On this fifth day of Christmas the Holy mother Church honors the Memorial of Saint Thomas Beckett. Thomas was born in the year 1118, on December 21, the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. He was the son of a prosperous merchant and his wife, Matilda. Thomas received a fine education first in London and then in Paris. He was even sent to live in the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Beckett’s intelligence and charm helped him advance in life… By the time he was thirty six he was made Archdeacon of Canterbury, and by 1155, just one year later, he was made Lord Chancellor of England.
As Chancellor, he held the most important role next to the King, it was during this time that he proved himself to be quite worthy to King Henry II. The two men became friends, often hunting together and socializing. Thomas was a good help to the King and aided him in many matters, often times working against the Church’s best interests. In 1161, when Theobold, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, Henry quickly devised a plan to increase his influence over the Church by naming Thomas, his loyal advisor, to the post. King Henry petitioned the Pope, who agreed. Beckett was reluctant, he did not want the position and warned his friend, that this would surely ruin their friendship…because if appointed, he would have to uphold the rights of the Church, but King Henry insisted…sure of his power of influence over his friend… never realizing that power of the God’s Church over man was stronger….
There was still one small problem…because Thomas had gone right into the work, he had never been ordained. But that did not deter the King, who immediately had Thomas invested as a priest and then ordained a Bishop the next morning, and by that afternoon, Thomas reluctantly agreed to be named Archbishop of Canterbury.
King Henry’s plan of gaining more control through the use of his friendship with Beckett, did not go as planned for the King. Because once Thomas was appointed Archbishop, he went through a drastic transformation….changing his entire way of life. Where once he had been pretentious… he renounced his former pleasures. With this transformation, his allegiance shifted from his friend, the King and his court, to the Holy Mother Church. He became devout and austere…embracing the papacy and its canon laws...the friendship which once had been shared between the two men was beginning to unravel….their alliance was coming to an end…and the quarrels soon began…
Back during this time, the Church reserved the right to try felonious clerics (churchmen) in their own religious courts of justice, and not in the courts of the crown. King Henry did not like this and wanted more authority. He did not agree with the way Ecclesiastical courts seemed to be able to undermine his authority, particularly when passing out punishments. So he created a series of royal customs called the Constitutions of Clarendon, which were mostly a set of legislative procedures aimed at restricting the ecclesiastical privileges and more importantly, created to curb the power of the Church’s court. The King required that all the bishops and Lords sign the new Constitution….Beckett in good conscience…refused….
This did not sit well with the King…and in an effort to attack Thomas, he set forth an investigation into his life with the authority of the royal courts. Thomas, seeing that he was facing an unjust imprisonment, fled to France, enjoying protection under King Louis VII. The Pope was in France at the time, and helped Thomas as best he could. Thomas spent the next two years at a Benedictine monastery, until King Henry wrote and angry letter to the head abbot, and then Thomas moved on… keeping just ahead of King Henry for the next several years.
All the while Thomas was in France, King Henry kept issuing orders against him and his supporters… and Beckett excommunicated a number of Henry’s advisers and clerical servants….it was playing out like a game of tit for tat…King Henry II, never wanting to give an inch for the Church or the power of the Archbishop…
While Thomas was away, Roger of York appointed King Henry’s son as co- king, which he had no authority to do. With the pope’s blessing, Thomas traveled back to England, after being away for six years. He had gone back to assert his rightful role as Archbishop of Canterbury. He had gone back to enforce the authority of the Mother Church, knowing full well what was destined for him there. Some historians say that while Thomas was in France, the Blessed Mother had visited him… presenting him with a red chasuble which represented his future martyrdom. By the time Thomas returned to England, the persecuted Archbishop’s case was known to all of Christian Europe… many sympathized with him and were enthusiastic about his return.
With the pope’s support behind him, Becket’s strength grew. He excommunicated all those who were responsible, including Roger of York. Fearing that the Church would withdraw most of the sacraments from his district, King Henry II treated him with an air of civility. But Thomas wasn’t interested in rekindling a relationship with his former friend….
After his return, Becket continued to carry excommunications against royal servants, refusing to lift the excommunication of Roger of York. When news of Becket’s actions reached Henry he was infuriated, and speaking violently, he exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights of the court, overheard his exclamation, and taking his words literally, went to Canterbury to confront the archbishop. They asked Becket to give an account of his actions to the king. When he refused they violated a monastic cloister’s and the chapel, and accosted him while he was assisting at vespers. Refusing to flee the church as the assassins ordered him to do, he was slain at the foot of the altar…. cruelly murdered by repeated blows to the head with their swords. He died, saying: “I die willingly, for the name of Jesus and for the defense of the Church.”
The martyred Archbishop was canonized by Pope Alexander III on Ash Wednesday, 1173, just shy of three years after his death on December 29, 1170, to the edification of the entire Church.
As we celebrate this fifth day of Christmas, honoring the memorial of Saint Thomas Beckett, and his martyrdom, we discover that the Lord blessed him with strength and resolve. By learning about his life, we see that through all of his ordeals, he was the recipient of God’s good graces so that he could do his battle…and defend the Church ….defend the Faith. And I can say without a doubt, that I would prefer to gain the golden crown of martyrdom … any day, over the earthly gifts we often sing of …as in the five golden rings. And I pray that with the intercession of all the holy saints in heaven that if ever faced with such a task….I have the courage and strength to do so….Saint Thomas Beckett pray for us. Amen.
Great Saint Thomas, Bishop, Priest, Martyr, and sacrificial lamb for the Faith, pray for us.
You who were a fearless Shepherd of the people of God, pray for us to have courage in all the circumstances of our lives, to living according to the light that your example gives to our consciences. May we be faithful unto death, as you were. May we always seek God’s Holy will in our lives.
Saint Thomas, many were brought to you for healing both in your lifetime and especially after your martyrdom, please hear and accept my prayers for:
We pray for the living and the dead:
confident that you who now stand before Gods Holy Throne will intercede for us and draw us closer to Christ.
St Thomas pray for us that in Him, and With Him, we may live and move and have our being.
Composed 2015 by a Poor Clare Cloistered Nun