St. John Fisher

Here is my eagerly anticipated research paper on St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, for your reading enjoyment! 🙂

Jennie Miller

04/07/10

St. John Fisher

Although there has been some controversy over the dating of St. John Fisher’s birth, due to clues such as his statement that he was “very young when made bishop,” and the timing of his graduation with his bachelor’s degree, Rev. Bridgett determines that St. John must have been born in 1468 or 1469 (Bridgett, 1922, p. 6-7).  Interestingly, it is noted that St. John’s paternal aunt married into the Wycliffe family (of early dissident John Wycliffe fame), which was devoutly Catholic despite the family’s notorious member (Bridgett, 1922, p. 8).  Despite his father’s death when he was quite young and his mother’s subsequent remarriage, St. John’s family was “united in affection to the end,” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 10).  He received a good education and was sent to Cambridge in 1483, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in 1487 and a Master’s degree in 1491 (Bridgett, 1922, p. 11-13).  He was highly esteemed at Cambridge, serving as proctor and being elected to be Master of Michael House in 1497 (Bridgett, 1922, p. 19).  It was around this time that his relationship with Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and mother to King Henry VII, began (Bridgett, 1922, p. 19).  In 1501, St. John received his Doctorate in Divinity, and the following year was called by the Countess to serve as her chaplain and confessor (Bridgett, 1922, p. 19).  In a letter addressed to his mother, King Henry VII says of Dr. Fisher:

I am well minded to promote Master Fisher, your confessor, to a bishopric; and I assure you, Madam, for none other cause, but for the great and singular virtue, that I know and see in him, as well as in cunning [i.e., talent] and natural wisdom, and specially for his good and virtuous living and conversation. And by the promotion of such a man I know well it should encourage many others to live virtuously and to take such ways as he doth, which should be a good example to many others hereafter (Bridgett, 1922, p. 24).

One example of his virtuous living came following the death of Lady Margaret.  She had left him a sum of money to be used at his discretion, regarding this bequest, he writes, “[It] should be spent for the good of my own soul, in the education of theologians, than squandered on my relatives, or wickedly and uselessly consumed for vain purposes, according to the custom of the world.  And this I do, not only for my own soul, but by my example to excite others to lend a helping hand to the college” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 33).  A papal bull dated October 14, 1505 officially conferred upon him the bishopric of Rochester (Huddleston, 1910).  In this same year, he was made Chancellor of Cambridge University, a position he would hold for life (Huddleston, 1910).

            In fitting with his virtuous life and scholastic affiliations, Bishop Fisher was a staunch defender of orthodoxy, particularly during the early years of the Protestant Reformation.  Because of his renown as a great preacher, he was chosen to preach against the German heresies on May 12, 1521 when the books of Luther and others were burned publicly in the presence of Cardinal Wolsey (Bridgett, 1922, p. 50).  Perhaps his most well-known defense of orthodoxy is a book he wrote in response to Luther, The Defence of the Priesthood.

            While St. John Fisher was highly regarded for his scholarship and position at Cambridge and his defense of heresy, “we know enough to be sure that no energy, spent elsewhere, was at the expense of his primary duty to his own people.  He was known, not only throughout England, but to all Europe, as the model of a perfect bishop” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 53).  Even King Henry VIII, prior to the events surrounding his divorce, was known to rely upon the Bishop of Rochester over all other bishops (Bridgett, 1922, p. 54).  Upon his episcopal consecration, St. John took, as was common of English bishops in that time, both an oath of allegiance to the pope as well as an oath of allegiance to the king and his heirs (Bridgett, 1922, p. 57).  While the diocese of Rochester, which was formed by St. Augustine, was the smallest diocese in England, St. John was not concerned with seeking a wealthier see and was noted to say that “it was safer to have fewer souls and less money to account for, and that he would not desert his poor old wife for the richest widow in England” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 59, 61).  He led such an austere life, that his friend, Erasmus, was noted to say of his home, “As to me, I could not live in such a place three hours without being sick” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 62).  In his personal life, he was known for his devotion to daily prayer and the Mass (Bridgett, 1922, p. 65-6).  “The ordinary fasts appointed by the Church he kept very roundly, and to them he joined many other particular fasts of his own devotion, as appeared well by his own thin and weak body, whereupon though much flesh was not left, yet would he punish the very skin and bones upon his back.  He wore most commonly a shirt of hair, and many times he would whip himself in most secret wise” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 68).  He was always furthering his education and was said to have “the best private library in England, perhaps in Europe” and even taught himself Hebrew and Greek so that he could study the Scriptures in their original languages (Bridgett, 1922, p. 92, 94-5).

            Trouble began for St. John with Henry VIII’s bid for divorce from Catharine.  “He sought divorce from the pope, not as if the pope could dissolve a valid marriage, but on the ground that his marriage had been null and void from the beginning….  [His] contention was . . . that the pope was not omnipotent, and that he [Pope Julius II] had gone beyond his power in trying to remove impediments which God had placed, and to bind in marriage where God forbade to bind” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 142-3).  At this time, Bishop Fisher served Queen Catharine as counsellor, appearing before the Legatine Court where “he startled his hearers by the directness of his language and most of all by declaring that, like John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage” (Huddleston, 1911).  As bold as he was in court, St. John did not reach this position quickly, but as he says, “[t]he matter was so serious, both on account of the importance of the persons concerned, and on account of the injunction given to me by the king, that I devoted more attention to examining the truth of it, lest I should deceive myself and others, than to anything else in my life” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 162). 

