Saint of the Week: St Willibrord, Apostle to Frisia

Willibrord, in Paris lat. 10510
Willibrord, in Paris lat. 10510

St Willibrord (658-739; Feast: 7 November) is one of the various missionary saints from the Anglo-Saxon world to the European continent such as his younger contemporary St Boniface (saint of the week here); his mission field was Frisia and parts of the modern Netherlands and Luxembourg, reaching into (pre-Viking) Denmark.

Willibrord was born in Yorkshire, the son of a certain Wilgils who at some point after Willibrord’s birth became a hermit. Willibrord was educated by St Wilfrid at Ripon and, in 678, went into exile in Ireland when Wilfrid lost his episcopacy in York and took his appeal to Rome (the first English bishop to use Rome as a court of appeal). Of note concerning Wilfrid is that he spent some time preaching in Frisia, also an Anglo-Saxon first, and no doubt later to inspire his disciple Willibrord.

Willibrord spent twelve years in self-imposed exile in Ireland where he spent time in study and was ordained priest. According to the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), Egbert had long wanted to engage in continental mission, and the earlier mission of a certain Wictbert had availed nothing. After Willibrord’s return to England in 690, he and twelve companions went as missionaries to Frisia to fulfil Egbert’s vision. The choice of Frisia/Friesland makes sense, given the linguistic similarities between Old English and Frisian. I also believe that it is one of the parts of the Continent whence came Britain’s post-Roman Germanic invaders (ultimately ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to us).

Willibrord had the support of the Carolingian dux Pippin II, and his continental mission, like that of Boniface shortly thereafter, was both episcopal and apostolic. As Archbishop of Utrecht, he organised and reformed the existing Christian communities as well as engaging in evangelism of the non-Christian inhabitants of his Metropolitan area.*

Anglo-Saxon bishops (and Carolingians) tended to hold the Bishop of Rome in very high regard, not simply as the Patriarch of Western Christendom, but also as the person (in particular, Gregory the Great, saint of the week here) who first organised the Anglo-Saxon mission of Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here). As a result of this esteem in which the papacy was held, Willibrord visited Pope Sergius in Rome early in his mission. In 695 he again visited Rome, this time for his consecration as Bishop of Utrecht.

In 698, he founded his first monastery at Echternach. Monasticism and mission go hand in hand for insular evangelism.

Christianity, of course, can be a politically and socially de-stabilising creed. While Pippin II may have supported Willibrord, Radbod, a Frisian king who practised traditional religion, did not. In 714, Radbod drove Willibrord out of Utrecht, destroyed churches, and killed some priests. In 719, Radbod died, and Willibrord returned to Achiepiscopal see. It was after this that St Boniface joined Willibrord for a time before going East for his own missionary activity.

Like most missionaries of his day, Willibrord literally killed some sacred cows and destroyed some idols. Unlike the less fortunate ones, he and his companions survived. He died at the monastery in Echternach in 739.

He is an example of how early mediaeval prelates combined asceticism with evangelistic zeal. We would do well to imitate, I think.

Read more about Willibrod!

I got most of this information from:

Also available online is Alcuin’s Life of Willibrord.

*Quick note on church organisation: Local bishops have the pastoral and administrative care of cities and their surrounding area, today called a Diocese. These are further organised into Provinces, each of which has a Metropolitan. In the early mediaeval church, above the Metropolitans was the Pope.

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A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba

Saint of the Week: Albert Lacombe

Since I spent June 28 – July 10 in Alberta, I feel that it is only fitting for the first weekly saint since my return to be Albertan.

Technically, though, Albert Lacombe (1827-1916) was not Albertan but Quebecois.  However, in 1827, the only people being born in what was to become Alberta were Metis or First Nations.  Lacombe was educated at the College de l’Assomption and the bishop’s palace in Montreal.  During his studies, he learned about the need for western missionaries from George-Antoine Bellecourt who was visiting from the Red River mission.  In 1849 he went West for the first time.

1851-1852 saw him engaged in parish ministry, but his heart was in the West with the First Nations and Metis peoples.  Thus, 1852 saw return to Rupert’s Land, and 1855 was the year of his novitiate in the Oblate Order.  From 1853 to 1860 he was using Lac Ste-Anne as a hub for missions, visiting Jasper House, Fort Edmonton, Lac la Biche, Lesser Slave Lake, and Fort Dunvegan.  In 1861, Bishop Tache moved Lacombe to a new location just north of Fort Edmonton, a place he named St. Albert in honour of Lacombe’s patron saint.

In 1865, Lacombe requested to be relieved of his duties so he could begin an itinerant mission among the Cree and the Blackfoot.  During this period of mission, he established Saint-Paul-des-Cris which was the first Roman Catholic mission amongst the native peoples of Alberta.  He encountered many dangers during this itinerant ministry, as one can expect, given not only the climate and wildlife but also the epidemics that were moving across the West at the time.  On one occasion, he was almost killed by disease.

In 1869, he learned the Blackfoot language during a three week stay at a Blackfoot settlement near Rocky Mountain House (my hometown!).  This would also have been the year that the Dominion of Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.  In 1871, he was part of the North-West Territories’ health committee to deal with the smallpox epidemic.  This began many years of Lacombe engaging in various different public roles.  He spent time in the St. Boniface area (the original Canadien settlement at Winnipeg) involved with schemes to encourage French settlement of the West.  He went at least twice to the General Chapter of the Oblates in Europe.  He lobbied for the rights of French Canadians involved in the Red River uprising.

