Today we see how Winfrid realizes the fair name of Boniface, or well-doer, given him by Pope Gregory II. He presents himself before us, surrounded by the multitudes he has snatched at one blow from paganism and barbarism. Thanks to this Apostle of Germany, the hour is nigh when the Church may constitute in this world, apart from the spiritual dominion of souls, an empire more powerful than any that has ever been or is to be.
Such an institution was indeed worthy of the name it was to receive, that of the Holy Roman Empire: in it we have the final result of our glorious Pentecost, the consummation of the testimony rendered by the Holy Ghost to Jesus, both as Pontiff and as King (John 15: 26). In a few days, St. Leo III, the illustrious Pope called by the Holy Ghost to crown this His divine work, will proclaim, to the joy of the whole world, the establishment of this new Empire beneath the scepter-sway of the Man-God, in the person of Charlemagne (St. Karl the Great), the representative of the King of kings. This marvelous work was not prepared all at once. Vast regions, destined to form the very nucleus of this future empire, for long centuries knew not so much as the very name of the Lord Jesus; or, at best, preserved but confused notions of truth, derived from some earlier evangelization that had been stifled in its birth by the turmoil of invasions—a mere mixture of Christian practices and idolatrous superstitions. At length we behold St. Boniface arise, endued with power from on high (Acts 1: 8), the worthy precursor of St. Leo III. Born of those angel-faced Angles, by whom an ancient Britain was transformed into the Island of Saints, he burns to carry into the heart of Germany, whence his ancestors had sprung, the light which first shone upon them in the land of their conquest.
Thirty years of monastic life, begun in childhood despite the tears and caresses of a tender father, had braced his soul. Prepared by this long period of retreat and silence, filled with divine science, and accompanied by the prayers of his cloistered brethren, he could now in all security set forth to follow the attraction of a divine call. But, first and foremost, Rome beholds him at the feet of the Sovereign Pontiff, submitting his plans and prospects to him who is the only source of all mission in the Church. Pope Gregory II, in every way worthy of the great Popes that have borne that name, was at that time watching with apostolic vigilance over the Christian world, and preparing for the glorious sovereignty that awaited the Church in the coming eighth century. In the humble monk prostrate at his feet, the immortal Pontiff recognizes a powerful auxiliary sent to him by Heaven; and so, armed with the apostolic benediction, Winfrid, now become Boniface, feels the powerful attraction of the Holy Ghost drawing him irresistibly to conquests of which ancient Rome had never dreamed.
Beyond the Rhine, farther than Roman legions ever penetrated, the Church now advances into this barbarous land, along pathways tracked for Her by St. Boniface; overturning in Her victorious march the last idols of the false gods, civilizing and sanctifying those savage hordes, the scourge of the old world. This Anglo-Saxon, a true son of St. Benedict, gives to his work a stability that will defy the lapse of ages. Everywhere monasteries arise, taking root in the very soil, for God’s sake; and, by force of example and beneficence, fixing around them its various nomad tribes. From the river banks, from the forest depths, instead of cries of war and of vengeance, is wafted the accent of prayer and of praise to the Most High. St. Sturmius, the beloved disciple of St. Boniface, presides over these peaceful colonies far superior to those of pagan Rome, planted though they were by her noblest veterans and manned by the best forces of her Empire.
Here, too, where violence has hitherto reigned supreme, in these savage wilds, a novel kind of army is organized, formed of the gentle brides of Christ. The Spirit of Pentecost, like a mighty wind, has blown over the land of the Angles; and, even as in the cenacle holy women had a share in His influence, consecrated virgins, obedient to the heavenly impulse, have quitted the land of their birth, even the monastery that has sheltered them from childhood. Having for a while administered only at a distance to Winfrid’s needs, and copied out for him the sacred books in letters of gold, they at length come to join the apostle. Fearlessly have they crossed the sea, and, guided by their divine Spouse, have come to share the labors undertaken for His glory. St. Lioba is at their head; she whose gentle majesty, whose heavenly aspect, uplifts the mind from earthly thoughts, and who by her knowledge of the Scriptures, of the Fathers, and of the Sacred Canons, is equal to any of the most celebrated Doctors. But the Holy Ghost has still more richly gifted the soul of St. Lioba with humility and Christian heroism. Behold the chosen mother of the German nation! Germany’s proud daughters, athirst for blood, who on their wedding-day disdained all other gifts save a steed, a buckler, and a lance, are to learn from her the true qualities of the valiant woman. Nor more shall they be seen, intoxicated with slaughter, leading back to the field of battle their vanquished husbands; but the virtues of the wife and of the mother shall replace in them the fury of the camp; family life is to be founded on German soil, and through it the fatherland.
