Christian Saints Podcast

Saint Willibrord

November 06, 2021 Season 1 Episode 55
Christian Saints Podcast
Saint Willibrord
Show Notes Transcript

Saint Willibrord is known as the "Apostle of Frisia". He was an Anglo-Saxon monk who was born in 7th century Northumbria, England. He felt called to be a missionary to Northern Europe, and headed to Frisia (a region that today is located in the Netherlands and Germany). At this time Frisia was contested by Peppin, ruler of the Franks, and the pagan Frisian king Radboud. Willibrord was appointed Bishop of Utrecht, and spent almost fifty years bringing the Frisian people to Christ. His mission was very successful, even though it suffered disruptions due to war. 

Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Willbrord, Bishop of Utrecht, and Apostle to the Frisians

Wilibrord was born around the year 658 to a pious Anglo-Saxon family form the Northumbria region of England. His father, Wilgils was especially devout, and in fact sought after God as a hermit for a time. We read an account of Wilibrord’s birth and early childhood by Alcuin. The translation we use is by C.H. Talbot.
 Now, in order to relate more fully the facts concerning Willibrord's birth, and recall the signs which show that even whilst he was in his mother's womb he was chosen by God, I shall return to the point where I began. Just as the most holy forerurlner of our Lord Jesus Christ, blessed John the Baptist, was sanctified in his mother's womb and preceded Chtist, as the morning star precedes the sun and, as the Gospel tells us, was born of devout parents in order to bring salvation to many, so likewise Willibrord, begotten for the salvation of many, was born of devout parents.[1] Wilgils, the venerable man of whom we have already spoken, entered upon the state of matrimony for the sole purpose of bringing into the world a child who should benefit many peoples. Thus it was that his wife, mother of holy Willibrord, beheld, at dead of night whilst she slept, a heavenly vision. It seemed to her as if she saw in the sky the new moon, which, as she watched, slowly increased until it reached the size of the full moon. Whilst she was gazing intently upon it, it fell swiftly into her mouth, and when she had swallowed it her bosom was suffused with light. Filled with fear, she awoke at once and went to recount the dream to a holy priest, who asked her whether during the night on which the vision came to her she had known her husband in the customaty way. When she assented, he replied as follows: " The moon which you saw changing from small to great is the son whom you conceived on that night. He will disperse the murky darkness of error with the light of truth, and wherever he goes he will carry with him a heavenly splendour and display the full moon of his perfection. By the brightness of his fame and the beauty of his life he will attract to himself the eyes of multitudes." This interpretation of the dream was borne out by the actual course of events.
 When her time was come the woman bore a son, and at his baptism his father gave him the name of Willibrord. As soon as [5] the child had reached the age of reason[l] his father gave him to the church at Ripon to be instructed by the brethten there in religious pursuits and sacred leatning, so that living in a place where he could see nothing but what was vittuous and hear nothing but what was holy his tender age should be strengthened by sound ttaining and discipline. From his earliest years divine grace enabled him to grow in intelligence and in sttength of chatacter, at least as far as was possible at such an age, so that it seemed as if in our day there had been born another Samuel, of whom it was said: " The boy grew up and advanced in favour both with God and with men."
 Hence, in the monastery of Ripon, the youth who was to prove a blessing to many received the clerical tonsute [2] and made his profession as a monk, and, attained along with the other youths of that holy and sacred monastery, he was inferior to none in fervour, humility and zeal for study. In fact this highly gifted boy made such progress as the days went by that the development of his intelligence and character so outstripped his tender years that his small and delicate frame harboured the wisdom of ripe old age.

Wilibrord would travel to Ireland for his education at the age of 20– Ireland was at this time a thriving centre of Christian education. He spent thirteen years there, and felt called to leave Ireland to preach the Gospel to the pagan peoples of Europe. He decided to hear to Frisia, which a region which is in the Netherlands today. The Anglo-Saxons and Frisians have close cultural links. Even today, it is possible for mordern English speakers to understand somewhat a conversation spoken in the mordern Frisian language. The Frisians were ruled by a pagan king called Radboud, and were enemies of the neighboring Franks, who were Christians. The ruler of the Franks, Peppin was a godly man, who was impressed with Willbrord, and asked him to take up the post of the Bishop of Utrecht. 
 We return to Alcuin for an account of Willibrord’s first travels to Frisia
 Accordingly, in the thirty­third year of his age the fervour of his faith had reached such an intensity that he considered it of little value to labour at his own sanctification unless he could preach the Gospel to others and bring some benefit to them. He had heard that in the northern regions of the world the harvest was great but the labourers few. Thus it was that, in fulfilment of the dream which his mother stated she had seen, Willibrord, fully aware of his own purpose but ignorant as yet of divine preordination, decided to sail for those parts and, if God so willed, to bring the light of the Gospel message to those people who through unbelief had not been stirred by its warmth. So he embarked on a ship, taking with him eleven others who shared his enthusiasm for the faith. Some of these afterwards gained the martyr's crown through their constancy in preaching the Gospel, others were later to become bishops and, after their labours in the holy work of preaching, have since gone to their rest in peace.

