Saint Thomas à Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr

December 29

Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas à Becket.  Ora pro nobis.

Glorious and celebrated is the great Archbishop, St. Thomas à Beckett, on account of his fortitude in defending the rights of the Christian Church. He was born at London, in England, of noble, pious and rich parents, who led him early in the path of virtue, and had him carefully instructed in the arts and sciences. Thomas progressed rapidly in both, and gained so high an esteem among both clergy and laity, that Henry II. chose him as Chancellor of the kingdom. He discharged his functions to the entire satisfaction of king and people, until the episcopal See of Canterbury became vacant by the death of Theobald, who had long since ordained Thomas deacon. The king, of his own free will, appointed Thomas as successor to the late archbishop. Thomas refused, for a long time, to obey the king’s wish, but at length, recognizing the will of the Almighty, he accepted the high but burthensome dignity.

No sooner had he done this, than he renounced every bodily enjoyment, and in consideration of the grave duties of his station, endeavored so to conduct himself, that his life might shine as a bright example to those under him. Zeal for the honor of God and the salvation of his flock took entire possession of his heart, so that he left nothing undone to further both. The poor and needy enjoyed the greater part of his income, while he used the rest for his own maintenance, being far from delighting in pride or luxury, but devoted to mortifying himself continually. So edifying a mode of life made the new Archbishop agreeable both to God and men. But when he claimed several ecclesiastical benefices, which had been unjustly taken from the church, the usurpers of these estates roused a part of the people against their shepherd, disseminated scandalous reports against him, and endeavored to withdraw from him the love and esteem of the king. At that time, two ecclesiastics had committed grievous faults; and when St. Thomas wished to punish them, some of the courtiers told the king that he, as Lord of the land, should claim the right of judging and punishing as well the clergy as the laity; that he had the power over all, and ought not to permit any encroachment on his rights; and that it was a disgrace to him that the clergy were independent of his power. Not content with this, they persuaded the king to issue laws entirely contrary to the rights and liberties of the church, but approved by the highest nobility of the kingdom, and even by many bishops, whom fear had influenced. St. Thomas boldly resisted these laws, ready rather to die than consent to anything that was against the vow he had made to God and the Church.

This lost him the king’s favor; and seeing that still greater disturbances might arise if he remained in the country, he secretly left the court, and with two ecclesiastics, went to Rome, related to the Pope what had taken place, and begged him to appoint another Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope praised his constancy, but would not listen to his request, but advised him to live in retirement, until the king should come to the knowledge of his fault. Hence, the holy archbishop went into the Cistercian monastery of Pontigni, in France, and lived there in great austerity and holiness, until he was informed that the king of England had notified the Abbot of Pontigni that he would destroy every monastery of his Order in England, unless his enemy, Thomas, were dismissed. The holy man then voluntarily left Pontigni in order that his presence might not cause evil to the Order. Louis, king of France, informed of this, came to meet the exiled Archbishop, and took him to another monastery at Sens, which was named after St. Columba. Here he remained until the king of England became reconciled to him. Thus, after seven years, St. Thomas returned to his see, and was received by his flock with inexpressible joy. The Saint discharged his functions as before with great zeal, not in the least complaining of the wrong that had been done to him.

But his enemies gave him no peace, they accused him of conspiring against the kingdom and the general welfare of the people, and even of aspiring to the crown. Senseless and plainly false as these accusations were, still they made an impression upon the king, who, in his wrath, said more than once: “Can I have no peace in my kingdom on account of one single priest? Is there no one who will free me from so proud and obstinate a man?” Some of those, who heard these words, supposed that the king would regard them with great favor if they would rid him of the bishop. Hence, they gathered together, went to Canterbury and entered the church, where the holy man was at Vespers. The priests present, when they heard of the arrival of the murderers, would have closed the doors of the church; but St. Thomas would not permit it. “The Church,” said he, “is no fort where one prepares for an attack. I am willing to sacrifice my life for the Church of God.” During this time, the murderers pressed into the church, and one of them exclaimed on entering: “Where is Thomas, the traitor?” “I am here!” answered the holy man, “but I am no traitor. I am a priest of God, and ready to give my blood for God and His Church. But, in the name of the Almighty, I forbid you to hurt one of my people.”

