Who is our Parish Patron?
Biography of Saint John Fisher
St John Fisher was celebrated in his own lifetime for many reasons. He was an internationally renowned theologian, Chancellor of Cambridge University and nominated as one of the English representatives at the Fifth Lateran Council. When Henry VIII was a boy prince, St John Fisher was his tutor. As Bishop of Rochester he was admired for his zeal, diligence and austere life. Erasmus said, “He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul.” His most remarkable achievement, however, was winning the crown of martyrdom for defending the truth of Christ’s teaching on matrimony and for upholding the Church’s doctrine of papal supremacy.
Defender of Matrimony and the Church
When the question of King Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon arose, he became the Queen’s chief supporter and most trusted counsellor. He startled his hearers by the directness of his language and most of all by declaring that, like St John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. Parliament began its series of encroachments on the Catholic Church in 1529, and Bishop Fisher, as a member of the House of Lords, warned that such acts could only end in the utter destruction of the Church in England.
Matters now moved rapidly. In May 1532, St Thomas More resigned the chancellorship, and in June, Fisher preached publicly against the divorce. He refused to take the oath of succession, acknowledging the issue of Henry and Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne, and was sent to the Tower of London in 1534. Several efforts were made to induce him to submit, but without effect. His last surviving letter, written from the Tower to Thomas Cromwell, records his “cold and painful imprisonment” and deprivation of adequate food and clothing.
In May 1535, Pope Paul III made the elderly and ill bishop a cardinal, his motive being apparently to persuade Henry by this mark of esteem to treat the bishop less severely. The effect was precisely the reverse. Henry forbade the cardinal’s hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead.
In June 1535 a special commission for Cardinal Fisher’s trial was issued, and he was arraigned in Westminster Hall on a charge of treason, in that he denied the king to be supreme head of the Church. He was declared guilty, and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, but the mode of execution was changed, and instead he was beheaded on Tower Hill. The martyr’s last moments were thoroughly in keeping with his previous life. He met death with a calm dignified courage which profoundly impressed all present.
In his biography of the saint, Michael Davies writes, “There was certainly divine irony in the fact that 22 June, the date of the execution, was the Feast of St Alban, the first martyr for the Faith in Britain. If the king had realized this he would certainly have arranged for the execution of Cardinal Fisher to take place on another day.” After his martyrdom, “the faithful began coming in large numbers to venerate the place where the body of the saint was buried, and so the remains were removed and reburied in the little church of St Peter-ad-Vincula in the Tower, near the body of St Thomas More.” But the veneration did not stop there. When fifty-four of the English martyrs were beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, the most prominent place was given to John Fisher. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, the year of the fourth centenary of his martyrdom. His feast day in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is 9th July.
A Saint for our Times and our Parish
In our contemporary world, where marriage and family are once more under attack, in what has been termed ‘the decisive battle’, St John Fisher’s fidelity to God’s law truly makes him a parish patron for our times. As thousands fell away from their Catholic faith, he stood strong and displayed heroic courage. He proclaimed Our Lord’s teaching on marriage in season and out of season.
Furthermore, his loyalty to the pope makes him a fitting patron for a parish that is staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter which professes its fidelity to the Roman Pontiff, who, according to the words of the First Vatican Council, is the “successor of Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church, the Father and Doctor of all Christians” (Pastor æternus).
Collect for the Votive Mass of Saint John Fisher
“O God, who didst grant to Thy blessed Bishop John to suffer death with great courage for truth and justice: grant us by his intercession and example to lose our life in this world for Christ’s sake, so as to be able to find it in heaven.”
Information for this article was garnered from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.