Sunday, June 22, 2014
CORPUS CHRISTI, Sts. John Fisher & Thomas More, and the Fortnight for Freedom
Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ in most dioceses of the United States of America, the feast having been moved from the Thursday after Trinity Sunday to the following Sunday. On the sanctoral calendar, it is the feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, two of the greatest and best known of the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation. It is also the memorial of St. Alban, the first English martyr. Quite a combination of events--but wait, there's more!
In the United States we are observing another Fortnight For [Religious] Freedom from June 21 to July 4, our Independence Day. In the last two years, Fisher and More have really been emblems of the struggle for religious freedom in the U.S. as the Catholic Bishops, many Catholic and non-Catholic organizations have worked against HHS contraceptive, abortafacients, and sterilization mandates. This year the focus is "on the freedom to serve the poor and vulnerable in accord with human dignity and the Church's teaching."
So how to put it all together? The Solemnity of Corpus Christi, obviously, is the most important event today--all three martyrs would say so themselves. To focus on the two English Reformation martyrs, referenced so prominently during the Fortnight for Freedom in 2012 and 2013: St. John Fisher, clearly as a priest, bishop, and cardinal of the Catholic Church, was ordained to celebrate the Sacraments, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The feast of Corpus Christi, with its special office written by St. Thomas Aquinas, the procession with the Blessed Sacrament, and the English people's great love and devotion to the Real Presence was part of his life. He wrote apologetic works defending the priesthood, the Mass, and the Real Presence against the teachings of Martin Luther and Oecolampidus.
St. Thomas More spent the last years of his life, from the time he resigned as Chancellor of England and retired to his study at Chelsea, meditating on the Holy Eucharist and on the Passion and Death of Jesus. He also wrote to defend the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence against the Protestant reformers attacks while he was Chancellor.
Indeed, the man who sent the holy bishop and his former friend to their deaths also defended the Real Presence. Henry VIII, even though he separated himself and his country from the universal Catholic Church, continued to defend the Church's teaching about the Holy Eucharist. Even as he sentenced Sts. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to death, commuting their sentences from being hung, drawn, and quartered to being beheaded, he had those who denied the Real Presence sentenced to being burned alive at the stake. What the holy martyrs knew, however, was that without the unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church the reality of the Holy Eucharist cannot hold. While Henry VIII held on to Christ's teaching about the Eucharist as His body and blood, necessary for communion with Him in His Church, Henry's Anglican Church would soon deny it (during the reign of Edward VI in Archbishop Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer).
Reflecting on the focus of the Fortnight for Freedom, "on the freedom to serve the poor and vulnerable in accord with human dignity and the Church's teaching", these two martyrs also demonstrated their dedication to service and charity. St. John Fisher was also renowned for his personal poverty and simple life combined with his great efforts to help the poor of his diocese--materially and spiritually. The great project of his life was to improve the education of priests and the quality of their preaching, so that the Church could serve the flock of Christ more effectively and completely.
As a layman, husband, and father, St. Thomas More took no vows of poverty--although he had considered a vocation as a Carthusian in the Charterhouse on London--but he fulfilled the usual obligation of a layman to give alms and help the poor. Since the great work of his public life was the administration of justice, More was renowned for his fairness, incorruptibility, and impartiality in dispensing justice and following the law to those rich or poor.
There is much to meditate on today about this great feast and these great martyrs. I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show tomorrow morning to talk about St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More (after the 7:45 a.m. Eastern news update). The date of their shared feast, June 22, is the commemoration of St. John Fisher's martyrdom. Henry VIII had no good choice of a date on which to execute this great holy man: the symbolism of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, to whom the bishop of Rochester had compared himself in his defense of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, loomed in the days after his trial and condemnation (June 24)--and the vigil of that feast, June 23 was just as bad, as was the Octave after--so Henry's choice was June 22, the feast of the first English martyr, St. Alban.