Wednesday, June 22, 2011

St. John Fisher

St. John Fisher was executed on June 22, 1535, a martyr for the Catholic faith. His holiness was remarkable at the time of his living and yet he was not canonized until 1935, on May 19 by Pope Pius XI. At the Mass at St. Peter's, Pope Pius spoke of St. John Fisher as "ardent . . . in his piety towards God, and in charity towards his neighbour" and "zealous in defending the integrity of Catholic doctrine". St. Thomas More was canonized on the same day to share the feast day. The pope also took the opportunity to pray for the conversion of England:

We desire moreover that with your ardent prayers, invoking the patronage of the new Saints, you ask of the Lord that which is so dear to Our heart, namely that England, in the words of St. Paul, "meditating the happy consummation which crowned the life" of those two martyrs, may "follow them in their faith," and return to the Father’s house "in the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God."

I think that More usually gets more attention, probably because of the man for all seasons fame, but that Fisher, with even deeper links to the Tudor family (preacher at the funerals of both Henry VIII's father and grandmother) and more consistent and open opposition to Henry's plans to take over the Church and push through his marital arrangement, is just as interesting. He was a humanist, a bishop, a serious defender of Church teaching, and an admired churchman in his lifetime. In his death he demonstrated the same dignity and holiness.

Under the heading of "Even Homer Nods" Eamon Duffy discusses C.S. Lewis' lack of understanding of St. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester:

St John Fisher's place in the history of English spirituality, like his place in the history of English humanism, is obscured by problems of definition. So austere a figure challenges expectations derived from the identification of the cause of the new learning (and the new piety) with Erasmus. Historians have therefore been tempted to describe his relation to the movements of the early sixteenth century in terms of contrast, rather than participation. Whether the polarities employed are those of ‘medieval’ as opposed to ‘Renaissance’, or ‘unreformed’ as opposed to ‘reformed’, the temptation is to opt for a single all-purpose descriptive category. C. S. Lewis, in what remains the most helpful brief account of Fisher as a religious writer, succumbs to temptation on both scores. Fisher, he claimed, ‘is almost a purely medieval writer, though scraps of what may be classified as humanistic learning appear in his work’, but ‘he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith: in him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking.’ For a mere historian to quarrel with Lewis about a matter of literature might seem as foolhardy as the attempt to anatomise the spirituality of a saint. Yet one may well feel that in Lewis's easy contrasts something has been omitted. It does not seem very useful to characterise any one figure as ‘representative’ of so complex a reality as late-medieval English religion.

This is an excerpt from the beginning of Eamon Duffy's chapter on "The Spirituality of John Fisher" in the book Humanism, Reformation and Reform: The Career of Bishop John Fisher, edited by Duffy and Brendan Bradshaw, published by Cambridge University Press. I will be on the Son Rise Morning Show from Sacred Heart Radio in Cincinnati broadcast on the EWTN radio network this morning to discuss this feast day--at 7:45 a.m. Eastern/6:45 a.m. Central.


  1. Not familiar with Fisher, so thanks for bringing him to the surface.

    I wonder - seems the vatican has beatified a disproportionate number of english-speaking (English and Irish) martyrs of the 16thC over the past 40 years.

    Is that a fair call? And if it is, do you know the reason for that emphasis?

  2. I don't know how one judges "disproportionate" given the numbers of martyrs from the reign of Henry VIII to the reign of Charles II. One thing to bear in mind that 400 years passed before St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were canonized; England did not have a hierarchy to oversee the process of canonization until 1850 and then the first focus was on reviving education, catechesis, parish life, etc. Since Pope Paul VI canonized and Pope John Paul II beatified them in groups (40 and 85) respectively, and as martyrs, I think the emphasis was on honoring all those who suffered appalling torture and death in various periods from 1535 to 1861 with a representative number.

  3. Thanks.

    Just wondering why there was this rush (after 400 years!) to beatify - that's what I meant by disproporionate.

    I understand the lack of administrative capacity in Britain, but Ireland moved very slowly as well. I recall Mary McAleese made a great effort in the mid '90s to promote beatification of a group of Irish Tudor martyrs.