Saint Willibrord, flanked by two deacons, depicted in the Graduale of Thiofrid of Echternach (11th century).
Willibrord Sunday – this year November 6th – is the Sunday closest to the actual feast day of Saint Willibrord – November 7th. But in fact, 6 November is just as much his day, because traditionally it is dedicated ‘to all preachers of the faith in our lands’.
The darkness of paganism
Saint Willibrord takes us to the seventh century, to the beginning of Christianity in the northern Netherlands. In the south it was there before because it was within the Roman Empire. It had accepted Catholic Christianity in 313 and later even made it the state religion. It is therefore no coincidence that today we connect Willibrord with Utrecht, which is precisely located on limes lies, the border of the empire, and was therefore a logical ecclesiastical touchstone. There began the darkness of paganism. Since then, Willibrord’s successors – the seventieth is Cardinal Eijk – have sat as Archbishop of Utrecht. The mighty Domtoren still bears witness to Utrecht’s ecclesiastical status.
Hand scribbled in margin
Another legacy of Willibrord is the Latin blessing In Dei nomine congratulations! (‘Success in the name of God!’) which adorns the coat of arms of Nijmegen University. The spell was chosen by the founder, Msgr. Jos Schrijnen. The learned priest would refer to the Emperor Charlemagne, who had a palace built for himself in Nijmegen, and ended his works with that motto. But we already know him from before, for Saint Willibrord, who – almost certainly with his own hands – in 728 Calendar has written. Although we know little personally about Willibord, we have this one intimate scribble in the margin.
Pippin needed an archbishop
Willibrord was then—certainly for the time—quite old, about seventy years old. He noted the motto on the date he was ordained in 695 by Pope Sergius in Rome as the first Archbishop ‘of the Frisians’, from which the Archdiocese of Utrecht arose. Interestingly, Willibrord had traveled to Rome on behalf of the ruler, the Merovingian Mayor of the Palace Pepin II van Herstal (not to be confused with his grandson Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father). Pepin wanted to synchronize the conquest of pagan territories with their Christianization, and for that he needed an archbishop, so to speak.
Northwestern Europe was also worthy of attention
Another reason for the trip was to get the attention of Pope Sergius. This Pope was preoccupied with the advance of the Muslims who – Mohammed had just died – were already conquering Sicily as a stepping stone to Europe. However, it would turn out that Northwest Europe was also worthy of the Pope’s attention. None other than Pepin’s son, Charles Martel, with whom Willibrord would have much to do, will stop the Islamic advance from Spain in 732 and beat back the Muslims at Poitiers.
Founder of the loan system
The alliance between Charles Martel and ‘our’ Saint Willibrord is the foundation of Christian civilization in our region. No event is as iconic as the baptism of Martel’s son, Pippin the Short, in 716. The Baptist was none other than Willibrord, our national apostle. Next to him stood the proud father, Karel Martel. Not only was he a skilled military leader, he is also considered the founder of the feudal system, which was so important to the Middle Ages and to modern Western civilization. Although feudalism has been discredited by Marxism, it has had a great impact on the development of society. It formed a sense of mutual obligations in a hierarchical framework that a healthy society needs.
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Latin Unity Liturgy
Lacking cash, Martel had begun lending land to his comrades-in-arms, feud, in exchange for military aid. His son Pepin, the child baptized by Willibrord, would add a significant spiritual element some forty years later by seeking cooperation with the Pope in Rome and allowing himself to be anointed by him as king of a new dynasty. In addition, he would initiate a new Roman-based Latin unity liturgy. Under Pepin the Short’s son, Charlemagne, who was again crowned emperor by the Pope in 800, the symbiosis between Catholic faith and the state would reach a peak.
‘Pilgrimage for Christ’s sake’
Willibrord himself will have had little awareness of the great development he set in motion. And if he did, he probably wouldn’t have cared. As a Benedictine monk and missionary, he was not out to ‘write history’. He had crossed the North Sea from England around 690 to Christianize the pagan areas of the Netherlands. He did it based on the selfless Celtic ideal pilgrimage of Christ, ‘the pilgrimage for Christ’s sake’. It meant entering pagan territory in complete trust in providence.
Remember and call on Willibrord with thanks
A beautiful ideal, but which could also end badly, as the murder of Saint Boniface, a pupil of Willibrord, in 754 at Dokkum was to show. But the ‘Apostle of Germany’ was a bit of one drufgoer, as his letters prove, while everything in the life of Willibrord, ‘the Apostle of the Netherlands,’ points to wisdom, diplomacy, and deliberation. But also a lot of persistence and self-sacrifice. Therefore, Willibrord Sunday or the actual holiday on November 7 – a high holiday for the Netherlands – can be a reason to remember and invoke Saint Willibrord in gratitude. Now that the Netherlands is slipping into a post-Christian paganism, we still need the inspiration and intercession of Saint Willibrord as much, if not more, than 1300 years ago when he cared for our distant ancestors.