Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Eleazar the Scribe and Saints John Fisher and Thomas More

Today at Mass, the first reading is from the Second Book of Maccabees, chapter 6:18-31. This passage recounts the martyrdom of Eleazar the Scribe, who refused to eat pork--or even pretend to eat pork--at the command of the Greek ruler:

Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and to pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal that had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them. But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and the dignity of his old age and the grey hairs that he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the holy God-given law, he declared himself quickly, telling them to send him to Hades.

‘Such pretence is not worthy of our time of life,’ he said, ‘for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretence, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. Even if for the present I would avoid the punishment of mortals, yet whether I live or die I will not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.’ (verses 21-28)

In the 1962 Roman Missal, the feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More is celebrated in England on July 9th (June 22nd is already the feast of the great protomartyr St. Alban; I'm not sure why July 9th was chosen over July 6th). Remember that Saint John Fisher suffered first on June 22 and Saint Thomas More on July 6 in 1535, beheaded rather than tortured as Eleazar was for the faith.

When I read this passage in July in the Supplement of special Masses for the Dioceses of England and Wales in the Baronius Press version of the 1962 Roman Missal, and when I heard it read on the Bible in A Year podcast last month, I thought how appropriate this selection was for these English martyrs' feast, for both of them were urged to take Henry VIII's Oaths of Succession and Supremacy while withholding their consent in some way, or just going along with the majority for the sake of peace.

Saint John Fisher faced the crisis first at the June 21,1529 Legatine Court hearings at Blackfriars in London  when the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham had added his name to the bishops' affidavit without his knowledge or consent. Fisher spoke up boldly that he had not consented to the King's wishes at all and would not. He denied that he had signed or sealed the document--that it was against his conscience. He furthermore reminded the embarrassed Warham that he had told the Archbishop that he would never sign or seal such a document. Warham was silent (consent?) but Henry VIII dismissed Fisher's courageous stand with the comment that he was but one man.

Everyone knew, of course, that Fisher had displeased Henry VIII, and that to displease the king was a dangerous, fatal error. The very public venue of the dispute; Fisher's adamantine rejection of Warham's attempts to save face in front of the king, the Papal Legate, the Cardinal Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey; Fisher's reputation for learning and holiness--all of that, in the face of temporary defeat, Henry VIII ignored by refusing to contend with the Bishop of Rochester and dismissing his opposition as of no matter. He would win and Fisher would lose. And Fisher would endure an attempted poisoning, accusations in the matter of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, and finally be imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried for Treason, condemned, and beheaded. It would seem that Henry had won.

Thomas More faced such pressures too, to go along, although in 1529, he was able to remain out of the fray as he was not as involved in the King's Great Matter (he wasn't selected as Lord Chancellor until late in October, 1529) because it was largely an ecclesiastical matter, a dispute between the King and the Convocation of Bishops. As Henry VIII's administration proceeded with the separation from the spiritual and ecclesiastical authority of the Pope, however, More had to present the king's positions and proposals to the House of Lords, etc., while still staying silent--relying upon the supposition of silence implying consent--on the validity of the King's first marriage, the papal annulment that had made it possible, and the even the processes of restricting/reforming the Catholic Church in England. In May 1532 he had to resign after the Bishops presented the Submission of the Clergy. 

After his retirement, in 1534 he was called to swear the Oath of Succession, and as we know was imprisoned in the Tower of London until his trial on July 1, 1535 and again until his execution on Tower Hill on July 6th because he had refused. His daughter Margaret More Roper was allowed to visit him in the Tower--after taking the oath herself--to persuade him to do likewise. They exchanged letters on conscience in response to Thomas Audley's effort to point out More's folly, in which:

More proceeds to tell her about Company, “an honest man from another quarter,” who cannot agree with the questionable verdict rendered by his fellow eleven jurors. Angered that Company is stubbornly getting in the way of their decision, the eleven urge him to be “Good Company” and agree with their verdict. Open to the possibility of correction, Company says that while he already has considered the matter, he would like the eleven “to talk upon the matter and tell him … reasons“ he should change his mind. After the jury declines his offer, Company decides to keep to his own company; otherwise, ”the passage of [his] poor soul would passeth all good company.“ As More reminds Margaret, he himself ”never intended (God being my good lord) to pin my soul to another man’s back … for I know not whether he may hap to carry it.“

He wrote her letters to describe the questioning he received in the Tower to swear the oaths (now of Succession and Supremacy). She finally had to accept that he would not swear those oaths, even to be reunited with the family he loved so much, nor would he dissemble, swear the oaths publicly and withhold consent inwardly. He would be merrily true to the Truth of Christ and His Catholic Church throughout the centuries and not consent to Henry VIII and his Church of England in the Sixteenth Century.

To sum it up, like the Scribe Eleazar, Fisher and More refused to violate their formed consciences, to renounce their integrity, break faith with the Covenant or the Church, or even present a false front to avoid conflict and ultimately execution.

Holy Maccabean Martyrs, pray for us! (honored on some Eastern Orthodox calendars on August 1)
Saint John Fisher, pray for us!
Saint Thomas More, pray for us!


  1. Thank you for sharing this. A reassurance in dark times that the Martyrs kept hold of the Truth, and that we can go through grave times also.

  2. Interesting.
    I too thought of More and Fisher during the first reading at today's mass.