In the evangelization of Europe, the Scandinavians were the last Teutonic peoples to accept Christianity. These Vikings from the North threatened Western Christendom, and their raids terrorized Britain and Western Europe. One man wanted to reach them, and his desire for a martyr’s crown gave him courage to try.

Anskar, born in France in 801, was schooled from age five at the monastery of Corbey founded by Columba, and he possessed a tender heart. As a young man he was recruited to help establish a new monastery, New Corbey, in Germany.

While there Anskar heard of a Scandinavian politician, Harald, who was asking for military assistance. The resulting discussions opened a door, albeit dangerous, for a missionary to go to the Danes. Anskar volunteered. His friends tried to dissuade him, but he was ready, he told them, to perish if need be. He didn’t die, but little is known of Anskar’s resulting trip to Denmark, and when Harald fell from power, Anskar was expelled.

Swedish envoys soon requested missionaries, and Anskar again headed north. This time his ship was attacked by pirates, and he lost his possessions but not his life. Reaching Sweden, he was warmly welcomed by King Bjorn. But his preaching produced few converts.

Meanwhile, German emperor Louis the Pious, seeing Anskar’s work, conceived an ambitious plan for Christianizing the North. He had Anskar appointed archbishop, gave him money, and established a monastery in Flanders as headquarters for the Scandinavian thrust. Anskar did his best, but headway was difficult. Pirates raided his monastery. He lived in hiding. His missionaries were driven from Sweden. Many of his converts reverted to paganism.

But Anskar prayed and fasted and worked until February 3, 865, when he felt the life draining from his body. He gave urgent instructions to his associates, then died peacefully — without gaining his coveted martyr’s crown. His efforts failed to establish a permanent Scandinavian base for Christianity, but the seed was planted, and in the tenth century the church there gained a sure foothold. For this reason, Anskar is known in church history as the “Apostle to the North.”

Father, I don’t ask you to take my followers out of the world, but keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, and neither do I. Your word is the truth. So let this truth make them completely yours. I am sending them into the world, just as you sent me. (John 17:15-18)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 3.

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