He then knelt before the altar and commended himself and his church to God, the Divine Mother, St. Dionysius and other patrons. He had hardly finished his prayer, when the most daring of the murderers gave him so violent a stroke with his sword, that he clove the holy archbishop’s head. The others followed and maltreated the Saint so cruelly, that his brains were scattered over the steps leading to the altar, and the pavement before it was covered with blood. After this, they demolished the episcopal palace, and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands. The religious and priests, who, in fear and trembling, had endeavored to flee, returned, after the departure of the assassins from the church, called the other ecclesiastics, and with great veneration, interred the body of the murdered Saint. In taking off his clothing, they found a hair-shirt, which the Saint had always worn. This sad and, at the same time, cruel event took place in the year of our Lord, 1170.

The king, who, although he had not desired the assassination of the archbishop, had occasioned it by his angry words, did severe and public penance. The murderers were punished by the Almighty. He who had dealt the blow, after long internal suffering, in rage and despair, tore his own body with his teeth, and cut with knives one piece after another from it, until he miserably expired. The other three, who had laid their sacrilegious hands on the holy archbishop, wandered insane and trembling through England, for three years, and at last ended their lives in despair. They were frequently heard to exclaim; “The vengeance, the punishment of God has overtaken us.” The tomb of St. Thomas was glorified by many miracles, and all England honored him as a Saint, until the time of Henry VIII, who separating from the Catholic Church, proclaimed himself head of the English church. This king, in a most unprecedented manner, summoned St. Thomas, who had been dead 490 years, to appear in court, and there sentenced him as a convicted traitor. In consequence of this act, his holy relics were exhumed, burned to ashes and then given to the winds. At the same time, a royal command was issued, no longer to call the archbishop holy or to invoke him as a Saint.

The real cause of this proceeding was, that St. Thomas had been so fearless a defender of the rights and privileges of the Church of God and of the Apostolic See, upon which Henry VIII. would set his foot, while, at the same time, he laid violent hands on the dead, who had so bravely protected them. So far goes the rage of heresy, regarding neither Christian nor heathen laws; sparing neither the dead nor the living; and not hesitating to dishonor God and His Saints. (1)

From THE LITURGICAL YEAR, Dom Guéranger, O.S.B., Book XV.

ANOTHER Martyr comes today to take his place around the Crib of our Jesus. He does not belong to the first ages of the Church: his name is not written in the Books of the New Testament, like those of Stephen, John and the Innocents of Bethlehem. Yet does he stand most prominent in the ranks of that Martyr Host which has been receiving fresh recruits in every age, and is one of those visible abiding proofs of the vitality of the Church, and of the undecaying energy infused into her by her Divine Founder. This glorious Martyr did not shed his blood for the faith; he was not dragged before the tribunals of pagans or heretics, there to confess the truths revealed by Christ and taught by the Church. He was slain by Christian hands; it was a Catholic King that condemned him to death; it was by the majority of his own brethren, and they his countrymen, that he was abandoned and blamed. How, then, could he be a Martyr? How did he gain a Palm like Stephen’s? He was the Martyr for the liberty of the Church.

Every Christian is obliged to lay down his life rather than deny any of the articles of our holy Faith: it was the debt we contracted with Jesus Christ when He adopted us in Baptism as His Brethren. All are not called to the honour of Martyrdom, that is, all are not required to bear that testimony to the Truth which consists in shedding one’s blood for it: but all must so love their Faith as to be ready to die rather than deny it, under pain of incurring the eternal death from which the grace of our Redeemer has already delivered us.

The same obligation lies still more heavily on the Pastors of the Church. It is the pledge of the truth of their teachings. Hence we find in almost every page of the History of the Church the glorious names of saintly Bishops, who laid down their lives for the Faith they had delivered to their people. It was the last and dearest pledge they could give of their devotedness to the Vineyard entrusted to them, in which they had spent years of care and toil. The blood of their Martyrdom was more than a fertilizing element—–it was a guarantee, the highest that man can give, that the seed they had sown in the hearts of men was in very truth the revealed Word of God.

