Saint Boniface, Bishop and Martyr—Memorial

Pagans cut down a man of action in his grey hairs

In the treasury of the Cathedral of Fulda, Germany, there is a medieval Codex, a large, bound book of prayers and theological documents, which very likely belonged to Saint Boniface. The rough cover of the Codex is deeply sliced with cuts from a sword. A tradition dating back to the generations just after Saint Boniface’s own time attests that he wielded this very book like a shield to ward off the blows of robbers who attacked him and a large band of missionaries in Northern Germany in 754. Our saint tried to protect himself, both metaphorically and literally, with the written truths of our faith. It was to no avail. Saint Boniface and fifty-two of his companions were slaughtered. Ransacking the baggage of the missionaries for treasure, the band of thieves found no gold vessels or silver plates but only sacred texts the unlettered men couldn’t read. Thinking them worthless, they left these books on the forest floor, to be recovered later by local Christians. The Codex eventually made it into the Treasury at Fulda where it is found today. One of the earliest images of Saint Boniface, from a Sacramentary dating to 975, depicts the saint deflecting the blows of a sword with a large, thick book. The Codex is a second-class relic, giving silent witness to the final moments of a martyr.

Saint Boniface is known as the “Apostle of the Germans” and is buried in the crypt of Fulda Cathedral. However, his baptismal name was Winfrid, and he was born and raised in Anglo-Saxon England. He was from an educated family, entered a local monastery as a youth, and was ordained a priest at the age of thirty. In 716 Winfrid sailed to the continent to become a missionary to the peoples on the Baltic coast of today’s Northern Germany. He was able to communicate with them because his Anglo-Saxon tongue was similar to the languages of the native Saxon and Teutonic tribes. Winfrid was among the first waves of those many Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks who saved what could be saved of Roman and Christian culture in Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed. Large migrations of Gothic peoples, mostly Arian Christians, pagans, or a confusing mix of the two, filled the vacuum created after Roman order disintegrated, and they needed to be inculcated in the faith to rebuild a superior version of the culture they had helped decimate.

Winfrid traveled to Rome the year after first arriving on the continent, where the pope renamed him Boniface and appointed him missionary Bishop of Germany. After this, he never returned to his home country. He set out to the north and proceeded to dig and lay the foundations of Europe as we know it. He organized dioceses, helped found monasteries, baptized thousands, pacified tribes, challenged tree-worshipping pagans, taught, preached, held at least one large Church Council, convinced more Anglo-Saxon monks to follow his lead, ordained priests, appointed bishops, stayed in regular contact with his superiors in Rome, and pushed the boundaries of Christianity to their northernmost limit. Boniface was indefatigable. He was in his late seventies, and still pushing to convert the unconverted, when he was surprised and slain in a remote wilderness.

Saint Boniface was well educated, and many of his letters and related correspondence survive. But he was, above all, a man of action. He was daring and fearless. He was a pathbreaker. His faith moved mountains and tossed them into the sea. His labors, combined with his great faith, are the stuff of legend. More incredibly, though, they are the stuff of truth.

Saint Boniface, through your powerful intercession, help all those who labor for the faith to be as intrepid as you were in challenging those who reject Christ. May your example of tireless witness inspire all missionaries, both at home and abroad, to persevere.

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