Feast of St. John Fisher (and St. Thomas More)

Each year, CCO in Kingston hosts a fundraising event known as the St. John Fisher Dinner. Queen’s University chaplain, Fr. Raymond de Souza (an alumnus of Cambridge where St. John Fisher was chancellor), encouraged the patronage due to the saint’s relevance to university life, his courageous faith, and an opportunity to foster more knowledge of this great saint who is not as well-known as his fellow countryman, St. Thomas More. I took it upon myself to find out a little bit about him to share with you.

St. John Fisher was bishop of Rochester (1504-1535), and was renowned for being learned, bold, and holy. Europe, in the sixteenth century, was immersed in reform, both good and bad. Bishop Fisher championed the cause of good reform throughout England, shaping up the English clergy and religious orders who had become lax and corrupt. Due to his reputation, St. John Fisher was made confessor (a priest that hears confessions, grants absolution, and gives spiritual direction) and chaplain to King Henry VIII’s  grandmother, and would later be confessor to Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon.

It was, in fact, this marriage between Henry and Catherine that was the center of controversy leading to Bishop Fisher’s death. Catherine was unable to give birth to a son as an heir for Henry. Dissatisfied, Henry found a new love interest in Anne Boleyn. The trouble multiplied when the king attempted to have his marriage annulled by the pope, and was unsuccessful. In a rage, Henry responded by declaring himself the head of the English church – known today as the Anglican church – to lawfully annul his marriage to Catherine. After this there was indeed a re-forming of the religious landscape; however, it was very different from the kind John Fisher had supported. All people were required to accept this change of leadership in the Church or suffer exile, imprisonment, or death. Monasteries were closed, parishes were abandoned, and heads rolled.

It is a sad fact that of all the bishops in England, only St. John Fisher refused to acknowledge both the “divorce” from Rome (by rejecting the pope) and the divorce from Catherine. After being maltreated in the Tower of London, he was beheaded on June 22, 1535. He had been tried by a jury as a commoner, having been stripped of his religious office, and charged with treason for not supporting King Henry VIII as head of the English church. His body was disrespected, his head was pranced around on a pike and tossed in the Thames River, and his body was finally buried in the Tower of London next to his friend St. Thomas More, the one-time Lord Chancellor of England who would also not support Henry. Their memorials are now celebrated together on June 22, as they were canonized along with 52 others who were executed by Henry VIII in that English Revolt.

I am challenged by Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More who loved their country, and knew that being faithful citizens meant being faithful Catholics first. Therefore, for the sake of our country and our world, let us stand firm in our Christian faith, strive to be holy, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

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