Courage and Duty

On the American Calendar June 6th was D-Day and there were plenty of appropriate recognitions of the 80th anniversary of that day.  I read that the last of the Medal of Honor winners passed.  Not many years and it will be that last of the veterans of that war. But on the Church calendar June 5th was a celebration of another guy who must have had the same courage as those who stormed the beaches. Years later, after the eyewitness are gone, it becomes harder to believe in such acts of bravery.  The cynics voice shows up and starts wondering which parts are real and which parts are hagiographic myth. And the story of Boniface of Mainz, Missionary to the Germans fits that.  It also reminds us just how strange the path of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is.

Boniface was born in England, well, not really England, because England didn’t exist yet.  He was born in Wessex around 675 AD.  And in an often repeating story the young man, contrary to his Father’s wishes, became a monk.  When he was roughly 35, about the same age that Luther nails the 95 Theses – old enough to know better, but still too young to care – Boniface sets out with another monk named Willibrord to Frisia, which is far Northern German near the border with the Netherlands. The mission to Frisia was not a success and they returned home. Boniface then goes to Rome, and while in Rome the Pope creates a new diocese, Germania, and appoints Boniface the bishop. 

Now these were the days where Bishops might never even see their own diocese.  But Boniface does the unthinkable, He strikes out to his diocese. Not Frisia, not yet, but to Hesse, which is Mainz and Frankfurt today.   And this is the place of the great Boniface story – felling the Donar Oak or Thor’s Oak, the sacred symbol and worship space of the local pagans. Boniface took a hatchet to the ancient oak.  He used its wood to build his first church.  The region heard the story, was amazed that Thor did nothing to the short monk, and apparently converted in mass. Boniface had a real diocese now; one that he served faithfully for over 30 years turning oak groves into churches, monasteries and schools.

But at the age of 79 Boniface remembered Frisia and set off on one last missionary trip.  He had baptized many and had left their instruction in various of his fellow’s hands as he went on about the region.  Boniface scheduled a larger meeting of all those baptized to be confirmed at a central location. But when he arrived, he encountered not his converts, but a bandit mob looking for the treasures of the great Archbishop. Some of his band wanted to fight, but Boniface refused quoting St. Paul, “be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The great relic of Boniface – which can still be seen today in Mainz –  is a book that was his only defense marked with a sword. The mob found nothing but the word that Boniface had preached.

Pondering the story of Boniface, one repeatedly sees the bedrock of courage and the performance of duty.  But that courage and duty take what might be seen as polar opposite expressions.  Early, the aggressive chopping down of Thor’s Oak.  The removal of the symbol of the current idols.  Late, the acceptance of the only defense being the Word of God and the acceptance of martyrdom.  Courage and duty are not wrote things.  When the appointed time comes, the actions they take might be different.  But the prayer might be that either by our actions or our submission, we might display the courage of the faith and so give witness to the hope that lives in us.  

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