Born near Amiens of a noble family in 801, Anskar (Ansgarius) received his education at the monastic school at Corbie, where he was professed a monk at the age of thirteen. When Corbie founded a new monastery school in Saxon Germany, Anskar was chosen to be its master, but his strongest call was to be a missionary.
His biographer Rimbert writes that Anskar was stirred by a vision in which a voice said, “Go and return to me crowned with martyrdom.” Following the conversion of King Harald of Denmark to the Christian faith and Harald’s return to his country from exile, Anskar was among those who were chosen to answer the king’s call for missionaries to his people. Rimbert notes that this call to missionary work astonished Anskar’s brothers, who were astonished that he should want to leave them to deal with “unknown and barbarous folk”. Steadfast in his resolve, Anskar established a school and mission in Denmark, working indefatigably but unsuccessfully to evangelize the Danes. When he could have become discouraged, another vision appeared to him, with a voice saying, “Go and declare the work of God to the nations.” Shortly afterward, about 829, he accepted a call to Sweden, where he built a church and ordained a priest, though meager aid both from the monastery and the emperor frustrated his efforts.
He was afterward consecrated bishop of Hamburg, in 832. After the sack of Hamburg by Vikings in 845, was named archbishop of Hamburg and Bremen (whence the archiepiscopal seat was removed) by Pope Nicholas the First, who granted him legatine jurisdiction over Denmark, Norway and Sweden. An indefatigable preacher, he continued to work amongst the Danes, whose patron he is, and in northern Germany. Sweden, however, relapsed into paganism and was reevangelized by Sigfrid and others in the eleventh century.
Outstanding in his charity to the poor, Anskar was also prominent in diminishing the effects of the Viking slave trade, though he was powerless to abolish it. The seeds of his missionary work were not to bear fruit until over one hundred years later, when Viking devastation, weakness in the Frankish Church and a low ebb of missionary enthusiasm came to an end. Of him it is written said, “These shall plant the seed, but others shall reap the harvest.” The rich harvest of conversions was three generations away, but Anskar is rightly remembered by the Scandinavians as their apostle.
Anskar often wore a hair shirt, lived on bread and water when his healthy permitted, and added short personal prayers to each psalm in his psalter. He died in 865 and was buried at Bremen.
- Prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, and Celebrating the Saints.
Almighty and everlasting God, you sent your servant Anskar as an apostle to the people of Scandinavia, and enabled him to lay a firm foundation for their conversion, though he did not see the results of his labors: Keep your Church from discouragement in the day of small things, knowing that when you have begun a good work you will bring it to a fruitful conclusion; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Anskar, Archbishop of Hamburg, Missionary to Denmark and Sweden, are published on the Lectionary Page website.