Each year in the Holy Catholic Church there are two saints who are recognized on June 22nd for their courage and there steadfastness against a government that had overstepped it’s authority and sought to usurp the power that the Church rightly held over the laws of marriage. These two saints are: Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher.
Saint John Fisher was a parish priest of Northallerton in England from 1491- 1494. In 1527 he was asked to study the problem of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon,whom the King wanted to divorce. Because he failed to side with the King and his unlawful proposal of divorce, he was sentenced to prison without a trail and sent to the Tower of London for 14 months. In 1535, while still in prison he was named a Cardinal.
During his ordeal, with the threat of death hanging before him, the people of England started to see a strong similarity between John Fisher’s sentence of death and that of Saint John the Baptist, who had been beheaded for speaking out against a ruler’s unlawful divorce and remarriage. This angered King Henry VIII, and because the 24th of June (Feast of St. John the Baptist)was fast approaching he demanded that St. John Fisher be sentenced to death on the 22nd, which ironically was the same date as the execution of St. Alban, the first martyr for the Faith in Britain.
On the morning of his execution he came out of the tower with the Bible in his hands, and leaning on the wall for support he opened the Bible and in a loud voice, so as to be heard, he said, ” Oh Lord, this is the last time I shall ever open this book. Let some comforting place now chance to me whereby, I, Thy poor servant, may glorify thee in my last hour,” and looking down at the page he read:
“Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the One True God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent, I have glorified Thee on earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do.”( John 17: 3-4)
Upon closing the Bible he said, “Here is even learning enough for me to my life’s end.” Then continuing on in silent prayer he was carried to Tower Hill. As he climbed the tower he was heard mumbling prayers and words from Psalm 33, before forgiving the masked executioner, as was customary at the time. And he then said, “I forgive thee with all my heart, and I trust on Our Lord, Thou shalt see me die lustily.” When he was offered one last time to speak, as a chance to save his life by accepting that the King was ruler over the Church, he continued to show the strength of his character and instead spoke loudly saying:
“Christian people, I am come to hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death’s stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic faith for fear; and i pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel.”
The power of the voice that emanated out of the frail and weak body amazed all those who were gathered. And then when the good saint fell to his knees to pray, they stood in awed silence, listening as he said the Te Deum, praising God. Finally after a moment more of prayer, he lay down and put his neck upon the block waiting for the executioner’s blow. After he was beheaded, his naked body was thrown in the streets, where it lay until someone, moved with pity, threw hay over the body. Shortly after, so many people began to gather and venerate the body, that it was moved and buried in the little Church of St. Peter-ad- Vincula in the Tower. Another ironic point to be noted is that, the good saint was scheduled to be hung, but because King Henry VIII did not wish that the people continue to compare Saint John Fisher to Saint John the Baptist, he had him beheaded instead, which only caused the people to draw the similarities further.
The second martyr that is honored on this day, is Saint Thomas More, who had been Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a family man, who remarried after his first wife died. For some time, he was a good friend of King Henry VIII. That is until the Saint boldly testified against King Henry VIII, and was in favor of Church autonomy over the state, and sought to keep the authority of the Pope as head of the Church. He also rivaled the King’s divorce and remained committed to the indissolubility of marriage in the eyes of God. Hoping to remove himself from the King and his sinful behavior, St. Thomas resigned the Chancellorship. But when he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June 1533, the King became incensed and was overcome with an attitude of vengeance against his former friend. Finally, when King VIII ordered Thomas to sign his Oath of Supremacy, which declared the King as head of the church in England, Thomas refuse to sign the oath, and the angry king could stand it no more, and sentenced Thomas to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.
During his time in the Tower of London, Saint Thomas devoted much of his time meditating upon the Holy Eucharist, writing works of devotion on the Passion of Jesus and the Agony in the Garden, often relying on Biblical references for the basis of these devotions. Unfortunately, when Sir Richard Rich found out about Thomas’s writings, he removed all of his books, including the Bible,all of his papers and his pens, trying to silence this great saint. St. Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. He left behind the final words: “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Saints John Fisher and Thomas More were beatified by Pope Leo XIII, along with 52 other English martyrs on December 29th, 1886. They were canonized on May 19, 1935 by Pope Pius XI. Their feast day is June 22nd.