Archbishop of Mainz, apostle of Germany; b. Wessex, England, between 672 and 675; d. Dokkum, Frisia, June 5, 754. According to Willibald of Mainz (Vita 1.1), Winfrid (Wynfrid, later Boniface) was entrusted at first to benedictines at Exeter as a result of the serious illness of his father and was later sent to Nursling between Winchester and Southampton, where the learned Wynbercht was abbot. Here Winfrid imbibed anglo-saxon monastic ideals: love for learning, for Rome, and for missionary activity (peregrinatio pro Christo ). He entered the monastic school. Willibald claims that Winfrid was an orator (ibid. 1.4), undertook a mission for King Berchtwald of canterbury (692–731), and was called upon to attend several synods (ibid. ). Winfrid wrote a Latin grammar and numerous poems (Manitius 1:149–).
Missionary Career. When Winfrid was about 40 he secured the permission of his abbot to evangelize in Frisia (716), a part of the Frankish kingdom since its conquest in 689 by Pepin II. After Pepin's death Frisia became the scene of a revolt led by Duke Radbod and of a widespread rejection of Christianity. willibrord of utrecht, apostle of Frisia (690–739), withdrew temporarily, and it was under these unfavorable conditions that Winfrid attempted an apostolate, even visiting Radbod, who did not actually forbid missionary activity. But Winfrid realized that the time was not ripe and returned to Nursling probably in the same year (716). On the death of his abbot in 717, he was elected to succeed him but relinquished the office in 718 for the purpose of visiting Rome to beg for a mission from the pope; his request was backed by a letter of recommendation from Bp. Daniel of Winchester. He journeyed from London to La Canche, Quentovic (in Frisia), and thence with a group of pilgrims to Rome, where he was received several times by grego ry ii (715–731). On May 15, 719, the pope gave him a letter assigning to him broad missionary jurisdiction among the pagans and urging the Roman formula of baptism and recourse to Rome in every difficulty. At the same time Gregory changed Winfrid's name to Boniface in honor of the martyr whose feast had been celebrated the day before. (Willibrord's name had been similarly changed to Clement.)
Boniface went first to Thuringia, where he preached to the leaders of the people and tried to reform the incontinent and partly pagan clergy. The death of Radbod in 719 and Boniface's desire to familiarize himself with Willibrord's missionary methods attracted him again to Frisia, where he worked for several years (719–722?). Willibrord would gladly have made him his auxiliary bishop, but Boniface wanted an independent sphere of activity in view of his Roman commission. Probably in 721 he left Frisia for Hesse, the most pagan area he evangelized. Assisted by two Christian nobles, Dettic and Deorulf, he established a monastery at Amöneburg. Winning the pagan Hessians by his kindness to the unfortunate, he baptized a large number on the Feast of Pentecost 722; his biographer speaks of thousands of converts on this occasion (ibid. 1.7). Boniface reported his success to Rome and sought the advice of the pope on several questions. The pope invited him to Rome, where he consecrated him bishop (Nov. 30, 722) after receiving his profession of faith. He gave him a collection of canons, probably that of dionysius exiguus, and letters of recommendation to all religious and civil rulers in Germany, including charles martel. In a letter to the German clergy dated Dec. 1, 722, the pope summarized the instructions he had given to the new bishop. Boniface went from Rome to Charles Martel, successor to Pepin II as mayor of the palace (714–741), and that prince in 723 granted him a letter of safe conduct, without which Boniface admitted his work would have been impossible.
Return to Germany. The bishop returned for a second mission to Hesse (723–725), where converted Hessians advised him to overwhelm the remaining pagans by felling the sacred oak at Geismar near the Abbey of Fritzlar; Boniface used planks sawn from this tree to erect a chapel to St. Peter. From Hesse he returned to Thuringia (725–735), an area conquered by the Franks under Thierry I and already somewhat Christianized since the recent immigration and the efforts of Frankish and Irish missionaries, such as kilian of wÜrzburg. In 724 Gregory II reproached Gerold of Mainz for his failure to further extend Christianity and to defend his episcopal rights, and the pope later recommended Boniface to the Thuringians. Boniface's task was complicated by ignorant and even vicious priests, poorly prepared catechumens, and pagan admixtures in Christian ceremonies. His ten-year apostolate, however, was fruitful in conversions and reform. He established a monastery at Ohrdruf, near Gotha.
The pope died in 731 and was succeeded by gregory iii (d. 741), to whom Boniface immediately offered his homage and services. Gregory replied in 732 by elevating Boniface to the rank of archbishop, sending him the pal lium, and bidding him consecrate missionary bishops. In 734 Boniface made a short trip to Bavaria, which had been evangelized earlier by rupert of salzburg with the aid of Irish monks. There Duke Hubert I offered his assistance.
Boniface made his third and last visit to Rome in the fall of 737, remaining there a year. The pope urged him to evangelize the Old Saxons, a mission dear to Boniface. Gregory also commissioned Boniface to organize the German Church, and he wrote supporting letters to bishops, abbots, and magnates of Hesse, Thuringia, and Bavaria. During this visit Boniface attracted to his apostolate a number of Romans, Franks, and Bavarians, such men as winnebald and willibald of eichstÄtt, who came to him from monte cassino, and probably also at this time lull, later bishop of Mainz.
