The arduous life of a missionary involves experiences and events which have been common to all who would take on the challenge of bringing the Christian message to a pagan people. From the first missionary journeys of the Apostles, and particularly St. Paul, to the work of missionaries serving today in African nations and countries now freed from the yoke of Communism, we hear similar stories of zeal and perseverance, trial and triumph. The life of St. Willibrord of Utrecht follows this familiar pattern. St. Bede the Venerable, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People while St. Willibrord was still living, tells us much of the story, and fifty years later, the monk Alcuin wrote a Life of St. Willibrord, filling in more details.
Willibrord was born around the year 658 in the English kingdom of Northumberland. When he was only seven years old, his Christian parents sent their son to the Monastery of Ripon to be taught and guided in the Christian faith by the Abbot, St. Wilfrid.
Willibrord thrived in the monastery, where he devoted his time and attention to the disciplines of prayer and fasting, worship and the study of holy Scripture. At the age of 20, he was given permission to leave Ripon and follow the monk (later St.) Egbert, who had traveled to Rathmelsigi, Ireland to learn the Irish monastic practices. Willibrord spent 12 years here and it was here that he felt his first desire to undertake the work of a missionary. Some of the monks were sent to Friesland (Frisia) to tell the pagan inhabitants about Christianity, but after two years of preaching without success, they returned to Ireland. Willibrord had by now been ordained priest, and desired to make another effort to reach the hearts of the Frisian people. After 25 years of monastic training, he was ready for this mission, and so he was blessed to go to Friesland..
Willibrord and a group of ten other English monks – all AngloSaxons – departed to be missionaries to the Old Saxons of Friesland. Sailing from Ireland, they landed at the mouth of the Rhine River at Catwin, where the British had come for centuries to trade. This part of Friesland had been conquered by the Franks and Pepin, the Duke or “Mayor of the Palace” (and father of Charles Martel), greeted the missionaries courteously and gave them permission to carry on their work in this county.
Willibrord first wished for a Papal blessing on the mission, so he went to Rome and met with Pope Sergius I, receiving encouragement and relics for the churches that would be built. Returning to Frisia to begin his important work, Willibrord found the people now more receptive to the new religion, and many were soon baptized.
After several years of building up the kingdom of Christ in this land, Willibrord was asked to return to Rome to be made Archbishop for Friesland. Pope Sergius consecrated the monk, giving him the name Clement, in the Church of St. Cecilia on her feast day, November 22, 696, and after only fourteen days in Rome, Bishop Clement returned to Frisia. Pepin gave his royal castle at Utrecht for a monastery, the Church of Our Savior was built in the city, and Willibrord also restored St. Martin’s Church (which had been built earlier but destroyed by pagans). This church became the Cathedral. In 698, Willibrord founded an Abbey at Echternach, in the diocese of Trier (now in Luxembourg).
Pepin, who was a nominal Christian, was also affected by the work of the holy monk. Leaving his concubine, he returned to his lawful wife, Plectrudis. Pepin died in 714, but just before his death, his grandson (through Charles Martel, the son of the concubine) was born. Willibrord baptized the child, who in later years became Pepin II (“the Short”), King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne.
Willibrord and his missionary companions ventured into areas not governed by the Franks but by the pagan King Radbod, who had been driven out by the Franks. Here they met with greater dangers. In Denmark, they were soundly rejected, but they left that land with 30 Danish slave boys, who were to be instructed in the faith.
On their return voyage, bad weather caused the party to land on an island considered sacred by the pagan Danes and Frisians. Taboos on this island included killing any creature living there, eating anything growing on the island, or drawing water from a spring without maintaining total silence. St. Willibrord bravely chose to violate these taboos to show that they had no power over Christians. He killed some of the wild life to feed his companions while they were stranded, and he baptized several of the Danish children in water from the spring, speaking the words of baptism aloud. The local people marveled that these strangers did not fall dead at this “sacrilege”. Unfortunately, their leader required a human sacrifice for their “sin” and lots were drawn to choose the Christian martyr. Willibrord and the others were sent away unharmed, but a seed had been planted which would flourish in later years.
Gradually more people became receptive to the Gospel and more churches were founded. Willibrord was assisted for a while by St. Boniface, who spent several years with him before moving to Germany.
Through all the years of his missionary labors, St. Willibrord was known for his patience and for miracles of healing as a result of his prayers. He was very diligent in preparing converts for baptism and strict in choosing those to be ordained to holy orders. He knew that the scandal of one unworthy shepherd could undo the good work of many others.
In old age, weary from his labors, St. Willibrord retired from his episocpal duties to his monastery at Echternach and died on November 7 around the year 739. He was buried, by his wish, at the monastery. This faithful missionary had fulfilled the command to “go forth into all the world, preaching and teaching and baptizing.” Through his tireless efforts, the people of Frisia, Holland and Zealand received the light of Christianity.
Missionaries before and after St. Willibrord have also had an undeterred sense of purpose; have experienced the phenomenon of success after a predecessor has failed and greater success with the approval of a ruler. They have sometimes needed to diffuse idolatrous superstitions and have faced the possibility of martyrdom. May God bless and protect all who accept these conditions in order to bring the light of Christ to those who had been in darkness.