Commemoration of Boniface of Mainz, Missionary to the Germans
June 5, 2012
June 5th is set aside on our, and numerous other, liturgical calendar to remember Boniface of Mainz. He was born in England around 672/3 to land owning peasants and named Wynfrith (or Winfred). When his father became seriously ill, he was sent to the Benedictine school at Exeter and then to the Benedictine monastery at Nursling, a place of learning and missionary activity. Wynfrid was ordained there, and he became director of the monastic school and wrote the first Old English Latin grammar and several poems.
When he was about forty years old, ca. 716, he received permission from his abbot to begin missionary work in Frisia (northwest Germany and the northern Netherlands), a part of the kingdom of the Franks and the scene of widespread rejection of Christianity. Willibrord, the Apostle of Frisia, had prepared the way from his base at Utrecht by establishing relations with the Frankish rulers and gaining papal support for missionary work there. After exploring the possibility of a mission, Wynfrith recognized that the time was not ripe, and within a year he returned to his monastery. His abbot died in 717, and Wynfrith was elected his successor, but in 718 he resigned in order to go to Rome to ask the pope for a missionary assignment. On May 15, 719, Gregory II gave him broad missionary jurisdiction, urged him to consult with Rome whenever difficulties arose, and gave Wynfrith the name of Boniface (Bonifatius), perhaps from bonum facere (to do good) or bonumfatum (good destiny) or perhaps a Latin approximation of the Old English Wyn-frith, "delight in peace."
The newly commissioned missionary went to Thuringia, preaching to secular leaders and attempting to reform the partly pagan clergy. In 719 he went again to Frisia, after the hostile Duke Radbod had died, to study Willibrord’s missionary methods. In 721 he went on his own to Hesse, established a monastery there, and baptized many converts (thousands, his biographer says) on the Day of Pentecost, 722.
The pope, learning of his success, invited Boniface to Rome and November 30, 722, consecrated him bishop for the German frontier without a fixed diocese. He provided him with a collection of rules and letters of recommendation to important persons whose protection was essential to Boniface’s success. He returned to the mission field, and one of his first acts, it is said, was to fell the sacred oak tree of Thor at Geisman in Hesse. When he was not harmed for this action, many of the people were converted, and with the wood of the tree, Boniface built a chapel in honor of St. Peter.
Bishop Boniface stayed two years in Hesse and then for ten years (725-735) worked again in Thuringia, where Frankish and Irish missionaries had made a start. Despite struggles with pagan corruption of Christian clergy and ceremonies, Boniface enjoyed a fruitful mission, supported by gifts from the Benedictines in England.
Pope Gregory III elevated Boniface to the rank of archbishop in 732 and asked him to consecrate missionary bishops. In 737 Boniface made his final visit to Rome, spent a year there, and was asked by the pope to organize the German Church. In 738 he returned to Germany as papal legate and established new bishoprics and abbeys. In 744 he established the most famous of his monasteries at Fulda, which became the center of German spiritual and intellectual life. Boniface assisted in reforming the Frankish Church (742-747), and upon the deposition of Gewiliob, the bishop of Mainz, who had killed his father’s murderer, Boniface was made archbishop of Mainz, for although he had been archbishop since 742, he had never been assigned a see. Ten years later he resigned his position to engage in mission work among the Frisians (thus returning to where his missionary work had begun). Once again the now aged missionary was successful in his work. But at sunrise on June 5, 754, at Dokkum, Boniface, while reading the Gospel to a group of neophytes on Pentecost, a band of pagan Frisians attacked, and all were massacred. At Fulda, along with the remains of Boniface, is preserved a Gospel book that has been slashed in several places and that is purported to have been held by Boniface when he was killed.
Boniface’s standard approach to missionary work was to enter an area with a number of fellow monks. They would establish a monastery as a base of operations. From the monastery they would reach out with the Gospel. Along with sharing the word of God, they also shared other advances which today we consider secular. This might be advances in medicine, education, agriculture, administration, or whatever skills the monks had. As such the locals saw the Gospel lived out. He is remembered as a great missionary and reformer of the church.
Last year I also put up a post concerning Boniface. Click here to go to it. It is completely different and complements this post.
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, You called Boniface to be a witness and martyr in Germany, and by his labor and suffering You raised up a people for Your own possession. Pour out Your Holy Spirit upon Your Church in every land, that by the service and sacrifice of many Your holy name may be glorified and Your kingdom enlarged; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Appropriate prayers include:
- For the church in Germany and the Netherlands
- For the governments in Germany and the Netherlands
- For those who teach the faith
- For courage in the face of disappointments
- For missionaries, especially those whose lives are in danger
- For social ministries as vehicles for sharing the Gospel
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert