Bishop, Therefore Martyr
The fame of St. Thomas More seems to overshadow St. John Fisher, reducing the martyred bishop to little more than a long footnote or a well-played but secondary role in More’s biographies. Both lived in the same tempestuous times, suffered for the same cause, agonized within the same walls, and likely had their heads severed by the same axe man, if not the same axe. Together they were canonized on June 22, 1935.
Certainly Bishop Fisher never wrote anything like Utopia, which launched More to the fame he enjoyed in his lifetime and continues to enjoy almost five centuries later. But the bishop was “the soul of the resistance” to the tyrannical pretensions of the king, as J.J. Scarisbrick has reminded us in his excellent biography of Henry VIII.
The universal fame of More — a man for all seasons — and the nearly total obscurity of Fisher can also be explained, and not less truly, by a simple fact: More was a layman, Fisher a bishop. It is true that every Christian, man or woman, priest or layman, child or adult, smart or dumb, must be ready to give his life rather than deny his faith; but it seems to us more natural that a bishop would give his life for the Church. The shepherd is expected to confess the faith, even if it means losing his life. Of this truth Christians have greater certainty than passengers have about their captain not abandoning ship. It has the force of a First Principle: “the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.”
Episcopus, ergo martyr. Bishop, therefore martyr. To preach the faith and to lose one’s life have been actions so closely connected since early Christian times that the very word “martyr,” which meant “he who confesses the truth,” soon came to signify “he who dies for the faith.” To confess the truth and to have one’s head cut off, or one’s body nailed to a cross, or burnt, or thrown as breakfast for lions, was all one thing. For early pastors, to die for Christ was more than a burdensome obligation, it was their sublime desire. There is no other way to understand the surprising statement in the letter of St. Paul to Timothy: “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work” (1 Tim. 1:3).
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