St. John Fisher was born in Beverly, Yorkshire, in 1459, and educated at Cambridge, from which he received his Master of Arts degree in 1491. He occupied the vicarage of Northallerton, 1491-1494; then he became proctor of Cambridge University. In 1497, he was appointed confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. In 1504, he became Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of Cambridge, in which capacity he also tutored Prince Henry who was to become Henry VIII. St John was dedicated to the welfare of his diocese and his university. From 1527, this humble servant of God actively opposed the King’s divorce proceedings against Catherine, his wife in the sight of God, and steadfastly resisted the encroachment of Henry on the Church. Unlike the other Bishops of the realm, St John refused to take the oath of succession which acknowledged the issue of Henry and Anne as the legitimate heir to the throne, and he was imprisoned in the tower in April 1534. The next year he was made a Cardinal by Paul III and Henry retaliated by having him beheaded within a month. A half hour before his execution, this dedicated scholar and churchman opened his New Testament for the last time and his eyes fell on the following words from St. John’s Gospel: “Eternal life is this: to know You, the only true God, and Him Whom You have sent, Jesus Christ. I have given You glory on earth by finishing the work You gave me to do. Do You now, Father, give me glory at Your side”. Closing the book, he observed: “There is enough learning in that to last me the rest of my life.” His feast day is June 22.
An excerpt from an essay by Michael Davies *
Saint John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, martyred by Henry VIII for his refusal to accept the King’s 1534 Act of Supremacy, was the greatest theologian and the greatest preacher of sixteenth-century England, and whose influence upon the Council of Trent was greater than that of any other individual. It must be borne in mind that the majority of English bishops never preached. They were civil servants, servants of the King, and rarely visited their dioceses.
King Henry VIII would have done well to have taken careful heed of a passage from the saint’s commentary on Psalm 101, one of the most striking passages of St John Fisher’s eloquence:
The life of man here is only for a while; it will shortly perish and be at an end. No space, no void of time, no leisure can be had, but always it draws to an end. It cannot be at a point; it is never truly at rest for one minute of an hour. Whether we eat or drink, wake or sleep, laugh or weep, our life here is always drawing to an end.
Where are now the kings and princes that once reigned over all the world, whose glory and triumph were lifted up above the earth? Where are now the innumerable company and power of Xerxes and Caesar? Where are the great victories of Alexander and Pompey? Where are now the great riches of Croesus and Crassus? But what shall we say of those who once were kings and governors of this realm? Where are they now whom we have known and seen in our days in such great wealth and glory that it was thought by many they would never have died, never have been forgotten? They had all their pleasures at the full, both of delicious and good fare, of hawking, hunting, also of excellent horses and stallions, greyhounds and hounds for their entertainment, their palaces well and richly furnished, strongholds and towns without number. They had a great plenty of gold and silver, many servants, fine apparel for themselves and their lodgings. They had the power of the law to proscribe, to punish, to exalt and set forward their friends and loved ones, to put down and make low their enemies, and also to punish by temporal death rebels and traitors. Every man held with them, all were at their command. Every man was obedient to them, feared them, also honored and praised them, everywhere now? Are they not gone and wasted like smoke? Of them it is written in another place, mox ut honorificati fuerint et exaltati, dificientes quemadmodum fumus deficient, when they were in their utmost prosperity and fame, they soon failed and came to nothing, even as smoke does (Ps. 36:2). St. James compares the vanity of this life to a vapor, and he says it shall perish and wither away as a flower in the hay season. (James 4:15).
The saint’s most celebrated sermon is, without doubt, the one that he preached at the Month’s Mind of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII, and for whom he had a great respect. She had a deep devotion to the Church and a great love of learning. She was a patron of the relatively new printing press. Caxton had produced the first book printed in England when John Fisher was eight years old. She very soon came to appreciate the exceptional worth of the young priest, and asked him to be her confessor. He was able to say in all sincerity in a letter written in 1527: “Though she chose me as her director to hear her confessions and to guide her life, yet I gladly confess that I learned more from her great virtue than ever I could teach her.”
Under John Fisher’s guidance Lady Margaret was to do a great deal for religion and scholarship. The depth of her religious devotion can be gauged from Fisher’s references to it in his oration for her Month’s Mind. “This sermon,” one scholar explains, “like the funeral oration for Henry VII, shows evident classical characteristics. Fisher followed the classical scheme for the praise of a great personage; before life, and after death. The orator was expected to praise the ancestors, the gifts of body, fortune and mind, of the subject of his discourse, together with his noble deeds and glorious death. Thus Fisher speaks of Lady Margaret’s noble family, her exemplary manners, her gifts and virtues, her ascetical practices and good works, her painful but holy death, and the hope of her salvation.”
In prayer every day at her uprising, which commonly was not long after five of the clock, she began certain devotions, and after them, with one of her gentlewomen, the matins of Our Lady, then she came into her closet, where, with her chaplain, she said also matins of the day, and after that daily heard four masses on her knees, so continuing in prayer until the hour of dinner, which on the eating day was ten o’clock, and on the fasting day eleven.
