Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


Walpurgisnacht

St. Walburga

 
 

In the Roman martyrology, St. Walburga's Feast -- a day that commemorates the date of her canonization -- is on May 1, though it isn't celebrated liturgically on the 1962 calendar. Her Feast is, however, a great holiday in many European countries, especially in Germany, Finland, Sweden, and Eastern European countries, and the celebrations begin on its eve -- the night of 30 April -- a time known as Walpurgisnacht. Who was St. Walburga, and why is she held is such esteem especially in those areas of the world?

First things first: in the late 7th century, the European continent was still largely pagan territory. Against this backdrop, some monks visited with a noble man at him home in England and told him about their mission work in those wild lands. The man's son, Winfrid, sat listening as the monks recounted their tales, and was so impressed by them that he resolved to follow in their footsteps.

The boy received a religious education, and later joined the Benedictine Order, becoming a priest at age thirty. In A.D. 719, he received permission from Oak treePope Gregory II to evangelize Germany. After difficulties due to political skirmishes, he eventually set up a monastery in Amöneburg and was consecrated Bishop, taking the name "Boniface." His work was most fruitful, and his great success is perfectly symbolized by his destruction of a pagan object of veneration: in Geismar, he took an ax and felled an oak tree dedicated to Thor and considered sacred by the pagans, who were certain that a great lightning strike would kill them all when the tree was toppled. When nothing happened, the man who was to become known as St. Boniface preached the Gospel, converted the people, and built a church out of the tree's wood. 1

He didn't stop with the church, however; he went on to build monasteries that would act as centers of evangelization and learning. But he needed help, and this is when St. Boniface's niece, St. Walburga, enters the picture.

St. Walburga was born in Devonshire, England in A.D. 710. Her parents were a West Saxon under-king who became known as St. Richard, and St. Boniface's sister, Winna. She had two brothers, boys who grew up to be known as SS. Willibald and Winibald. When she was eleven, her father and brothers went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so she was sent to the abbess of Wimborne who ran her Benedictine abbey with holiness and discipline in mind. Walburga's father died in Lucca a year after her arrival at the abbey, and she remained there for twenty-six years, receiving a good education, including the study of Latin. This last skill allowed her to write the account of her brother Willibald's pilgrimage, an act which has led to her being seen as the first female author of England and Germany.

Boniface wrote to the Abbess, asking that nuns be sent to help in in his work, and in A.D. 748, his wish was granted when the Abbess sent along some Sisters, Walburga 2 amongst them. En route to Germany by boat, a great storm arose. As the waters raged above and beneath, Walburga knelt on the deck and prayed. Instantly, the sea became calm, and the sailors went on to proclaim the miracle at their destination. She made her way through Antwerp and then on to Mainz, where she met her Uncle Boniface and her brother, Willibald.

She spent some time in the abbey at Bischofsheim, and was later made abbess of Heidenheim, part of a double-monastery where her favorite brother, Winibald, ruled over the male monastics. When this beloved brother died, she not only ruled her abbey, but ruled over his monastery as well, and became known for her sanctity and miraculous gifts of healing. The story is told of how one night her Sisters came to accompany her down to supper, and found the hall to her room bathed in a divine light that remained until Matins the next morning.

On September 23, 776, she and her brother, Willibald, went to translate Winibald's relics to Heidenheim, but upon opening his tomb, found that no remains were left. Soon after this miracle, she became ill, and then died on February 25, 777 in the company of Willibald, who laid her to rest near Winibald. Willibald himself died in 786.

Jumping forward about a hundred years to A.D. 870, the Bishop of Eichstadt in Bavaria went to restore Walburga's monastery and church. In the process, the workmen desecrated her tomb, and she appeared to them to reproach them for their negligence. The good Bishop reacted by ensuring a solemn and respectful translation of her relics to the Church of the Holy Cross (now known as St. Walburga's) in Eichstadt on September 21.

But it is what happened twenty-three years later, in A.D. 893, that helps keep St. Walburga in our consciousness. In that year, the successor to the Bishop who translated her relics opened her tomb to retrieve some of those relics for the Abbess of Abbess of Monheim. He found that her remains exuded an oil -- a healing substance known as the "Oil of Saints." This precious substance has been exuding from her remains yearly ever since between 12 October and 25 February, her Feast in the Benedictine Breviary, only stopping "during a period when Eichstadt was laid under interdict, and when blood was shed in the church by robbers who seriously wounded the bell-ringer." 3 The Abbess got her relics, and some were also sent to Cologne, Antwerp, Furnes, and other places -- many of these translations giving rise to Feasts -- but it is her tomb in the church in Eichstadt that, to this day, exudes the fragrant, healing oil. A Benedictine nunnery (see picture below) immediately arose near the church that houses her tomb so that the Sisters could tend to her relics and help with the pilgrims who came for the healing oil. The Sisters have been there now for a thousand years.

 

Eichstadt Monastery near the church that encloses St. Walburga's tomb

 
St. Walburga is depicted in art as a Benedictine holding a vial of her Oil of Saints and/or a crozier. She is often shown with a crown at her feet as a symbol of her noble birth, and is sometimes depicted with SS. Philip, James the Less, and Sigismund because their Feasts were once honored on the same date she was canonized. In the Benedictine calendar, the date of her death is commemorated.

 
Customs

Sadly, the word "Walpurgisnacht" is nowadays mostly associated with pagans, who see the day as a mere adjunct to Beltane (May Day) and even dare to use the label "Walpurgisnacht" for their festivities. Where Walpurgisnacht is celebrated, it is usually celebrated wrongly, in a non-Catholic -- sometimes even anti-Catholic -- manner. Odes to May, Spring, fertility, and the earth, the playing of pranks -- these are the things most often thought of when "Walpurgisnacht" comes to mind, and thoughts of the great Saint are all too rare.

...But it doesn't have to be that way. Bonfires -- practically ubiquitous in Catholic celebrations but which pagans also light today in honor of the god (demon) Bel -- recall the divine light that illuminated Wallburga's monastery, and as their hypnotic beauty is enjoyed, one can pray a litany to St. Walburga. The ancient Swedish tradition of collecting branches at dusk to decorate homes? Make those branches oak branches, and decorate them with symbols of Christ and the great Apostles to Germany to recall the Benedectines' victory over paganism, as perfectly seen in the story of St. Boniface and the "sacred oak." As to foods, German fare and beer brewed by Benedictines or their brothers, the Trappists, sound perfect.

Now, because Walpurgisnacht does fall on the same date as Beltane Eve, this will be, for pagans, a night much like Hallowe'en (the Eve of All Saints) insofar as the pagan Samhain coincides calendrically with our Feasts for the dead. Therefore, prayers for pagans and for witches who hold their sabats tonight would be a wonderful thing. May St. Walburga -- who, with St. Boniface, her brothers, and other Benedictines -- brought the good news of Christ to Germany intercede for them now and bring them to Jesus through His Church!

 
Footnotes:
1 And here legend steps in and gives us the story of the first Christmas tree: it is said that when the oak tree was felled, a tiny fir tree was growing at its base. St. Boniface is said to have pointed to it and declared:
"This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."
 
2 St. Walburga is also known as "Walpurga," "Walpurgis," "Gauburge," "Vaubourg," "Falbourg," and the very unfortunate "Waltpurde."
 
3
From the Catholic Encyclopedia


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