Today is the feast of St Thomas Beckett, who was martyred at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by four of the king’s Knights for upholding the rights of the Church, rights that conflicted with the secular powers of his day. Sound familiar? Throughout the centuries the battle has raged between those who adhere to the First Commandment, placing love and obedience to God above all things, and those who wish to impose Man’s selfish interests first.
Nowadays most “pesky priests”* who uphold Divine Law contained in the fullness of Church teaching are not generally slain (save in those places where false religions and ideologies reign) but instead are packed off to ‘harmless’ assignments to remove their orthodox influence from the Church. Loyal priest and Cardinal, Raymond Burke, who recently dared to question the unclear writings of the current Pontiff, and before this, to confront Pope Francis’ suspiciously unorthodox intentions at the first Synod on the Family, is a prime example of this get-riddance procedure of dominant powers at work. (Yet in this case, the terrible reality is that the one who was chosen to be Christ’s Vicar on Earth, is the one who is wielding the axe of worldliness!)
We have good and courageous priests, bishops and cardinals in the Church in our own turbulent times, who are considered “pesky” by a largely liberal or left-leaning hierarchy that kowtows to the powerful with their ungodly, worldly and materialistic values. We must stand by our faithful shepherds, defending them by every means available to us in the battle against the enemies of Christ’s Church.
* “Who will rid me of this pesky priest?”, were the angry words attributed to King Henry II, that were understood by some of his listening knights as an order to seek out and murder the holy archbishop.
“The cross is always at the centre of the Christian life, in one way or another. It was present in Bethlehem with its poverty and lack of comfort. The very first day after Christmas we celebrate the feast of the first martyr, St Stephen. Two days later we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents. Today we celebrate the feast of the great martyr St Thomas Becket.
St Thomas is the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed because he defended the freedom of the Church against the dictates of the State. St Thomas’ example is very relevant for us today. A form of aggressive secularism seeks to squeeze the Church from the public square. Amazingly, there are now some, even in influential positions, who question the right of Christians to comment on matters of public policy. Those who propose Christian values in the public square, even when doing so with meekness and humility, are subjected to intense pressure and scorn and even a very real and palpable hatred, including, in some cases, death threats. And all of this in a culture that prides itself on its so-called “tolerance”.
We may not have to face physical martyrdom like St Thomas, but we are called to stand firm and defend the Church against unjust restrictions on its freedom. Sometimes this may mean a kind of dry martyrdom which may lead to a loss of career opportunities or public scorn and abuse. For some people this dry martyrdom may be harder to bear than the loss of one’s life. Indeed, the well known 19th century spiritual writer Father Faber, writing on this very point, says:
Learn from St. Thomas to fight the good fight even to the shedding of blood, or, to what men find harder, the shedding of their good name by pouring it out to waste on the earth…
If we find it hard to stand firm, we are in good company. St Thomas himself was proud and aggressive in his earlier days, and it was only over time, as Archbishop of Canterbury, that he slowly grew into his role with God’s grace.”
A short biography of St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket (1118-1170), also known as St. Thomas of Canterbury, was the son of a prosperous London merchant. Being a well-educated youth, he was appointed as clerk to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was later made Archdeacon. In this role he met and became close friends with King Henry II of England. The King promoted Becket to the office of Lord Chancellor, and, when the Archbishop of Canterbury died, made Becket the new Archbishop in 1162, the most powerful ecclesiastical position in all of England. King Henry II supposed that having his close friend in such a position would enable him to enforce his will on the Church. However, in his new role as priest and archbishop, Thomas Becket experienced a religious conversion and transferred his ultimate allegiance to the Church. This led to frequent conflicts over the rights of the Church between the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, resulting in Becket’s exile. When Becket returned to England, he was murdered by four knights, the king’s lackeys, as he was offering Mass at the Canterbury Cathedral altar on December 29, 1170. St Thomas Becket’s feast day is December 29th.