07 June 2019

Holy Hierarch Willibald the Pilgrim of Eichstätt

Saint Willibald of Eichstätt

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Saint Willibald, the venerable Benedictine and bishop of Eichstätt who wrote the Life of our great and beloved Western Church Father Saint Boniface, who was also his maternal uncle. He is also the first known hajji – the first successful pilgrim to the Holy Land – of the English folk.

Willibald was born around 703 in Southampton, the son of Richard of Wessex and his devoted wife Winna, a descendant of Cerdic and the sister of Saint Boniface. He had two siblings who also became saints: a younger sister Wealdburg of Heidenheim, and an elder brother Wynnebald of Heidenheim. As is described in the hagiography of Saint Richard, when he was only three years old, Willibald came down with a deathly illness – a spasm of the limbs and lungs that no natural means could cure. His despairing parents wrapped him in a blanket, and took the toddler Willibald out of the house in the dead of night, laying him at the foot of a rood which lay at a crossroads. Richard and Winna earnestly prayed to God for their son’s life, promising to make him a monk if his life were spared. By God’s grace Willibald did recover, and true to their word, Richard and Winna entrusted their son two years afterward as an oblate to Ecgbald, the abbot at Waltham.

Willibald was a most self-effacing, earnest and diligent student in that monastery, and his thoughts and heart were all bent upon God – still he did not become a monk, but rather Ecgbald allowed him time and space to think on his decision. At last in 721, his father embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles, and to the Holy Land: and both of his sons, the elder Wynnebald and the younger Willibald, went with him. They set forth across the English Channel and went across France, visiting a number of holy sites along the way. Richard, however, fell ill en route, and was brought to Lucca where he succumbed to his illness and reposed. Richard of Wessex is still venerated as a saint in the Basilica di San Frediano in Italy. It was left to his sons to complete their pilgrimage.

Both sons successfully came to Rome, where they each at last took monastic vows and entered the Benedictine Order. In Rome they stayed and lived in holiness for two years further, and after that the elder brother Wynnebald was obliged to return to England. The younger, Willibald, took a couple of companions and set forth from Rome to the Levant – the blessed places in which our Lord had walked, preached, taught and healed. Willibald and his companions for the most part were fed on a sailor’s diet of hard bread and water, and to this they added the ascetic discipline of sleeping on the bare ground when they made land. They sailed first to Cyprus, and then to Syria. At Homs, Saint Willibald was taken by the Muslim soldiery as a spy, and was locked in fetters and cast into a donjon for several months. At last his Muslim captors began to admire the sweetness of his temperament and the equanimity with which he bore his treatment, and soon they were convinced of the truth of his tale. They spoke a word in the ear of the Khalif, and from him procured Saint Willibald’s release.

With due gratitude Willibald resumed his pilgrimage. He and his companions decided upon a route that followed Our Lord’s earthly course of life, and therefore began his sojourn in an-Nâsira where, as the Anglican rector Rev’d Alban Butler put it: ‘our saint passed there some days with his companions in the continual contemplation of the infinite mercies of God in the great mystery of the incarnation; and the sight of the place in which it was wrought drew from his eyes streams of devout tears during all the time of his stay in that town.

From there he fared to Bayt Lahm and then into Ægypt, following the way by which the infant Christ fled from Herod and meditating upon our young Lord’s sufferings as a stranger there. Returning to Bayt Lahm, he ventured from there to Qana, to Kafr Nâhûm and to al-Quds. He spent a great deal of time in al-Quds meditating upon the wonders and teachings of our Lord in that city prior to His Crucifixion, in memory of which he went to Golgotha, and in memory of Whose Ascension he stayed at Jabal al-Zaytûn. Saint Willibald spent much time among the Palestinian monasteries and lavras and eremitical cells, the better to admire, study and imitate the holy ways of life he saw the Orthodox holy men following. Again in the words of Rev’d Butler: ‘ The tender and lively sentiments of devotion with which his fervent contemplation on the holy mysteries of our redemption inspired him at the sight of all those sacred places, filled his devout soul with heavenly consolations, and made on it strong and lasting impressions.

He had sojourned seven years in the Holy Land; as he was preparing to leave from ‘Akkâ, however, his weak childhood constitution made itself felt as he again fell ill – though through patience and prayer and the grace of God he was able to recover. However, Saint Willibald and his companions arrived safe in Italy at their journey’s end in 728.

Willibald took up residence at the Abbazia di Montecassino (the very same abbey founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia), where he followed the way of life that he had observed and tried to imitate in Palestine; the abbey benefitted greatly from his hard work and humble example. The monks of Montecassino appointed him sacristan first; then dean with responsibility over ten monks; and afterwards the trusted position of abbey porter, in which office he spent eight years. In 738, Saint Boniface made his third journey to Rome to see Pope Gregory III. Upon learning that his nephew was living as a monk in Rome, he asked Gregory III to send Willibald with him to assist in his missionary efforts among the Germans. Pope Gregory III sent for Willibald and was instantly impressed with the monk, taking particular delight in hearing of his travels and his life in Rome. (Gregory himself was a Syrian by origin.) At the end of their interview, Gregory acquainted Willibald with his uncle’s request for his help in converting the German folk. Willibald wanted to tarry to inform his abbot of his mission, but Pope Gregory assured him that his word alone would suffice, and sent Willibald off with his blessing to join his uncle.

At this point, Saint Boniface was in Thüringen, and it was there that Willibald joined him. He assisted his uncle in converting (or re-converting) the populace, correcting heresies among the people, and bringing monastic communities into Germany from England and Italy. Saint Boniface’s efforts met with great success, which his nephew assuredly helped to bring about. In 746, in Salzburg, Saint Boniface made his nephew bishop of Eichstätt, somewhat against his will. However, his patience, meekness, humility and charity all made him a good match for the office. In Heidenheim, the new bishop established a double Benedictine house, over which he placed as abbot his elder brother Wynnebald. He was in particular an advocate of the Benedictine Rule as he had experienced it at Montecassino – but was also a mild, caring and fatherly archpastor to the laymen of his flock. He wandered the last forty-five years of his life, not on pilgrimage for himself, but to care for the image of Christ among the Germans under his care. He paid great attention to even the least of these, and paid little attention his own comfort, for he kept the fasts and prayer cycles of the church with great regularity and intensity. Even so, he lived to the great old age of eighty-seven. He reposed in the Lord in Eichstätt in 790.

He was buried in Eichstätt, and his tomb was the site of a number of wondrous healings. He was venerated locally almost at once as a saint, and this was recognised officially by Rome in 938. The cathedral at Eichstätt was completed in 1269, and Willibald’s relics were translated by Bishop Hildebrand into a reliquary urn in the cathedral.

Holy Hierarch Willibald, faithful monk and pilgrim and gentle archpastor of the German people, we beseech you pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

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