Today, June 22nd the Catholic Church honors two saints: Thomas More and John Fisher.
These friends lived in England in the late 15th and early 16th century.
One was a well-known layman and politician, the other a well-known priest and bishop.
Both were close to King Henry VIII and held positions of high esteem, until they willingly gave their lives in defense of the truth.
First, I’ll present a short article about them.
Then, I’ll explain why I chose them for this post.
The lives of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher are very closely linked, and thus it is quite appropriate that the Church celebrate their feasts together.
They are both renowned Englishmen martyred within two weeks of each other for the same cause of defending religious liberty, the sanctity of marriage and Papal authority against State usurpation. They were both associates of King Henry VIII before his apostasy, and it was at his hands that they both suffered martyrdom.
Sir Thomas More was a distinguished statesman in the English Parliament. First and foremost, however, he was a faithful Catholic, a loving husband, and a devoted father. More was widely known for his “unfailing moral integrity, sharpness of mind, his open and humorous character, and his extraordinary learning.” He was a close friend and confidant of Henry VIII, and the King himself eventually promoted Thomas to the prominent office of Lord Chancellor.
However, the two were alienated when Thomas refused to compromise his conscience and faith when Henry openly defied Church teachings and divorced his wife to marry Anne Boleyn, choosing instead to renounce the King’s friendship, his own public career, wealth and worldly prestige. Thomas was consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually condemned and beheaded on July 6, 1535. He was named patron saint of statesmen and politicians by Pope John Paul II.
A friend of St. Thomas More’s, St. John Fisher also had a close connection to Henry VIII, having once been his tutor, and was a friend of the royal family. As the Bishop of Rochester, he was known as a man of great learning and deep and unshakable faith. He was supported by the King and appointed to the lifetime position of Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
However, he too fell into disfavor with Henry when he also opposed the King’s unlawful divorce of Queen Catherine of Aragon. Bishop Fisher courageously warned Parliament of Henry’s encroaching powers over the Church in England in direct disregard of the Papal audit, and publicly preached against the divorce from the pulpit at the same time as Sir Thomas More was resigning his high office. By thus calling down the King’s fury on himself, the holy Bishop of Rochester suffered multiple imprisonments in the Tower, during which time he was made a Cardinal by the authority of Pope Paul III – an appointment which Henry rejected.
Fisher was condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered; and, although originally sentenced to be killed on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist, the King had a superstitious fear of executing him on that feast because of the strong resemblance of the deaths of these two saints, and instead had him beheaded – ironically just like John the Baptist after all – two days earlier, on June 22, 1535.
Thomas More and John Fisher were beatified together by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, and canonized together by Pius XI in 1935. One a layman and statesman, the other a priest and bishop – they stand together as models and heroes of religious freedom against encroaching government powers.
There are several reasons why I decided to write about St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher.
The primary reason is because of their martyrdom.
Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude… (Catechism 2473)
Christians have been martyred since the beginning of the Church.
The persecution of Christians isn’t just something of the past or a rarity.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity: After extensive research on Christian martyrdom, both historical and contemporary, it’s estimated that between 2005 and 2015 there were 900,000 Christian martyrs worldwide – an average of 90,000 per year.
According to Thomas Heine-Geldern, the Executive President of the Aid to the Church in Need: 2019 was a year of martyrs and one of the bloodiest for Christians in history.
According to Open Doors USA: In just the last year, there have been over 260 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution.
And the list goes on and on…
This is the first Saint Spotlight I’ve dedicated to martyrs.
Those of us who live in North America could easily ignore this reality because our lives are not at risk because of our religion.
This is not the case for many others, especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
We must never forget our brothers and sisters who are tortured and killed every day for their faith in Christ.
We must pray for them and for those who persecute us.
Even though we may not experience physical persecution right now, we must remember that the persecution of the Church will increase in the future throughout the world.
Let us ask God to protect all from persecution and grant us a peaceful, holy death.
“Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church.” ~ St. John Fisher
Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were greatly respected.
Both held high positions; their first priority was to be faithful to God and the Church in their public and private lives.
When Martin Luther attacked the Church, they defended her and wrote against heresy.
When King Henry tried to end his marriage to marry his mistress, they presented the truth without attacking the king.
The bishop wrote many books on the validity of the present marriage and the fact that it could not be dissolved, always standing by the truth.
When a group of bishops signed a document supporting the king’s request to divorce Catherine, Fisher refused to sign it. He would not accept an act that defied Church teaching and permitted a grave sin (in this case, adultery).
The king continued to seek more power and wanted to be recognized as the “Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy.”
This was a dangerous demand which would allow the king to approve all decisions made by the bishops and denounce the authority of the pope.
Despite Fisher’s advice, the other bishops granted the king’s request. Immediately after this, More resigned from his position.
Despite the external pressures, challenges and consequences, Thomas More and Bishop Fisher always remained loyal to the truth and the Catholic Church.
Let us ask God to help us be completely faithful to Him.
“I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” ~ St. Thomas More
Both men were given important positions and had favor with the king, but they knew that he was ruthless and their lives could change (or end) at any time.
They defended the Church in word and deed even though there would likely be temporal consequences.
When More resigned his position as Lord Chancellor, he left behind wealth and prestige.
He desired to live simply, away from the controversy. In order to do so he would have to compromise his conscience and faith, something More wasn’t willing to do.
Every bishop signed the document recognizing the king’s divorce, except for Fisher.
King Henry became so tyrannical that he pushed for the “Succession Act in Parliament” which required all to take an oath accepting the validity of his marriage to Anne.
Fisher and More bravely denied the oath even though they knew the consequence: high treason to oppose the succession, and misprision of treason to speak against it.
Both were imprisoned in the Tower of London for their actions. The conditions were terrible and they suffered greatly, but they courageously accepted the punishment and asked God for the grace to endure it.
More had a wife and family, but he was unwilling to compromise his conscience to save his temporal life.
On June 22nd the bishop was notified that he would be killed. He went back to sleep and asked to be woken up closer to the time, for his conscience was clear and he was not afraid of death!
When Fisher spoke to the crowd at his execution, he asked for prayers so that he could be brave until the moment of his death; he was highly aware that he could only persevere with God’s grace.
St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher recognized the importance of eternal life and did not cling to this world.
Even though they witnessed fear, they were able to stand firm because they trusted in God.
Even though they witnessed great evil, they were at peace because they lived in the light.
Let us ask God to give us courage in every situation.
“Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil.” ~ St. Thomas More
The article said, “they stand together as models and heroes of religious freedom against encroaching government powers.”
The king became a tyrant and was known to be ruthless in his pursuits. Many feared him, including the bishops of England.
He didn’t want anyone to have authority over him, including the pope.
He tried to take power away from the bishops and the Church, and he eventually succeeded.
On May 15, 1532 the bishops willingly gave up the Church’s divine right to legislate for the spiritual welfare of the people of England. This event is referred to as the “Submission of the Clergy.”
This is a dangerous reality that doesn’t remain in the past. Many governments have become tyrannical and removed, or tried to remove, organized religion from their country.
Even in North America we see religious freedom being infringed upon, usually through legislation.
There will likely come a time when governments throughout the world greatly increase their control and eliminate the freedoms that remain for citizens.
(Note: On June 2nd President Trump issued an Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom)
We must pray for all government leaders to be moral and serve those in their care.
We must pray for all Church leaders to do the same, and to stand by the authority given to them by Jesus Christ.
Let us ask God to keep government power in check and protect religious freedom.
“[We should be united in] repressing the violent and unlawful intrusions and injuries daily offered to our common mother the Church of Christ.” ~ St. John Fisher
Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, pray for us!