Today we celebrate the feast of St. Willibrord, as well as commemorating the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. St. Willibrord was born in the kingdom of Northumberland in the seventh century. Before the age of seven he was placed in the monastery of Ripon under St. Wilfrid. Here he became familiar with the Benedictine rule which St. Wilfrid had so strongly promoted in England, and had shaped the character of Anglo- Saxon Christianity. Subsequently, he spent twelve years in an Irish monastery. His desire for missionary work had grown during this period and in 690 his abbot dispatched him to continue the work that St. Wilfrid had pioneered among the Frisians (St. Wilfrid had begun evangelising the Frisians during his journey to Rome to appeal against the decision of the Church to divide his diocese). The Frisian ruler, Radbod, was not favourable to Christianity, probably because he realised that conversion would be a prelude to conquest by the neighbouring Christian Franks. Since the Franks saw an opportunity to further their plan for conquest by converting their neighbours they were willing to help the English missionaries. St. Willibrord founded a monastery at Echternach (in modern Luxemburg) in lands given him by Pippin, the Frankish mayor of the palace and the power behind the Merovingian Frankish kings. Pippin’s protection enabled Willibrord to work in western Frisia (which was under Frankish control), but it also drew the Frankish mayors of the palace into continuing support for the Anglo- Saxon mission. Willibrord needed not only military protection but also legitimate authority to undertake the ecclesiastical organisation of new territories where there had never been bishops. He therefore did what the Anglo-Saxons had done since their conversion. He turned to the Pope, and in 695 Pope Sergius I made him archbishop of the Frisians, with headquarters in Utrecht (in the modern Netherlands). The popes had not sponsored any missionary work since the founding of the Anglo- Saxon mission by Pope Gregory the Great a century earlier, although they had kept in sporadic contact with the Anglo-Saxons and Franks. Thus, St. Willibrord drew both the Frankish rulers and the popes into support for his missionary work (although they were not yet co-operating with each other). St. Willibrord died on this day in 738. He has since that time been revered as a saint and the founder of the See of Utrecht.
Though the missionaries like St. Willibrord were immigrants from England they willingly accepted natives to be trained as monks and rural clergy. Each monastery evangelised and organised the surrounding region, supplying priests and building churches. The Anglo- Saxons were suited to the task of converting a Germanic people because they themselves spoke a Germanic language. They could soon preach and teach in the language of their converts, as well as being learned in Latin. They were skilful organisers who could easily adapt to what was then a sparsely inhabited region. St. Willibrord’s work would subsequently be developed further by his more famous disciple St. Boniface, who would be the foremost evangeliser of the German people and would further the alliance between the English missionaries, the Franks and the Papacy. The Anglo- Saxon Church and their missionaries were devoted to the Roman rite which had been brought to England by St. Augustine of Canterbury, and it was this tradition that they spread among the Germanic peoples they evangelised. By contrast, the Franks then followed the Gallican rite. However, when the Mayors of the Palace who supported the English missionaries replaced the Merovingians as kings of the Franks they came to follow them in supporting the spread of the Roman rite. This was especially promoted by the Emperor Charlemagne who had many Anglo- Saxon advisors. The most famous of these was Alcuin of York. Alcuin wrote a life of St. Wilibrord and promoted a version of the Roman rite that also incorporated many Gallican customs that the Franks were familiar with. It was this rite which became the classical Roman rite which we use today.
It can therefore be seen why St. Willibrord is so important to us today. He was the first Archbishop of Utrecht and thus it is from him that the See of Utrecht traces its apostolic succession. The alliance between the English missionaries, the Franks and the Papacy would be central to the development of Western Europe and the evolution of the classical Roman rite in substantially the same basic form that we continue to use today. When in the eighteenth century a dispute over the succession of the See of Utrecht led to the separation of the Old Roman Church of the Netherlands from the Papacy, this Church became a rallying point for those who sought to preserve the traditional Roman rite as successors of St. Willibrord. It is from the See of Utrecht that Arnold Harris Matthew was consecrated as a bishop to work in England to further the work of continuing the Old Roman tradition, and it is from Matthew that the Old Roman Church today traces its succession. Thus, the use of the Roman rite which the English missionary St. Willibrord established in the see of Utrecht continues to this day.
It is also important to remember that this extensive missionary growth that was so pivotal to the development of Western Europe started from a very small seed. St. Willibrord encountered many difficulties in the process of evangelisation, and yet he persevered and laid the foundation for the development of the Church in that place for generations to come. At the present time we may seem only to be sowing very small seed in difficult circumstances, but we must be patient and not lose heart. For we know that our forebears in the faith also encountered many trials and tribulations, and yet, by the grace of God, they persevered. Let us pray that we may follow the example of St. Willibrord and become evangelists and church builders in our own time and place.
O God, who was pleased to send forth thy blessed confessor and bishop Willibrord to preach among the Gentiles the glory of thy name, grant unto us, we beseech thee, for his sake and at his prayers, that we by thy mercy may be able to fulfil whatsoever thou commandest us to do, through Jesus Christ they Son our Lord, who livest and reignest with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.