But beyond the debt which every Christian has, of shedding his blood rather than denying his Faith, that is, of allowing no threats or dangers to make him disown the sacred ties which unite him to the Church, and through her to Jesus Christ; beyond this, Pastors have another debt to pay, which is that of defending the liberty of the Church. To Kings and Rulers, and, in general to all diplomatists and politicians, there are few expressions so unwelcome as this of the liberty of the Church; with them it means a sort of conspiracy. The world talks of it as being an unfortunate scandal, originating in priestly ambition. Timid temporizing Catholics regret that it can elicit anyone’s zeal, and will endeavour to persuade us that we have no need to fear anything, so long as our Faith is not attacked. Notwithstanding all this, the Church has put upon her altars the glorious St. Thomas of Canterbury, who was slain in his Cathedral in the twelfth century because he resisted a King’s infringements on the extrinsic rights of the Church. She sanctions the noble maxim of St. Anselm, one of St. Thomas’s predecessors in the See of Canterbury: Nothing does God love so much in this world as the liberty of His Church; and the Apostolic See declares by the mouth of Pius VIII, in the nineteenth century, the very same doctrine she would have taught by St. Gregory VII, in the eleventh century: The Church, the spotless Spouse of Jesus Christ the immaculate Lamb, is by God’s appointment FREE, and subject to no earthly power. [L. Apostolicæ ad Episcopos Provinciæ. 30 Junii 1830.]

But in what does this sacred liberty consist? It consists in the Church’s absolute independence of every secular power in the ministry of the Word of God, which she is bound to preach in season and out of season, as St. Paul says, to all mankind, without distinction of nation or race or age or sex: in the administration of the Sacraments, to which she must invite all men without exception, in order to the world’s salvation: in the practice, free from all human control, of the Counsels, as well as of the Precepts, of the Gospel: in the unobstructed intercommunication of the several degrees of her sacred hierarchy: in the publication and application of her decrees and ordinances in matters of discipline: in the maintenance and development of the institutions she has founded: in holding and governing her temporal patrimony: and lastly in the defence of those privileges which have been adjudged to her by the civil authority itself, in order that her ministry of peace and charity might be unembarrassed and respected.

Such is the Liberty of the Church. It is the bulwark of the Sanctuary. Every breach there imperils the Hierarchy, and even the very Faith. A Bishop may not flee, as the hireling, nor hold his peace, like those dumb dogs of which the Prophet Isaias speaks, and which are not able to bark. [Isa. lvi 10.] He is the Watchman of Israel: he is a traitor if he first lets the enemy enter the citadel, and then, but only then, gives the alarm and risks his person and his life. The obligation of laying down his life for his flock begins to be in force at the enemy’s first attack upon the very outposts of the City, which is only safe when they are strongly guarded.

The consequence of the Pastor’s resistance may be of the most serious nature; in which event we must remember a truth which has been admirably expressed by Bossuet in his magnificent panegyric on St. Thomas of Canterbury, which we regret not being able to give from beginning to end. ‘It is an established law,’ he says, ‘that every success the Church acquires costs her the life of some of her children, and that in order to secure her rights she must shed her own blood. Her Divine Spouse redeemed her by the Blood He shed for her; and He wishes that she should purchase on the same terms the graces He bestows upon her. It was by the blood of the Martyrs that she extended her conquests far beyond the limits of the Roman Empire. It was her blood that procured her both the peace she enjoyed under the Christian, and the victory she gained over the Pagan Emperors. So that as she had to shed her blood for the propagation of her teaching, she had also to bleed in order to make her authority accepted. The discipline, therefore, as well as the faith of the Church, was to have its Martyrs.’

Hence it was that St. Thomas, and the rest of the Martyrs for ecclesiastical liberty, never once stopped to consider how it was possible, with such weak means as were at their disposal, to oppose the invaders of the rights of the Church. One great element of Martyrdom is simplicity united with courage; and this explains how there have been Martyrs amongst the lowest classes of the faithful, and that young girls, and even children, can show their rich palm-branch. God has put into the heart of a Christian a capability of humble and inflexible resistance which makes every opposition give way. What, then, must that fidelity be, which the Holy Ghost has put into the souls of Bishops, whom he has constituted the Spouses of His Church, and the defenders of His beloved Jerusalem? ‘St. Thomas,’ says Bossuet, ‘yields not to injustice, under the pretext that it is armed with the sword, and that it is a King who commits it; on the contrary, seeing that its source is high up, he feels his obligation of resisting it to be the greater, just as men throw the embankments higher when the torrent swells.’