[7] So the man of God, accompanied by his brethren, as we have already said, set sail, and after a successful crossing they moored their ships at the mouth of the Rhine. Then, after they had taken some refreshment, they set out for the Castle of Utrecht, which lies on the bank of the river, where some years afterwards, when by divine favour the faith had increased, Willibrord placed the seat of his bishopric.[l] But as the Frisian people, among whom the fort was situated, and Radbod, their king,[2] still defiled themselves by pagan practices, the man of God thought it wiser to set out for Francia and visit Pippin,[3] the king of that country, a man of immense energy, successful in war and of high moral character. The duke received him with every mark of respect; and as he was unwilling that he and his people should lose the services of so erninent a scholar, he made over to him certain localities within the boundaries of his own realm, where he could uproot idolatrous practices, teach the newly converted people and so fulfil the command of the prophet: " Drive a new furrow and sow no longer among the briars." [Jer 4:3]

After the man of God had systematically visited several localities and carried out the task of evangelization, and when the seed of life watered by the dews of heavenly grace had, through his preaching, borne abundant fruit in many hearts, the aforesaid King of the Franks, highly pleased at Willibrord's burning zeal and the extraordinary growth of the Christian faith, and having in view the still greater propagation of religion, thought it wise to send him to Rome in order that he might be consecrated bishop by Pope Sergius,[4] one of the holiest men of that time. Thus, after receiving the apostolic blessing and mandate and being filled with greater confidence as the Pope's emissary, he would return to Preach the Gospel with even greater vigour, according to the [8] words of the Apostle: " How shall they preach unless they sent?" [Rom 10:15]
 But when the king tried to persuade the man of God to do this he was met by a refusal. Willibrord said that he was not worthy to wield such great authority, and, after enumerating the qualities which St. Paul mentioned to Timothy, his spiritual son, as being essential for a bishop, asserted that he fell far short of such virtues On his side, the king solemnly urged what the man of God had already humbly declined. At length, moved by the unanimous agreement of his companions, and, what is of more importance, constrained by the divine will, Willibrord acquiesced, anxious to submit to the counsel of many rather than obstinately to follow his own will. Accordingly he set out for Rome with a distingtushed company, bearing gifts appropriate to the dignity of the Pope.
Saint Willbrord would make two trips to Rome, to accept the position of Bishop of Utrecht, and to bring back holy relics. This consecration would happen in the year 695. Several churches in the historical region of Frisia still preserve the relics brought back from Rome by Willibrord, e.g. Emmerich and Treves which are today in Germany. 
 We read an account of his journey from the English historian Bede: (12:04)
 AT their first Coming into Frisland, as soon as Wilbrord found he had leave given him by the prince to preach, he made haste to Rome, where Pope Sergius then presided over the apostolical see, that he might undertake the desired work of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, with his licence and blessing; and hoping to receive of him some relics of the blessed apostles and martyrs of. Christ; to the end, that when he destroyed the idols, and erected churches in the nation to which he preached, he might have the relics of saints at hand to put into them, and having deposited them there, might accordingly dedicate those places to the honor of each of the saints whose relics they were. He was also desirous there to learn or to receive from thence many other things which so great a work required. Having obtained all that he wanted, he returned to preach.
 hen they who went over had spent some years teaching in Frisland, Pepin, with the consent of them all, sent the venerable Wilbrord to Rome, where Sergius was still pope, desiring that he might be consecrated archbishop over the nation of the Frisons; which was accordingly done, in the year of our Lord's incarnation 696. He was consecrated in the church of the Holy Martyr Cecilia, on her feastday; the pope gave him the name of Clement, and sent him back to his bishopric, fourteen days after his arrival at Rome.

