Saint Boniface is venerated as the Apostle to the Germans. After spending 23 years in a Benedictine monastery in England, he apprenticed as a missionary with St. Willibrord in Holland for one year and then received his own papal commission to spread the Gospel among the barbarian tribes in Germany. In his 40+ years of missionary service, he preached the Gospel broadly, developed communities of faith, built monasteries, and established dioceses throughout the lands of modern-day Germany. Furthermore, at the Pope’s request, he radically reformed the ailing Church in France by holding Synods, resolving disputes, enforcing clerical discipline and giving a witness of sanctity. In the end, his tremendous evangelical service was crowned with martyrdom at age 77 as he preached the Gospel in his original mission field in Holland in 757 AD. While we reflect with awe on his extensive achievements, it will benefit us to learn something from the wisdom of his approach.
Saint Boniface had a deep love for the Word of God. His love for Sacred Scripture shone through in many areas of his missionary work and is ultimately immortalized in the image of his martyrdom. Rather than raising a sword or shield, he only raised a Codex with Sacred Scripture in it to defend himself and he was slain as his enemy’s sword passed through the book. Statues of Saint Boniface can be easily recognized by the sword-pierced book he holds in his hand. Throughout his missionary journeys, he asked Benedictine nuns regularly for copies of Scripture to be sent to him. He had a special love for the letters of Saint Peter. His love for Scripture was likely formed during his decades of monastic life before he set out as a missionary. The Rule of Saint Benedict expects monks to pray with Scripture (lectio divina) up to four hours a day. His love for Scripture also built on a simple love for words and language. His assignment in the monastery was to teach in the Abbey school and for this service he wrote his own Latin Grammar. He was a man who loved words, loved Latin and above all loved the Word of God. Father Jean LeClerq in his classic work, Love for Learning and Desire for God, highlighted Saint Boniface as a role model. He was a man who was formed by the Word of God and in turn formed a new Christian culture based on that same “Divine DNA” he received from the Word.
Saint Boniface also had a great reverence for the papacy. He received his initial missionary mandate (and his name “Boniface”) from Pope Saint Gregory II. After learning from Saint Willibrord, he went to Rome to present himself to the Pope. He returned to Rome under each of the successive Popes as well to renew his mandate and receive their guidance. Furthermore, we still have many of his letters to those Popes as he sought their paternal assistance in different situations. He not only sought necessary permissions, such as with liturgical questions, but also requested their wisdom and prudential judgment on matters of evangelization, enforcing clerical discipline and church governance. Saint Boniface was blessed to serve under three Popes who were saints, but also one who was not. The relative holiness of the Popes did not hinder his devotion for the papal office, however, nor limit his humble requests for prayer, authority and guidance.
Lastly, we can follow the example of Saint Boniface in his deep trust in the power of prayer. Very soon after he initiated his missionary work in Germany he sent requests back to monasteries in England for missionary monks and nuns who would establish houses of prayer to support him. Among others, his nephews Saints Willibald and Wunebald and his niece Saint Walburga responded to the requests and established new monasteries in Germany. He kept close contact with those monasteries and regularly wrote to the Abbots and Abbesses for prayer, supplies and simply a chance to share all that God was doing in his work. Saint Boniface discovered the power of the monastic life for infusing a culture with the power of grace through prayer and also slowly transforming a culture through the steady development of civilization. Saint Boniface is famous for vigorously preaching the Gospel among the pagan tribes, even boldly cutting down an oak tree that one tribe worshipped with child sacrifice. In addition to the conversions that came through his personal charism for proclamation, however, his monasteries also had a quietly transforming effect on the pagans and slowly drew them to Christ by showing them the stable, civilized living of the monks.
Saint Boniface’s letters and life are a lesson for us in this time of the New Evangelization when Europe and much of the western world are desperately in need of new missionaries. In his life and letters, we will also discover his relationship with secular power in his partnership with Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. We discover his deep friendships, we learn from the questions that he struggled with and we can find inspiration in his interpretation of Scripture. The letter selected by the Church for the Office of Readings provides annual inspiration for us and we can conclude our reflection by drawing a line from it, “Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ’s flock. Let us preach the whole of God’s plan to the powerful and to the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season, as Saint Gregory writes in his book of Pastoral Instruction.”
Saint Boniface, Apostle to the Germans, pray for us!
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: Homily for St. Boniface
Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey and is the program manager and a host for We Are One Body (WAOB) Catholic radio in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Fr. Boniface served as chaplain of the Theology of the Body & the Interior Life course, as well as Theology of the Body I: Head & Heart Immersion course as a participant and a chaplain. Fr. Boniface served as the chaplain for the first National Theology of the Body Congress hosted by the Theology of the Body Institute in 2010, was a part of the Clergy Enrichment Program focus group, was a contributor to the TOB & Priestly Prayer curriculum, and co-taught the The Art of Accompaniment: TOB & Spiritual Direction course.