Returning in 738 as papal legate to Germany, Boniface established three new bishoprics in Bavaria in addition to Passau, already ruled by Bishop Vivolo; they were: Salzburg, which under Arno was eventually to become an archbishopric in 798, Regensburg, and Freising. The first Bavarian synod was held in Boniface's presence in 740, and the following year several other dioceses were set up: Buraburg for Hesse under the Anglo-Saxon witta, Erfurt for Thuringia under Dadanus(?), Würzburg for Franconia under burchard, a pupil of Boniface in England, and Eichstätt under the Anglo-Saxon Willibald. Nearby Heidenheim was the site of an important abbey, the only double monastery in Germany, organized and ruled by Winnebald and then by walburga, brother and sister of Bishop Willibald. The establishment of bishoprics and abbeys did not solve all problems, for Bishop vir gilius of salzburg (745–784) worried Boniface, who reported what he considered to be his heretical views to the pope. In 744 Boniface founded the most celebrated of his monasteries at fulda. Its purpose, like that of all Boniface's monasteries, was to consolidate the progress already made in the evangelization of upper Bavaria, and it was placed directly under Roman jurisdiction by Pope zachary in 751. sturmi, a young Bavarian noble who had joined Boniface at Fritzlar, became its first abbot. Fulda was a place of spiritual renewal for Boniface and the center of Germany's religious and intellectual life, where the annual conference of German bishops is still held.
The Reform of the Frankish Church (742–747). The Frankish Church had suffered a decline for over a century largely as a result of lay interference in episcopal elections and consequent worldliness among the clergy,proprietary churches, exempt monasteries churches, exempt monasteries (see exemption, history of), and carloman, Austrasian mayor of the palace (741–747), cooperated with Boniface by calling councils to reform the Church in his domain: one, called the Concilium Germanicum, was held April 21, 742, at an unknown place, and another, at Liftina or Liptina (modern Estinnes in Hainaut, Belgium) on March 1, 743. Bishops, priests, and lay magnates attended, but final approval of the conciliar decrees was reserved to Carloman, who legislated for annual synods; in 743 and 744 these were held in early March, probably to coincide with the campus Martius. In 744pepin iii held a council at Soissons that adopted the Austrasian decrees; a council for the whole kingdom, which Boniface probably attended, was held the following year. Archbishops were consecrated for Rouen, Reims, and Sens; Rouen received the pallium, but it is not certain whether the other two sees were similarly favored. The council condemned two wandering bishops: the Frank, Aldebert, who claimed to be a saint, and a heretical Irishman, Clement; both escaped imprisonment. Gewiliob, bishop of Mainz, was deposed by the council for having killed his father's murderer, and Boniface was appointed to his place, for, although archbishop since 742, he had been assigned neither see nor suffragans. At first he hoped to establish his metropolitan see in co logne, a plan approved by the council of 745 and by the Pope, but he was forced to abandon the idea in face of opposition from the Frankish bishops. Later, in 752, when Boniface resigned, Lull succeeded him, but as a bishop, and Mainz became an archbishopric permanently only c. 781. Implementation of the decrees of 745 was difficult because lay lords opposed the restoration of church property, and clerics sometimes resisted reform. In 747 a council was held to which all the bishops of the kingdom were invited, but only 13 attended. Boniface tried to unite them to Rome by professions of faith and loyalty. In the same year Carloman retired to a monastery, and Pepin became sole mayor of the palace. Boniface's authority declined, and it is not certain whether he even attended Pepin's coronation. Boniface feared that his collaborators, mostly Anglo-Saxons, would suffer after his death, so he wrote on their behalf to Fulrad, Abbot of saint-denis.
Last Mission and Martyrdom. Boniface undertook a final mission to the Frisians, accompanied by eoban, archbishop of Utrecht, and others. He was very successful for about a year and was preparing a group of neophytes for Confirmation near Dokkum when attacked at sunrise by pagan Frisians. Boniface would not permit a struggle. An old woman later declared on oath that she saw him protect himself with a Gospel Book (now at Fulda). Boniface and 53 companions were massacred. His remains, which he had asked to have interred at Fulda, rested en route at Utrecht and Mainz, and his cult developed immediately in all three places. Fulda became a center of pilgrimage. Except for the top of his skull, the remains of Boniface are now enshrined in a baroque tomb from which the recumbent statue of the bishop appears as emerging with the assistance of two cherubim. Pope pius ix extended his feast to the entire Church in 1874.
Characteristics of Boniface's Missionary Activity. Boniface organized the German Church in closest union with Rome, he himself having recourse to the popes for authorization, protection, and guidance. At the same time he depended on his monasteries to give permanence to his work in rural areas. The ingens multitudo of Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns who followed him to the Continent peopled his houses and established new ones. Boniface introduced Benedictine nuns into the active apostolate of education, anticipating by many centuries the work of religious women in that field.
Feast: June 5.
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