But the Pastor may lose his life in the contest! Yes, it may be so: he may possibly have this glorious privilege. Our Lord came into this world to fight against it and conquer it; but He shed His Blood in the contest, He died on a Cross. So likewise were the Martyrs put to death. Can the Church, then, which was founded by the Precious Blood of her Divine Master, and was established by the blood of the Martyrs—–can she ever do without the saving laver of blood, which reanimates her with vigour, and vests her with the rich crimson of her royalty? St. Thomas understood this: and when we remember how he laboured to mortify his flesh by a life of penance, and how every sort of privation and adversity had taught him to crucify to this world every affection of his heart, we cannot be surprised at his possessing, within his soul, the qualities which fit a man for Martyrdom—–calmness of courage, and a patience proof against every trial. In other words, he had received from God the Spirit of Fortitude, and he faithfully corresponded to it.

‘In the language of the Church,’ continues Bossuet, ‘fortitude has not the meaning it has in the language of the world. Fortitude, as the world understands it, is undertaking great things; according to the Church, it goes not beyond suffering every sort of trial, and there it stops. Listen to the words of St. Paul: Ye have not yet resisted unto blood; as though he would say: “You have not yet gone the whole length of your duty, because you have not resisted your enemies unto blood.” He does not say, “You have not attacked your enemies and shed their blood;” but, “Your resistance to your enemies has not yet cost you your blood.”

‘These are the high principles of St. Thomas; but see how he makes use of them. He arms himself with this sword of the Apostle’s teaching, not to make a parade of courage, and gain a name for heroism, but simply because the Church is threatened, and he must hold over her the shield of his resistance. The strength of the holy Archbishop lies not in any way either in the interference of sympathizers, or in a plot ably conducted. He has but to publish the sufferings he has so patiently borne, and odium will fall upon his persecutor: certain secret springs need only to be touched by such a man as this, and the people would be roused to indignation against the King! But the Saint scorns both plans. All he has on his side is the prayer of the poor, and the sighs of the widow and the orphan: these, as St. Ambrose would say, these are the Bishop’s defenders, these his guard, these his army! He is powerful, because he has a soul that knows not either how to fear or how to murmur. He can in all truth say to Henry, King of England, what Tertullian said in the name of the whole Church to a magistrate of the Roman Empire, who was a cruel persecutor of the Church: We neither frighten thee nor fear thee: [Non te terremus, qui nec timemus.] we Christians are neither dangerous men, nor cowards; not dangerous, because we cannot cabal, and not cowards, because we fear not the sword.’

Our panegyrist proceeds to describe the victory won for the Church by her intrepid Martyr of Canterbury. We can scarcely be surprised when we are told that during the very year in which he preached this eloquent Sermon, Bossuet was raised to the episcopal dignity. We need offer no apology for giving the following fine passage.

‘Christians! give me your attention. If there ever were a Martyrdom, which bore a resemblance to a sacrifice, it was the one I have to describe to you. First of all there is the preparation: the Bishop is in the Church with his ministers, and all are robed in the sacred vestments. And the victim? The victim is near at hand—–the Bishop is the victim chosen by God, and he is ready. So that all is prepared for the sacrifice, and they that are to strike the blow enter the Church. The holy man walks before them, as Jesus did before his enemies. He forbids his clergy to make the slightest resistance, and all he asks of his enemies is that they injure none of them that are present: it is the close imitation of his Divine Master, Who said to them that apprehended Him: If it be I Whom you seek, suffer these to go their way. And when all this had been done, and the moment for the sacrifice was come, St. Thomas begins the ceremony. He is both victim and priest: he bows down his head, and offers the prayer. Listen to the solemn prayer, and the mystical words of the sacrifice: And I am ready to die for God, and for the claims of justice, and for the liberty of the Church, if only she may gain peace and liberty by this shedding of my blood! [Et ego pro Deo mori paratus sum, et pro assertione justitiæ, et pro Ecclesie libertate; dummodo effusione sanguinis mei pacem et libertatem consequatur!] He prostrates himself before God: and as in the Holy Sacrifice there is the invocation of the Saints our intercessors, Thomas omits not so important a ceremony; he beseeches the holy Martyrs and the Blessed Mary ever a Virgin to deliver the Church from oppression. He can pray for nothing but the Church; his heart beats but for the Church; his lips can speak nothing but the Church; and when the blow has been struck, his cold and lifeless tongue seems still to be saying: The Church!’

