Today marks the Feast Days of both St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, two of the great English saints to challenge King Henry VIII and lose their heads, only to gain a halo. While at present Sir Thomas More is perhaps the better known of the two, thanks to there being more literary and cinematic treatments of his life, Cardinal Fisher is a figure whose life provides us with a number of points on which to reflect. Please note that I will refer to him as “Cardinal” Fisher, even though in some places he is often referred to simply as “Bishop”. Pope Paul III raised him to the cardinalate, but Henry VIII refused to allow the cardinal’s hat to arrive from Rome, promising instead to send the pope the cardinal’s head. As I do not recognize any such nonsense on the part of Henry, one of the great turds of history, I will of course defer to the wishes of Pope Paul.
The parallels between Cardinal Fisher and his namesake, St. John the Baptist, are very apparent, as a friend pointed out last evening on Twitter. Like the Baptist challenging King Herod’s marriage, Cardinal Fisher dared to dispute Henry’s divorce of Queen Catherine of Aragon and marriage to his whore, Anne Boelyn, speaking out about the sacramental nature of marriage, and later against Henry’s attempt to make himself head of the Church in England. The symbolic parallels were certainly even more apparent in the Cardinal’s own day, when the Faith was much more integrated into daily life than it is at present. In fact, Cardinal Fisher was executed on this date in 1535 specifically because Henry did not want the Cardinal to be executed on the Vigil of St. John the Baptist’s birthday, i.e. June 23rd, which occurs tomorrow evening. Presumably the Night of St. John in 16th century London, as in Barcelona, was a night of fire and revelry, and a drunken populace might have gotten out of control.
During his trial, Cardinal Fisher was challenged for being singularly obstinate, given that all of the other English bishops had given in to Henry’s demands. To this the cardinal replied, according to an eyewitness, that, having on his side “all the other bishops and all of the Catholics of the world, from Christ’s Ascension until now, joined with the entire consent of Christ’s universal Church, he must needs, he said, account his own side much the surer.” Needless to say, such statements did not help him much with those assembled for the purpose of killing him.
After sentence had been passed, the Cardinal made a closing statement proclaiming his innocence, asking forgiveness of those who condemned them, and paraphrasing the words of Jesus as he did so, “for I think, they know not what they have done.” He also left Henry with a warning, which unfortunately went unheeded. “If the King will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of Almighty God, to the great damage of his own soul, and that of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge. ”
It would be a great thing if more of the bishops in this country, where things are getting to a very bad place indeed with respect to moral relativism, would pray to Cardinal Fisher for his intercession, and follow his example. So often St. Thomas More is held up to those of us who are lay professionals such as lawyers, government officials, and business leaders, as a model whom we ought to follow, in standing up and saying, “No.” Yet let not our prelates forget the example of his friend, Cardinal Fisher who, alone among his synod, stood up and called a spade a spade, as he was supposed to do.