Pope Benedict and Saint Boniface




Saint Peter’s Square
Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Saint Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, we shall reflect on a great eighth-century missionary who spread Christianity in Central Europe, indeed also in my own country: St Boniface, who has gone down in history as “the Apostle of the Germans”. We have a fair amount of information on his life, thanks to the diligence of his biographers. He was born into an Anglo-Saxon family in Wessex in about 675 and was baptized with the name of Winfrid. He entered the monastery at a very early age, attracted by the monastic ideal. Since he possessed considerable intellectual ability, he seemed destined for a peaceful and brilliant academic career. He became a teacher of Latin grammar, wrote several treatises and even composed various poems in Latin. He was ordained a priest at the age of about 30 and felt called to an apostolate among the pagans on the continent. His country, Great Britain which had been evangelized barely 100 years earlier by Benedictines led by St Augustine at the time showed such sound faith and ardent charity that it could send missionaries to Central Europe to proclaim the Gospel there. In 716, Winfrid went to Frisia (today Holland) with a few companions, but he encountered the opposition of the local chieftain and his attempt at evangelization failed. Having returned home, he did not lose heart and two years later travelled to Rome to speak to Pope Gregory ii and receive his instructions. One biographer recounts that the Pope welcomed him “with a smile and a look full of kindliness”, and had “important conversations” with him in the following days (Willibaldo, [Willibald of Mainz], Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. Levison, pp. 13-14), and lastly, after conferring upon him the new name of Boniface, assigned to him, in official letters, the mission of preaching the Gospel among the German peoples.

Comforted and sustained by the Pope’s support, Boniface embarked on the preaching of the Gospel in those regions, fighting against pagan worship and reinforcing the foundations of human and Christian morality. With a deep sense of duty he wrote in one of his letters: “We are united in the fight on the Lord’s Day, because days of affliction and wretchedness have come…. We are not mute dogs or taciturn observers or mercenaries fleeing from wolves! On the contrary, we are diligent Pastors who watch over Christ’s flock, who proclaim God’s will to the leaders and ordinary folk, to the rich and the poor… in season and out of season…” (cf. Epistulae, 3,352.354: mgh). With his tireless activity and his gift for organization, Boniface adaptable and friendly yet firm obtained great results. The Pope then “declared that he wished to confer upon him the episcopal dignity so that he might thus with greater determination correct and lead back to the path of truth those who had strayed, feeling supported by the greater authority of the apostolic dignity and being much more readily accepted by all in the office of preacher, the clearer it was that this was why he had been ordained by the Apostolic Bishop” (Othlo, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. Levison, lib. I, p. 127).

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