St. Willibrord

(658-739)

In the sixth century Irish monks like St. Columban began to carry the gospel to the pagan nations of Germany. A century later, Anglo-Saxon monks from England, inspired by the Irish missionary tradition, began to follow suit.

St. Willibrord, born to Anglo-Saxon parents in northern England, became the first of the host of English missionaries. He had joined the Benedictine monks at Ripon, England at an early age. It is interesting to note that he was then sent to a monastery in Ireland for his education.

Two years after his ordination to the priesthood in 688 AD, Willibrord was commissioned by his abbot to go with eleven others to work among the Germanic pagans in Frisia, now a part of Holland. When Willibrord seemed to be failing in Friesland, he sought the aid of the Frankish Christian leader Pepin of Heristal. Pepin sent him to Rome to ask the pope for official authorization to labor in the Netherlands. On his return to the Low Countries, he fared better, so on a second trip to Rome in 695, Pope Sergius I consecrated him bishop of Utrecht, giving him the Latin name “Clement.” Clement/Willibrord now set up his seat at Utrecht and began a series of missionary journeys. In 698 he established a monastery at Echternach in the present Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. He even moved up into Denmark, but there he had no permanent success. Probably he was able to speak intelligibly to all these peoples because the Anglo-Saxon tongue in those days was rather close to that spoken in the Netherlands.

Willibrord was a bold apostle when he knew that boldness was called for. Once he was driven by a storm to the island of Heligoland, which the Danes and Frisians revered as a pagan sanctuary. Pagan law forbade visitors to kill any living creature, eat any produce, or draw water from the central spring without keeping absolute silence. To counter this superstition, Willibrord killed some animals for his companions to eat, and baptized those persons in the sacred fountain pronouncing the words very loudly. When the pagans saw that the Christians did not drop dead, they were, to say the least, puzzled. They asked their pagan ruler Radbod. He said they should avenge their god by killing one of Willibrord’s companions. They obeyed. Also, when at Walcheren, Willibrord toppled a pagan idol. The pagan priest of the shrine tried to kill him, but Willibrord escaped and got back safe to Utrecht.

In 715 Radbod regained part of Frisia taken away by the Christian Franks, and destroyed much of what Willibrord had accomplished there. But when Radbod died in 719, the missionary took up again, with the backing of Charles Martel. The Frankish monk-missionary worked with Willibrord for a while before going to Germany proper to establish the faith. Thus, Willibrord/Clement, a comely, cheerful, prayerful and zealous monk, became the “Apostle of the Frisians.”

Eventually, St; Willibrord retired to the monastery of Echternach. After he died there at the age of 91, his tomb became (as it remains) a center of pilgrimage.

Ever since at least 1553 AD, pilgrims to his shrine on each Thursday after Pentecost, have taken part in a “dancing procession” to the monastery church. Participants (bishops and priests or religious as well as lay persons) form a procession four or five abreast, with arms joined or holding on to each other by handkerchiefs. They move in a sort of dancing motion – three steps forward and two steps back, to the special music of a band. The ceremony ends with a Eucharistic exposition and benediction at the shrine. However unusual, this procession is dignified. It is now performed as a penitential exercise interceding for those suffering epilepsy and other nervous maladies. Those who take part in the procession are called the Springende Heiligen: the “Dancing Saints.”

We usually think of prayer as an exercise just of the mind and heart. But can we not pray with our bodies, too? Bowing the head, striking the breast, blessing oneself, kneeling, prostrating, are all acceptable forms of prayerful “body language.” The “Springende Heiligen” of Echternach remind us that procession and dancing can also be made a prayer. Willibrord must enjoy it!!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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