11th Thursday in Ordinary Time
Feast of St. John Fisher
“Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart.” That’s the first verse of Psalm 36 which we chant on Mondays at Lauds. And what things might sin be speaking in the depths of our hearts? Sin might be saying, “Let’s make a deal. Let’s meet in the middle and compromise. I know you don’t want to sin in a really blatant way, but maybe just give into the pleasure a little bit. God will still love you afterwards; he will forgive you. You can have it both ways; you can have your cake and eat it too. You can give into this particular temptation for a short amount of time and then make peace with God afterwards.” Have you ever heard that voice? Have you ever followed its advice? Sometimes we know that something is wrong but we go ahead and do it anyway because we lack the willpower or the motivation to do otherwise. And each time we do that it becomes easier. Those little decisions set patterns for bigger, weightier decisions.
One such weighty decision was faced by the man whose feast day we celebrate today: St. John Fisher. And his feast day is significant for us because he is the principal patron of our diocese of Rochester. In fact, he was the bishop of Rochester. But of course not our Rochester here in western New York. He was an Englishman and died under King Henry VIII.
John Fisher was born in 1469. He was a very gifted person and so distinguished himself in his studies and his work as a priest that the highest offices were open to him. He went to Cambridge at the age of fourteen and was ordained by special permission at the age of twenty-two. He proved to be an outstanding academic, becoming successively senior proctor, doctor of divinity, master of Michaelhouse, and vice-chancellor of the university. The reigning king at the time was Henry VII, and John became chaplain to the king’s mother, Lady Margaret – a woman of considerable learning and great wealth. When John was only 35 he became the chancellor of the university and was also nominated by King Henry VII to be bishop of Rochester — two posts which he held until his death.
He lived a very austere private life, limiting his sleep to four hours a night and eating very little. Books were his only earthly pleasure, and he built up one of the finest libraries in Europe with a view of bequeathing it to the University of Cambridge. The emperor Charles V’s ambassador called him “the paragon of Christian bishops for learning and holiness,” and King Henry VIII boasted that no other prince or kingdom had so distinguished a prelate. Erasmus wrote of him: “He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning, and for greatness of soul.” And his fellow martyr and great friend, Thomas More, wrote of him: “I reckon in this realm no one man, in wisdom, learning, and long-approved virtue together, meet to be matched and compared with him.”
But John Fisher was a man of integrity. And when Henry VIII tried to put away his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry another, John would not stand for it, even though he knew his position would incur the king’s wrath and persecution. Henry VIII eventually declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England. John Fisher and Thomas More would not accept this Act of Supremacy and were thrown into prison. The pope at the time, Paul III, was so appreciative of John’s loyalty that he made him a cardinal while in prison. After a few months in the Tower of London John was executed on June 22, 1535, at the age of 66. When he mounted the steps of the scaffold he pardoned his executioner and addressed the crowd. Tall, thin and emaciated, he told them in a clear voice that he was dying for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church, and he asked the people to pray that he might be steadfast to the end. After he had recited the Te Deum and the psalm In you O Lord have I trusted, he was blindfolded. He knelt and the axe fell.
Unfortunately, not many people followed John’s example of constancy, steadfastness, fortitude, courage and strength of character. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says that “Those who did deny [the Act of Supremacy] . . . were comparatively few.” And they name John Fisher, Thomas More, and the Carthusians. We all know the story of Thomas More. Perhaps we are not as familiar with the Carthusians of the London Charterhouse. These were 18 monks who were martyred in 1535 for refusing to take the oath of supremacy. But what about all the other clerics and members of religious orders? How could it have happened that such a vast majority of the people of England compromised their faith and took the oath of supremacy? Could it be that they had grown lukewarm by giving in to smaller compromises with evil along the way?