26 March 2019

Holy Hierarch Liudgar of Billerbeck

Holy Hierarch Liudgar, Bishop of Münster

The twenty-sixth of March is the feast of Liudgar of Billerbeck, the first bishop of Münster. An inheritor of the missions to the Frisian people left by Saints Willibrord and Boniface, Liudgar – born to a family that was intimately connected with both saints – was the first Christian priest of that folk, and managed to reap many of the fruits that had been left him by his predecessors.

In Saint Willibrord’s time, the king of the Frisians was Redbad – not a great friend of the Christians or their mission, seeing them as agents of the Franks. One of Redbad’s þegnas, though, a man named Wursing, befriended Saint Willibrord and converted to Christianity along with his wife Alburg and his two brothers-in-law, Willibrecht (who was tonsured a deacon under Willibrord) and Thiatbrecht. Wursing lived near what is today Utrecht, but was forced into exile by Redbad – who only forgave Wursing and welcomed him back to Frisia toward the end of his life.

Wursing’s son, Thiatgrim, was allowed to return to Utrecht. Thiatgrim married a local woman, Leofburg daughter of Nothrad and Aldburg, who bore him a daughter, Heriburg, and two sons: Liudgar and Hildegrim (also a saint, commemorated on 19 June). He was present in Frisia when Saint Boniface was martyred at Fulda; some sources say he was actually present at the occasion. Whatever the case, Liudgar proved to be a devoted student – a tale from his Vita tells of how when he was just able to walk, he went out into the trees and collected birch-bark, and scribbled on them with reeds dipped in homemade ink. When his nurse asked him what he had done, he replied: ‘I have made books’, or ‘I have written and read all day’. When she asked him who taught him, he answered her: ‘God taught me.’ He was sent to the monastic school for boys at Utrecht, where he was placed under the tutelage of the abbot – Saint Gregory of Utrecht. He was tonsured and became a monk around 760, and Saint Gregory, noting Liudgar’s aptitude for learning, made him a teacher in the monastic school. He was friendly with his schoolmates, who remembered him fondly:
Liudgar was much loved by them, by reason of his wondrous gentleness and kindness: his face was cheerful, though he was not easily provoked to laughter; he combined prudence with moderation in all his actions, for he constantly meditated upon Holy Scripture, and especially upon those portions of it which pertained to the praise of God, and to the Catholic faith, for all which reasons he was loved by his venerable master as an only son.
An Englishman named Aluberht came to join the mission of Boniface sometime after, and stayed at the monastery at Utrecht. Saint Gregory, being impressed with Aluberht, wanted to make him a bishop; Aluberht conceded only on the condition that some of the local clergy would join him and consent to be educated in England. Saint Gregory obliged him, and sent with Aluberht two of his clergy: the priest Sigibod and the deacon Liudgar. Liudgar accompanied now-Bishop Aluberht back to York in 767, where he continued his studies under that towering intellect and that wonderful tutor of the Franks, Saint Ealhwine of York. So deeply enthralled was Liudgar by the profundity of Ealhwine’s knowledge and teaching, that he desired to stay on in York the following year – a request which his abbot in Utrecht granted only with the greatest of reluctance. Liudgar stayed with Ealhwine for three and a half years more.

Ealhwine sent Liudgar back to his home country after an incident in 774, in which a Frisian merchant killed the son of a local Northumbrian eorl in a brawl. Fearing for their safety, the Frisians of York packed up and left, and Ealhwine thought it prudent that Liudgar should go with them, though he sent along an English deacon as companion to Liudgar for his safety from the wrathful eorl’s þegnas. When he returned at last, whole and hale, to Utrecht, Abbot Gregory received his young pupil and monk with great joy and warmth.

