Sermon during the vigil of the National Pilgrimage to Dokkum

English translation of

Preek op den vooravond van de Nationale Bedevaart

by Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

 


Sermon during the vigil of the National Pilgrimage to Dokkum in 1939 centenary of St. Willibrord in the St. Bonifatius church in Leeuwarden 16 July 1939

[1]


Video verba tua esse sicut et opera: I see, that your words and deeds agree:

Words of the Frisian King Radboud to Saint Willibrord.


During the vigil of the national pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Boniface in this jubilee year of Saint Willibrord, called to Heaven 1200 years ago, I cannot do otherwise than also here pay both of them together, whom Divine Providence itself already united as Apostles of Friesland in the Apostolate, tribute and veneration.

Let us transport ourselves more than twelve hundred years back in time, when the pagan King Radboud still ruled here and, with a few exceptions, almost all still confessed the pagan religion, how men like Saint Willibrord and Boniface then had the courage and the love to speak to our forefathers of God and his love, to plant the cross here.

They do not stand alone, these two great heroes. Before Willibrord, Wigbert had already come; with Boniface 52 companions died. We also venerate Saint Ludger as one of the many Apostles of Friesland. But Providence, which leads everything and appoints each his own place in history, put Willibrord and Boniface in charge, marked them as leaders and heroes of greater stature, men, equipped with special gifts, more gifted than others, because they were called to higher things. [2]

We do not know the life of Saint Willibrord so very exactly, but it is indeed certain that he, in the beginning of the eighth century, while preaching in Friesland, we do not know precisely where, experienced disappointment upon disappointment, trekked to Denmark to perhaps be happier there, but also from there trekked disappointed away back to Friesland, and then in a truly heroic way preached and baptized. The correct year is not known, it will have been about 710. In 714 his great protector Pepin died; for King Radboud the opportunity to push the Franks back again. All of Willibrord’s work was destroyed, he had to flee. While he had fled to the South, Saint Boniface comes[2] from England. Even though he found all that Saint Willibrord had built up, destroyed and him himself having fled, he does not flinch and goes to Radboud and is not rejected by him: he is allowed to preach freely, but Radboud is certain that it will be useless. Nevertheless, Boniface wants to try it, but after half a year we see also him leaving again, discouraged and disappointed. It was still freezing too hard to scatter the seed of Christendom. Radboud’s influence was still too great. But it was not as soon as he had died in 719, that both Willibrord and Boniface come back and now work together at the conversion of the Frisians. Boniface can stay here three years; his much more expansive mission calls him to other regions, but he remains the father and protector of the Frisian church. When Saint Willibrord dies in 739, he stands up for the rights of the church of Utrecht and dedicates his care to the continuation of the work of Saint Willibrord as Apostle of the Frisians, until [3] he in 754 also for the third time goes to Friesland, to die for it and to thus give it life. We thus see both Saint Willibrord and Saint Boniface going three times to Friesland, unflinchingly, faithful to their calling, prepared to give their life for it.

What were they willing to offer, in order that we, our forefathers and in and through them we who live now, should participate in the life of mercy.

It is not possible, in the short span of time, to illustrate and to posit as an example the entire life-work of these two heroes. I can only take something from both their rich lives, and wish then to choose two facts that witness to their courage and to their love on Frisian soil and that we hold in memory more than other facts of their lives, because they occurred here in our immediate surroundings and memory still points to the place where they baptized and preached.

I cannot make detailed historical observations here, but think that, just as we are tomorrow going to Dokkum to venerate there the place where Boniface once sanctified the well by baptizing in it and died at that well, there is little less ground to assume that the Willibrordusdobbe[3] on Ameland shows us the place where he [Willibrord] baptized and indeed did not die, but did risk his life. But even if it was not on Ameland, it is certain that it must have happened on one of the islands then belonging to Friesland, where King Radboud had power over life and death. The most ancient biographer of Saint Willibrord, who still obtained his information from ear- and eyewitnesses, illustrates for us that meeting between Radboud and Willibrord. And his story is educational. [4]

It tells us that Saint Willibrord, returning from Denmark, blown off course by the storm, arrived at one of the Frisian islands and found there the veneration of the ancient god of law Forseti. There was a well, dedicated to that God,[4] there were other shrines; cattle that were considered holy grazed there, because it was dedicated to that god; water from the well dedicated to this god was only allowed to be scooped in deepest silence.

