In a previous post, on Saint Bede and Saint Aldhelm, I drew attention to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s description of the invaluable work done by these two figures in putting down the roots which would unite Europe via the ecclesiastical networks of the Catholic Church, and help it to flourish due to the cultural exchange afforded by those networks. Today is the feast day of Saint Boniface, another figure who was very important in the expansion and consolidation of Christian roots across Europe, and another figure discussed by Pope Benedict in his general audiences on great Christian thinkers throughout the ages.
Saint Boniface (675 – 754 AD) was born Winfrid, in the town of Crediton, Devon (then part of the Kingdom of Wessex). He was attracted to monastic life at a very early age and joined a local Benedictine monastery, probably at Exeter. During his early career there he became noted for his writings in Latin, and soon became a teacher at Nursling abbey (near Winchester), which was inspired by the educational traditions established by Saint Aldhelm. When the abbot there died, it was expected that Winfrid would take his place, but instead, in 716 AD, he set out on a mission to evangelise the peoples of Frisia (now part of Holland). After this attempt failed, two years later he visited Pope Gregory II in Rome, where he received the name of Boniface and was officially assigned the mission to the Germanic peoples. Pope Benedict writes:
‘Comforted and sustained by the pope’s support, Boniface embarked on the preaching of the gospel in those regions, fighting against pagan worship and reinforcing the foundations of human and Christian morality…
…The supreme pontiff himself consecrated Boniface “regional bishop,” that is, for the whole of Germany. Boniface then resumed his labours in the territories assigned to him, and extended his action also to the Church of the Gauls: with great caution, he restored discipline in the Church, convoked various synods to guarantee the authority of the sacred canons, and strengthened the necessary communion with the Roman pontiff, a point that he had very much at heart.’
from Great Christian Thinkers (2011), pp.166-167, Fortress Press.
As in the cases of Saint Bede and Saint Aldhelm, we see the careful and tireless work that was done by Boniface to ensure that proper organisational structures were put in place, and reinforced where they were already present. These saints saw clearly that if the Faith were to have an abiding presence in European lands, and its doctrinal and moral content to be preserved, these organisational links were imperative. Furthermore though, that Boniface, who was born just seventy years after the death of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, and who was a contemporary of Saint Bede, already felt confident enough in the strength of his country’s Christian identity to go and evangelise other regions, is greatly impressive, and testimony to the importance of the earlier roots laid by Augustine, Aldhelm and others.
Another thing that links him to these figures is his conviction that European culture (and human culture in general) could only fully flourish in a society rooted and grounded in Christ. Pope Benedict continues:
‘He summoned monks and nuns from the Benedictine monastic communities in his homeland who gave him a most effective and invaluable help in proclaiming the gospel and in disseminating the humanities and the arts among the population. Indeed, he rightly considered that work for the gospel must also be work for a true human culture…
…he encouraged the encounter between the Christian-Roman culture and the Germanic culture. Indeed, he knew that humanising and evangelising culture was an integral part of his mission as bishop. In passing on the ancient patrimony of Christian values, he grafted onto the Germanic populations a new, more human lifestyle, thanks to which the inalienable rights of the person were more widely respected.’
ibid, p.167, 169.
The witness of Saint Boniface, as delineated here by Pope Benedict, is a reminder that Christian humanism is the only true humanism – that the rights, privileges and cultural resources that Europeans are able to claim as the jewels of our civilisation have Christian values as their foundation and essential justification. In discussions today about the place religion has in the public sphere, and the diverse range of opinions on what Europe is and what holds it together, we must boldly remind our contemporaries just how much the treasures of the Faith are part of our heritage, whether they want to remember it or not.
Saint Boniface’s work is also a reminder of the importance of inculturation. As Pope Benedict says in his address, Boniface was able to achieve what he did by encouraging an encounter between the culture as he found it – taking what was good from it and affirming it – and Christian values, which were able to lift those good things up to a higher level, give them a proper grounding, and supplement them with things of an even greater worth. Similarly, as we attempt to re-engage with and re-evangelise our culture in the West, we must be careful to begin with what is good in contemporary society. This is not to ignore the things that are manifestly wrong with our world now, but to recognise that if we want people to hear what we have to say, we must begin by meeting them where they are, and affirming the good things we can see there.
In doing these things, we must also strive to emulate the ardent faith displayed by saints such as Boniface, which drove them to work tirelessly in pursuit of their goals, and also the great charity they exhibited, always showing in our selves the merciful face of Christ to the people we meet. We, as members of Christ’s Body, will often be the first points of contact for people ignorant of, or alienated from the Faith, and so must present them with something joyful, loving, and attractive. If we do this, and listen sincerely to what the culture has to offer, the people around us will be much more ready to hear and receive a more excellent way.