Anskar, Apostle of the North

Dan Graves, MSL

Anskar, Apostle of the North

Are bells magical? When Bishop Anskar introduced them in Denmark, the pagans resisted their use, probably thinking that their gods would be angered or frightened by their pealing.

Anskar wouldn't give up.

Born near Amiens, France in 801, he became a Benedictine monk. Following visions which seemed to call him to missionary work, he dedicated himself to living a holy life. Denmark's King Harold had been exiled by his people. During his exile, he converted to Christianity and was baptized. Now he was going home and asked Anskar to come with him. In that way, Anskar began his missionary work in Scandinavia.

His task was not easy and he saw many setbacks in his lifetime. Bishop Ebbo of Rheims had already tried to convert the north of Europe and failed. Part of the problem was that the Vikings prided themselves on oath-breaking and revenge. Imagine trying to convince them that truth and forgiveness were virtues! Anskar's approach was to establish a school at Schleswig with the help of another monk, Autbert. This proved successful.

King Harold, however, did not know how to manage people. He pushed them so hard to become Christians that they threw him out of the country again. Anskar and Autbert had to leave, too.

But King Bjorn of Sweden had heard of the success of Anskar's school. He invited the monk to Sweden. In the company of a French embassy, Anskar headed north. The embassy was attacked and robbed. Even Anskar's religious books were taken, but although his companions wanted to turn back, he would not. He pressed on to Sweden, where he converted Herigar, the chief royal counselor, who then built Sweden's first church in 832.

A year and a half later, Anskar left Sweden. The pope had appointed him bishop (and later Archbishop) of Hamburg. Now he was responsible to oversee most of Northern Europe, including Iceland and Greenland. An abbey in Flanders was given him. He opened a school there.

In 845, King Eric of Jutland (northern Denmark) attacked Hamburg with 600 ships, destroying the city. Anskar became a fugitive. Rather than moan over all that he had lost--including his library--he said, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!"

Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, took away Anskar's abbey school. But the gallant evangelist would not give up. He went to Jutland, won Eric's friendship, convinced the king to treat slaves more kindly and got permission to start a church. That's when he introduced the bells.

Anskar himself never ate, unless some poor person could be brought in to share the meal with him. While he worked, he could be heard chanting psalms. He built hospitals, gave alms freely and ransomed captives. Many sick sought him out, convinced that he could heal them. He took no credit for any success, laying it to the account of others.

The archbishop died on this day, February 3, 865. He spent the night before in prayer for his mission. On the morning of his death, "he lifted up his hand and prayed that God in His goodness would forgive whoever had done him any wrong. Then he began to say over and over again the verses: 'According to Thy mercy think thou upon me, according to Thy goodness, O Lord,' [Ps 25: 6] and 'God be merciful to me a sinner,' (Luke 18:18) and 'Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.'" (Luke 23:46 ) When he could not speak for lack of breath, he ordered one of the brethren to continue saying the same words for him. "And so, with his eyes fixed on heaven, he breathed forth his spirit which had been commended to the grace of the Lord."

Unfortunately, his death brought the worst setback of all. The faith he had labored so hard to spread had evidently not been firmly grounded; Christianity virtually disappeared from Scandinavia. Those who came after him had to rebuild almost from scratch.

Bibliography:

  1. "Anskar; Bishop and Missionary to Denmark and Sweden." http://www.satucket.com/lectionary/Anskar.htm
  2. Campbell, T. J. "St. Anschar." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1907).
  3. Rimbert. "Life of Anskar." Medieval Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anskar.html
  4. Various other internet and encyclopedia articles.

Last updated June, 2007

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