June 5th is the feast of St Boniface, Apostle of the Germans.
Winfrid (or Wynfrith) was born into a noble family in Crediton in the English county of Devon in the 670s. From an early age he was inspired by the ideals of the missionary monks whom he encountered – men who exercised a type of monasticism which in many ways anticipated the charism of the mediaeval friars.
Having received a comprehensive monastic and intellectual formation of the kind suited to one who had been earmarked by his superiors as an ecclesiastical high-flyer, Wynfrith elected to forego the career which was opening up before him and to pursue instead his dream of evangelizing the Old Saxons in Germany (heathen peoples with whom, as an Anglo-Saxon, he felt a deep affinity).
Commissioned by Pope Gregory II to preach the Gospel the pagan people of Germany east of the Rhine, what Wynfrith discovered on his arrival was not so much a pagan country per se as a country where Christians had relapsed either into heathenism or else, more frequently, into a syncretistic religion which combined Christian and pagan elements.
Boniface (as he was now known – a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon Wynfrith) was tireless in his travels, preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, building churches, and establishing Benedictine monasteries which were to become the centers of an ongoing process of evangelization. He also worked to re-integrate into the Roman Church groups of Christians who had, for whatever reason, fallen out of contact with the Catholic hierarchy.
His gift for the dramatic was an undoubted asset in his work of converting the heathen. In Lower Hessia, for example, he proved the powerlessness of the Germanic gods by felling the oak-tree sacred to Thor and using the wood to build a chapel. Thor’s failure to punish him with the anticipated thunderbolt persuaded the pagans of the region that the Christian God was the true God, and they abandoned their former paganism in droves. The echoes of Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal were surely deliberate.
After a lifetime devoted to converting the heathen, restoring the lapsed, and doing everything he could to establish lasting foundations – hierarchical, monastic, intellectual, and pastoral – to the Catholic Church in Germany, Boniface was finally offered the opportunity to fulfil one of his earliest and most cherished dreams by traveling north to evangelize the Frisians.
However, the heathens of Frisia turned on Boniface and murdered him (together with the missionaries who accompanied him) on June 5t, 754/5. Immediately venerated as a martyr, the apostle of Germany was entombed in the Abbey of Fulda (which he had helped to found), though, very appropriately, relics were distributed throughout the German lands.