbey school, and he is noted for writing the first Latin grammar known to have been published in England.
At the age of thirty he was ordained a priest and obtained permission from his Abbot, Winbert, to go to Friesland (present day Holland and Belgium) and there to assist Saint Willibrord, a missionary monk from the monastery, who was trying with scant success to convert the heathen tribes that had settled there.
The 7th and 8th centuries were tumultuous times in Europe north of the Alps. Pagan barbarian Germanic tribes had been pouring across the continent from the east, conquering and devastating it. The Catholic Church was making heroic efforts to convert and civilize them, bringing as much light as possible to those dark ages. Ties of language, history, and blood inclined many of the Catholic Saxons in England, Winfred among them, to want to involve themselves in this effort.
Back and Forth
Not being able to find Willibrord and meeting with no initial success in his missionary work, Winfred returned to Nursling after a few months to find the Abbot Winbert dead and himself elected the new Abbot. However, the pull to the missions proved too strong. He resigned the post and traveled to Rome to obtain a missionary commission from the Pope. There Pope Gregory II in 718 gave him a mandate to preach the Gospel north of the Alps in Europe. The Pope also changed his name to Boniface. Boniface did so well and made so many converts that he was summoned to Rome, and on November 30, 722, he was consecrated a regional Bishop for all the German tribes, including the Franks, Saxons, and Northern Goths. Returning to Gaul and Germany, he made his headquarters in the region of Hesse, and through the influence of the Pope, he obtained the special protection of the rulers of the more civilized and settled tribes, Charles Martel and his sons, Pepin and Carloman.
He worked heroically. At first he only found to help him a few poorly trained, ignorant, and misbehaving Celtic and Frankish priests whom he had to reprimand and finally remove. His most heroic effort was, at the risk of his life, personally to chop down a gigantic oak tree on Mount Gudenberg at Geismar, which the superstitious heathen Germans were worshipping. The pagans were awestruck that, when the tree fell, Boniface was left unharmed by their gods. This brought about many conversions from among them.
Sending back to England for help, he managed to obtain the services of some great Saxon missionaries who were later canonized: Saint Lull, Saint Eoban, Saint Burchard, Saint Wigbert, Saint Thecla, Saint Walburga, and his own nun-cousin, Saint Lioba. He established a monastery at Ohrdorf in Thuringia, and in 731, Pope Gregory III, the successor of Pope Gregory II, named him an Archbishop and a special legate of the Holy See, sent him a pallium, and told him to establish dioceses throughout Gaul and Germany. He set up the Dioceses of Erfurt, Buraburg, Eichstatt, and Wurzburg, placing over them worthy Saxon priests whom he selected and consecrated as their Bishops, after obtaining confirmation for those appointments from the Pope. Then, with the help of Saint Willibald, the brother of Saint Walburga, he commenced the evangelization of Bavaria. Afterwards he traveled to northern Gaul (present day France) and there summoned many synods of the Bishops and priests to put an end to some growing abuses, to promote vocations and proper priestly formation, and to infuse renewed vigor and energy into the work of the Church, all of which he succeeded in doing.
Pope Gregory then decided that, because of his advancing age, Boniface should give up his roving missionary life and settle down as the Archbishop of Mainz, which he did with joy and obedience. Later when he grew older, however, he begged the Pope to allow him to retire in order that the Archdiocese might have a younger and more vigorous Ordinary, and so that he himself might return to missionary work. So Saint Lull was named his successor and Boniface himself headed back to Friesland, his first missionary field.
Boniface had found out that after the death of Saint Wilibrord many of the Frieslanders were returning to paganism, there being few priests or nuns available to catechize them and attend to their pastoral needs. The seventy-three-year-old Boniface joined up with his friend Saint Eoban, the Bishop of Utrecht, and with several priests. Their whole expedition, with indefatigable labor and undiscouraged zeal, brought back to the Church almost all those in Friesland who had lapsed. They then learned that to the north of Friesland was a large tribe of heathens who had not yet been evangelized. So in the spring of the year 754 they journeyed there amid many hardships and set to work. They met with enormous success and thousands of pagans were instructed and baptized.
The day before Pentecost Sunday that year, Boniface had arranged for a huge confirmation ceremony for his new converts in the open fields on the plain of Dokkum on the banks of the Borne River (in present day northern Holland). He and his companions had set up a tent and altar there to await the arrival of the neophytes for the administration of the sacrament. Boniface himself was in another tent of his own reading a book before those people arrived, when suddenly a raiding party from one of the unconverted bands of barbarians descended on the camp. Boniface told his companions calmly to trust in God and not to fear dying for the Catholic Faith. Crying out for vengeance for their false pagan gods, whose existence the missionaries were denying, the heathens killed Boniface and his companions with battle axes, spears, and clubs. Boniface, it was later learned, was the first to fall.
When his new converts arrived for their confirmation, they found the bodies of Boniface and the others. Weeping, they took the body of Boniface back to Fulda, where Saint Sturmi, another close friend of Boniface, was the abbot of a monastery there, and where his earthly remains were reverently buried after a Requiem Mass, and where they rest to this day.
Saint Boniface, apostle of Germany, pray for us.