Confraternity of Christian Doctrine

Heading forward in faith with three headless saints: Thomas More, John Fisher and John the Baptist


Sir Thomas More and his Family
Sir Thomas More and his Family. Rowland Lockey, after Hans Holbein, the Younger. 1593.

First Address of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Day of Reflection for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, St Patrick’s Cathedral Hall, Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, 24 June 2012

It’s a great pleasure to be with you all here for this day of reflection for SRE teachers. When I chatted with your CCD Director, Paul Worthington, about today’s themes, he suggested I reflect with you upon the lives of a few of the saints celebrated around this time of year. It was a bit like the secret ingredients in MasterChef that you are required to use in your meal – eel’s liver, cardamom pods and crème fraîche. My first reflection is entitled ‘Heading forward in faith with three headless saints”: St John the Baptist whose Nativity we celebrate today, and Saints John Fisher and Thomas More whom the Church remembered the day before yesterday. In my second reflection I will reflect on two more whose feast days occur this coming Friday and soon after.

John Fisher and Thomas More

Just two days ago, in 1535, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London woke Bishop John Fisher at 5am for his 9am execution. The frail old guy decided to go back to sleep, saying he wanted to save his strength for the occasion. I’ve always felt an affinity for John Fisher, not just because I like to imagine I’m related to him but also because like all good Bishop Fishers he liked his sleep.

When the Lieutenant returned just before 9am, Fisher was up and dressed in his best clothes for what he called his “wedding day”. He took a copy of the New Testament with him, where he found and read the words of Christ: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me.” Having read these words from the Gospel of his name-saint John, the Bishop of Rochester ascended the scaffold. He then announced: “Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church”. He asked for prayers for himself, his king and his country. And then, on the orders of that very king, Henry VIII, he was beheaded. His naked body lay on the scaffold all day and was eventually buried by soldiers, without rites. His head was impaled on London Bridge and later thrown into the Thames. The king joked coarsely that the Pope could send the Cardinal’s hat for Fisher but there’d be no head for it to be put on.

If such a thing could be done to the greatest churchman in England, no one was safe: within three weeks his friend, the former Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, would meet the same fate on the same scaffold. He would famously declare: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

More and Fisher were joined in giving witness unto death and so in heaven. Yet they had much in common in life as well. Both were men of prayer and penance. Both were scholars, administrators and men of letters. Both were intellectually sophisticated yet practical men. Fisher was a son of Cambridge University, More of ‘the other place’. More was a member of the House of Commons, Fisher of ‘the other place’. Fisher was Chancellor of the University, More Chancellor of the realm. They were close friends of each other, of friendship itself and of the new, humanistic learning.

Both were greatly supported by women: Fisher, by Lady Margaret Beaufort, grandmother of Henry VIII, who was his close friend and collaborator; More, by his (two) wives and his daughter Margaret (Meg), the first and favourite of his four children. Both men refused to recognise King Henry’s insatiable appetite for wives and heirs, his do-it-yourself divorce and the consequent Act of Succession, his repudiation of Papal authority and absurd claim to be “Supreme Head of the Church of England”. Fisher was just about alone among England’s bishops in this, just as More was just about alone among the judges. Their arguments were remarkably similar: the King could no more legislate for the universal Church than the City council of London for the whole realm; Henry’s actions were illegal and contrary to tradition and his own coronation oath. Both remained confident to the end, with More telling his judges that he hoped they might meet together hereafter merrily in heaven.

Lonely though such heroism is, they had each other as the best of friends. Both wrote of the other as the most virtuous man he knew and encouraged this in each other. They knew that true friendship wants the noblest and the best for the other, wants eternal life for the other in heaven and thus sanctity for the other here on earth – even if the price of this is martyrdom. They demonstrated powerfully the importance of an intelligent faith, a studious faith, a faith ready to give answers to those who want them, who need to know the cause of our hope. Tribal Catholicism was not enough to withstand the religious revolution that was going on around them which we now call the Reformation. Tribal Christianity is not enough to withstand the religious revolution go on around us at present, that we call Modernity. We need a faith like More’s and Fisher’s, a mature, thoughtful faith, ready to meet the challenges of the day.

So much in common, yet the two demonstrated complementarity also. They had rather different temperaments: More was the more brilliant, witty and affectionate, and so he has all the biographies and plays written about him. Yet Fisher’s integrity, courage and devotion to duty deserve to be better known. They had different roles, of course. Although Fisher cared deeply about the ‘world’, running universities and counselling kings, he was principally devoted to the sacred ministry, to evangelical poverty, prayer and orthodoxy, a celibate devoted to his flock as a scholar, preacher and above all a pastor.

More, on the other hand, was a layman. Although he toyed with a religious vocation when he was young and remained a loyal son of the Church, though he was deeply interested in theology and ecclesiastical issues, he married (repeatedly) and pursued a secular career. His primary mission was family, law and politics, directing the temporal order to the divine. Each man, then, like each of us, was graced with a special vocation of making the Church and therefore Christ present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that the Church can be light to the world and salt of the earth. Just as the Second Vatican Council would describe the complimentary roles of clergy and laity, so Fisher built up and sustained the Church from within while More extended its boundaries out into the world of everyday work, politics and society, seeking to remedy unjust institutions and to impregnate culture and human works with moral value.

You state school catechists, like Catholic school teachers, are in a sense on the cusp between the traditional works of the clergy and religious, catechising those whose faith has already been planted by family and parish, and the works of the laity, evangelising a world beyond the Church, possibly yet to encounter Christ. Both audiences are to be found in today’s SRE class and so both the tasks of John Fisher and those of Thomas More are yours as CCD teachers.

Notably, in neither of these men was there any modern nonsense of compartmentalising the sacred and the profane, faith and action, Sunday and weekday, private and public. They lived as whole persons, men of conscience, Christians in the Lord’s vineyard, even if each had his own particular way of serving. Fisher would, I am sure, have been proud of his brother bishops, priests and people in recent days, standing up for Catholic teaching on life and love in the contest over the meaning of marriage; the English Church performed less well in Fisher’s time. On the other hand, More would, I suspect, be less impressed, if unsurprised, by his brother and sister parliamentarians here in NSW, who caved in to the fashion of the age to allow marriage to be redefined in the interests of the powerful: that was precisely what happened in his day.

So in Thomas More and John Fisher we see the common dignity and wonderful diversity of the Church, whereby the children of God – and certainly the members of the CCD – “accomplish the work God has given [them] to do” to quote Fisher’s favourite Gospel passage. In Fisher and More we see the complementarity of clergy and laity, each building up the kingdom of God on earth in the sphere proper to each and each working out with God his or her own salvation and that of others. And we see two believers who were men of reason and rhetoric, men who used their heads, at least until they were summarily removed, just as you do, in considering what is to be known and shared and how with your young people, about God and the things of God, about the human person and the lives and loves of persons.

John the Baptist

In the Middle Ages one of the most popular devotional items was a carved head of St John the Baptist on a platter. It was the sort of thing you found in all the best Christian homes – I’m not sure how many of you have one at home yourselves, perhaps on the dinner table! The devotion derived of course from the Gospel story of Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, who had divorced his wife Phasælis and unlawfully taken his brother Philip’s wife Herodias as his own (Mk 6:17-29). John – that extraordinary priest turned hippy-hermit turned prophet-baptiser, who had identified Jesus as The-One-Who-Is-To-Come, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – this same John had called all Israel to repentance. Now he dared say out loud what everyone was thinking about the royal marriage, just as people would whisper 15 centuries later about Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. He dared tell, as Fisher and More dared to tell, and what many of us today find it difficult in the face of all the social pressure to tell: to the truth about marriage.

Calling kings to repentance is a risky business: instead of leading to their conversion, it can lead to the prophet being silenced. For John it earned a long imprisonment. But there was something about the man, or his thought, his preaching, that fascinated people. He drew huge crowds to the River Jordan for baptism and now he held Herod’s attention even as he challenged him. SRE teachers have such a task. To preach a truth that is intriguing, fulfilling but also sometimes confronting. I don’t know how many come to you begging for baptism as a result. I certainly hope they don’t arrive with weapons ready to take you away to the dungeons. Perhaps they have more subtle torments!

There are many ways to kill a man. To behead him is to kill him in a way that publicly removes his brain and tongue, the organs of thinking, communicating and teaching. As SRE teachers of the Diocese of Parramatta you must be especially aware of these gifts. They are in fact the principal teaching aids you have, more important than whiteboards or PowerPoint projectors, handouts or music. You’ve got a mind and a voice, as have your students. Too easily they can be diverted by ideologies or interests, overpowered by noise and propaganda, underutilised by intellectual laziness or indifference. There are many ways to kill the mind and silence the truth: beheading is only the most dramatic.