He was blessed with a return to his Indian missions in 1882.  He was in active ministry until 1890, when he tried to retire as a hermit in Pincher Creek.  However, since he had spent the better part of a decade trying to help native Canadians understand the desires of white Canadians and vice versa, including bringing the petitions of Chief Crowfoot to the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was not to be left alone.

In 1894, he found himself in St. Boniface again, this time representing the rights of the French Canadians, seeking to restore the educational privileges recently removed.  This task involved him with politicians in Ottawa and lasted until 1896.  This sort of endless moving about was the sort of thing he was to spend the rest of his life doing.  He did a lot, seeking to bring people of differing perspectives together so that a fair solution to a problem could be found, whether the problem was between Cree and Blackfoot, or First Nations and white Canadians, or English and French Canadians, or Eastern and Western Rite Catholics.

He was also involved in the study of native languages such as Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Ojibwa — especially Cree, for which he worked on a Cree New Testament and various Cree hymns.  Although a man of his time in many ways, his desire to see the Gospel proclaimed among the nations as well as to bring reconciliation amongst different peoples is a beacon of light in a history often very dark and gloomy.

Saint of the Week: Saint Boniface, Patron Saint of Germany

Mosaic of St. Boniface, Immaculate Heart Roman Catholic Church, Windsor, ON

Since St. Augustine of Canterbury was our saint last week, let us turn to another missionary saint, St. Boniface (675-754), the Apostle of Frisia and Germany (so, I guess, emphatically not of the Dutch?).

One of the notable realities of the Anglo-Saxon Church was its missionary enterprise.  The English were a people who came to Christ in the 600’s, and by the end of that century they were sending out missionaries themselves.  Saint Cuthbert is remembered not only as a monk and hermit but as a missionary.  He engaged in the work of evangelism amongst the unsaved English.  St. Boniface is amongst the body of English missionaries, but unlike Cuthbert his mission was a sending out to the pagan world on the Continent.

He was born in Devon (whence the Hoskins hail!) of free, land-owning peasants and received his education amongst the monasteries at Exeter and Nursling.  He became a monk, producing England’s first Latin primer (an achievement not to be passed over) and writing poems and acrostics.  When he was thirty years of age, he was ordained priest, and his knowledge of the Scriptures was used by the Spirit to bring him success in preaching and teaching.  This skill at preaching and teaching made him known beyond the monastery walls, and King Ina of Wessex and his synod sent him as their envoy to Archbishop Burchard of Canterbury.

Boniface could have continued his ecclesiastical career in England.  He would probably have been able to write a number of clever books and commentaries and preach to many more Christian souls if he had.  He may have gotten a nice, comfortable English bishopric.  He would certainly have become an abbot.  Instead, he followed the call to mission and crossed over to Frisia, following the footsteps of Sts. Wilfrid and Willibrord.  There he met with much opposition from militant pagans and was forced to return to Nursling in England.

In 717, he refused to accept his election as abbot of this monastery but set off the next year to Rome.  There he went to Pope Gregory II for a definite mission for preaching and was given Bavaria and Hesse.  On his way, hearing things were less volatile in Frisia, he spent three years with the aging Willibrord, assisting with his mission there.  Only then did he go on to Hesse.

The Pope ordained him bishop and gave him a letter to Charles Martel (victor at Tours and grandfather of Charlemagne).  Charles Martel gave Boniface his protection, and the English monk proceeded to evangelise Hesse.  His zeal in Hesse is best remembered in the story of the sacred oak at Geismar.  He took an axe to it and felled it.  The pagan gods neither protected the people of Geismar and the oak nor did they avenge its felling.  This demonstration, reminiscent of Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal, was instrumental in the conversion of many.

St. Boniface moved his mission on to Thuringia where he continued preaching and making disciples for Christ.  As St. Boniface made disciples, he also made monasteries.  These were populated by English monks and nuns and served as centres of Christianity and civilisation.  This was a typical approach for the time, and it strikes me as a very clever use for the monks, incorporating them into Christ’s Kingdom-growing mission and its frontlines.

Pope Gregory III made him archbishop in 732, enabling him to consecrate bishops in that part of Germany beyond the Rhine.  In 738, a new mission field opened amongst the Saxons of Westphalia when Charles Martel defeated them.  Boniface tried to recruit prayers and support from the Anglo-Saxons in England, given their common ancestry; but this mission field soon became closed when the Franks lost it, remaining closed to Christian missionaries until Charlemagne conquered it and forced the locals to convert by the sword.

During his career as archbishop, St. Boniface recruited more missionaries to join him, held synods and councils amongst the newly-converted German Christians, and sought reform in the Church in France following Charles Martel’s death in 741, curtailing such abuses as simony and vacant bishoprics, and establishing the Benedictine Rule as the standard for all Carolingian monasteries.

Many of Boniface’s decrees regarding the Frankish church went unenforced, especially following the accession of Pippin the Short, who engaged in many of the same bad practices as Charles Martel.  Boniface was getting on in years and left these matters to younger minds, retiring instead to Frisia where his missionary efforts had begun.  In these last years, he not only re-evangelised parts where paganism had had a resurgence, but pushed the Christian mission into new places.

One day, while awaiting some converts to come for their confirmation at the River Borne, a band of angry pagans attacked at killed Bishop Boniface and his companions.  So ended his activity in the evangelism of the Frisians and the workings of the Church in the Early Middle Ages.  His feast day is today.

May his example of missionary zeal and reform spur all of us onward to bring more disciples into the Kingdom of God regardless of the cost, for such will cost our whole lives, whether bands of pagans kill us by the side of a river or not.

I owe the bulk of this information to David Hugh Farmer’s The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. The opinions and certain connections with the wider mediaeval church, however, are all mine; so is the photo.