After dinner full truly she would go to her stations to three altars daily, and daily her dirges and commendations she would say, and her Evensong before supper, both of the days of Our Lady, besides many other prayers and Psalter of David through the year, and at night before she went to bed she failed not to resort unto her chapel, and a large quarter of an hour to engage in her devotions. No marvel all this long time her kneeling was to her painful, that many times it caused in her back pain and disease, nonetheless when she was in health she failed not to say the Crown of Our Lady, which containeth sixty and three Aves, and at every Ave a kneeling, and as for meditation she had divers books in French wherewith she occupied herself when weary in prayer, wherefore divers she did translate into English.
In his final surviving sermon, “A sermon very fruitful, Godly and learned,” the saint presents the crucifix as a book, a book that will “suffice for the study of a true Christian man all the days of his life.” He urged the faithful to imitate St. Francis did, to see or remember the image of the crucifix as often as possible, and say to themselves while doing so: “Who art Thou, Lord, and who am I?”
Is it not a wonderful thing, that he that is the Lord and author of all liberty, would thus be bound with ropes and nailed hand and foot unto the Cross? Thus whoever with a meek heart and a true faith muses and marvels over this most wonderful book (I speak of the Crucifix), he shall come to more fruitful knowledge than many others who each day study their common books. This book may suffice for the study of the true Christian man all the days of his life. In this book he may find all things that are necessary for the health of his soul. St. Francis could pass his time with this book, and was never weary thereof, and his great study was within the compass of a few words. Quis tu, et quis ego Domine? That is to say, who are thou Lord, and who am I? … This holy St. Francis so profited in this lesson, that it caused in his heart such a fervent love, such a devotion, such an affection for Christ, that the capital wounds which he beheld in the hands and feet and side of Christ were, by a miracle, imprinted in his own hands and feet….A man may easily say and think with himself (beholding in his heart the Image of the Crucifix), who are Thou and who am I. thus every person, both rich and poor, may think, not only in the church here, but in every other place, and in his business where about he goeth. Thus the poor laborer may think, when he is at plough carrying his ground, and when he goeth to his pastures to see his cattle, or when he lies in his bed waking and cannot sleep.
The saint explained the spiritual fruits that we would derive from this devotion:
Contemplation of the crucifix should therefore cause Christians to fear the punishment of sin which Christ bore for them on the cross; to be ashamed of their own sins against Christ, who had done so much for them, and for breaching their baptismal promises; to feel sorrow at his sufferings; and to hate their own sins which had brought such suffering upon him.
No matter how great his sins, the sinner should never despair of Christ’s forgiveness, and Fisher quotes St. Bernard, who considered the very posture of the corpus on the crucifix to be one of welcome:
But peradventure thou thinkest that our Savior because thou hast been so unkind to Him, will not receive thee unto His mercy? I say, therefore forsake thy sin and accuse thy unkindness, receive thee again unto his great mercy….Behold earnestly the manner how thy Savior hanged on the cross, and thou shalt see great cause of hope of his mercy if thou thus return. St. Bernard sayeth: Who may not be ravished to hope and confidence if he considers the order of His body, His head bowing down to offer a kiss, His arms spread to embrace us, His hands bored through to make liberal gifts, his side open to show unto us the love of His heart, His feet fastened with nails, that he shall not start away but abide with us. And all His body stretched forcing himself to give it wholly unto us.
The saint concludes this, his final surviving sermon, preached upon Good Friday, with words that have lost none of their relevance today. He urges the sinner to have this wonderful book constantly before his eyes, and warns him that his response to its lesson will decide his eternal destiny. If he sincerely laments his sins then their debt shall be thoroughly paid and he will escape everlasting woe:
But if thou dost refuse this remedy, and follow the desires of this world and of the flesh, be thou well assured that then thou shalt pay thine own debts amongst the devils in hell with everlasting woe. From the which may he defend us, that for our love as this day suffered on the Cross, his most painful and sorrowful death, our Savior Christ Jesus. Amen.
The essential teaching here is “if thou dost refuse.” Throughout his sermons the saint is adamant that God does not condemn us to hell; we condemn ourselves. Until the very last moment of our lives we have the chance to repent:
What about these obstinate sinners who would never be converted by the great benefits of God? It had been far better for them to have suffered the greatest punishment that might be in this life. For they shall be drawn down by the cruel tormentors, the devils, into the deep pit of hell, there to be crucified eternally, where the worm of their conscience shall never die….But whoever in this life will do penance, no matter how great a sinner he was before (if he does not despair of forgiveness) almighty God shall be merciful and forgive him. St. Augustine says, if all the sins of the world were compared to the mercy of God, they would be in comparison to it no more than a spark of fire in the great sea. And I dare well say to the sinner, no matter how wicked he is in his living, if at any time in this life he will be penitent for it and desire forgiveness and mercy, almighty God of his great goodness will forgive him as quickly the water in the sea can quench a spark of fire that is cast upon it. For when the sinner is very penitent, nothing remains in the soul that can withstand the infinite mercy of almighty God, which stands round about, ready on every side. The prophet makes this point in the following words: Sperantem autem in Domine misericordia circumdabit. The mercy of God shall be ready round about on every side to defend the sinner who trust in him and will do penance for his sins.*****
- [Michael Davies was president of Una Voce International and the author of many books on Catholic history and liturgy, including his much acclaimed biography of St. John Fisher]