This was St. Boniface's intention when he called to his aid St. Lioba, St. Walburga, and their companions. Worn out with toil, but still more with the incessant wear and fret of petty jealousies (never spared to men of God by such as would cover their paltry complaints under the cloak of false zeal), he was not ashamed to come to St. Lioba, his well-beloved daughter, humbly seeking from her that enlightened counsel and comfort which was never denied. Estimating at its true worth the share she had borne in his work, he was desirous that she should be laid to rest in the same tomb prepared for him in his abbey of Fulda.
But not yet was his labor ended, nor was the evening of life at hand. The spiritual welfare of his numberless converts must be secured, and at their head must be placed such as the Holy Ghost designated for the government of God’s Church (Acts 20: 28). By his means the hierarchy was constituted and developed; the land was covered with churches; and, beneath the rule of holy bishops chosen by God, these once wandering tribes now began to live a life to the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity, in a country but recently pagan, wherein Satan had hoped to perpetuate his own domination.
Nor was this our Saint's only work in Germany; in certain isolated parts, the seeds of Arianism and Manichaeism had been silently taking root, by means of an intruded clergy, half pagan and half Christian in their rites; and these would inevitably prove a serious scandal to his recent converts that came within reach of their influence. Even as Christ, armed with a whip of cords, drove the buyers and sellers from the temple, so did St. Boniface, by vigorous measures, rid the land of these sectarian priests, who, with hands polluted by heathenish sacrifices to the vanquished deities of Valhalla, dared to offer also the spotless Victim to the Most High.
The powerful action of St. Boniface, as the precursor of the Holy Roman Empire, was not confined to preparing the German race alone for its share in so high a destiny. His beneficent influence was now to be exercised, at a most critical moment, upon France (i.e. the Kingdom of the Franks), the eldest daughter of the Church; for she was chosen, in the person of her princes, to be the first to bear the emblem of Christ's universal Kingship. The descendants of Clovis had preserved nothing of his royal inheritance, save the vain title of a power that had now passed into the hands of a new family, a more vigorous branch of his stock. Charles Martel, the head of this race, measuring his strength with the Moors, had crushed their entire army near Poitiers: but, in the flush of victory, the hero of the day had well nigh brought the Church in France to the brink of ruin, by distributing to his comrades in arms the episcopal sees and abbeys of the land. Unless a situation no less disastrous than would have been the triumph of Abderahman was to be accepted, these usurped crosiers must at once be wrested from the hands of such strange titularies. To effect this, as much gentleness as firmness was needed, together with an ascendancy belonging only to virtue, if the hero of Poitiers and his noble race were to be gained over to respect the rights of holy Church. This victory, more glorious than had been the defeat of the Moors, was won by St. Boniface, a veritable triumph of unarmed holiness, as profitable to the vanquished as to the Church Herself. Of this fierce warrior he was to make the worthy father of a second dynasty, the glory whereof should far surpass the brilliant hopes of the first race of the Frankish kings.
St. Boniface, now legate of Pope St. Zachary, as he had formerly been of Pope Gregory III, fixed his episcopal See at Mainz, the better to keep within the fold both Germany—the conquest of his earlier apostolate, and France—more recently rescued by his labors. Like another Samuel, he himself, with his own hands, consecrated this new regal dynasty, by conferring the sacred unction on Pepin le Bref, son of Charles Martel. This was in the year 752. Another Charles, as yet a child, who was one day to inherit that throne thus firmly established, attracted the notice of the aged Saint, and received his benediction; it was the future Charlemagne. But to the hand of a Sovereign Pontiff would be reserved the anointing of that royal brow; and a diadem more glorious still than that of a king of the Franks was one day to be his, exhibiting in his person the head of the new Holy Roman Empire, the lieutenant of the King of kings.
