From a homily preached by Fr Ian Hellyer in the parish of Our Lady of the Angels, Saltash (St Boniface is the patron of the Diocese of Plymouth)
St Boniface, a Devon man who hailed from Crediton, was a Benedictine monk, bishop and martyr, but perhaps most of all remembered as one of the most effective missionaries of his time. He is largely responsible for the conversion of Germany to the faith, and today is greatly revered in Germany – many of whom make a pilgrimage to Crediton today.
The story of St Boniface, and especially his missionary exploits, is immensely impressive. There is so much to it I thought I couldn’t possibly do justice to it in the homily! In this diocese today we could do with people with this kind of faith, passion and drive to evangelise the many people who today do not know Christ and His power to save.
So what can we learn from St Boniface as an exemplary missionary to help us become better missionaries ourselves? I want to share 3 things:
- Zeal for souls: St Boniface had a tremendous zeal for the salvation of souls. He longed for those deceived by false gods, for example the god Thor, to come to know the truth of Jesus Christ our Saviour. He had such drive because he believed that if they did not come to the Truth they would lose their souls. And what is true for him then, is necessary for the evangelist or missionary in our own time, including us here in this parish. If we do not believe that someone’s salvation is on the line unless they receive the grace of Christ, if we don’t believe that, then of course we won’t have much motivation to make any missionary efforts. And I think this is one of our great problems. What has crept in to our mindset today is what is called ‘universalism’. This is the error of thinking that everyone will be saved no matter what they do or believe. The effect of universalism is to remove any motivation to evangelise. We do not see any universalism in St Boniface at all. He knew that salvation was not automatic! To be saved we need a saviour and the only saviour is Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. But we today have gradually accepted a false notion of God’s love that portrays God as such a nice chap that He’ll let anyone through the pearly gates! It is a false notion not least because salvation is not a question of “letting people in”! The way to eternal life is through saying “yes” to Christ and His grace, and “no” to everything that opposes Christ including the Devil. So God is not the one stopping us from entering eternal life – it is in fact the consequence of us freely choosing to go against God. Every sin we commit is a “no” to God. Every refusal of God’s grace is a “no” to God. You see, God is not a despot who forces us to do what He wants, against our will – which is what universalism is actually implying! Universalism justifies its all-inclusive salvation by God’s love, but it totally neglects that human beings are blessed with free will (part of the mystery of being made in God’s image). Love does not force – Love desires and is willing to sacrifice but it does not force. So God does indeed desire that all men be saved. And God became man to sacrifice Himself totally on the cross in order to redeem us. The way to salvation is opened before us, but that does not mean God will violate our free will and force us in! Universalism is an error and is particularly effective in making us non-missionaries. The temptation to be universalist is always there whenever we feel uncomfortable about sharing the gospel! St Boniface was no universalist – yes God loved the pagans in Germany, God desired they come to salvation, but it had to be through their own free will to accept grace and cooperate with it. That is what St Boniface went to share with those people, and he did so with tremendous effect – thanks be to God.
