Life of St. Boniface, Bishop and Martyr
St. Boniface, whose baptismal name was Winfrid, was born in the year 680 at Devonshire, England. From the age of seven, he was educated in the Benedictine monastery of Exeter, where he later became a monk. When he turned fourteen, he went to the monastery of Nursling in the diocese of Winchester, a school that enjoyed a great reputation as a center for learning. Ordained in 715, Winfrid became a successful teacher and preacher. He soon became the director of the school. His fellow monks wanted Winfrid to become their abbot, but he resigned the position. It seemed that he had other dreams.
Winfrid wanted to become a missionary to Friesland, a province of the Netherlands. His first attempt in 716 was unsuccessful. In 718, he went to Rome to see Pope Gregory II, to obtain his blessing. The Pope changed Winfrid`s name to Boniface, which means "good worker." The Pope then sent him forth to evangelize the pagans in Germany.
Two characteristics of St. Boniface stand out: his Christian orthodoxy and his fidelity to the Pope of Rome. How absolutely necessary this orthodoxy and his fidelity were is borne out by the conditions he found on his first missionary journey. Paganism was a way of life for the Germans. What Christianity he did find had either lapsed into paganism or was mixed with error.
The clergy were mainly responsible for these latter conditions since they were in many instances, uneducated, lax, and questionably obedient to their bishops. In particular instances, their very ordination was questionable. St. Boniface`s mission was to be a slow and dangerous task. He destroyed the many temples of idols and built churches on their sites.
In 722, St. Boniface was recalled to Rome. He was consecrated a regionary bishop for Germany by the Pope. Upon securing a pledge of protection by Charles Martel, Boniface returned to Germany and began to preach in Hesse. He won instant success with a huge gathering of pagans at Geismar by demolishing the Oak of Thor, an object of pagan worship. Boniface seized an axe and stuck the tree, which crashed to the ground and fell into four parts in the shape of a cross. The people waited for the gods to strike Boniface dead. The people realized that their gods were powerless and nonexistent. He used planks from the tree to build St. Peter’s Chapel.
From there he went to Thuringia, established a monastery at Ohrdruf, and was successful in securing English monks as missionaries to Germany. In 731, St. Boniface was made archbishop of Germany and he divided up the country into dioceses and made bishops to serve them. He was now an official legate for the Pope. He founded several monasteries, Reichenau (724), Murbach (728), and Fritzlar (734). In 735, he and St. Sturmi (the Apostle of the Saxons) founded Fulda, which in the years to come became a great monastic center for northern Europe. In 747, Boniface established his metropolitan see at Mainz, and he was named primate of Germany by Pope St. Zachary. He was also appointed apostolic delegate for Germany and Gaul, and crowned Pepin sole ruler of Gaul at Soissons when Pepin`s brother Carolman entered a monastery.
Boniface resigned his see in 754 to go back on the missionary trail to the Frieslanders, who lapsed into their pagan customs after the death of St. Willibrord. While he was preparing to administer Confirmation to some newly-baptized Christians, a troop of pagans arrived. His attendants would have opposed them, but Boniface said, “My children, do not resist.” The pagans killed the saint and the 52 Christians who were with him on June 5, 754. St. Boniface is the patron saint of Germany and is in fact called “the Apostle of Germany.” His feast day of June 5 was extended to the universal church by Pope Pius IX in 1874.