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St. John Fisher: A Bishop for All Seasons

By Fr. G. Peter Irving III
June 23rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The stories of the saints never get old and 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.

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.  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.  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.

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Fr. G. Peter Irving III is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is pastor of Holy Innocents Church, Long Beach, California.

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