Thus did our glorious Martyr, the type of a Bishop of the Church, consummate his sacrifice, thus did he gain his victory; and his victory will produce the total abolition of the sinful laws which would have made the Church the creature of the State, and an object of contempt to the people. The tomb of the Saint will become an altar; and at the foot of that altar, there will one day kneel a penitent King, humbly praying for pardon and blessing. What has wrought this change? Has the death of Thomas of Canterbury stirred up the people to revolt? Has his Martyrdom found its avengers? No. It is the blood of one who died for Christ producing its fruit. The world is hard to teach, else it would have long since learned this truth, that a Christian people can never see with indifference a pastor put to death for fidelity to his charge; and that a government that dares to make a Martyr will pay dearly for the crime. Modern diplomacy has learned the secret; experience has given it the instinctive craft of waging war against the liberty of the Church with less violence and more intrigue—–the intrigue of enslaving her by political administration. It was this crafty diplomacy which forged the chains wherewith so many churches are now shackled, and which, be they ever so gilded, are insupportable. There is but one way to unlink such fetters—–to break them. He that breaks them will be great in the Church of Heaven and earth, for he must be a Martyr: he will not have to fight with the sword, or be a political agitator, but simply to resist the plotters against the liberty of the Spouse of Christ, and suffer patiently whatever may be said or done against him.

Let us give ear once more to the sublime panegyrist of our St. Thomas: he is alluding to this patient resistance which made the Archbishop triumph over tyranny.

‘My brethren, see what manner of men the Church finds rising up to defend her in her weakness, and how truly she may say with the Apostle: When I am weak, then am I powerful. [2 Cor. xii. 10.] It is this blessed weakness which provides her with invincible power, and enlists in her cause the bravest soldiers and the mightiest conquerors this world has ever seen—–the Martyrs. He that infringes on the authority of the Church, let him dread that precious blood of the Martyrs which consecrates and protects it.’

Now all this fortitude, and the whole of this victory, came from the Crib of the Infant Jesus: therefore it is that we find St. Thomas standing near it, in company with the Protomartyr Stephen. Any example of humility, and of what the world calls poverty and weakness, which had been less eloquent than this of the mystery of God made a little Child, would have been insufficient to teach man what real power is. Up to that time, man had no other idea of power than that which the sword can give, or of greatness than that which comes of riches, or of joy than such as triumph brings: but when God came into this world, and showed Himself weak and poor and persecuted, everything was changed. Men were found who loved the lowly Crib of Jesus, with all its humiliations, better than the whole world besides: and from this mystery of the weakness of an Infant God they imbibed a greatness of soul which even the world could not help admiring.

It is most just, therefore, that the two laurel-wreaths of St. Thomas and St. Stephen should intertwine round the Crib of the Babe of Bethlehem, for they are the two trophies of his two dear Martyrs. As regards St. Thomas, Divine Providence marked out most clearly the place he was to occupy in the cycle of the Christian year, by permitting his Martyrdom to happen on the day following the Feast of the Holy Innocents; so that the Church could have no hesitation in assigning December 29 as the day for celebrating the memory of the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury. As long as the world lasts, this day will be a feast of dearest interest to the whole Church of God; and the name of Thomas of Canterbury will be, to the day of judgment, terrible to the enemies of the liberty of the Church, and music breathing hope and consolation to hearts that love that liberty, which Jesus bought at the price of His Precious Blood. (4)

A place of pilgrimage and Henry’s public penance
Following his death, the monks prepared his body for burial. It was discovered that Becket had worn a hairshirt under his archbishop’s garments – a sign of penance. Soon after this, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and in 1173 – barely three years after his death – he was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St. Peter’s Church in Segni. On 12th July 1174, in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174, Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket’s tomb, which from then became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England. (11)

Feature image: Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Image of Thomas Becket from a stained glass window. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. (13)


Research by REGINA Staff


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