The personal work of St. Boniface is now accomplished; like the old man Simeon, his eyes had seen the object of all his ambition, of his life-long toil, the salvation prepared by God for this new Israel. He too had now no desire left save that of departing in peace to our Lord; but could such an apostle enter into peace by any other gate than that of martyrdom? He understands this well: his hour has sounded; the old warrior has chosen his last battlefield. Friesland (now northern Holland) is still pagan; half a century ago, at the opening of his apostolic career, he had avoided this country, in order to escape the bishopric which St. Willibrord, at that early date, was anxious to bestow upon him: but now that it has nothing save death to offer him, he will enter this land. In a letter of sublime humility, prostrate at the feet of Pope Stephen III, he submits to the correction of the Apostolic See the "awkward mistakes," as he terms them, and the many faults of his long life; to Lullus, his dearest son, he leaves the Church of Mainz; he recommends to the care of the Frankish king the several priests scattered all through Germany, the monks and virgins, who from distant homes have followed him hither. Then ordering to be placed amongst the few books which he is taking with him the winding sheet that is to enwrap his body, he designates the companions chosen by him for the journey, and sets out to win the martyr's palm.
Let us now read the liturgical record of the grand life:
St. Boniface, formerly called Winfrid, was a native of England, born towards the end of the seventh century. From his very childhood, he turned away from the world and set his heart upon becoming a monk. When his father tried in vain to divert him from his wishes by the beguilements of the world, he entered a monastery, where under Blessed Wulphard he was instructed in all virtuous discipline and every king of knowledge. At the age of 29 years he was ordained priest, and became an unwearied preacher of the word of God, wherein he had a special gift, which he used with great profit to souls. Nevertheless, his great desire was to spread the kingdom of Christ, and he continually bewailed the vast number of barbarians, who were plunged in the darkness of ignorance and were slaves of the devil. This zealous love of souls increased in him in intensity day by day, till having implored the divine aid by prayers and tears, he at last obtained the permission of the Prior of the monastery to set out for Germany.
He sailed from England with two companions and reached the town of Dorestadt in Friesland. On account of a great war then raging between Radbod, King of the Frieslanders, and Charles Martel, his preaching was without fruit: so he returned to England, and to his former monastery, the government of which, against his will, he was forced to accept. After two years, he obtained the consent of the Bishop of Winchester to resign his office, and he then went to Rome, that by the Apostolic authority he might be delegated to the mission for converting the heathens. When he arrived at the City, he was courteously welcomed by Pope Gregory II, who changed his name from Winfrid to Boniface. He departed thence to Germany and preached Christ to the tribes in Thuringia and Saxony. Radbod, King of Friesland, who bitterly hated the Christian name, being dead, St. Boniface went a second time among the Frieslanders, and there, with his companion St. Willibrord, preached the Gospel for three years with so much fruit, that the idols were hewn down and countless churches arose to the true God.
St. Willibrord urged him to accept the office of Bishop, but he refused, so that he might the more promptly toil for the salvation of unbelievers. Advancing into Germany, he reclaimed thousands of the Hessians from diabolic superstition. Pope Gregory sent for him to Rome, and after receiving from him a noble profession of his Faith, consecrated him a Bishop. He again returned to Germany, and thoroughly purged Hesse and Thuringia from all remains of idolatry. On account of such great works, Pope Gregory III advanced St. Boniface to the dignity of Archbishop, and on the occasion of a third journey to Rome, he was invested by the Sovereign Pontiff with the powers of legate of the Apostolic See. As such, he founded four bishoprics and held several synods, among which is especially to be remembered that of Lessines held in Belgium, in the diocese of Cambrai, at which time he made great efforts to spread the Faith among the Belgians. By Pope Zachary he was named Archbishop of Mainz, and by command of the same Pope, he anointed Pepin King of the Franks. After the death of St. Willibrord, he undertook the government of the Church of Utrecht, at first by the ministry of Eoban, but afterwards, being released from the care of the Church of Mainz, he established his see at Utrecht. The Frieslanders having again fallen back into idolatry, he went once more to preach the Gospel among them, and while he was busied in this duty he won the palm of martyrdom, being slain by some impious barbarians, who attacked him together with his fellow Bishop Eoban, and many others, on the river Born. In accordance with his wish expressed during his life, the body of St. Boniface was carried to Mainz and buried in the monastery of Fulda, of which he had been the founder, and which he has rendered illustrious by numerous miracles. Pope Pius IX ordered his Office and Mass to be extended to the universal Church.
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