Pepin gave him a place for his episcopal see, in his famous castle, which in the ancient language of those people is called Wiltaburg, that is, the town of the Wilts; but, in the French tongue, Utrecht. The most reverend prelate having built a church there, and preaching the word of faith far and near, drew many from their errors, and erected several churches and monasteries. 
Saint Willibrord was an effective and dedicated teacher and preacher. He even went outside the borders of the Frankish kingdom, which led to a confrontation with the pagan Frisian king, Radboud. We read here Alcuin’s account of the meeting between Willibrod and Radboud:
 he man of God tried also to propagate the Gospel teaching outside the boundaries of the Frankish kingdom. He had the boldness to present himself at the court of Radbod, at that time King of the Frisians and like his subjects, a pagan. Wherever he travelled he proclaimed the Word of God without fear; but though the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. So when the man of God saw that his efforts were of no avail he turned his missionary course towards the fierce tribes of the Danes. At that time, so we are told, the Danish ruler was Ongendus,[l] a man more savage than any wild beast and harder than stone, who nevertheless, through divine intervention, received tbe herald of truth with every mark of honour. But when the latter found that the people were steeped in evil practices, abandoned to idolatry and indifferent to any hope of a better life, he chose thirty boys from among them and hastily returned with them to the chosen people of the Franks. On the journey he instructed the youths in the [10] faith and baptized them, so that if they perished from the long sea voyage or through the ambushes of the savage dwellers of those parts he should suffer no loss in their regard. In this way he desired to anticipate the aaft of the devil and to strengthen these redeemed souls by the sacraments of the Lord.
 Now whilst this energetic preacher of the Word was pursuing his iourney he came to a certain island on the boundary between the Frisians and the Danes, which the people of those parts call Fositeland,[l] after a god named Fosite, whom they worship and whose temples stood there. This place was held by the pagans in such great awe that none of the natives would venture to meddle with any of the cattle that fed there nor with anything else, nor dare they draw water from the spring that bubbled up there except in complete silence. On this island the man of God was driven ashore by a storm and waited for some days until the gale died down and fair weather made it possible to set sail again. He set little store by the superstitious sacredness ascribed to the spot, or by the savage cruelty of the king, who was accustomed to condemn nolators of the sacred objects to the most cruel death. Willibrord baptized three persons in the fountain in the name of the Blessed Trinity and gave orders that some of the cattle should be slaughtered as food for his company. When the pagans saw this they expected that the strangers would become mad or be struck with sudden death. Noticing, however, that they suffered no harm, the pagans, terror­stricken and astounded, reported to the king what they had witnessed.
 The king was roused to intense fury and had a mind to avenge on the priest of the living God the insults which had been offered to his deities. For three whole days he cast lots three times every day to find out who should die; but as the true God protected his own servants, the lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor upon any of his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr's crown. The holy man was then summoned before the king and severely upbraided for having violated the king's sanctuary and offered insult to his god. With unruffled calmness the preacher of the Gospel replied: "The object [11] of your worship, O King, is not a god but a devil, and he holds you ensnared in rank falsehood in order that he may deliver your soul to eternal flre. For there is no God but one, who created heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them; and those who worship Him in true faith will possess eternal life. As His servant I call upon you this day to renounce the empty and inveterate errors to which your forebears have given their assent and to believe in the one almighty God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins, so that, forsaking all wickedness and unrighteousness, you may henceforth live as a new man in temperance, justice and holiness. If you do this you will enjoy everlasting glory with God and His saints; but if you spurn me, who set before you the way of life, be assured that with the devil whom you obey you will suffer unending punishment and the flames of hell." At this the king was astonished and replied: " It is clear to me that my threats leave you unmoved and that your words are as uncompromising as your deeds." But although he would not believe the preaching of the truth, he sent back Willibrord with all honour to Pippin, King of the Franks.
 Saint Willibrord was a greatly effective missionary, bringing many pagans to the faith. However,in 714, Pepin died, and King Radboud took advantage and captured Utrecht, killing priests and missionaries and forcing Saint Willibrord to flee. A few years later Pippin’s son and successor, Charles Martel was able to defeat Radboud and regain control of Frisia, which allowed Willibrord to resume his work
Willibrord died in the year 739 at the age of 81 and was buried a monasteryatEchternach, which he had built. He was quickly recognised as a saint, and is celebrated on November 7 in the saints calendars of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and eastern orthodox churches.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips (of St John of Shanghai Orthodox Church in Essex, England) tells us four lessons from Willibrord’s life, from a short biography he wrote about thes saint:
 Firstly, we can see that for over thirty years Willibrord had been preparing, mainly

unconsciously, for his mission. Here we have a sense of destiny. In his mission to the Frisians,

St Willibrord fulfilled the mission that God had put in his soul. In this we achieve nothing if

we are not thoroughly prepared. This is our first lesson. And we can see its practical

application, inasmuch as before baptising the Frisians, Willibrord always preached to them,

instructing them. He prepared the ground, sowing before harvesting.

Secondly, we can see in St Willibrord the Incarnational principle of the practical and the

spiritual. And in fact these are the two sides of the same coin. In him we can see the English

and the Irish, the Roman organiser and the Egyptian monk. For example, he established an

operational headquarters in Roman Utrecht. But he also operated out of a spiritual base, in his

beloved monastery of Echternach. St Willibrord shows us that although we are very much in

the world, we are still not of it. And all those who deny this principle of balance, taking only

one side and not the other, as the Franks later did, come to grief and misfortune.

Thirdly, we can see through the life of the saint that God protects his workers. Time and again

St Willibrord was under threat in dangerous circumstances. He worked under Frankish

patronage among the Franks’ national enemies. He worked to destroy the old pagan religion

and replace it with the new Christian Faith. Each time that threats came, he did not suffer, but

his enemies did. He was fearless because he had faith. And what do we have to fear? The

worst thing that can happen to us is death and that, for Christians, means paradise.

Fourthly, and finally, we see the patience of the saint. He thought in the long term, in terms of

generations. Following the pagan reaction in 714-715, it seemed as though 25 years of work

had been in vain. All was lost. However, the saint returned and began again. God was to give

him another 25 years and more helpers to continue. Ultimately, we can say that he who loses

is he who does not persevere but gives up. St Willibrord did not give up and therefore he won

the battle. This is the great lesson to us.

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O GOD, who didst vouuchsafe to send thy blessed Saint Willibrord to preach thy glory to the Gentiles: we humbly pray thee; that, by his merits and intercession, we may both see and know the things which we ought to do, and by thy mercy be enaabled to perform the same. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.