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Catholic Heroes… St. John Fisher: A Man Of His Word

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By DEB PIROCH

“The Fort is betrayed, even of them that should have defended it” — St. John Fisher.
Two saints share a common feast day (June 22): St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. Both were very active in royal and political circles, and served at the highest levels. Yet both were devout Catholics. These two highly regarded saints chose to surrender their offices and their lives, when a mere “Yes” to the King’s Oath of Supremacy would have saved them from execution.
John Fisher was of exemplary character. Son of a mercer, a tradesman who dealt in cloth, he entered Cambridge at 14 and so excelled, he was given special allowance to speed up his Ordination and became a priest at the age of 22. He would hold a series of academic offices as well, rising eventually to be chancellor of Cambridge.
At 33 he became chaplain to the mother of King Henry VIII, Lady Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond and Derby, and later tutored the young King Henry as well. Two years later Margaret’s husband, King Henry VII, also appointed him bishop of Rochester at age 35. Zealous in all his commitments, his fame grew and when the monarchs passed away in 1509, he was asked to deliver their funeral orations.
He limited his sleep to four hours a night. Though he ate little, Butler’s Lives states he kept a skull at his meals to remind him of his mortality. One assumes he ate little. As God so often places the right person in the right role at the right instance in history, it comes as no surprise that at a 1518 synod called by Cardinal Wolsey, he railed against the worldliness and laxity of the clergy. He knew there were abuses in the Church and he had no toleration for them.
So learned and eloquent was this champion that he was asked to counter the current heresies and wrote four books combatting the errors of Martin Luther alone. And yet, later he commented that the countless hours he spent writing would have been better spent in prayer.
Unfortunately, the next decade brought a greater menace to the true Church of England.
By 1529, the King was obsessed with ridding himself of Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn. A Legatine Court of nullity was begun, before the judgment was eventually assumed by the Pope. However, it will come as no surprise that Fisher was chosen as one of Catherine’s counselors. The words he spoke to the group present at the fifth session were particularly memorable and provoked an angry royal response. Henry’s angry letter still exists with Fisher’s calm notes in the margin. A summary of Fisher’s speech follows:
“Therefore, both in order not to procure the damnation of his soul, and in order not to be unfaithful to the king, or to fail doing the duty which he owed the truth, in a matter of such great importance, he presented himself before their reverend lordships to declare, to affirm and with forcible reasons to demonstrate to them that this marriage of the king and queen can be dissolved by no power, human or Divine, and for this opinion he declared he would even lay down his life. He added that the Baptist [John] in olden times regarded it as impossible for him to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage” (Source: Life of John Fisher, Rev. T.E. Bridgett, 1890).
The King and those present were horrified by the likening of Henry to King Herod, who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist had reproved Herod for divorcing his wife and, in consequence, was beheaded and his head delivered on a platter. Yet those opposing Henry faced the same fate.
In the initial Oath of Supremacy, Fisher fought to mitigate the Oath’s language, to say the King’s “supremacy” went “as far as the law of Christ allows.” This bought time and while not satisfactory, allowed Catholics to take the Oath. By April 13, 1534, both Fisher and More were called and presented with the new version. This form repudiated any power of the Pope in England. Fisher and More requested a few days to study it but, in the end, both rejected the Oath on April 17. Of all the bishops in the realm, only Fisher refused the King.
Both men were imprisoned in the Tower for treason, their property seized by the Crown, with any family left in poverty. Fisher and More were imprisoned one above the other in the Tower. I visited More’s cell by appointment many years ago; it was a stone-cold room, with one cross-shaped window opening to let in all the elements. It must have been freezing in winter — no wonder the health of so many like Fisher suffered. One likes to think perhaps there was some comfort in each knowing the other was close by.
Judging from Fisher’s papers, it seems that even before his final imprisonment Fisher had been jailed, attempts made on his life, and he had been interrogated over 40 times (Source: Life of John Fisher, Rev. T.E. Bridgett, 1890). He was also lied to in prison, told that More had succumbed to signing the Oath — yes, a falsehood! — yet Fisher did not judge or despair, thinking if true More had given in to save his family.
Richie Rich, a truly evil man who eventually became chancellor himself under Edward VI, came prepared with a ruse. The King, he alleged, was truly worried about the state of his own soul; was his marriage to Catherine valid? Rich swore that Fisher’s answers would not be used against in him in court or elsewhere. While Fisher was perhaps simple in his faith, he knew enough to be distrustful but, in the end, felt he should answer the King who apparently needed (again) to hear of a defense of the indissolubility of the Marriage Sacrament. And yes, his answer was naturally used against Fisher in his trial.
In the spring Pope Paul III honored Fisher with the cardinal’s hat. Henry VIII was angered, and he said he wondered whether Fisher had a head to put it on and determined to execute him. The trial was a farce and Fisher was so ill he had to be carried there. But nothing affected Fisher’s peace; sentenced to death, the last few days he seemed happy to go to his Creator.
That last morning of June 22, he opened his book of prayer and the final words he read were: “Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do (John 17:3-4).” After reciting the Te Deum and In te Domine speravi, he climbed the scaffold, stated he was dying for the Catholic faith, and requested their prayers for his final perseverance. He was 66.
His head was placed on a spike on London Bridge next to Carthusian martyrs. It was removed less than a month later to make room for the head of St. Thomas More. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were both canonized on May 19, 1935.

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