John challenged as he taught: Herod was perplexed “yet he liked to listen to him”. Herodias was furious, as much about the influence this man had over her husband as about his message. His message was, of course, the Judeo-Christian teaching about the sanctity of marriage. In our culture the temptation is to say nothing that challenges the subjectivism, relativism and consumerism that reigns in the palace. But John would not be silenced, as long as he kept his head. The seductive dance of Salome on the king’s birthday, the king’s drunken, lust-crazed offer to give her anything she asked, the hateful heart of the queen, the appalling request of mother and daughter, the cowardly, face-saving act of ordering the execution of an innocent: all are the stuff of ancient legend. Yet history it was also: not only do the Gospels corroborate this account, but so does the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

According to a tradition of the Orientals, the deceased John then went to preach to the souls in Limbo awaiting redemption by Christ – presumably he got his head back for the task! So just as the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is the beginning of the Gospel for the living, so the Feast of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist is the beginning of the Gospel for the dead. As John was the forerunner of Christ to the living, making straight the way of the Lord, so he was the forerunner of Christ even to the dead, getting them ready for His coming on Holy Saturday. The mind and tongue of this prophet would not be stopped, even by death!

According to ancient tradition John’s body was buried at Sebaste, but Herodius had the head buried in a dung heap. Once again the organ of his thinking, communicating and teaching was to be humiliated; once again, we are reminded just how precious, how powerful, how threatening can be the life of the mind and the tongue, of the preacher and teacher, the evangelist and catechist. According to that same tradition, however, John’s head was secretly recovered by his followers and hidden away, only to be rediscovered several times over the centuries, giving rise to various claims and counter-claims as to who has the principal relic. Rather troublingly for those who like these things neat and tidy, there are several heads of John the Baptist available for veneration, in churches in Rome, Amiens and Antioch, in a museum in Munich and a mosque in Damascus!

It’s easy to think that the age of the martyrs is over, but maybe it has just begun. Reflecting upon the recent threats to religious liberty in America, Cardinal George of Chicago said recently that he expected to die in his bed, but predicted that his successor would die in a prison cell and the following archbishop be executed for the faith. It’s a rather dramatic prediction, but the point is it cannot be presumed we will always be allowed to live our faith peaceably. In 10,000 years from now, people may look back to the great doctors of the early Church such as Augustine, Basil the Great, John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI, and the martyrs of that early church such as John the Baptist, Thomas More, John Fisher and the 21st Century martyrs of the CCD in Parramatta. For that you catechists must cultivate courage and faithfulness.

In his apostolic letter at the beginning of the new millennium (Novo Millennio Inuente), John Paul II wrote that people who are willing to die for the truth become like Christ Himself and have throughout history helped the Church to survive and grow. The Church in our day, he said, has once again become a church of martyrs and their witness must not be forgotten. In fact more people die for the Christian faith each year in the contemporary world than did at any time before in history, even under persecutors such as the Emperor Nero. Many others face a more subtle shunning, being treated as fanatics if ever they hint that they think their religion might be right. They are pressured to keep quiet about it, whatever strange thing it is they believe, and leave those around them undisturbed. It is the counsel of Herodias and of Henry whispered again in our age. In such places, in such times, the temptation is, once again, to shut our minds and our mouths, to act as if we’d been beheaded.

A few years ago Pope Benedict XVI spoke at a new memorial in Rome for the martyrs of modern times and asked why these brothers and sisters of ours didn’t put their lives first. Why did they, why do they still, speak out for Christ and His Church in spite of grave threats and intimidation? He said that together they stand as a vast panorama of Christian humanity in modernity, the Beatitudes preached even in the shedding of blood. So while it sometimes seemed that totalitarianism, persecution and blind brutality had the upper hand in the modern world, silencing the witness of faith and reason, yet their story goes on. As Tertullian said: “Our numbers increase every time we are cut down by you: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”


As much today as ever before, the Church and the world needs the witness of faith and reason and saints like John the Baptist, John Fisher and Thomas More, prophet, priest and lay person. In other words, it needs men and women like you, who put their brains and voices, minds and tongues, at the service of the Gospel in the hope of bringing people to the fullness of the faith. In teaching both human and Christian wisdom the CCD does our young people a great service and plays its part in the mission of the entire Church, including the martyrs of our faith.

St Thomas More, John Fisher and John the Baptist all lost their heads in service of Christ and His Church. The times we live in are also difficult and the challenges we face are many. But that just means we need to redouble our efforts, feed our hearts and minds on the Word of God and the sacraments, on good reading and good courses, so that we can – in the puns of my young research assistant – give our children the heads up on what really matters, avoid losing our head in the process and help our young people get ahead in life!

Heading forward in this great task to which we have been called, may Christ and His saints, including His headless ones, give you all in your SRE work the wisdom and courage, the minds and tongues, to offer our young people what they need most.

St John the Baptist pray for us!

Saints John Fisher and Thomas More pray for us!

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