February 3 – Saint Ansgar, Bishop – Optional Memorial

All Saints for Today

Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: White

Today’s saint walked the earth (801 -865) in northern Europe during that stretch of centuries later known, prejudicially, as the “dark ages.” It was three hundred years after the fall of Rome and yet three hundred years before the soaring gothic spires of the high middle ages. “Ansgar” is more a grunt or a sound, to modern ears, than a name. It seems fit for a remote, cold, and brutal age. It is difficult to imagine a child running into the warm embrace of a sunny Ansgar. But the real St. Ansgar broke bread with northern vikings and rough warriors of the forest with names just like his own: Horik, Drogo, Gudmund, and Vedast. Ansgar was one of them, with one big difference – he was a Christian.

The one thing, a very big thing, that links such long ago saints, priests, and bishops to us moderns is the Catholic faith. St. Ansgar and us share the exact same faith! If St. Ansgar were to step out of the pages of a book today, in his bear fur, beaver hat, and deer skin boots, and walk through the front doors of a 21st century Catholic church he would not be a stranger. His eyes would search for the burning flame of the sanctuary lamp and, spotting it, he would know. He would bend his knee before a tabernacle housing the Blessed Sacrament, just as he did thousands of times in the past. He would walk past statues of Mary and the saints and know the same bible stories and saintly stories. He would hear the same gospel, make the same sign of the cross, and feel the same drops of blessed water on his forehead. He would be at home. Our faith unites what time and culture divide. The Church is the world’s only transnational, timeless family. There is nothing else like Her.  

St. Ansgar left his native region in northern France, after receiving a good Christian education, to become an apostle monk to northern Germany. He was named by the Pope as Archbishop of Hamburg and from that post organized the first systematic evangelization of Scandinavia. These regions were far, far away from the more developed civilizations of Italy, Spain, and France. Yet St. Ansgar and his helpers traveled that far, and risked that much, to plant the Catholic faith in the frozen ground of what is today Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. He is the patron saint of Denmark.   

Yet nearly all the seeds of faith that St. Ansgar planted were to die shortly after his own death. His missionary efforts produced no long lasting fruit. The age of the Vikings dawned, and it would be two centuries before Christianity would again flourish and spread across the northern arc of Europe. Yet even that second evangelization would come to a bitter end! In the 16th century, Scandinavia abandoned Catholicism for its shadow under the influence of Fr. Luther and his followers.

What a lesson to be learned. As St. Paul wrote, one plants, one waters, and God gives the growth: “He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor.” (1 Cor. 3:8) St. Ansgar carried out God’s will. He labored for the Lord and for the faith. What happens after that is up to God in His providence. Carrying out His will should be enough for us, as it was for our saint today, even though harvest time never comes.

St. Ansgar, you persevered in difficult times to bring the faith to a pagan land. You saw success and then failure. You had glory and then disappointment. Your work did not outlast you, but pleased God nonetheless. May we see our work as our duty, and our vocation as God’s will, even when the fruit of our labor is harvested by someone else, or not at all.


Further Reading:

Catholic Online

Franciscan Media

Wikipedia


Reflections from Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

Called the Apostle of the North, was b. in Picardy, 8 September, 801; d. 5 February, 865. He became a Benedictine of Corbie, whence lie passed into Westphalia. With Harold, the newly baptized King of Denmark who had been expelled from his kingdom but was now returning, he and Autbert went to preach the Faith in that country where Ebbo, the Archbishop of Reims, had already laboured but without much success. Anschar founded a school at Schleswig, but the intemperate zeal of Harold provoked another storm which ended in a second expulsion, and the consequent return of the missionaries. In the company of the ambassadors of Louis le Débonnaire, he then entered Sweden, and preached the Gospel there. Although the embassy had been attacked on its way and had apparently abandoned its mission, Anschar succeeded in entering the country, and was favourably received by the king, who permitted him to preach. The chief of the royal counsellors, Herigar, was converted, and built the first church of Sweden. Anschar remained there a year and a half, and returning was made bishop of the new see of Hamburg, and appointed by Gregory IV legate of the northern nations. He revived also the abbey of Turholt in Flanders, and established a school there. In 845 Eric, the King of Jutland, appeared off Hamburg with a fleet of 600 vessels, and destroyed the city. Anschar was for some time a fugitive and was deprived also of his Flemish possessions by Charles the Bald, but on the accession of Louis the German was restored to his see. The bishopric of Bremen which had been the See of Leudric, his enemy, was at the same time united to Hamburg, but though the arrangement was made in 847 it was not confirmed by the Pope until 857, and Anschar was made the first archbishop. Meantime he made frequent excursions to Denmark, ostensibly in the quality of envoy of King Louis. He built a church at Schleswig and afterwards went as Danish ambassador to his old mission of Sweden. King Olaf regarded him with favour, but the question of permitting him to preach was submitted to the oracles, which are said to have given a favourable answer. It was probably due to the prayers of the saint. A church was built and a priest established there. In 854 we find him back in Denmark, where he succeeded in changing the enmity of King Eric into friendship. Eric had expelled the priests who had been left at Schleswig, but at the request of Anschar recalled them. The saint built another church in Jutland and introduced the use of bells, which the pagans regarded as instruments of magic, he also induced the king to mitigate the horrors of the slave-trade. He was eminent for his piety, mortification, and observance of the monastic rule, he built hospitals, ransomed captives, sent immense alms abroad, and regretted only that he had not been found worthy of martyrdom. Though he wrote several works, very little of them remains. He had added devotional phrases to the psalms, which, according to Fabricius, in his Latin Library of the Middle Ages, are an illustrious monument ,to the piety of the holy prelate. He had also compiled a life of St. Willehad, first Bishop of Bremen, and the preface which he wrote was considered a masterpiece for that age. It is published by Fabricius among the works of the historians of Hamburg. Some letters of his are also extant. He is known in Germany as St. Scharies and such is the title of his collegiate church in Bremen. Another in Hamburg under the same title was converted into an orphan asylum by the Lutherans. All of his success as a missionary he ascribed to the piety of Louis le Débonnaire and the apostolic zeal of his predecessor in the work, Ebbo, Archbishop of Reims, who, however, as a matter of fact, had failed.

Acta SS., I, Feb.; MICHAUD, Biog. Univ.; HERGENRÖTHER, Kircheng. (1904) II, 180-84; BUTLER, Lives of the Saints, 3 Feb.