Yesterday, June 23rd, was the Feast Day of St. John Fisher. The day before that, June 22nd, was the Feast Day of St. Thomas More. More and Fisher were two very brave men who died for the Truth, for their Faith, and for Christ.
Their joint feast day is a timely reminder to Christians in America that we, too, are called to defend our Faith against the Obama administration’s assault on Catholic institutions, under the guise of Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. Today, it’s Catholics; tomorrow, it will be Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Evangelicals….
St. Thomas More
Thomas was born in 1478 in England. His father, John, was a barrister and a judge and his mother was Agnes. He received his childhood education at St. Anthony’s school and, at age 13, was received into the household of Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury who was impressed with the lad. Thomas was then sent to Oxford, where he studied at Canterbury College.
Thomas thought he might have a calling to the priesthood and for four years he lived with the London Carthusian monks. However, he did not find a calling to the priesthood. Thomas then studied law and was called to the Bar in 1501 and in 1504 he entered Parliament. In 1505 he married Jane Colt and they had four children, Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia and John. Thomas was adamant that his daughters received a scholarly education just like his son. Many religious and learned people of London visited Thomas and his family in their home which was known as a congenial center of learning. In 1510 Jane died, but he later married Alice Middleton, a widow. In 1516, Thomas wrote Utopia, a work of fiction and political philosophy.
Thomas was brought to King Henry VIII’s court and in October of 1529, appointed Lord Chancellor of England, the highest office in England under the King. Thomas became a friend and confidant of Henry VIII, as the King had great respect for Thomas, admiring his intellect, wit, good judgment and holiness.
Henry VIII desired to obtain an annulment from the Pope to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII refused to grant an annulment, finding no valid grounds. Henry was enraged at this denial and forced the English clergy to acknowledge him as “Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England.”
At this, Thomas resigned as Chancellor; his property confiscated by the King. Thomas and his family became poverty stricken. For 18 months he lived in quiet austerity, engaging himself in writing and with the needs of the household. After King Henry married Anne Boleyn, Thomas refused to attend her coronation.
On March 30, 1534, the Act of Succession provided that the King’s subjects take an oath, which required all English subjects to agree to three clauses: that any heir or offspring of Henry and Anne was a legitimate heir to the throne; that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was null and void; and that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, had no more authority or power in England than any other bishop. Anyone who refused to sign the oath was guilty of high treason punishable by death.
On April 13, 1534, Thomas and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were given the oath to sign, but they both refused to sign it because of the latter two clauses. Consequently, on April 17, 1534, both Thomas and Fisher were imprisoned in the Tower of London. During this time, Thomas suffered greatly, separated from his family whom he loved so much. But it was also during his incarceration that Thomas began to write the Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, the best of his spiritual works, and The Sadness of Christ.
Toward the man who put him in prison, Thomas not only prayed daily for Henry, he thanked the King for his imprisonment, which Thomas called “the very greatest” of “all the great benefits” the king “has heaped so thickly upon me.” With prescience, Thomas wrote to his daughter Margaret that “no matter how bad it seems,” great good would come from his death.
On February 1, 1535, the Act of Supremacy came into operation, giving the title of “only supreme head of the Church of England” to the king and made it treason to deny it. Thomas was asked while he was in the Tower his opinion of the Act, but he refused to give his opinion. On June 22nd, now-Cardinal John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill. Nine days after, on July 1, 1535, Thomas was indicted and tried in Westminster Hall for opposing the Act of Supremacy, with false testimony from Richard Rich, the Solicitor General of Wales.
At the trial, Thomas broke his long silence and defended himself with competence, brilliance, and holiness, which intimidated his accusers and judges. He argued that, just as London lacked authority to annul an act of Parliament for the whole of England, so Parliament lacked authority to transfer governance of the Church to the king, since the Church had been entrusted by God to the bishops and the Pope. Thomas noted that this was codified in the Magna Carta 200 years earlier and affirmed in the king’s coronation oath.
