Known as the Apostle of the Germans, Saint Boniface was educated in England under the influence of Benedictine monasteries in the late seventh century. He could have followed in the steps of the Venerable Bede, so polished was his Latin, but the monks instilled in him a zeal for spreading the Christian faith to the European continent, in the throes of the Dark Ages. He, along with many Anglo-Saxon and Irish missionaries, brought back to Europe a semblance of religion, education, and culture before the emergence of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.
His missionary career had three phases, punctuated by visits to Rome for consultation and patronage. First, the pope delegated him for work over a broad area, and he targeted Frisia, Hesse, and Thuringia (719–735). Second, he received a special papal commission to penetrate Germany, and he concentrated on Bavaria for establishing monasteries (738–742).
Third, he settled in the western part of the Frankish territory (742–747), where he organized the church and encouraged accountability and training for its leaders. As an old man, he retired from his official duties and pioneered again as a simple missionary to Frisia on the German coast of the North Sea. Here he encountered fierce opposition from the natives, who martyred him along with 53 of his companions in 754.
Early on in his career (722) he gained advantages for his missionary program because of Charles Martel and his line. He had won their guarantees for safety during a time of constant invasion and terrorism by marauding tribes. In his initial work in Frisia legend has it that he cut down the sacred oak tree of Thor, and when no adverse reaction occurred, the locals flocked to him.
One of his most famous monasteries was the Abbey of Fulda, founded to consolidate the gains he had made in Bavaria. Fulda was put directly under the pope, and for centuries it was the center of German religious and intellectual life. Here Boniface’s body was transported and buried. It is the site for the German Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Boniface epitomizes the return of civilization to Europe in several respects. First, he represents centralized discipline and accountability by his emphasis on unity with the Roman pontiff. It must be remembered that the people had long since seen the demise of the Roman Empire, and there was as yet no overarching political structure to unite the disparate towns and regions.
Second, he represents culture by his embracing the Benedictine ideals of literacy and art in all of his monasteries. Again, the classical notion of the “good life” had been defunct for many generations, and the output of literary compositions and visual art had diminished considerably.
Third, he believed that all of his clergy must be educated. Boniface had to drive out rustic church leaders so that the Continental church could cooperate with his bishops and pope. In addition he set up institutions for women, who throughout this period had been denied the privileges of men, and he made education available.
In his home country of England, it was the custom to train convent leaders (abbesses) to appreciate books and music and art so that they could run their own communities of women. This practice spilled over into Boniface’s mission land of Germany.