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The Apostle of Germany

Donna Morley

His name was Winfrid (or Wynfrith) born in Devonshire, England in A.D. 680. At the age of five, after listening to some monks, Winfrid determined he would one day become a Benedictine monk. At the age of seven he began his education at a monastery school near Exeter and at fourteen, graduated to the abbey at a Benedictine Nursling monastery in Winchester. There he studied under a monk named Winbert and eventually, at the age of 30 was ordained.

In 716, at the age of 36, Winfrid decided to becoming a missionary. Leaving England to Friesland, Germany, he aided the mission of St. Willibrord. His mission trip wouldn't last long due because of two basic reasons. First, the political conditions were unsettling. There was tremendous hostility on the part of Radbod, king of the Frisians, then at war with Charles Martel, who became the Frankish ruler upon the death of Radbod). Another reason for returning to England was because of the people's stubborn belief in pagan gods. Winfrid returned to England feeling somewhat defeated.

Pope Gregory II saw much potential in Winfrid. Wanting to encourage him to go back in Germany, Pope Gregory gave him a new name: Boniface. As well, he wrote him a letter in 719 to encourage him on. Yet, Boniface didn't automatically respond. He would need more motivation.

By 722 Boniface received the motivation he needed to go back to Germany. It was brought about by discovering that the Frankish ruler, Radbod had been killed. As well, that Pope Gregory was willing to write a letter on Boniface's behalf to Charles Martel, the new ruler (this letter resulted in Boniface having Frankish protection). The final motivating factor that prompted Boniface to return to Germany was a letter that Pope Gregory wrote on Boniface's behalf to the German people. In that letter Pope Gregory warned the Germans saying: "... if (which God forbid) any man should attempt to hinder his efforts and oppose the work of the ministry entrusted to him and his successors, may he be cursed by the judgment of God and condemned to eternal damnation." Deeply motivated, Boniface and a few companions left England. They visited the towns Thuringia, Hesse, Franconia, and Bavaria.

When Boniface went into the town of Hess, he discovered they had some pagan superstitions. One was that of an old oak tree they paid reverence to. The tree was called the Oak of Thor, (Thor was a Norse deity) and the tree was believed to be sacred to their gods, especially to Thor. Boniface announced that their pagan gods do not exist and that he was going to cut down the tree.

The Hessians were furious. They cursed and threatened Boniface and believed that he would be struck down by the gods. Tradition has it that instead of Boniface being struck down, a great wind suddenly arose, and struck down the tree to the ground and divided into four pieces. When the Hussians saw this they took it as a sign from heaven and consented to give up their idolatry and became Catholics. Boniface used the wood to build a chapel.

Boniface not only had problems in his mission efforts with those who had their pagan beliefs, but he also had big problems with the Irish missionaries. They were brining an evangelical message that was bringing many to Christ, but not to the Catholic church. The Pope condemned these missionaries as heretics. He also feared that Boniface might be influenced by them.. Therefore, on November 30, 722, Pope Gregory made Boniface take an oath. not only in the Pope's presence, but at what is believed to be the tomb of the apostle Peter. Below is the oath that Boniface recited and has been repeated by every Catholic bishop since:

I promise thee, the first of the Apostles, and thy representative Pope Gregory, and his successors, that, with Godís help, I will abide in the unity of the Catholic faith, that I will in no manner agree with anything contrary to the unity of the Catholic church, but will in every way maintain my faith pure and my co-operation constantly for thee, and for the benefit of thy church, on which was bestowed, by God, the power to bind and to loose, and for thy representative aforesaid, and his successors. And whenever I find that the conduct of the presiding officers of churches contradicts the ancient decrees and ordinances of the fathers, I will have no fellowship or connection with them; but, on the contrary, if I can hinder them, I will hinder them; and if not, report them faithfully to the pope [Archibald, Vol. 2, pp. 23-24].

