For Catholics, saints can be a bit like spiritual celebrities. Some are A-listers, with a steady stream of clients and thousands of parishes named after them; some are more like cult favorites, with a kind of niche appeal and loyal devotees; and still others are rising stars, poised to reach a new generation of faithful.
And then there’s St. Ansgar, who might be considered something of a “lesser-known artist.”
He’s even overshadowed on his own feast day, which he shares with the much more famous St. Blaise.
You won’t find Ansgar’s name on too many Catholic churches here in the United States, although there is one near Chicago. A town in northern Iowa is named for him, too.
But by and large, this ninth-century French monk — and later bishop — knew what it was like to work hard with seemingly little to show for his efforts. And centuries later, as the Catholic Church labors amid conditions no less adverse, Ansgar could teach a master class in faithful perseverance, with his life experience as the syllabus.
Asked by his superiors if he would be willing to evangelize the Danish people, Ansgar eagerly set out. Three years of schooling youth in the faith didn’t make much of a dent in the pagan practices of the Danes, who believed in gods called Thor and Loki well before Marvel Comics made a fortune off of them. Hollywood and Comic-Con aside, the Danes were quite content with their choice of deities, rebuffing the king’s attempts to introduce Christianity and ending Ansgar’s first mission.
But shortly thereafter came an invitation from Sweden, where the same divinities were also getting top billing, and Ansgar bravely reprised his missionary role, joined by his companion Witmar. Despite being robbed by Vikings, the duo were cordially welcomed by King Björn (not, by the way, the same one as in the popular television show).
Two winters of preaching, however, weren’t enough to convince the locals to dismantle their gilded temple at Uppsala, whose surrounding trees were used to hang the bodies of sacrificed men and animals. The structure didn’t come down until some 70 years after Ansgar’s death.
Despite the Swedes’ stubborn paganism, the next assignment for the “Apostle to the North” was actually a promotion: he was appointed bishop, then archbishop, of Hamburg, and the see included Iceland, Greenland and all of Scandinavia. He founded a monastery and a school in his new neighborhood, and installed his nephew Gautbert as a bishop for the souls back in Sweden. For about a decade or so, Ansgar made steady progress in spreading the Gospel.
And then in 845, the mission was once again endangered. Gautbert was driven out of Sweden, and the king of Jutland and his army ravaged Hamburg, destroying almost all of the Christian churches.
Yet Ansgar — who celebrated Mass three to four times a day, prayed constantly, mortified his flesh and ministered tirelessly — surveyed the wreckage and ultimately got that same king to allow a new missionary effort in Denmark. Ansgar dispatched another evangelizer, a hermit named Ardgar, to Sweden, and in 853 he himself returned there to restart his previous outreach, which he then handed over to a relative to continue.
Back in Hamburg, he diligently tended his flock, mourning only as he approached his death in 865 that his dream of martyrdom had not been fulfilled. He also was well aware that his impact was not only incomplete, but at risk of erasure: for some two centuries after Ansgar’s passing, paganism had all but eradicated the Christian faith in Sweden.
Today, the Catholic faith is a minority one in the highly secularized Scandinavian nations, where Christianity (historically, the Evangelical Lutheran denomination) has typically blended into a more diffuse cultural identity — a trend with which our own nation is not unfamiliar. Of Denmark’s approximately 5.8 million residents, only about 46,000 are registered Catholics. Sweden, a nation of some 10 million, has perhaps 150,000 Catholics and a single diocese, Stockholm, which encompasses just 44 parishes throughout the country.
Ansgar would not be daunted by those numbers, discouraging — indeed, devastating — though they seem. Like St. Paul, he could say, “On this account I am suffering these things; but I am not ashamed, for I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day” (2 Tim 1:12).
And the French Benedictine, who journeyed thousands of miles to bring the light of Christ into the dark Nordic forests, would simply fold his hands in prayer, roll up his sleeves, and get to work — and exhort us to do the same.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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