Wednesday, 22 June 2011

English Bishop murdered for the Faith!

At 5am on 22nd June 1535 the Lieutenant of the Tower of London went to the cell in which the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, was imprisoned. He woke the Bishop from his sleep to inform him that it was the King’s pleasure that the Bishop should be executed that day. Fisher asked him at what hour the execution was due to take place and when the Lieutenant answered that it was appointed for 9am, Bishop Fisher replied “Well then, let me by your patience sleep an hour or two, for I have slept very little this night, not for any fear of death, I thank God, but by reason of my great weakness”.

Bishop John Fisher was a cool man in the true sense of the phrase. He faced a king who had set about the total destruction of all that was holy, Catholic and sacred in the land and he faced him without apparent fear – and he faced him alone. None of his Episcopal colleagues appeared eager to stick to their principles; they preferred to switch allegiance, deny their long held beliefs, reject the Holy Father and align themselves with the emergent protestant movement that was shaking Europe to its foundations. That was not for John Fisher.

Born a Yorkshireman (well known for their gritty stubbornness) John Fisher was estimated to be well into his seventies when he was faced with the ultimate decision of right or wrong. Naturally, he chose right despite Catholic  England collapsing around him.
The Tower of London - last home
to the Bishop of Rochester

He was first arrested in March 1533 after preaching against the King’s divorce but released within a few weeks. He avoided further arrest later in the same year as he fell seriously ill. In March 1534 he was re-arrested for his alleged part in the Nun of Kent affair (Elizabeth Barton, the visionary who was executed in April 1534).

Then came the Act of Succession which the Bishop resolutely refused to sign and he was committed to the Tower of London on April 26th.
Due to his age and ill health he suffered greatly in the Tower and in May 1535, the new Pope (Paul III) appointed John Fisher as Cardinal of St Vitalis in a move designed to soften Henry’s attitude towards him. It had the reverse effect and the King refused to allow the Cardinal’s hat entry into the country promising that he would, instead, send the head to Rome.

He was then tried on 17th June and sentenced to the brutal hanging, drawing and quartering method of execution; this was later changed to beheading.

So it was that this great man finally arose from his sleep and dressed ready for his execution. He asked his manservant to remove his customary shirt of hair that he wore daily and to replace it with a freshly pressed white linen shirt and the best clothes that were available.
The manservant queried this request, not unreasonably arguing that, as the Bishop only had less than two hours to live, why should he take so much trouble.
The Bishop replied: “Dost thou not know that this is our wedding day and it behoveth us, therefore, to use more cleanliness for solemnity of the marriage?”

Taking a small copy of The New Testament in his hand he made the sign of the cross and left the prison accompanied by the Lieutenant.
As he ascended the scaffold the sun lit up his face and he said as he went to his death:
“Come ye to Him and be enlightened and your faces shall not be confounded”
With his outer clothes removed he stood a slight and emaciated figure in his shift, the final indignity.
As he bent over the block he asked for prayers for himself, prayed for the king and then entered into silent prayer before the axe blade fell on his neck.

       St John Fisher – Pray for the Bishops of England and Wales
                                     Ora Pro Nobis!

