The following story appeared in the June 10 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
On June 18, 1529, a legatine (papal) court opened in England to decide on the legitimacy of the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and King Henry VIII (1509-1547). Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio from Italy was sent by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) to preside over the court with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York.
The pope desired peace at all costs with the volatile monarch of England. Henry had been outspoken against Martin Luther in Germany and the Protestant heresies that were tearing Europe apart. The pope did not want to lose such a powerful political ally. He hoped to find a way so that Henry could abandon his marriage to Catherine and marry his lover, Anne Boleyn. The pope’s legate, Cardinal Campeggio, was sent, despite his unorthodox life with his wife and five children. Not prepared for any resistance, he was confident he could get Henry’s marriage declared invalid.
However, Campeggio underestimated John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. To many, Fisher seemed to be a gentle, quiet old man. He pastored the poorest diocese in the kingdom and had no interest in promotion to more wealthy dioceses. He was more interested in reading books and doing acts of charity than in the concerns of state. He was frequently called upon to give public sermons, which were often messages of repentance and God’s mercy.
At the legatine court, he defied all popular opinion and expectations. He spoke with eloquence on the Sacrament of Marriage and the soundness of Henry’s marriage. The court became impotent, and Henry became furious. However, John was unconcerned. He had said that if he must die as St. John the Baptist died for upholding the sanctity of marriage, then he would do so.
John Fisher was born in the town of Beverley in Yorkshire (northern England) in 1469. Historians are uncertain if he was the oldest or youngest of his three siblings. His father died when he was 8. His mother remarried and had four more children.
Despite his duties in administration, Father John continued work on his doctorate and became the confessor and spiritual director for Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII (1485-1509). He was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1497. He finished his doctorate in 1501. After being appointed Chancellor of Cambridge several times, he was named chancellor “for life.”
Historians say he must have been humble and hardworking. The people of Yorkshire are known for being hardy, plainspoken and practical, and John seems to have fit this description. Most bishops in England (and in Europe) focused their energy on nobility and courtly life. John, however, focused on pastoring his diocese and his duties to the university. Unlike most bishops, he frequently spent time in his diocese and personally visited families to minister to them.
John was so bright that he was sent to the University of Cambridge when he was 12. He received his bachelor’s degree when he was 19. He earned a masters degree and was ordained a priest when he was 22. (He was so proficient in theology and was so consistent in virtue, that he received a papal dispensation to be ordained before the canonical age.)
With Lady Margaret’s help, he brought better scholars to Cambridge to teach. The quality of academics at Cambridge improved, especially for those studying to become clergy.
He wore simple clothes and a hair shirt for his personal penance. He seems to have been devoted to “Memento Mori” (“Remember Your Death”), a saying from ancient Christianity to encourage the faithful to live in preparation for heaven. He kept a skull on the altar when he said Mass and at the dinner table as a reminder of death’s immanence.
Henry VII and Lady Margaret died in 1509. Although he had enjoyed a good relationship with them, his relationship with Henry VIII was strained. Even before the controversies of Henry’s marriage, John and Henry had butted heads over the lands and funds bequeathed by Lady Margaret to Cambridge.
John was not close to Thomas More, a popular lawyer who became Lord High Chancellor of England, nor to Erasmus, a scholar in Europe, but the three were friends and exchanged letters. Erasmus declared that John was one of the few priests who actually lived a Christian life.
Concerned about Protestantism, John wrote books in defense of the Catholic faith, including one that defended Henry VIII’s rebuttal against Lutheranism. His efforts to stem the tide of Protestantism were significantly hampered when King Henry became more focused on his desire to marry Anne Boleyn and decided to make himself head of the Church of England, negating all papal authority.
John’s faith was so genuine and his character was so apparent, that Henry had trouble discrediting anything John said about Henry’s marriage and papal authority. Although the popularity of Protestantism was growing, to the chagrin of Henry, many in England identified John with John the Baptist.
John was steadfast in defending the true Church. He refused to sign documents declaring Henry as head of the Church of England. He was imprisoned at the Tower of London at the same time as Thomas More. John and Thomas were in prison for more than a year when the pope declared John to be a cardinal.
Henry decided to have John killed before the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, trying to avoid any identification with the old prophet. So he had John beheaded on June 22, 1535, which was the feast day of St. Alban, the first martyr of England.
Henry’s plans to avoid John Fisher being viewed as a martyr completely failed.
St. John Fisher was canonized in 1935. He is the only cardinal to be martyred. He is the patron saint of the Diocese of Rochester. His feast day is June 22.
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