St. John Fisher: Martyr and Model for Bishops
by Stephanie A. Mann
During the annual “Fortnight for Freedom” sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we remember Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More on their shared memorial, June 22, highlighting their martyrdoms in the cause of religious liberty.
Neither thought of religious liberty as we do today, accepting a plurality of religious faiths in the public square. They fought against religious dissent, defending Catholic doctrine, worship, morality and prayer. Thomas More is infamous for his official prosecution of heretics, his apologetics and polemics against Martin Luther, William Tyndale and others. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, also wrote and preached against Lutheran dissent — once in 1521 at a public burning of books considered heretical.
While More is highlighted because he was the layman defending doctrine and Church unity against the attacks of the state, we should not forget Bishop Fisher’s consistent stand to defend not only the sacrament of marriage, but also the unity of the Church under the pope as the vicar of Christ.
Because he was a bishop, Fisher was responsible for upholding Church teaching in a way that More was not. Throughout the debates in the “Convocation of Bishops” about the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Fisher was resolute in defending that marriage and the Church’s authority to define that marriage as sacramental.
Fisher opposed Henry VIII’s proclamation of himself as supreme head and governor of the Church in England in the convocation — where he at least prevailed enough to add the words “as far as the law of God allows” — and in British Parliament. His resolution led to assassination attempts: once by poisoning (but Fisher was too abstemious for the poison to be effective) and once by cannon shot aimed at his London house. He was too ill to attend the last parliamentary gathering in 1529, which legislated the English Reformation, or the convocation in 1532, when the clergy submitted to Henry VIII, paid a fine and accepted the monarch’s supremacy.
In April of 1534, Fisher was presented with an oath to accept Henry VIII’s supremacy, refused to take it, was stripped of his offices and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He would not emerge from its confines until he stood trial on June 17, 1535; he was taken to Tower Hill for his execution, mercifully commuted to being beheaded rather than hung, drawn and quartered, the usual punishment for traitors.
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