boniface--the man

Boniface was born at Crediton in Devon in 675 and baptized with the name Winfrith. The name means "Friend of Peace", possibly because his father was a Saxon and his mother British, to show that the two peoples had come together. He convinced his parents to send him to a monastery for schooling because of his admiration of the monks who had visited his home. Through diligent study, he rapidly learned all that his local monastery could teach him and was transferred to the monastery at Nursling for further education. There he became such a well known teacher that students circulated notes from his classes. In his heart, he acknowledged he had a burning passion for foreign mission. Finally, his abbot let him leave, and in 716, he set out for the land of the Frisians. Another English missionary, Willibrord from Northumbria, had already preached the Gospel in that area for several years. Wars and the hatred of the pagans were big obstacles for the young Winfrith. Some months later, having failed in his mission to Frisia, he returned to his monastery in England. After devoting two years of further preparation for his missionary work, Winfrith once again left his monastery for good. He would never return to England again.

He set off for Rome to ask the leader of the worldwide church for his commissioning and blessing. On May 14, 719, he threw himself at the feet of Pope Gregory II, who gave him the new name, "Boniface". He then crossed the Alps and embarked on 35 years of missionary work in various parts of Germany, as well as a return visit to Frisia. In 722, he was consecrated by the Pope as Bishop of the whole of Germany to the east of the Rhine.

On his return to Germany as Bishop, Boniface decided to tackle the heathen superstitions head on. Boniface returned to find that his problems had worsened; people were attracted by Christianity but were unable to give up their old religion and superstitions--perhaps out of fear of being different or of how their old "gods" would react. Knowing that the people needed a reason to let go, Boniface called the tribes to a display of power. As the people watched, Boniface approached the giant oak of Geismar with an ax--a sacred tree dedicated to Thor, the god of thunder. Finally with a crack, the tree split into four parts that we are told fell to the ground in the shape of a cross. There stood Boniface, ax in hand, unharmed by their old gods, strong in power of the one true God. After six years, the Pope made him Archbishop of all Germany, where he was based at Mainz.

After his success in Hesse, he returned to Thuringia to confront the old problem of the decadent remnants of the Church. Unable to get help from the suspect clergy in Thuringia, he called to England for help. Nuns and monks responded to his call enthusiastically for many years. We still have many of Boniface's letters, including correspondence with his helpers in England. Reforming the Church was the biggest challenge in Thuringia and he had many thorny questions to answer. When a rite of baptism had been defective, was it valid? What should he do about immoral clergy? Still remembering his first lesson, he appealed to Rome for answers from the Pope. All his appeals to Rome helped him; they also helped forge a much stronger bond between Rome and Europe.

Boniface was called upon to lend his own support to the Frankish Church, which was  also badly in need of reform. He set up councils and synods and instituted reforms that revitalized that part of the Church. As well as expanding and growing the churches in Germany, Boniface was equally concerned to ensure that the political authorities and rulers become firmly committed to Christianity. He crowned Pepin as King of the "Franks" (people of France and Germany), whose son, Charlemagne, was to become the first "Holy Roman Emperor", a title which continued for the next 1,000 years. Boniface was constantly traveling around, encouraging churches, appointing good leaders, and negotiating with politicians. His journeys and letters show his energy and spirituality. Many of his fellow workers came from his native England. Whenever tired, Boniface withdrew to the new abbey he had founded at Fulda in central Germany for rest and refreshment.

At the age of 73, Boniface took the gospel to Frisia, where his efforts had failed nearly 40 years earlier. He set off with 52 companions on an evangelistic mission. At Pentecost, on June 5, 755, near the modern town of Dokkum in the Netherlands, they were all massacred by heathen brigands. Although his companions wanted to fight, Boniface told them to trust in God and to welcome death for the faith. All of them were martyred. Boniface was himself struck down by a sword that pierced the Bible he had raised to shield his head. As requested in his will, his body was taken back to the monastery he had founded at Fulda. A magnificent cathedral now encloses his tomb and all the Roman Catholic Bishops of Germany hold their yearly meetings in the cathedral.