Just as later in Gosslar Saint Boniface will put the axe to the holy oak, in Willibrord’s spirit the desire burns to show the idol-worshippers through a deed of courage the emptiness and falseness of their religion.

Our Dear Lord once said: Misereor super turbam: I have pity with the crowd. These words I would here like to place in the mouth of Saint Willibrord. He had pity with the Frisian people, that it worshipped and venerated such treacherous gods. He had come to speak to it of God and to, by baptizing it, make it happy, partaker in the blessings and mercies, given by the Christian Faith to humankind. His love for the Frisian people, which he wanted to make happy, inspired him to perform a deed that should in one swoop convince the population that the power of their Gods was not as they imagined it.

In his company there were three who wished to receive Holy Baptism, perhaps three of the thirty Danish lads, brought along from Denmark by Saint Willibrord. These three Saint Willibrord baptized in the holy well of Forseti and at that place of silence he loudly pronounced the baptismal [5] words. Besides this, he had some of the holy cattle that grazed there, slaughtered as food for his company.

He understood that he was putting a lot at stake, that through this his life was put in danger, but on the other hand he also understood that if he did not do something like this, he would not break the persuasion of the population. And he risked his life; he accepted an almost certain death, in order that we would have life. He was brought before Radboud and the tough Frisian king vehemently blasted the violator of his shrine. Through a trial by divine ordeal, he tried to have him put to death and if God had not protected him in a remarkable way, he would have with difficulty escaped this ordeal. God led matters in such a way, that the lot [he drew] freed him.

This gave Saint Willibrord even more courage to address King Radboud about the emptiness of his god, to speak to him about the heaven of the true god, the hell of the devil in whose service he declared him to be. If he had been able to win over the king, and indeed especially this king, Radboud, the greatest resistance would have been removed. He did not succeed, but he did leave the king behind full of admiration for his courage and love; he did acquire for himself through his characterful deed, that the king let him leave with esteem to the land of the Franks, whereby he most probably took the way through the Middelzee[5], at the end of which we, again in the heart of Friesland, in distant times find a Saint Willibrord fountain.

But even though he did not succeed then, a deed had been performed that continued to live on and had made an impression. Gradually, step [6] by step only, could this difficult conversion work continue. A few years later, Saint Willibrord had to behold that, at the death of Pepin, Radboud perceived the opportunity to again destroy all that he had built up and he, Willibrord, who indeed did possess courage, saw himself obliged to flee. But he came back. His love for the Frisian people was too great for him to give up Christianizing it. And at that third and last try, God gave him a companion, who in his turn would come to Friesland up to three times, to preach there: Saint Boniface.

Two men, great and strong, two heroes, who defy everything, who risk their lives to make us happy. And who finally, through their unflinching courage and perseverance, Christianized our country.

What must we admire most in those two men? Two things especially speak in their life, two things that we can, no must learn from them: the courage of their witness besides the great love for the Frisian people, for whom they risk their life.

How much, in this feeble age, must we not look up to both those men, who, knowing that it will probably cost them (their) life, still speak of God, still endeavour to unite the other people with God, because they know and believe that this will make them happy. How cowardly is our witness? How many do not even dare to remove their hat, when passing a church; they do not want to show themselves to be catholic. How many think they should refrain from praying in public before eating to bring veneration and thanks to God. [7] Yes, much worse, how many do not have the courage to admit their persuasion, while they know that they, by not doing so, transgress great and strict commandments. I find it glorious that the fierce Radboud let himself be disarmed by the courage of Willibrord, and admired him for his courage, acknowledged this publicly and, although he did not accept the faith of Saint Willibrord, he did show respect for such a heroic proclamation of the word of God, let him go with esteem, and called after him with the following praising words: I see that your words and your deeds agree with each other. Radboud stands there for so many, also in our current society, who still have respect for courageous and consistent persuasion, who even if they cannot yet follow us on the way we are going, still have admiration and also give expression to this, when they see catholics who are more than that in name alone, who admit their faith and confess it proudly, who try to bring their life into alignment with it. Our age is not an age of half-hearted people; what is now especially required are not, in the first place, words, but deeds that agree with them, that bring them to life.

