Today’s tale starts with two men named Thomas. Of the revolving door of men named Thomas (it was practically a requirement) who served Henry VIII as Lord High Chancellor of England, one was a Cardinal of the Catholic Church while the other was a layman, whose profession was a lawyer. One died out of the favor with the king, but of old age, lamenting on his deathbed “If I had served my God as well as I served my King, he would not now abandon me to my enemies.” The other died as a martyr, with his last words being, “Pray for the king. Tell him that I die the king’s good servant but God’s first.”
Ironically, of the two it is the layman, not the Cardinal, who is also a saint, having been martyred for his refusal to swear the Oath of Supremacy, naming the King as head of the Church of England. In this day and age, with new evidence of cover ups of clerical crimes still being revealed and bishops literally bending the knee to politically correct ideologies that go against the teachings of the Church and, in some cases, actively attack her; perhaps it should not be. The man whom we celebrate along with St. Thomas today as a martyr, St. John Fisher, was the only bishop who refused to accept Henry VIII as head of the church in England. Despite cardinals wearing red as a reminder that they could be called to shed their blood for the Faith, he is the only cardinal—thus far—to die as a martyr for the Faith.
Sir Thomas More
St. Thomas More contemplated, for a time, whether he had a vocation to the monastic life. However, he knew that the monasteries at this time had a reputation for decadence and corruption. More importantly, he knew himself and eventually stated, “It is better to be a chaste husband, then a licentious priest.” More even remarried after the death of his first wife, so that his children might have a mother.
John, Cardinal Fisher
St. John Fisher, on the other hand, was ordained as a priest in 1491. As a priest, Fisher served as the confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. As such, he gained the favor of Henry VII and at the king’s insistence, Fisher was consecrated as Bishop of Rochester in 1504. He acted as tutor for the crown prince Henry (the future King Henry VIII) and offered the funeral orations for Lady Margaret and Henry VII, both of whom died in 1509.
Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey
These positions would have placed Fisher well for a prominent political post, but Fisher believed that, as a spiritual father, he should remain in his see for as long as he lived. Thus, he remained bishop of Rochester for 31 years, despite it being the poorest diocese in the realm. In contrast, Thomas Wolsey was ordained to the priesthood in 1498 and had already abandoned pastoral work for political intrigue by 1507. In 1514, he was consecrated as Bishop of Lincoln, but abandoned that see the same year to become Archbishop of York, which made him Primate of England. Pope Leo X created him a cardinal in 1515, and he was additionally made Bishop of Durham in 1523. In contrast, St. John Fisher was created a cardinal by Pope Paul III only a month before his death, largely as a ploy to pressure Henry VIII to treat the bishop more humanely.
Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher were both men who showed heroic virtue in the practice of their respective vocations. They discerned God’s will and followed it to the point of giving their lives as martyrs, each being called to do so as part of his vocation. All men are called to follow their example. On this their feast day, let us pray for the courage and wisdom to be resolute in our religious beliefs when they are threatened by government intrusion, and the courage to, if called to do so, “die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”