An Open Letter to Our Patron

or What Boniface Saw

by Jessica Hickey, c. 2011

Ash Wednesday in the Year of Our Lord 2011

"This Faith, increased by the Lord's Ascension and established by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, was not terrified by chains, imprisonment, exile, hunger, fire, attacks by wild beasts, or the tortures of cruel persecutors. For this Faith, throughout the world, men, women and children fought to the point of shedding blood. This Faith cast out demons, drove away sickness, raised the dead."
(Pope St. Leo the Great)

"There is only one truth, and that is to love Jesus Christ and to teach others to love Him."
(Paul Claudel)

"I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfill;
Yea, a debt to pay thee yet;
Help me, sir, and so I will."
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

To Boniface, Archbishop of Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, Passau, Mainz, and all Germany east of the Rhine, Missionary to the Frisians, Martyr and Saint, Patron of our Parish:

As we begin the Holy Season of Lent, my thoughts turn toward you, our name saint and patron, who by your life and death, effected the conversion of many.

I write with the realization that this is no mere literary exercise or act of whimsy. One day, by God's mercy, we will see you. Where your bones now lie at Fulda, there will be instead you yourself, sharing in the resurrection to everlasting life which was promised to those who belong to Body and Blood of the Lord. On that day, we will see our indebtedness to you, and you, I hope, will see that we have given you honor by following your example.

In the past, I have spoken of you, in an attempt to express what I saw in your life: the fact that, when people are true to Christ, when they allow holiness and the love of God to be their guiding light, sooner or later, others will be saved, the world made holier. I said then that even the suffering of these witnesses, their ostensible defeats and failures, mean something. No such witness is wasted; those who are faithful do not find their cause truly defeated.

I have wondered what you were thinking at that moment when you felt the knives and hupsaxes of your attackers, passing through your treasured book of the Gospels (the cloven pages of which we still venerate as a relic of your death) and ultimately through your own body. I know that upon that day, you had intended, if our historical records are true, to meet with a group of converts whom you had baptized. They were to receive from you that day the Sacrament of Confirmation. Instead, you found yourself ambushed by a group of enemies, who ignored your words of peace and carried out their plan of violence.

You had never ceased to hope for these people, these Frisians dwelling along the coast. They were, I suppose, the one stray sheep for which a good shepherd must leave the other ninety-nine. They had been your first missionary people when you left the English abbey of Nursling in 716, joining St. Willibrord and other Anglo-Irish missionaries serving there.

But you had not been able to reach them; they had resisted. All through your life, they must have been there in your mind, while you worked among the Franks, the Thuringians, and the Hessians--whose false god you had dethroned when you felled their sacred oak tree, using its wood, the tradition tells us, to build a chapel to St. Peter on the spot where the Cathedral of Fritzlar now stands.

Already you had brought the Gospel to so many who had never heard it, and, as the legate of Pope Gregory, had dealt with the many challenges of bringing a governed Church to ungoverned lands. You were active in the founding and administration of several new dioceses, to reach both the new Christians and those who had become distant from the Church's leadership. You strove to maintain a healthy balance between the authority of the Church and that of the emerging Frankish and Carolingian kings, collaborating for the propagation of the Faith, monastic culture and learning. For your brethren, you were a rock of support, and it was with your help and encouragement that Sturmius was able to begin the Benedictine foundation at Fulda which stands to this day.

For thirty-eight long years, you had served your Master. What was to say that you should not live out your days peacefully, completing the good work you had begun in your new dioceses, seeing the fruits of your labor, watching the vines grow at Fulda among those who loved you? Would you not already have been named a saint, 'Apostle to the Germans' had you rested there with your laurels?

I think you show us, Holy Boniface, that sainthood does not lie in doing just what we know to be good and necessary, being simply a "doer of good" as your religious name means. Rather, it lies in abandonment to the will of God. "It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish," Jesus tells us in Matthew's Gospel. He asked you to go the extra mile, the final mile, to see things through His eyes: the eyes of the One who created the obdurate Frisians, who loved them, and who wanted to save them.

You didn't prepare for death, did you, with the luxury of knowing that you had done enough for them. Close to hand must have been the sacred chrism with which you meant to anoint the new followers of Christ, but you were never allowed to give them this gift. Instead, it was you who were anointed, baptized into Christ's death: 'Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.”' (Mark 10: 38-39)

You did not see us then, I think.

You did not see, lying far, far to the west, the continent that was yet to be discovered, a New World where the descendants of your spiritual children would one day disembark and settle.

You did not see then all of the little red-brick churches that would be built in your name, including this one on Ninth Street in Lafayette, Indiana, where today we will all go to Mass and receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, and be marked with our Lenten ashes, while your face, etched in glass of the window, gazes down upon all the souls within.

You did not know then that, more than a millennium later, you would still mean anything to anyone, that your name would be on our lips.

I think you just knew, in that moment, standing before those murderous men to whom you had wanted to give Christ's peace, that you had to be faithful. And you were.