The scholars speak in connection to this of pragmatism and pragmatic Christianity; we Frisians remember the old saying that says the same: Praten is neat, mar dwaen is in ding.[6] And we mirror ourselves in Willibrord and Boniface who, even though it could cost them their life, even though they foresaw the greatest difficulties due to it, out of love for the Frisian people and out of love for God, bore witness to their faith.

But even though this heroic witness strongly speaks to us, there is yet a second characteristic that actually impresses me even more: their love for their fellow human being, their drive to make him [8] happy. What a different spirit lives in many in this age. “Why should one worry about the other.”[7] “Let everyone care for himself.” “It is his own fault, if he does not get ahead in the world, if he has no luck.” We live in a world in which people even condemn love and call it a weakness that must be tidied away, that people must get over. “Not love, but development of one’s own power.” “Let each be as strong as possible, let the weak perish.” Christianity with its preaching on love is called old-fashioned and must be replaced by the old Germanic power. Oh yes, they come to you with those doctrines, and there are those who are very receptive of them. Love is misunderstood; Amor non amatur[8], Saint Francis of Assisi proclaimed already in his own age; some centuries later in Florence a St. Maria Magdalena de Pazzi, who in ecstasy rang the bell of the Carmelite Monastery to say to the people how beautiful love is. Oh, I would also like to make the bells peal to say to the world how beautiful love is. Even though the new paganism no longer wants love, we shall, with history in mind, still win over that paganism with love and not vanquish our love. Love will let us again win the heart of the pagans. Nature transcends dogma. Let the theory reject and condemn love, call her a weakness, the practice of life will always again make her be a power that wins over the hearts of the people and holds them captive. 'Look, how they love one another”.[9] That saying of the pagans about the first Christians, the new pagans must again say about us. Then we will win over the world. And that is why I gladly hold both these heroes [9] before you as apostles of love, who preach us to indeed care about the happiness of other people; who show us a life, totally borne by love and therefore so strong and so heroic, because such love glowed in their heart. “Who has greater love for his friends than he who gives his life for them”.[10] They gave of theirs and counted it as nothing, where the offering of it seemed to them to be the way to bring our forefathers to Christianity, that is to eternal happiness. First Saint Willibrord alone, then Boniface alone, then they, during almost three years, both together gave here in Friesland proof that they held the word of the Lord in mind, which calls us all, out of love for God and, what is the same thing, out of love for fellow human beings, to offer everything, even life.

Ah, were their love still alive among us. Were the fire that consumed them also still aglow in our heart. Oh, certainly, there are still many who put their life at the service of unhappy humanity; there are still many who want to dedicate their entire life to the beautiful and the good and are out to make other people happy, to serve them and to help. They are the preparers of the way for the Lord, but their number is not great enough, their love is often less heroic.

Oh, if only we again had in our midst Apostles of love. All else is subordinated to that. Love is inventive enough to find the way and to overcome all difficulties.




  1. Typescript (NCI TBA Doos 28-15), 9 pages. Parts of this sermon were published in newspapers (for instance in Leeuwarder Nieuwsblad and De Maasbode, both on 17-7-1939). The NCI also preserves a typescript of the complete sermon (NCI OP 91-001, 4 pages) which shows a more modern Dutch spelling and writing style.
  2. Titus Brandsma switches in the middle of the sentence to the present tense as he often does in this sermon.
  3. The Dutch ‘dobbe’ means ‘pool’. The toponym ‘Willibrorddobbe’ means ‘Willibrord(‘s) pool’.
  4. In this sermon Titus Brandsma is not consistent in writing ‘God/god(s)’ with a capital letter or not.
  5. ‘Middelzee’ (literally ‘Middle Sea’), also known as Bordine, was the estuary mouth of the River Boorne in Friesland.
  6. The Frisian reads: ‘Talking is nothing, but doing is a thing’.
  7. Titus Brandsma quotes the opinions of many in his time, opinions that are in contrast to his own. Therefore, we have added quotation marks here that are not in the typescript.
  8. The Latin reads: ‘Love is not loved’.
  9. Compare Tertullian Apologeticus ch. 39 sect. 7: 'Look,' they say, 'how they [Christians] love one another' (for they themselves hate one another); 'and how they are ready to die for each other' (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).'
  10. John 15:13 reads: ‘Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Translation: Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2021