“One consideration,” he writes, “that greatly affects me to believe in the sacrament of marriage is the martyrdom of St. John Baptist, who suffered death for his reproof of the violation of marriage. There were many crimes in appearance more grievous for rebuking which he might have suffered, but there was none more fitting than the crime of adultery to be the cause of the blood-shedding of the Friend of the Bridegroom, since the violation of marriage is no little insult to Him who is called the Bridegroom” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 175).

After this, the matter was taken up in Rome, bringing “Fisher’s personal share therein to an end, but the king never forgave him for what he had done” (Huddleston, 1911).  In 1930, as Henry VIII continued to attempt to usurp the authority of the Church, the bishops of Rochester, Bath and Ely appealed to Rome.  Henry issued an edict to forbid appeals of this nature and had the three bishops arrested and held for a short time (Huddleston, 1911).  On May 15, 1532, the Act of the Submission of the clergy was passed and St. Thomas More resigned the chancellorship (Bridgett, 1922, p. 221; Huddleston, 1911).  That June, while the king tried to convince the opponents of his divorce that the pope favored his cause, Bishop Fisher publicly preached against the divorce, and subsequently found himself, “in danger of prison and other trouble” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 223-4).  “The king had determined to have the Bishop of Rochester out of the way during the public farce of Queen Catharine’s citation and divorce by Cranmer, and the coronation of Anne Boleyn, lest one voice should be heard in indignant protest.  Cranmer was consecrated 30th March [1533], and Fisher was arrested on 6th April” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 226).  He was released following Anne’s coronation on 1 June (Huddleston, 1911).  In March of 1534, the Act of Succession was passed whereby people were compelled to take this oath “acknowledging the issue of Henry and Anne [and not Princess Mary by Queen Catharine] as legitimate heirs to the throne, under pain of being guilty of misprision of treason” (Huddleston, 1911).  Because taking the oath meant condoning the violation of Henry’s marriage to Catharine, St. John refused to take the oath and was sent to the Tower of London on April 26, 1534 (Huddleston, 1991).  In May of 1535, Pope Paul III elevated St. John to Cardinal, in the hopes that this would improve King Henry’s treatment of him in prison; however, this only infuriated Henry and caused him to arrange for a trial for St. John Fisher, charging him with treason by way of refusing to recognize him as the head of the Church (Huddleston, 1911).  St. John was found guilty and condemned to drawing, hanging and quartering, but because they feared he would not survive the journey to the location where this was typically carried out, the Cardinal was taken to Tower Hill where he was beheaded (Bridgett, 1922, p. 391-2).  It is reported that his last words upon the scaffold were;

“Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my stomach hath served me very well thereunto, so that yet I have not feared death; wherefore I do desire you all to help and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of death’s stroke, I may in that very moment stand steadfast without fainting in any one point of the Catholic faith, free from any fear. And I beseech Almighty God of His infinite goodness to save the king and this realm, and that it may please Him to hold His hold hand over it, and send the king good counsel” (Bridgett, 1922, p. 396).

            St. John Fisher’s contributions to the Catholic Church are many, including his numerous extant letters and two books (The Defense of the Priesthood and Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms).  In a time of great unrest, uncertainty of the true authority of the Church and scandalous example of many clergy within the Church, St. John stood out as a bishop of uncompromising principle and ironclad integrity.  He not only lived as a shining example for others, but he would preach publicly and publish material so as to defend the faith and instruct the people on the orthodox teachings of the Church.  After his martyrdom, his head was place on a pole on London Bridge. 

Fisher’s head kept its form and features so well and so lifelike that, after a few days, people began to gather in front of it, praying for the intercession of the saint whose head it was. Hundreds of people from London and its suburbs made daily pilgrimages to the place. Instead of being a threat, the sight of the head was an encouragement to the firm believers in the faith of Christ (McCann, 1938, p. 258).

St. John’s impact is felt today most keenly in his amazing witness.  This is also an age of uncertainty, where modernism and relativism reign supreme.  St. John shows us how to have unfailing faith in objective Truth.  As Bishop of Rochester, he shows today’s priests how to live out their vocations, by keeping your flock your first priority, by always learning and seeking out Truth, by defending that Truth as vigorously as necessary and, ultimately, by having trust in the Lord.  Perhaps Mr. Smith best states the importance St. John Fisher and his fellow martyr St. Thomas More have for us today when he says:

In these black days when many countries are the scene of a determined attempt to destroy the works of God; in these days when all the interests and needs of man, religious, cultural, economic, are threatened on every side; in these black days John Fisher and Thomas More return to earth, bidding us to be of good cheer. God is still the master of the centuries and His paths still lead onward to the light. Secondly, the Martyrs have returned to encourage us in the daily martyrdom of life…. [T]hrough constant faithfulness to his duty of the moment . . . each built up . . . a character capable of answering the supreme call when that call came (Smith, 1935, p. 295).

References

Bridgett, T.E.  (1922).  Life of Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, and Martyr Under Henry VIII.  4th ed.  London:  Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd.

Huddleston, G.  (1910).  St. John Fisher.  In The Catholic Encyclopedia.  New York:  Robert Appleton Company.  Retrieved April 13, 2010 from New Advent:  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08462b.htm

McCann, P.  (1938).  A Valiant Bishop Against a Ruthless King.  St. Louis, MO:  B. Herder Book Co.

Smith, R.L.  (1935).  John Fisher and Thomas More:  Two English Saints.  New York, NY:  Sheed & Ward Inc.

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