LONG BEACH, CA (Catholic Online) - It is a happy coincidence that the opening words from today's Gospel reading are heard on this day in which the Church commemorates the martyrdom of two English saints, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More.
"No one can serve two masters."
Both these men, one a bishop and the other a layman, were subjects of the King of heaven and an earthly king. When that earthly king, Henry VIII, forsook the King of kings and usurped for himself divine authority to which he had no right, Fisher and More affirmed their complete allegiance to the King of heaven and to his legitimate representative on earth, the Roman Pontiff.Â This action won for them both the crown of martyrdom, Thomas More, on July 6, 1535, and John Fisher, on July 22 of the same year. Moments before he was beheaded, St. Thomas More famously said, "I die the King's [Henry VIII] good servant, but God's first."
Of these two martyrs, I suppose it is true that Thomas More is the better known. No doubt this is due to the fact that the dramatic and inspiring story of More's martyrdom is eloquently recounted in a play, later made into the Academy Award winning movie, A Man for All Seasons (1966). If you've never seen it, it is worth your time. Nearly fifty years after its release, the film remains a captivating and compelling account of a man of unimpeachable integrity (St. Thomas More) who refused to bow to the overreaching demands of a most foolish man (King Henry VIII).
Today, I'd like to focus our attention on More's companion martyr, the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher. As he was preparing for his own martyrdom during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, Thomas More penned a moving meditation on Jesus' own preparation for death in the garden of Gethsemane.
In that work entitled, The Sadness, the Weariness, the Fear and the Prayer of Christ Before He Was Taken Prisoner, Thomas More makes the unfortunate comparison between the three sleepy headed apostles whom Jesus chose to accompany him in his last agony and the bishops of England.
In this, his last work, More points out that while Judas was very busy carrying out his betrayal of Christ, Peter, James and John were fast asleep. Similarly, More observes, while King Henry was going about with his plan to destroy the Catholic Church in England, the English Bishops, successors to those same apostles, were effectively comatose. None of them offered any resistance to Henry's unjust demands, save for one, St. John Fisher. This is because they loved comfort more than Christ and they feared death at the hands of a debauched king over the severe judgment that would soon enough befall each one of them at the appointed time.
St. John Fisher was a beloved priest, bishop and scholar. He was close to and very much admired by Henry VII (the father of Henry VIII) and Lady Margaret, the mother of Henry VII. In fact, Bishop Fisher served as Lady Margaret's personal chaplain and confessor. He also was the tutor of Prince Henry who later became Henry VIII.Â This Henry, as King of England, would eventually give the order for the execution of his former teacher.
In 1521, Henry VIII published his Assertio septem sacramentorum, a treatise which defended the Church's teachings regarding the divine institution of the seven Sacraments over against the denial of the same posited on the mainland by Martin Luther. The Holy See rewarded Henry with the title, Fidei Defensor ("Defender of the Faith). It has been claimed but never proven that St. John Fisher was the actual author of this theological treatise.
Things began to unravel, however, when the case arose of Henry's desire to divorce his wife, Queen Catherine (of Aragon). Fisher became a staunch defender of both the Queen and the indissolubility of her marriage with Henry. Bishop Fisher was absolutely forthright in his opposition to the divorce which shocked many and angered the King.
In his testimony before the ecclesiastical court which was hearing the case of Henry's marriage to Catherine, St. John Fisher startled everyone with the boldness of his claim that he was ready follow in the footsteps of St. John the Baptist and suffer martyrdom in defense of the sanctity and permanence of the marriage bond.
In his biography of the saint and martyr, T.E. Bridgett, C.Ss.R., records these words of the bishop of Rochester:
"One consideration that greatly affects me to believe in the sacrament of marriage is the martyrdom of St. John Baptist, who suffered death for his reproof of the violation of marriage. There were many crimes in appearance more grievous for rebuking which he might have suffered, but there was none more fitting than the crime of adultery to be the cause of the blood-shedding of the Friend of the Bridegroom, since the violation of marriage is no little insult to Him who is called the Bridegroom" (The Life of St. John Fisher, 4th Edition, p. 122).