- Prayer: to be effective missionaries like St Boniface, we need to deepen our prayer life. That might seem the opposite to what we need to do! Surely being missionary is about going out there and evangelising people, sharing the Good News in appropriate ways to those who will listen? But there is a danger here also. The danger here, if we overcome the error of universalism is that being filled with zeal for the salvation of souls we fall for what might be called ‘activism’. This can be thought of as thinking that it all depends on my actions. This sort of error is thinking that evangelisation occurs through our human effort! We have zeal, we have desire for people to know the grace of Christ, and we press on with ideas we come up with to attract people to the faith. The error here is not that we have a desire for the salvation of souls (that’s good) but that we misdirect it. The error is forgetting that evangelisation can only occur through grace, through God’s initiative; that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to evangelise. So the importance of prayer for a missionary or evangelist is to properly focus everything upon God. We must cultivate through a deepening prayer life dependence upon God. For the mission to evangelise people is not our mission but God’s mission. It is God’s work not ours’! We must pray not only so that we do that which God wants us to do but also that we do not get in the way of what God is doing! Our own ego, our desire for success, our longing to be seen to be effective can all get in the way of the mission of God! A life of prayer focuses us upon God, not only during times of prayer but throughout our whole lives. You see there is a danger also for us to conclude when we read a life of a saint like St Boniface, that his success was because he happened to be one of those people with special gifts. We might conclude that we do not have those gifts so we cannot do the sort of thing St Boniface did. But that is a false conclusion! St Boniface was successful not because of his ordinary human abilities but because of the grace of Christ working through him. And the very fearful truth is that the same grace that filled St Boniface is available to us! It is not a question of him happening to have the right sort of gifts – all necessary gifts for the work of evangelisation come from the Holy Spirit who builds us up in the grace Christ won for us on the cross, flowing from the love of God the Father. All of us are called to be part of the mission of God to save souls, not in our own strength, but in the strength of the grace of Christ in us, that comes from our baptism, our confirmation, our reconciliation to Christ when we repent of sin, and our receiving of Christ’s Body and Blood in a state of grace at the Mass. To be effective evangelists today we do not need people who are great in the eyes of the world, we need people who are humble, who do not think they have much to offer Christ, who are painfully aware of their weakness and failings, but who are willing to offer themselves to Him to be filled with His Life, His grace. We are called if you like to be humble foot soldiers in the battle for the salvation of souls. Christ is our commissioned officer giving us the orders – there are some Saints who are our NCO’s – but all the rest of us are foot soldiers. We have no idea really of how this battle is to be won, but what we need to do is our little bit in the battle. And we will only be like that if we pray, if we cultivate in us a dependence on God.
- Faith: And so finally we need to operate by faith. We need to let go of all human ideologies and human strategies for effectiveness, and fall before the wisdom of God which is the folly of the Cross. If you think about it, no human ideology, no human strategy, could have come up with the solution to humankind’s deepest most profound problem: death, sin, and evil. Yes we can easily see we need a mighty saviour to save us from death, sin and evil. But what strategy would we have come up with? We certainly would not have come up with God incarnating (becoming man) and sacrificing Himself on a cross. So we do not need clever ideas! We do not need even to be successful! What we need is faith in Christ crucified. We need faith in God’s strategy for the salvation of souls – the death of Christ on the Cross and His Church of humble foot soldiers. Outwardly the cross was the very opposite of effectiveness! Outwardly the cross was the very opposite of success! But in the wisdom of God it was the folly of the Cross, of the sacrifice of Christ, that redeems us and makes it possible for all men to be saved. So the missionary does not need wonderful human strategies as if he were about to build a business or something. We do not need anything like that. It is God’s business not our’s! What we need is faith – nothing can replace faith. And the good news is that we have been given faith in our baptism. We need to cooperate with that gift already given us. We need to practice living by faith, trusting in God’s strategy and not judging things by human standards.
So my brothers and sisters, let us call on the prayers of our wonderful patron and exemplar St Boniface. Let us ask him to pray for us in our own time that we be renewed in our calling to be missionaries of our Saviour Jesus Christ – that we be filled with a holy zeal for souls and leave aside the error of universalism. Let us ask St Boniface to pray that we deepen our dependence upon God through a deepening of our own prayer lives, so that growing in humility we may not get in God’s way but become disciples that He can use for His mission. And finally let us ask St Boniface, and indeed Our Lady of the Angels, to pray that we grow in the faith given in our baptism, the faith of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.Amen.
St Boniface, Principal Patron of the Diocese of Plymouth
First reading Acts 26:19-23
Second reading Romans 5:1-5
Gospel Acclamation Jn10:14
Alleluia, alleluia! I am the good shepherd, says the Lord, I know my own sheep and my own know me. Alleluia!
Gospel John 10:11-16