Saturday, January 2, 2010

January 2: St Thomas of Canterbury (in some places), Bishop and martyr

c13th manuscript illumination
St Thomas of Canterbury, aka St Thomas a Becket, was born around 1118, and was famously murdered in his own cathedral in 1170 by followers of King Henry II of England.  In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said in a sermon n the saint:

"...He faced a hostile government and refused to bend. He teaches us in our own day how vital it is to stay faithful to the Truth. For the Christian, the Truth is a Divine Person named Jesus Christ. We are called to bear His name and, in the words of the Apostle, “walk just as he walked.”

However, Thomas Becket is a special witness for our beloved Bishops. Today they face the growing hostility of a State which has no tolerance for their insistence on the fundamental human right to life from conception to natural death.Like Thomas, they must refuse to bend.

Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118 to wealthy and respected parents. He was well educated and socially connected from his birth. At the age of 24 he obtained a coveted position with Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He quickly excelled in his work and climbed the ranks of ecclesiastical appointments. He was ordained a deacon in 1154 and appointed an Archdeacon of Canterbury.

At a time when Church and State were connected in a manner seldom seen any longer, he caught the attention of King Henry II who sought his advice and counsel regularly. He was appointed the Chancellor of England by the King and is noted to have grown quite comfortable with the trappings of office, living a rather lavish life.

When Archbishop Theobald died, Thomas Becket was nominated by the King for consideration as Archbishop. He was elected Theobald’s successor in 1162. The grace of Episcopal office deeply affected Thomas, as it so often does. After all, Bishops, are successors of the Apostles.

Accounts reveal that Bishop Thomas radically changed his lifestyle, embracing the way of simplicity. He adopted ascetical practices and sought to grow closer to the Lord, increasing his prayer and devotion. He began to sleep on the floor, and simplified his once lavish diet. He gave away many of his possessions to the poor and began to prefer their company.

Thomas was drawn by the Holy Spirit and the grace of his office into a deeper conversion in Christ. He became an example to the faithful by “walking just as He walked” in the words of the beloved disciple John which we hear at Mass on his Feast. However, as is so often the case in the history of the relationship between the Church and the State, frictions began to emerge with the King. The Bishop’s loyalties were tested.

Within two years, the frictions boiled over. Bishop Thomas was hated by the King who had formerly been his benefactor and champion. Thomas opposed the King’s increasing infringements on the rights of the Church and the Clergy and the King grew angry and felt threatened.

As a result of his fidelity to placing the Lord first Thomas experienced a great spiritual renewal and earned the admiration of the faithful. However, this was accompanied by intense persecution from the King. He was forced into exile to France. Bishop Thomas returned six years later when it appeared that the King’s wrath had subsided. It was short-lived.

The Bishop continued to place the Lord and His Church first in his exercise of office. He refused to take sides with the King in his repeated efforts to assert the primacy of his crown - and undermine the authority, teaching, discipline and Canon law of the Church. An account tells us that an exasperated King shouted out in the company of some of his knights "will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?"

Four knights took the exclamation to heart. They rode to the Cathedral of Canterbury to do just that; Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracey, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Breton. On December 29th 1170 they murdered/martyred the Bishop right within Canterbury Cathedral. Reports are that after they committed the evil act one of them shouted "Let us away. He will rise no more."

One story recounts that while the Bishops body was still on the cathedral floor, the faithful had gathered to seek his intercession and collect portions of his clothing and drops of his blood. His heroic virtue in life and conformity to Jesus Christ in his martyrs’ death, led to his quick canonization.

He stands in our day as an example for all Bishops – indeed all who must endure a hostile State – of the apostles clear words “This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.” In an excerpt from a letter the Bishop wrote to his Brother Bishops we read these words:

“If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on Him whom God appointed High Priest forever, and to follow in His footsteps. For our sake He offered Himself to the father on the Altar of the Cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day He will give each of us the rewards his deeds deserve.

As successors of the Apostles, we hold the highest rank in our churches; we have accepted the responsibility of acting as Christ’s representatives on earth; we receive the honor belonging to that office, and enjoy the temporal benefits of our spiritual labors. It must therefore be our endeavor to destroy the reign of sin and death, and by nurturing faith and uprightness of life, to build up the Church of Christ into a holy temple in the Lord.

"There are a great many Bishops in the Church, but would to God we were the zealous teachers and pastors that we promised to be at our consecration, and still make profession of being.”