                             A Prayer Composed by Saint John Fisher

Help me, most loving father, help me with thy mighty grace. Succour me with thy most gracious favour. Rescue me from these manifold perils that I am in, for unless thou wilt of thy infinite goodness relieve me, I am but as a lost creature. Thy strict commandment is that I should love thee with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, with all my power. And thus, I know, I do not, but am full far short and wide therefrom; which think I perceive by the other loves that I have had of thy creatures heretofore. For such as I sincerely loved, I loved them so that I seldom did forget them. They were ever in my remembrance and almost continually mine heart was occupied with them and my thought ran ever upon them as well absent as present. Specially when they were absent I much desired to have their presence and to be there where they were, or else my heart were never in any rightful quiety. But alas, my dear father, I am not in this condition towards thee. For I keep thee not in my remembrance nor bear thee in my thought nor occupy my heart with thee so often as I should, but for every trifle that cometh to my mind I let thee slip and fall out thereof. And for every fantasy that stirreth in my heart I set thee aside, shortly forget thee. I suffer many a trifling thought occupy my soul at liberty, but with thee, my dear father, I have lightly done, and forthwith turn me to, the remembrance of thy creatures and so tarry with thee but a short while, the delight in thy creatures so pulleth and draweth me hither and thither, my wretched desires so blind me. This false world so deceiveth me that I forget thee, which art my most loving father and art so desirous to have my heart and love. What are thy creatures but creatures made by thee? Thou made me and them of naught and thou far incomparably passeth all them. And what are my desires, when they are set on thy creatures and not in an order to thee, what are they but wretched and sinful affections? And finally what is this world but a miserable exile, full of perils and evils far unlike that glorious country where thou art resident and sheweth thy most excellent Majesty in wonderful glory? There thou art clearly seen to all thy blessed angels and saints of thy most highly triumphant court. They be there ever present before thy blessed face and behold thy Majesty continually face to face. O my dear father, here should be mine heart, here should be my desire and remembrancy. I should long to have sight of thy most blessed face, I should earnestly desire to see thy country and kingdom, I should ever wish to be there present with thee and thy most glorious court. But this, alas, I do not. And therefore I sorrow at my grievous negligence, I weep for my abominable forgetfulness, I lament my vileness, yea, my very madness, that thus for trifles and vanities forget my most dear and loving father. Alas, woe is me! What shall I do? Wither may I turn me? To whom shall I resort for help? Where shall I seek for any remedy against the worldly and earthly waywardness of my heart? Whither should I rather go than to my father, to my most loving father, to my most merciful father, to him that of his infinite love and mercy hath given me boldness to call him father? Whose son Jesu my saviour hath taught me thus to call him, and to think verily that he is my father, yea, and a more loving father than is any natural father unto his child. These are his words speaking unto the natural fathers of this world when ye that are infect with evil can liberally give unto your children good gifts, how much rather your heavenly father shall give a good spirit to them that ask it of him. These works, most gracious father, are the words of thy most dearly beloved son, Jesu, wherein he teaches us that thou art our very father and maketh promise on thy behalf that thou shalt give thine holy spirit unto them that ask thy son or thee studiously. Thou willest that we should believe him and faithfully trust his words. For thou testified of him that he was thine entirely beloved son and bade us hear him and give a full faith unto his words. Wherefore we may be certain and sure of three things. The first is that thou art our father, the second that thou art a more kind and loving father unto us than are the carnal fathers of this world unto their children. The third, that thou wilt give, to such as devoutly ask it of thee, thy most holy spirit. We may be well assured that for thine inestimable goodness, and for the honour of thy name and everlasting truth thou wilt not disappoint these promises, for as much as they were made by thy most entirely beloved son Christ Jesu whom thou sent into this world to make the truth certain and to confirm the same unto us by the blood which he shed for us on his cross.
O father, then, whither shall I turn in my necessity rather than to thee which have me call thee by this name, a name of much love and tenderness, of much delight and pleasure, a name which stirreth the heart with much hope and constancy and many other delectable affections. And if nothing were told me but only this name, it might suffice to make me steadfastly trust that thou, which hast commanded me to call thee by this name father, will help me and succour me at my need when I sue unto thee; but much rather because my saviour thy son Christ Jesu hath assured me that thou art a more kind and more loving father unto me than was mine own natural father. This assurance made by the most entirely beloved son should specially move both thee and me. First it should move me to have an hope and a confidence that thou wilt deal with me according to the same promise. Second, it should also move thee to perform this promise effectually and so to show thyself a kind and loving father in this my petition. My petition, most dear father, is agreeable to that same promise made by thy most entirely beloved son my saviour Jesu. I ask none other thing but thy good and holy spirit to be given unto me according to that same promise which he promised.
I know, most gracious father, that thou art here present with me albeit I see thee not. But thou both seest me and hearest me and no secrecy of my heart is hid from thee. Thou hearest that I now ask thine holy spirit and thou knowest that I now pray therefore and that I am very desirous to have the same. Lo! Dear father, with all the enforcement of my heart I beseech thee to give thine holy spirit unto me. Wherefore unless thou wilt disappoint the promise of thy son Jesu thou canst not but give me this holy spirit; so by this means I shall be fully relieved of that misery whereof I complained unto thy goodness at the beginning. Thy most holy spirit he shall make me to love thee with all my heart, and with all my soul, with all my mind, with all my power, for he is the author of all good love, he is the very furnace of charity and he is the fountain of all gracious affections and godly desires. He is the spiritual fire that kindles in the heart of them where he enters all gracious love; he fills their souls in whom he is received with the abundance of charity; he makes their minds sweetly to burn in all godly desires and gives unto them strength and power courageously to follow all ghostly affections and specially towards thee. Wherefore, dear father, when thou hast strictly commanded me thus to love thee with all my heart and thus would I right gladly do (but without thy help and without thy holy spirit I cannot perform the same), I beseech thee to shed upon my heart thy most holy spirit by whose gracious presence I may be warmed, heated and kindled with the spiritual fire of charity and with the sweetly burning love of all godly affections, that I may fastly set my heart, soul and mind upon thee and assuredly trust that thou art my very loving father and according to the same trust I may love thee with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind and all my power. Amen

Today is also the feastday of that other great Saint and fellow martyr of St John Fisher, St Thomas More – Ora pro nobis!

Posted by Richard Collins  - Linen on the Hedgerow

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