Today Mother Church remembers in the sacred liturgy the holy martyr and bishop St Boniface, which is also the vigil of Our Holy Father Norbert.
The two saints first met in heaven, since St Boniface died three and a quarter centuries before St Norbert, and one can be sure there was a joyful embrace between the two, for both had done much to work for the evangelisation of the German peoples.
Today’s saint was a Saxon monk from Devon, who travelled to the Netherlands to join the mission of that other English missionary, St Willibrord, but war cut short his activity, and he returned to England after only a year. The pope, however, aware of his talents, appointed him bishop and asked him to spend his life evanglising the Franks (or the German people in what is now central Germany).
Boniface established his see in the heart of Germany – what is now Mainz – and brought many people to Christ. But after a while, he realised that their conversion was only superficial, for they still desired to pay respect to their old gods; there was a sandy foundation to this new Christian society that was being established.
The Franks, like many modern people, worshipped in their hearts not the creator, but His created world, that is, the things that people can see and that give them pleasure. It seemed impossible to be able to convince these people to make Christ their foundation-stone, and not their idols. In the case of the Hessians, they worshipped the mightiest trees of the forest, as totems of the ‘god’ Thor. Their hearts were enslaved by this paganism. A particular tree, die Donareiche, seemed to be the principal object of their worship. And so, Boniface, confident that he was on the right side, spared no time in picking up an axe himself, and chopping down this mighty oak in the middle of the night. When the people found out what had happened the next morning, and that Thor had not cast his thunderbolts into their villages in anger, they realised the error of their ways, and knew that this Thor and his oak was only a distraction: only Christ could save them, for there is only one God. St Boniface was right all along, they said to one another. The bishop build a church from the wood of this oak, and his deed quickly became legendary throughout the neighbouring tribes.
St Boniface shows us the necessity to take an axe to the idols that we worship in our hearts. Like the tree, their branched and leaves obscure Christ; perhaps we don’t even notice we worship these idols, and so we need good bishops like Boniface to tell us off and guide us to the sheepfold.
Boniface converted a large section of Germany: the south and the centre. In his attempt to evanglise the north, he was martyred. His body was brought back to his adoptive hope, and there remains in the abbey that was founded by his disciple in Fulda, in Hessen. He is the patron saint of Germany, and a very powerful intercessor.
St Norbert, a German, was a native of those northern lands that St Boniface watered with his blood. Just like his predecessor, he called men and women to cut down the idols in their lives and turn to Christ, and, like the Englishman, was called by the pope to Germany to establish his minster among a pagan people. Norbert, along with his Premonstratensian brothers in Magdeburg, brought the light of Christ to north-east Germany, where, alas, it does not burn as brightly as it once did.
We remember in prayer especially today our German brethren in Bayern, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Baden-Württemburg and Sachsen-Anhalt, and also our Austrian brethren, and all German religious, that both our Holy Father and St Boniface will continue to intercede for them in heaven, and inspire many other young men to cut down their oaks and receive the holy habit.
Meanwhile, these flowers aren’t going to arrange themselves in the chapel…