St John Fisher

Bishop and Martyr (entered heaven this day 1535)

Dear Cheri,

I am glad you’re enjoying the beauties of nature.  Believe me, I wish I could join you.  A beach house in the tropics would be a welcome respite from this drab, fluorescent-flooded fraction of a cubicle.  And I am sure the children you are taking care of are glad to have a nanny like yourself for the summer…  Now, I don’t want to be macabre, but, well, I would like to make a suggestion.  In the midst of your idyllic vernal occupation, please, please, please don’t forget about the spiritual disciplines you have been working so hard on all year.  God gives us times of calm and tranquility precisely so we can use them to bolster our faith and virtue; the Devil, on the other hand, wants them to make us let down our guards.  It will be good for you to contemplate today’s saint in this regard.

John was the son of an English merchant, but he showed remarkable intellectual and spiritual capabilities at a young age (much like yourself).  He entered Cambridge when he was 14, was ordained a priest at the young age of 22 (for which he needed a special dispensation) and went on to receive his Doctor of Divinity and become Vice Chancellor of the University.  Later he would be named Chancellor, a post he continued to hold even until the year he died (all his other offices and honors were stripped from him when he was imprisoned for refusing to support King Henry VIII’s divorce – remember that lurid chapter in Christian history?).

Cambridge at the time was in dire straights, and he worked so hard to improve its academic and spiritual culture, its facilities, and its stability, that he is known as its second founder.  He invited the great renaissance humanist Erasmus to come teach there (Erasmus was so impressed by the saint that he proclaimed, “There is not in the nation a more learned man nor a holier bishop”), bringing Greek and Hebrew to the curriculum for the first time.  He also convinced King Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to found two new colleges at Cambridge and endow divinity schools at both Cambridge and Oxford.

Meanwhile, he had been named bishop of Rochester, the smallest and poorest See in England.  He dedicated himself to the people of this diocese with as much sincerity and self-sacrifice as he poured out on his beloved Cambridge, visiting the sick and the poor, guiding and disciplining his clergy through personal contact, and even giving out alms with his own hands.

He was so revered and respected for his scholarship, his holiness, and his eloquence that he was invited to preach the funeral sermon at the death of King Henry VII as well as at Lady Margaret’s death.  King Henry VIII later boasted of him: “no other prince or Kingdom had so distinguished a prelate.”

During those years of pastoral and academic activity, he never forgot his first responsibility: guarding his soul from sin so as to give glory to God and achieve God’s dream for his life (in fact, he used to keep a skull on his dining room table to remind him of his priorities).

And that served him well.  Because God was going to ask him to lay down his very life for the faith he professed.  You know the rest of the story: King Henry VIII wanted his divorce, and to get it he declared himself sole head of the Catholic Church in England, thereby empowering himself to bypass the Pope to grant himself an annulment.  To validate his claims he made all the English noblemen and prelates sign the Oath of Supremacy and the Act of Succession, which John Fisher, alone among the bishops of the realm, refused to sign.  Instead, he defended the rights of the Church, and paid the price.  He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London for 14 months without trial, and beheaded at Tyburn.  His severed head was displayed on London Bridge for two weeks, and then thrown into the River Thames.

The point is, my dear niece, that we never know when our trials will come, and so we need always be ready.  That means never skimping on prayer and continuing to build up those virtues you most need to build up, whether on the beach or off.

Your loving uncle,


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