Our forebears in the faith often gave their lives for the Gospel

Father John A. Kiley

Just about every nationality in Europe can proudly boast of a missionary or monk who first brought the Catholic faith to their border or their shores. Clearly, Italy has the most impressive bragging rights since the apostles Peter and Paul both introduced the Gospel to the heart of the Roman Empire. Certainly the most popular missionary is St. Patrick who returned to the Irish who had enslaved him with the Good News of salvation. Ridding the isle of snakes and cleverly employing the shamrock, St. Patrick transformed the Emerald Isle into a solidly Catholic territory. It was St. Denis who introduced the faith to France and he paid dearly for his efforts. Beheaded on the slopes of Montmartre in Paris by unbelieving natives, the martyr picked up his skull and walked to the edge of the city where he collapsed. A basilica was built on that spot north of Paris and all the generations of French royalty (including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) are buried there.
St. Augustine of Canterbury introduced the Christian religion to England, sent after Pope Gregory VII saw Anglo-Saxon youths in a Roman market place and felt sorry for these enslaved northerners. St. Ansgar went off to Scandinavia and St. Stephen to Hungary. Saints Cyril and Methodius later journeyed to Eastern Europe and left them not only with the true religion but also with a handy alphabet! The month of June, in fact this past week, celebrates the great apostle to Germany, St. Boniface (not to be confused with St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan theologian).
St. Boniface, whose native English name was Winfred, was born in 675 A.D. in Devonshire, England. He was educated at a Benedictine monastery and became a monk. Since he was very bold in his proclaiming his faith, instead of becoming an abbot for his monastery, he was sent as a missionary to Germany in 719. He was well known for being very good at using the local customs and culture of the day to bring people to Christ. In Germany he destroyed idols and pagan temples, and built churches on the sites. One story about St. Boniface tells about his meeting a tribe in Saxony that was worshiping a Norse deity in the form of a huge oak tree. Boniface walked up to the tree, removed his shirt, took an ax, and without a word, chopped it down. Then he stood on the trunk, and asked: “How stands your mighty god? My God is stronger than he.” He was eventually made archbishop of Mainz by Pope Gregory III where he reformed pagan churches and built religious houses on their sites.
St. Boniface was fortunate that the Christian King Charles Martel defeated his pagan neighbors in western Germany enabling the wider spread of the Gospel. While preaching the Gospel, Boniface had persuaded his own armed comrades to lay down their weapons: “Cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for evil but to overcome evil by good.” The saint sadly paid for his Scriptural confidence. He was martyred on June 5, 754 while on mission in Holland, where a troop of pagans attacked and killed him and his 52 companions. His remains were returned to Fluda in Germany where they rest in a tomb which has become a site of great pilgrimage.
When Pope John Paul II visited Germany in November 1980, he spent two days in Fulda, celebrating Mass in the cathedral with 30,000 gathered on the square in front. The pope next celebrated mass outside the cathedral, in front of an estimated crowd of 100,000, and hailed the importance of St. Boniface for German Christianity: “The holy Boniface, bishop and martyr, signifies the beginning of the gospel and the church in your country.” The pope later prayed at St. Boniface’s grave.
The early Christian missionaries were not deterred by the barbarism and savagery that challenged them. They believe that their Christian faith was more powerful than the weightiest sword. As St. Paul writes in this Sunday’s second reading, “We look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven (2Cor 5:1).” Their faith in the Gospel message was mightier than any axe or club hurled at them. The same confident faith must permeate the modern Catholic world which faces subtler and shrewder onslaughts from today’s modern pagans in the entertainment and academic and governmental worlds. Our forebears in the faith often gave their lives for the Gospel; today’s Catholic world must display equal commitment and determination.