Today, as you know, is the feast of St John Fisher and St Thomas More, two of the stars of the English Church. The story of their lives and martyrdom is well know, so there is no need to relate it, suffice to say that they were among the few who stood up to Henry VIII and perished for their fidelity to Christ. Like many before and after him, Henry could not understand why people would put God before their king or government - he firmly believed that as ruler he represented God and what he said was endorsed by God. Many today still labour under that illusion.
Many of you will know St Thomas More through the film A Man For All Seasons, based on the play by Robert Bolt. Both film and play are okay, but they fail to capture the real Thomas More. As some have said, the Thomas of the film/play dies for conscience and may even have made it his god; the real Thomas More died for Christ and the Catholic Church - his conscience witnessed to these. Good news, though, if you admire the Thomas More of the film/play, you'll really like the real McCoy: St Thomas was altogether greater personality than Bolt's character. For one thing he was wittier.
St John Fisher may seem a more distant figure to some. He was a very different character to St Thomas. He was more solemn, less politically astute, but just as holy and learned. He was a venerable figure who oozed holiness and kindness. He was prudent and thoughtful, a real academic (he had the biggest personal library in Europe at the time) but he was also a true pastor with a love for the poor. Imagine a cross between Pope Benedict and Blessed Mother Teresa - that's him.
St John was the confessor to Katherine of Aragon, so like it or not, he was in the middle of the whole divorce thing. He recognised that she was true to her husband, unworthy as Henry was, and John remained true to her, guiding her and sustaining her spiritually in her own suffering during the whole affair. He was tricked by Henry into making what was regarded as a traitorous statement. He was the only bishop to remain true to the Pope: all the other bishops of England and Wales, when faced with a choice, chose their own heads and the new church Henry was constructing rather than the Pope and the Catholic faith.
For that very reason I have a statue of St John Fisher on my desk (he's looking at me now!), to remind me that bishops are weak human beings, as we all are, and they need prayer if they are to remain true to God, the Church, the Pope and their duties. And yes, sometimes it is good to pray that they are not put to the test as some may not have the strength to pass it, and their failure may scandalise the faith of the little ones - we have had personal experience of that in Ireland in recent years. So, dear readers, pray for your bishop!
Of course, the feast today reminds us of the challenges we face in these times, and they are not unlike the difficulties St John and St Thomas faced. Today secular authorities are making unacceptable demands of religious people, asking us to accept and even promote things which are contrary to our faith. The whole gay marriage and adoption thing is one such issue, and it seems it will be the main motivation for the persecution of Christians in the decades to come. We will need the strength of these two martyrs to overcome.