The life of St. Boniface is not one of miracles or visions or doctrinal disputes but rather of the slow, hard work of evangelizing among those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ.
Born around the year 675 into a Christian Anglo-Saxon peasant family, Boniface was given the name Winfrid by his parents. When he was a young boy, the family was visited by several missionary monks, and the conversations about their work inspired the boy to a desire to devote himself to such work. Soon he was sent to a monastery to be educated and to begin his service to the Church. Winfrid excelled in academics and became a monastic teacher of some renown (a grammar which he wrote for his students still exists).
At the age of 30, he was ordained a priest, but his early desire to be a missionary persisted, and in 716, he left England for Friscia (modern Netherlands) where Ss. Wilfrid and Willibrord had begun the conversion of the native people. However, the political situation in Friscia had deteriorated so much that missionary work was impossible at this time, so Winfrid returned home to his monastery. When he was elected abbot, he refused the office and instead went to Rome to see if the Patriarch (Pope Gregory II) could direct his missionary aspirations. It was at this time that the monk took the name Boniface (for the Latin, bonifatus, fortunate). Gregory sent him to Hesse and Bavaria, but on the way there, Boniface discovered that the political climate in Friscia had improved, so he first spent three years there, assisting the aging Willibrord. Then, after three years in Hesse, Boniface was made a bishop with the responsibility for organizing the newly-emerging church in this expanding area.
Through Boniface’s hard work and patient teaching, the conversion of the Germanic pagan people began to take hold. Part of his success was due to the common links between his native Anglo-Saxon tongue and the dialects of the Teutonic tribes. Boniface constantly sought the advice of other bishops (particularly Bishop Daniel of Winchester). He was also wise in requesting the help of English monastics who came willingly to this land and established monasteries as centers of Christianity and learning.
Boniface’s evangelistic work was primarily for the conversion of pagans to the Christian faith, but he often encountered those who had at some time in the past been baptized but who had slipped back into the practices and beliefs of their pagan past. A famous story is told of Boniface’s dramatic methods of putting an end to pagan beliefs: he called a public assembly and with axes, he and his fellow missionaries cut down a sacred oak tree, dedicated to the god of Thunder, Thor. When the terrified people saw that nothing happened to those who had done this unthinkable thing, they held the missionaries in higher esteem, and when the oak wood was used for the building of a church on that same spot, many became Christians.
Boniface was eventually made a metropolitan (archbishop) and he expanded his organizing and reforming activities to the church in Gaul. His efforts were always more successful when he had the support and cooperation of the political leaders and they were often thwarted by the interference of civil authorities.
In 754, when he was nearly 80 years of age, Boniface desired to return to the place of his first mission work, Friscia. There, as he and a number of other monks were waiting on a river bank preparing for the baptism of some converts, they were suddenly attacked by a band of pagan warriors and Boniface and fifty others were killed. It is said that St. Boniface forbade the monks to shield him, willingly accepting martyrdom, and that he held up the Gospel book he was reading to protect it. The body of the missionary, along with the damaged book, were taken to the monastery he had founded in Fulda, where the relics still reside.
St. Boniface has come to be known as the “Apostle to the Germans”. He has provided us with a remarkable example of zeal for the spreading of the gospel to those who have never heard it and the renewing of the faith in those who have fallen away. His example is one of untiring work in hostile and dangerous environments, patience in waiting for circumstances to become more favorable for evangelization, and wisdom in seeking the aid of leaders and other teachers.
Holy Boniface, pray for us who would also undertake the work of missionaries.