St. John Fisher was unrelenting in his outspoken opposition to the King's divorce to Queen Catherine and Henry's eventual "marriage" to Anne Boleyn. Toward the end of 1529, with the complicity of parliament, Henry VIII began to enact a series of encroachments on the Church. In John-the-Baptist-like fashion, Bishop Fisher preached about Christian marriage and fearlessly condemned Henry's divorce. He was imprisoned and then released. An attempt was made on his life but Henry denied any involvement. It was commonly believed, however, that the King was behind the failed plot. Long story, short, in 1534 parliament issued the Act of Succession which called for an oath to be taken affirming the validity of the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn and acknowledging them both as legitimate heirs to the throne, under pain of treason. Fisher, like his friend and counterpart, John Fisher, refused to take the oath.
He was sent to the Tower of London and in relatively short order was sentenced to death. He was beheaded on June 22, 1535, and after his execution his head was mounted on a pole on London Bridge. The countenance of the decapitated head was so life-like that it aroused great interest and attracted a large following of devotees of the good bishop. After a short time, the martyr's head was unceremoniously cast in the Thames and replaced with the head of St. Thomas More who had been executed a few weeks before.
The stories of the saints never get old; they are always timely. While nearly 500 years have passed since the martyrdom of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, our times and our struggles do not seem all that far away from those of 16th century England or of 1st century Palestine. In our day, the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony is under fierce attack by an increasingly godless culture and a government which is equally devoid of any moral footing.
In this month of June, the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the month of the martyrdom of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, our nation awaits an important decision from the highest court of our land regarding the fate of marriage as it pertains to the civil law. Will same-sex marriage be recognized as a constitutional right or will marriage as it has always been be upheld by our nation's supreme arbiters of law? We shall see and meanwhile we must pray that reason will prevail in the decision of the court.
Whatever the outcome, these are times which call for holy pastors and holy lay faithful who are not afraid to stand up for the truth about the sanctity of marriage, the humanity of the unborn and our God-given and constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms.
May Holy Mary, the Queen of Martyrs, and Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, help us with their prayers.
Fr. G. Peter Irving III is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is pastor of Holy Innocents Church, Long Beach, California.
By Fr. James Farfaglia
The consideration of Jesus' baptism, gives us an opportunity to remember our own baptism. If you do not know the date of your own baptism, it is a good idea to go through your personal files and find out when it occurred. CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic ... continue reading
By Fr Samuel Medley, SOLT
I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. HYTHE, KENT, UK (Catholic Online) - I didn't steal any cookies mommy! says a little boy whose mother asked him if he was hungry, wiping the ... continue reading
By Catholic Online
The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man's self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches ... continue reading
By Deacon Keith Fournier
It is not accidental that the Bible, from beginning to the end, uses marriage as a metaphor and a symbol to reveal the plan of God for the whole human race. Marriage was God's plan from the beginning as we see in the first book of Genesis. Throughout the Old ... continue reading
By Deacon Keith Fournier
"A sower went out to sow. And, as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for ... continue reading
By Michael Terheyden
How we interpret the Bible is of immense importance! It directly affects what we believe about Christ, the Church, and our faith, but it is also related to many of the grave problems in our society and the world. Yet, despite the gravity of this situation, we have good ... continue reading
By Deacon Keith Fournier
We celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is one of many opportunities the Catholic Church year offers to each one of us to consider the creature called time, receive it as a gift, and begin to really live our lives differently. This is one of ... continue reading
By Deacon Keith Fournier
On the Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Sunday which marks both the end of the Church Year and the end of the Year of Faith, inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis greeted thousands of the faithful and presided over Holy Mass and the ... continue reading
By Father Randy Sly
Becoming a House of Prayer is the best discipline we can take on. St. Ephraem of Syria states that Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy ... continue reading
By Deacon Keith Fournier
If this day you only knew what makes for peace- but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your ... continue reading