It was around this time that the priest Wine (known as Lebuïnus in Dutch) from England came to Utrecht to establish a missionary church in Deventer. This mission church was a resounding success: so much so that it proved a tempting target for Saxon attack. The heathen Saxons burnt and plundered it several times, but Wine went back time and again to rebuild. Eventually Wine died there and became venerated as a local saint. At this time, too, Saint Gregory of Utrecht fell ill and reposed in the Lord; his successor Albric sought the young monk Liudgar to take Wine’s parish and continue his missionary work. Liudgar did not at first succeed, but wondrously Wine appeared to him by night and told him his relics lay at the foot of the church’s old south wall. When the church was rebuilt, Liudgar took care to extend the foundations to include Saint Wine’s relics; and many wonders were wrought within that church thereafter.

However, the Frankish king Karl the Big was apparently determined also to pursue a policy of ‘an eye for an eye’ against the Saxons who had plundered Wine’s church so often and tried to desecrate his body. Liudgar went into Deventer with the task not only of rebuilding the church and the mission from Albric, but also the mission from the king of smashing idols, destroying heathen temples and returning the stolen goods that had been taken. Most of these items went back to Paris, with some of them being held over for the use of the church in Utrecht.

Albric was thereafter elevated to the rank of bishop, and ordained Liudgar as a priestmonk. Liudgar was sent to the stead of Saint Boniface’s martyrdom, near Dokkum, there to right a kirk where he had fallen. For this church, Saint Ealhwine composed a poem in Latin to be inscribed on the kirk wall, which begins: ‘Hie pater egregiis meritis Bonifacius almus, / Cum sociis pariter fundebat sanguinis undam.’ Liudgar was also placed as one of the priors in the abbey at Utrecht. In both offices he served with exemplary zeal and love for his people; and many Frisians were brought to the Faith at this time. However, again the Saxons attacked under the heretog Widukind, burning the Christian churches as they went – and Liudgar was forced to flee Utrecht for Rome. While in Rome, he stayed at the abbey of Saint Benedict. Although he was apparently a member of the antique Black Canons and never left his order for another, on account of his friendship towards Monte Cassino and his veneration of Saint Benedict, the Benedictines nonetheless consider Saint Liudgar as one of their own.

Although Liudgar was not a wholly-peaceful witness among the heathen – he did his fair share of idol-smashing at the behest of the Frankish king – he was absent in Rome for what was perhaps the most wicked of the Franks’ deeds toward the Saxons in this age, and a reversion in spirit to Frankish paganism on the part of Karl the Big. The Frankish king defeated Widukind at Essen, and the latter was forced to flee into Denmark. A large mass baptism of Saxons followed, but the Saxons rose up shortly afterward with Widukind at their head. Following their second defeat, Karl the Big ordered a brutal mass slaughter of four and a half thousand Saxons at Verden an der Aller. Though this act did quell Saxon military resistance to Frankish rule for perhaps half a generation, it also engendered a great distrust of Christianity and relapses into heathenry among the Saxons and peoples further north for centuries to come. Notwithstanding Widukind’s conversion, it would take the better part of two hundred years, and the efforts of better, gentler men like Saint Bernward, to bring the Saxons fully into the sheepfold.

However, as mentioned, Saint Liudgar had little if anything to do with this event. Saint Liudgar returned to Fryslân only in 787 and resumed his missionary work under the victorious Karl. He was sent into Groningen and Norden, and even visited the same Heligoland that had nearly proven so fatal to Saint Willibrord, and there destroyed the idols to Fosite and preached the Gospel among the inhabitants there. After the subjugation of the Saxons, Saint Liudgar was sent to found a cathedral in Münster and an abbey in Essen. From here he preached the Gospel and ministered among the Saxons, where his meekness and gentle suasion worked greater good for their souls than Karl’s swords and axes had done.

Receiving foreknowledge of his own death, Saint Liudgar turned again to his studies of the Holy Scriptures and to chanting from the Psalter. He met his repose peacefully after celebrating the Liturgy at one of his churches in Billerbeck. Of Saint Liudgar’s writings, only the Vita of his beloved master and predecessor Abbot Gregory survives and is universally accepted as genuine. Holy Hierarch Liudgar, apostle to the Frisians and to the Saxons, intercede with Christ our God to save our souls!

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