Pray with Today's Saint

Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More

6/22/2018

Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More were both killed for standing against the king of England in a dispute that began with the indissolubility of marriage and ended with the rights of the Church. John Fisher was a bishop and Thomas More was a married layman with children.

John Fisher was born in 1469 and attended Cambridge University. He was a bright student, and rose quickly in his studies; he was ordained a priest at the early age of 22. He served as spiritual director to the king’s mother, and helped her distribute her fortune to help the poor and advance learning at Cambridge.

When he was 35, he was named chancellor of Cambridge and bishop of Rochester, and had a stellar career as a man of great learning who demonstrated compassion for the people under his care. He opposed Lutheranism when it started to spread in London, and was one of the first to respond to Luther’s claims in scholarly writing.

Thomas More was born in 1478 and studied at Oxford. He, too, was a brilliant student who advanced at a young age—he was admitted to the bar at the age of 23 and entered Parliament three years later.

At various times, Thomas wondered if he was called to the religious life of a monk or priest, but never found confidence in the idea, and so he took it as a sign that he was called to marriage. He married a woman named Jane and they had four children together.

Thomas was promoted within the government because of his intellect and wisdom—he could put people at ease, but also had sharp judgment; people in power relied on his advice. In 1529, More was named lord chancellor to the king, but just as his career was blossoming, his wife died. Having four children to care for, he re-married quickly, finding a widow to help manage his household.

This was the life-situation of these two men of God when King Henry VIII sought to divorce from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and take as his new wife Anne Boleyn. Bishop John Fisher represented Catherine in the divorce proceedings; knowing full well that his actions infuriated Henry, he refused to be intimidated.

Thomas upheld the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, but refused to state his opinion on the matter publicly every time he was asked, even before the court. He resigned as chancellor, which cast his family into poverty because he lost his salary.

Pressing the matter, King Henry demanded oaths be taken by everyone that declared the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and renounced any other authority as legitimate in the matter (i.e., the Church’s). In 1534, the oath was offered to both John and Thomas, and both refused to swear by it.

Both men were imprisoned in the Tower of London for months and months. John was in his 60s, and the harsh treatment aged him considerably; Thomas fared little better.

They were sentenced to death by beheading. On June 22, guards woke John at five in the morning to tell him that he was to be killed at nine. He slept two more hours, then carried himself to the place of execution and prayed before setting his head on the chopping block. His head was hung from the London Tower for two weeks, when it was removed to make room for Thomas’.

Thomas also walked to the scaffold under his own power, joking with onlookers and praying for those who were to kill him. He declared himself “the king’s servant—but God’s first” before being beheaded.

Both men were recognized for diligently crafting a keen conscience and following it, no matter the cost. This was a lifelong task that only manifested in their final decision. It is said that had they not been martyred, they would still be honored as saints because of the way they carried themselves and served the Church and their countrymen.

St. Thomas More is patron saint of lawyers, and his statue stands near the west entrance to the Biolchini Hall of Law. He is also shown in a stained glass window in the chapel of that building; his relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica. St. John Fisher is depicted in the painting above (which is in the public domain). They are honored together today, on the date of John’s martyrdom.

Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, you both crafted a keen conscience and paid with your lives to follow it—pray for us!