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For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
John Fisher, Bishop and Martyr, 1469-1535
John was born in Beverly, York, England, the son of Robert and Mary Ann Fisher. His father died when he was very young, but his mother saw to it that John was well educated.
From early on, John was recognized as a gifted student. He entered the University of Cambridge where he received his Master of Arts degree, and he was ordained a priest in 1491. Chosen as proctor of the university, John continued his studies earning the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1501. In the same year, he was named vice chancellor of the university.
Fisher’s reputation was widespread in England, particularly in intellectual circles. Lady Margaret, the Countess of Richmond and mother of King Henry VII, soon called him into service as her councilor. Already generous in her good works, Lady Margaret became more so under the influence of John Fisher. She gave alms to the needy, provided dowries for poor brides, distributed food, and provided shelter. In addition, John’s influence caused her to establish two colleges at Cambridge.
Also admired by the king, John was nominated by Henry VII to be the bishop of Rochester in 1504, and assumed this position at the age of thirty-five. In the same year, he was elected Chancellor of the University at Cambridge. As bishop, John Fisher visited every parish in his diocese and spent much of his time attending to the sick and overseeing the care of the poor under his charge. At the same time, as chancellor of the university, John Fisher was gaining world renown for his contributions to the intellectual world as well as his confutation of the heretical stands of Martin Luther.
Upon the death of Henry VII, Fisher became councilor to Catherine of Aragon, wife of King Henry VIII. Later, when Henry tried to divorce Catherine, the bishop strongly defended the validity and indissolubility of the marriage. And as Henry took further steps toward separating the Church in England from Rome, John Fisher spoke out in defense of the Church and the supremacy of the pope.
Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More were both called upon to take the oath of loyalty to the king, and recognize his sovereignty over the Church of England. When both refused, they were imprisoned at the Tower of London. During their imprisonment, members of the king’s council tried hard to persuade both to take the oath, but both refused. When it was discovered that the two were exchanging letters of encouragement, the councilors forbade any contact between the two. They then approached each, telling them that the other had consented to recognizing the king’s position. Still, both refused the oath.
On May 21, 1535, Pope Paul III named the John Fisher a cardinal. In anger, Henry had Fisher tried for high treason. Like Thomas More, he was convicted on false testimony and was beheaded on June 22, 1535.
St. John Fisher was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1935. An optional memorial honors this saint along with St. Thomas More on June 22.
John’s message today: John Fisher refused to go against his principles. It can be easy to compromise one’s beliefs for worldly gain, particularly when one’s life is at stake. We can look to people like John Fisher as models when we are called upon to yield on what we believe in.