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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

St. John Fisher - Bishop and Martyr

St. John Fisher - Bishop and Martyr
1469 - 1535

St. John Fisher

Apart from the date and place of his birth - 1469 at Beverley Yorkshire, England - very little is known about John Fisher's early years. He was the son of a cloth merchant, and attended the local grammar school. In 1483 at the age of 14, he became a student at Michaelhouse, one of the colleges comprising Cambridge University. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1488, and in 1491 received a Master of Arts degree. At the age of 22, Fisher was ordained a priest.

For the next 22 years Fisher's life centered on the University at Cambridge. There he worked to secure facilities for educating the clergy. So important was his work, that his colleagues elected him to the highest office of Chancellor of the University. Here he met Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. His acquaintance with the family led him to become the tutor of Henry's son, who would later become King Henry VIII.

He was consecrated to the office of Bishop of Rochester in Kent on November 24, 1504. Here he served his diocese for 31 years, regularly visiting the parishes and religious houses, preaching and seeing to the spiritual needs of his people. He took serious his duty to be a "fisher of men."

In 1527, he became dangerously entangled in the questions of valid marriage with Henry VIII. At that time, married to Catherine, Henry was seeking an annulment. Convinced that the marriage was indeed valid, Fisher declared no annulment was possible. Nevertheless, within a month Henry declared that his conscience forced him to separate from the Queen. Desirous of a male heir, Henry grew impatient as the ecclesiastical courts continued to refuse his request. On January 25, 1533 he secretly married Anne Boleyn who was already with child.

In order to secure the succession of any children born to Anne, Parliament passed the Act of Succession in 1534. This Act dissolved the marriage of Henry and Catherine and repudiated the jurisdiction of the Pope to rule on the validity of the marriage. To this law was added the Act of Supremacy, which made the king the head of the Church of England. An oath was demanded of all clergy to swear to accept both acts. To refuse was an act of treason, punishable by death.

John Fisher, along with Thomas More and numerous others, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London on April 17, 1534. On May 21, 1535, Pope Paul III appointed Fisher a Cardinal, in hope that it would protect his life. Henry was outraged and ordered Fisher tried for treason. The court met on June 17, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death by beheading.

On June 22, 1535, a frail, nearly blind old man was taken from his cell in the Bell Tower to be executed for treason. He was so weak that he had to be carried. It was the feast of St. Alban, a Roman soldier who also had been martyred for his refusal to worship the Emperor Diocletian as his god. Carrying his copy of the New Testament, Fisher mounted the scaffold, and spoke his last words:

"Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's Catholic Church...Wherefore I desire you to help me, and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of death's stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the faith. And I pray, God save the king and the realm."

He then knelt down and prayed quietly for some moments before the headsman delivered the final blow.

John Fisher was canonized a saint on May 19, 1935. By his example of learning, holiness, faith, loyalty and courage, by his service to God and others, John Fisher's life and death were truly a witness to the faith. 

St. John Fisher articles on the web