Today, December 29, is the Commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr.
Thomas was born in London c. 1118. He was an archdeacon of the Diocese of Canterbury and recommended as Chancellor of England to King Henry II by Archbishop Theobald. Thomas served as Chancellor from 1155 to 1162, when he was raised to Archbishop of Canterbury some months after the death of Theobald. As Chancellor, Thomas generally favored the monarchy over the Church, and Henry doubtless hoped he would continue doing so as archbishop. Thomas, however, experienced a conversion to true dedication to Christ and, as a result, took his responsibilities as archbishop seriously, campaigning to regain the privileges of the Church lost to the monarchy in past years. This created tension between Thomas and Henry, a tension that resulted in Thomas’ exile from England to the protection of the king of France. After some years, Pope Alexander III intervened by appointing legates to resolve issues between Church and monarchy in England and Thomas was allowed to return to England in 1170. Not long after, Henry moved the privilege of crowning his son heir apparent of England from Canterbury to York, with the agreement of the bishops of York, London, and Salisbury. Thomas excommunicated all three bishops. This was the immediate rift that inspired Henry’s supposed words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Whatever Henry actually said, it was interpreted by some of his knights as an order to execute Thomas, and four knights took it upon themselves to do just that on the evening of December 29, 1170. The knights entered Canterbury Cathedral demanding that Thomas go to Winchester with them to answer for his actions. Thomas refused, and the knights murdered him. An eyewitness to the murder recounted Thomas’ last words: “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” The spot where Thomas was murdered is set off in the cathedral by a memorial sculpture and altar. Thomas was immediately hailed as a martyr by the English faithful, and Pope Alexander III canonized him in 1173.
St. Thomas Becket’s story has inspired numerous retellings in literature and film, most famous of which are the play Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot and the 1964 classic movie “Becket” starring Richard Burton as Thomas and Peter O’Toole as Henry. The movie plays fast and loose with some of the historical facts, but depicts the tension between Thomas and Henry pretty well, I think.
The following is from the Office of Readings from The Liturgy of Hours for the Commemoration of Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr. It is from a letter by St. Thomas where he speaks of the responsibilities of bishops. In light of this excerpt, it is worth remembering that Thomas was the only bishop in England at the time willing to stand up to Henry’s attempts to suppress the Church to the monarchy.
If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on him whom God appointed high priest for ever, and to follow in his footsteps. For our sake he offered himself to the Father upon the altar of the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve.
As successors of the apostles, we hold the highest rank in our churches; we have accepted the responsibility of acting as Christ’s representatives on earth; we receive the honor of belonging to that office, and enjoy the temporal benefits of our spiritual labors. It must therefore be our endeavor to destroy the reign of sin and death, and by nurturing faith and uprightness of life, to build up the Church of Christ into a holy temple of the Lord.
There are a great many bishops in the Church, but would to God we were the zealous teachers and pastors that we promised to be at our consecration, and still make profession of being. The harvest is good and one reaper or even several would not suffice to gather all of it into the granary of the Lord. Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God.
Of course many are needed to plant and many to water now that the faith has spread so far and the population become so great. Even in ancient times when the people of God had only one altar, many teachers were needed; how much more now for an assembly of nations which Lebanon itself could not provide with fuel for sacrifice, and which neither Lebanon nor the whole of Judea could supply with beasts for burnt offerings! Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter, and unless he himself assents to Peter’s teaching. All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgment of Peter in the person of the Roman Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility.
Remember then how our fathers worked out their salvation; remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter has weathered because it has Christ on board. Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.
Almighty God, you granted the martyr Thomas the grace to give his life for the cause of justice. By his prayers make us willing to renounce for Christ our life in this world so that we may find it in heaven. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
St. Thomas Becket, pray for us.
Sources: The Liturgy of the Hours
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.