St Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church

St Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church, 97 Ashby Road, Loughborough, LE11 3AB. Tel: 01509 262123

Newsletter for Sunday 16 June 2024

Keeping their souls while losing their heads

Next Saturday, 22nd June, we celebrate the Feast of two great English saints: St John Fisher and St Thomas More. Both were executed under King Henry VIII in 1535 during the Reformation.

St John Fisher (1469-1535) was the Bishop of Rochester. As well as being very holy, he had a great intellect, was a renowned scholar and was regarded by many as being the most holy and learned prelate in the whole of Christendom. He was a great orator and preacher too and worked very hard as a Bishop. He had even taught Henry as a boy.

St Thomas More (1478-1535) was a family man and a good friend of Henry. He was a committed Catholic and spent long hours in prayer and performed many penances. Before marrying he had considered the religious life. Once while Thomas was hearing Mass, King Henry sent for him. Thomas remained until the Mass was finished, but sent this message, “As soon as my audience with the King of Heaven is ended, I will at once obey the desire of my earthly king.”  King Henry made him Chancellor of England where he enforced the law of the land and saw that the poor were protected against any injustice.

The story of how these two saints met their death is well known. King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon because she seemed unable to give him a son as an heir. Catherine did produce children both boys and girls, but they never survived except for Mary Tudor. So he asked the Pope for an annulment, and the Pope said that he had no grounds for one. Henry then proclaimed himself head of the Church in England, and granted himself the annulment.  He forced all bishops and government officials to swear two oaths: first, that the king was head of the Church, and secondly, that he had the right to name his own heir to the throne despite what the law said.  Failure to swear the oaths was considered treason and Henry executed many laity who tried to dissuade him from this action. Bishop John Fisher was the only bishop in England who would not take the oaths, and Sir Thomas More was the highest-ranking layman not to do so, and both were put in the Tower of London. Eventually Henry ended up having had six wives, two of whom he beheaded and two others he simply dismissed.  

Both St John Fisher and St Thomas More were beheaded and died as martyrs of conscience, but also for the integrity of the Catholic Faith. They firmly held that what Henry wanted to do was not only wrong, but impossible. A king could not be head of the Church; and there was no such thing as the Church ‘of England’; there was one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, under the visible headship of the Vicar of Christ, the Pope who is Bishop of Rome. And the Pope of the day, Paul III actually made Bishop Fisher a Cardinal which really annoyed Henry, and he had him beheaded within a month. The red robes of a Cardinal are a sign that they are prepared to shed their blood for the truth of the Faith and be prepared to die rather than deny one iota of the truth.

St Thomas More famously said, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first” and St John Fisher told Henry he could not sign an oath against his conscience. Cardinal Fisher, a half hour before his execution opened the New Testament for the last time, and his eyes fell upon the following 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.”

These two saints are models for us today. Our actions must be consistent with a well-formed conscience according to the mind of Christ and His Church. St Thomas More also said, “My conscience is so clear that although I suffer pain, I will not suffer harm.” In other words, a man may lose his head for fidelity to Christ, but suffer no harm to his soul.

Fr Paul Gillham, IC