Boniface's oath to the Pope meant that he would not only bring people under the old system of the Roman hierarchy, but that he would be suppress all efforts of Christian missionaries who obviously did not agree with the papacy. Boniface was to hold true to his oath because in 743 he threw two Scotch-Iris clergymen into prison because they they preached against the veneration of apostles and saints; they proclaimed that pilgrimages to Rome were useless; they rejected canonical law as well as the writings of Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory. Boniface's actions backfired when a large protest from the people came as a result of the pastors being put in prison. Wanting to please the people, King Pepin (Charles Martel's son) set them free.

Between the years 745 and 747, Boniface wrote a series of letters to England, the most notable are his letters to Archbishop Cuthbert and to King Aethelbald. In his letter to Cuthbert he talks about "forced labour of monks upon royal buildings and other works" [Tangl, no. 78, p. 171]. He presided at the Council of Cloveshoe, where every priest was ordered to learn and explain to the people in their own tongue the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Offices of Mass and Baptism. He sent the proceedings of this council to Boniface by his deacon Cynebert and thus encouraged him to follow his example.In his letter to Aethelbald, it became a bit more personal and confrontive. Although he began his letter to Arthelbald praising him for the good he was doing, he confronted him on his immorality in various monasteries with "nuns and virgins vowed to God", on depriving depriving the churches of certain priviledges and property, and allowing the monks to be treated with violence and extortion. He also accused Aethelbald of allowing powerful laymen to take over the monasteries, allowing the drunkeness of the clergy, and allowing the monks to wear extravagant clothes.

It is said that these two letters from Boniface brought about reform when the Council of Clovesho was formed. Interestingly, along with Cuthbert, King Aethelbald presided over the council. The outcome of the council was that every priest was ordered to learn and explain to the people in their own tongue the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Offices of Mass and Baptism. They were prohibited from singing "in the manner of secular poets." In regard to monks, they were forbidden to mix with laymen, or conduct secular business. The council condemned "ludicrous arts" and drunkenness in monasteries. In a final canon, it protested at secular suspicion and envy of the clergy, and ordered prayers for king and laity.

Boniface wasn't personally involved with the Council of Clovesho. He was busy converting the people to Catholicism, but moreso, arduously working at connecting the people closely to the papacy. No matter how successful his efforts may have been, he needed more help. Boniface came to the realization that it was important to bring nuns into Germany.

As Boniface pleaded for nuns to consider the mission work in Germany, he was pleased to see that in 748 one of the first nuns to cross the English Channel was his niece, Sister Walburga. She was joined by her two brothers, Willibald and Winebald, who also wanted to help out their uncle. Willibald would become the first bishop of Eichstaett and would, along Winebald, start a monastery in Heidenheim. This was a monastery that had one section for monks and one for nuns. Winebald was in charge of the monks and Walburga became in charge of the nuns. Later Walburga would write two separate books, one about Willibald, the other about Winebald.

Boniface desired to settle in Cologne, but he was asked to go to Mentz (also called Mainz) to take the place of the current bishop who had just murdered a Saxon. The killing wasn't in defense, but rather revenge. Apparently the Saxon, in a former war, had killed the bishop's father. Obviously this "minister of peace" had lost all credibility, and for good reason, Boniface had to take his place. Boniface would eventually become the archbishop in Mentz with five bishops under him.

In his few remaining years, Boniface left his archbishopric and returned to Frisia, the first town he did mission work in. One evening while Boniface was reading, and awaiting to serve communion to his converts, he was murdered. A group of hostile men, called "pagans" killed not only Boniface but all 52 Frisia missionaries with the sword. Legend has it that Boniface's bloodstained book (could have possibly been a Bible) became a Catholic relic.

Since the day of his death, Boniface has been referred to as the "Apostle of the Germans." During his time in Germany he had become regionary bishop (722), and an archibishop of Mentz (745). He also created four bishoprics in Bavaria (731), and established monasteries in Reichenau (724), Murbach (728) and Fulda (744) which had become a center for learning, and the place that Boniface was buried.

During Boniface's lifetime he wrote many letters, received many, and delivered at least one from Pope Gregory. For those who m