Intimidated by King Henry, the jury convicted Thomas of treason. On July 6, 1535, Thomas was taken to be beheaded at Tower Hill. Weak and emaciated, he asked the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower to help him up the steps of the scaffold, but still managed wryly to quip, “As for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” A Paris newsletter published this description by an eye-witness:
“He spoke little before his execution. Only he asked that bystanders to pray for him in this world, and he would pray for them elsewhere. He then begged them earnestly to pray for the King, that it might please God to give him good counsel, protesting that he dies the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
The husband of Thomas’ daughter, Margaret, recorded that Thomas asked those present “to pray for him, and to bear witness with him that he should now there suffer death, in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church.”
400 years after his martyrdom, on May 19, 1935, the bells in St. Peter’s Basilica rang with joy as Thomas More was canonized a saint, along with St. John Fisher. In November of 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Thomas More the patron saint of politicians “for proclaiming the truth in season and out.”
St. John Fisher
John was born in 1469 in Beverly, Yorkshire, the eldest of four children of Robert and Agnes Fisher. Robert Fisher died when John was only 8; his mother remarried and had five more children. John attended Beverly grammar school and later, Cambridge University. He became Proctor of Cambridge in or about 1494, and was appointed Master Debator three years later. On July 5, 1501, he became a doctor of sacred theology; 10 days later, he was elected Vice Chancellor of the University. From 1505 to 1508, John served as the president of Queens’ College: He created scholarships, introduced Greek and Hebrew into the university curriculum, and brought in the world-famous Erasmus as Professor of Divinity and Greek. John was known as a great theologian through his writings in defense of the Sacraments, especially the priesthood and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In 1504, he became both Bishop of Rochester, the poorest diocese in England, as well as Chancellor of Cambridge. As Chancellor, he tutored then Prince Henry, who later became King Henry VIII. John loved his flock in Rochester as they also loved him, tending especially to the poor and the children.
From 1527 on forward, Bishop Fisher resolutely opposed Henry VIII’s divorce proceedings against Queen Catherine. Unlike all of the other bishops, John Fisher refused to take the Oath of Succession for the same reasons as Thomas More. Therefore, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in April of 1534. That very next year while he remained in prison, the Pope made him a Cardinal. Angered by this, Henry VIII retaliated by beheading Cardinal Fisher.
A half hour before his execution on June 22, 1535, Cardinal Fisher opened his New Testament to this passage in the Gospel of John:
“Eternal life is this: to know You, the only true God, and Him Whom You have sent, Jesus Christ. I have given You glory on earth by finishing the work You gave me to do. Do you now, Father, give me glory at Your side.”
Fisher then closed his New Testament and said, “There is enough learning in that to last me the rest of my life.”
William Rastell, Thomas More’s nephew, witnessed the martyrdom of Cardinal Fisher. He said that Fisher in a strong and very loud voice spoke to the large crowd, “Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church.” He asked for their prayers and prayed, “God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel.” He then knelt, said the hymn of praise, Te Deum, and some short prayers, laid his neck upon the block, and was executed.
On May 19, 1935, along with Thomas More, John Fisher was canonized a saint.
In his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, St. Thomas More urges us to have the courage and conviction to “die for the truth” with Christ.
We live in a time in America of a culture war against Christ and Christianity. The culture war is now a political war because of the Obama administration’s assault on religious autonomy and liberty. Against the tide of false political correctness and the threat of punishment and sanctions, will we stand firm and remain true to Christ and to our Faith?
St. Thomas and St. John so loved Jesus, they willingly died for Him. May we find inspiration in their examples as we live our faith with courage, integrity, honor and steadfastness.
We are not servants of Obama or any ruler. We are God’s servants, first and last!
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, edited by Michael Walsh
The King’s Good Servant But God’s First, by James Monti
Catholic Wisdom, edited by John A. Hardon, S.J.