I see in your life that each of us, if we are true, will leave behind a footprint, a mark in the earth and in the fabric of the world's salvation, and that what we do (or fail to do) now, will have repercussions in the future of mankind. Generations not yet born will taste the fruit of what saints do today.

You show us how vital it is that we sanctify the present moment, the only moment of time in our control, even--and perhaps especially--when we cannot see the ultimate outcome, when it is all so unsure, or when it feels that we are simply going down to defeat. You show us the witness of your hope, that virtue which the poet Hopkins likens to holding out the mirror of one's mind out to face Christ, that it make take on His likeness. In this position, the one who holds the mirror cannot see the fruits of this transformation, though they are truly there:

"Her glass is blest but she as good as blind
Holds till hand aches and wonders what is there;
Her glass drinks light, she darkles down behind,
All of her glorious gainings unaware."

I think that we are living in difficult times for the Faith, though their difficulty may be different from that which you encountered. Our 'Frisia' has its own characteristics. The poet Yeats tried to describe this post-Christian world, lurching directionless into modernity, in his poem "The Second Coming:"

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is hard not to see our culture here, and this, from merely a human standpoint (which is where Mr. Yeats, that melancholy soul, frequently stood) is discouraging.

But you show us that the Christian must take a longer, indeed an eternal, view, one which is intrinsically linked to the object of our supernatural Hope. Christ requires of us that we "be of good cheer," recalling that He has already overcome. The mirror we hold does contain His reflection, whether we see it or no.

Catholic scholar F. D. Wilhelmsen spoke, with his usual pluck, of the Christian battle in these dark times:

"I am reminded of General Foch before Paris in 1914 when the German armies were pressing in upon his serried ranks. His cable to the capital: 'My right wing has collapsed; my left wing is chewed to nothing; my center is going down. Situation excellent. I shall attack. ' He attacked and won. I urge, dear friends, that you go home and attack, attack on all fronts. God is with you--more accurately, more modestly, you are with God. How can you fail?"

Further, we never know when the tide will change, when the 'Springtime' will be upon us; "It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority," said Jesus.

Pope John Paul told us:

"The Church experiences different moments in her growth. In some places and periods she encounters special problems and obstacles; in others her progress is much faster. Long periods of waiting are recorded in which her intense missionary efforts seem ineffective. These are times which test the power of hope, directing it to a more distant future.

Nevertheless, there are also favourable moments when the Good News is warmly welcomed and conversions increase. The first and fundamental moment of the most abundant grace is Pentecost. Many others have followed and there are still more to come.

When one of these moments, occurs, those who have a special responsibility for evangelization are called to recognize it, to make the best use of the opportunities offered by grace. But it is impossible to know their date in advance. Jesus’ reply (cf. Acts 1:7) is not limited to restraining the disciples’ impatience, but emphasizes their responsibility. They are tempted to expect that Jesus will take care of everything. Instead, they receive a mission which calls them to make a generous commitment: "You shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). Although at the Ascension he disappears from their sight, Jesus still wants to continue his presence in the world precisely through the disciples.

To them he entrusts the task of spreading the Gospel throughout the world, spurring them to abandon their narrow vision limited to Israel. He broadens their horizons, inviting them to be his witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Thus everything will happen in Christ’s name, but everything will also come to pass through the personal work of these witnesses."
("The Accomplishment of Salvation in the History of Humanity," General Audience of 11 March 1998)

You, Boniface, were one of these witnesses. You made that generous commitment, allowing yourself to become an instrument for God's glory, your personal labors a means for Him to reach those still in darkness.

By God's providence, all of us in this place are gathered, not only under the auspices of our common Faith, but also under your specific patronage. You, who have run the race already, teach us about fidelity, about courage, about supporting one another in our good endeavors, about going the final mile, about living and dying in Hope. As we think of you this day, we ask for your intercession. During our Lenten pilgrimage, gain for us the grace to have contrite hearts and a willingness to set aside anything that hinders our spiritual growth. We ask the grace of continuing to work according to God's will, to do whatever it takes, and to serve with the unity befitting Christians. We put before you also our Catechumens and Candidates, asking that you, who loved to bring the Gospel and the Sacraments to the stranger, will uphold them before the throne of God, and obtain graces for their ongoing conversion.

How thin sometimes is that veil between us, dividing the Church Militant from the Church Triumphant. Our good father Boniface, remember us who labor in this time of uncertainty, until the day when we are all together in God's Kingdom.

"I know that weeds will grow on it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.
They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands.
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
. . . .
What though they come with scroll and pen,
And grave as a shaven clerk,
By this sign shall you know them,
That they ruin and make dark.
. . . .
In what wise shall men smite him,
Or the Cross stand up again,
Or charity or chivalry,
My vision saith not; and I see
No more; but now ride doubtfully
To the battle of the plain.
(G.K. Chesterton, King Alfred's Vision from "The Ballad of the White Horse")



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