Friday, March 8, 2013

St.Thomas of Canterbury, Martyr (et al)

From the English Historical Fiction Writers blog: Author Rosanne E. Lortz helps us with "Understanding the Archbishop: Thomas Becket and the Case of the Criminous Clerks":

Thomas Becket is known far and wide as the archbishop who wrangled with England’s Henry II and ended up being slain in the church at Canterbury. Although most consider Becket’s murder a deplorable event, historical opinion is divided over whether Becket was in the right in the first place. Did he really have any justification for standing in Henry’s way? Was he not simply quibbling over minutiae and defending an indefensible position?<

The place that I will pick up in the story is just after Henry finagled matters so that Becket could become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Previously, Becket had been Henry’s royal chancellor and had proved his usefulness and loyalty to the king time and again. But within the month of his election as archbishop, he resigned his position as royal chancellor. It was a move he did not have to make. In the king’s mind, Becket could have retained both positions without any conflict of interest. Becket thought otherwise. This resignation of the chancellorship was the first manifestation that he was not the king’s man any longer.

Those inside of Becket’s household began to see a change in their master. John of Salisbury wrote that, “Upon his consecration he immediately put off the old man, and put on the hairshirt and the monk, crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires.” No longer was his house a scene of Epicurean delights. The gold was gone from the tables. The fare was frugal and spare. Becket also took seriously his liturgical duties. He performed the office of the sacraments with all the reverence that was required but that had never been expected of him. He withdrew as often as he could into prayer and study in order that he might be better equipped for his office of teacher and pastor.

Right away the pulpit of Canterbury resounded with a new voice, a voice powerful and persuasive, the like of which had not been heard since the days of Archbishop Anselm. The chronicler Roger of Pontigny gives us a taste of Becket’s preaching:

It happened at that time in certain crowded gathering that Thomas delivered a sermon to the clergy and people in the presence of the king. His sermon concerned the kingdom of Christ the Lord, which is the Church, and the worldly kingdom, and the powers of each realm, priestly and royal, and also the two swords, the spiritual and the material. And as on this occasion he discussed much about ecclesiastical and secular power in a wonderful way—for he was very eloquent—the king took note of each of his words, and recognizing that he rated ecclesiastical dignity far above any secular title, he did not receive his sermon with a placid spirit. For he sensed from his words how distant the archbishop was from his own position.

Becket had changed, and not—in Henry’s mind—for the better.

Reading about St. Thomas a Becket--and indeed watching the Richard Burton-Peter O'Toole movie, I've often thought that St. Thomas a Becket's change is the perfect demonstration of the power of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He'd been ordained, after all, and was now a priest and bishop. Becket was transformed.

During the English Catholic Martyrs Pilgrimage, we'll spend a day in Canterbury. Although St. Thomas of Canterbury is the first martyr you think of when you think of Canterbury, there are several Catholic Martyrs from the Reformation era. St. John Stone is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and I would call him a Supremacy martyr. He refused to swear Henry VIII's Oath of Supremacy and suffered martyrdom for the same cause at St. Thomas a Becket: the unity of the Catholic Church and the primacy of Jesus's Vicar on earth, the Pope. St. Thomas More has a Canterbury connection, as his head--the one removed at Henry's command--is in the Roper family chapel of St. Dunstan's Anglican Church. Finally, there are the Oaten Hill Martyrs (Recusant Martyrs) who suffered during the reign of Elizabeth I in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada: Blessed Edward Campion, Blessed Christopher Buxton, Blessed Robert Wilcox, and Blessed Robert Widmerpool. From this site, we know that:

~Robert Wilcox was the first to suffer. He told his companions to be of good heart. He was going to heaven before them, where he would would carry the tidings of their coming after him.

~Edward Campion was next to die. We do not know what he said before his death, but it is on record that he refused a chance to escape from the Marshalsea, saying: I would gladly escape if I did not hope to suffer martyrdom.

~Robert Widmerpool was probably the next to die. He kissed the ladder and the rope, and with the rope round his neck gave God hearty thanks for bringing him to so great a glory as that of dying for his faith in the same place where St Thomas of Canterbury had died for his.

~Finally, Christopher Buxton was led to the scaffold. He was the youngest and was offered his life if he conformed to the new Church. Father Buxton replied: I would not purchase a corruptible life at such a rate, and, if I had one hundred lives, I would willingly lay them all down in defence of my faith.

While we are in Canterbury this September, Father Steven Mateja will offer Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church.

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