Zeal is Not Wisdom

Today the church remembers 8th Century Saint Boniface, Archbishop and Missionary.

Boniface was born with the name Wynfrith (love it!) in Devonshire England in the late 7th Century. When his father fell ill he was sent to a Benedictine school, and then monastery, where he was ordained. It was there that he wrote a Latin grammar book for scholastic use, and several poems.

When Wynfrith turned 40 he began his missionary work in Germany and the Netherlands. The anti-Christian sentiment in the area was strong, though, and he returned back to his native England, eventually succeeding his abbot at Nursling. He didn’t last long in that position, though, and resigned to petition Pope Gregory II for a missionary assignment.

Pope Gregory II approved it, and gave him the name Boniface, which means “to do good.”

He returned to what is now modern day Germany and, after trial and error, finally succeeded in establishing a monastery in Hesse.

With such success, the Bishop of Rome consecrated him bishop for the German frontier, even though there wasn’t a fixed diocese there. To show bravery, Boniface cut down the sacred oak tree of Thor, and though many expected Thor to strike him down with lightening or illness, Boniface remained perfectly healthy. Because of this, many were converted. Out of the wood of that tree he built a chapel in honor of St. Peter.

Pope Gregory III (popular name) elevated Boniface to archbishop in 732, and was eventually given the see of Mainz as his jurisdiction after the bishop of Mainz, Gewiliob (love it!), admitted to killing his father’s murderer.

At sunrise on June 5, 754, at Dokkum, Boniface, while reading the Gospel to a group of neophytes on Pentecost, was attacked by a pagan mob and killed on the job. His remains, and the Gospel book he was reading from at his death, can still be seen at Fulda.

Boniface is a mixed bag for me. He was obviously dedicated and zealous for the faith. But in his spiritual zeal he committed religious tyranny against those he was sent to serve. To take a sacred object, Thor’s tree, and create another sacred object of a different creed, St. Peter’s church, is religious violence.

That kind of violence totally goes against not only my own code of inter-faith work, but also that of my church.

Yet I do admire his willingness to serve in uncharted territory, and his willingness to leave a comfortable job (being the abbot of a monastery is no small thing!) to enter the unknown. That takes courage…I just wish he’d had a little more wisdom with it.

Or, maybe this is what I mean to say: I wish he’d lived up to his name, “Boniface,” and did more good than he did.

-historical notes taken from Pfatteicher’s “New Book on Festivals and Commemorations”

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