Saint John Fisher
Although Saint Thomas More was the most famous victim of King Henry VIII’s persecution of Catholics who refused to accept his supremacy over the Church in England, his friend and adviser, John Fisher, was the first to protest King Henry’s machinations, and suffered martyrdom because of it.
John Fisher was born in 1469, educated at Cambridge at the age of 14 and was ordained a priest at the age of 22. At age 32 he was appointed chaplain to the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and at age 35, was appointed chancellor of Cambridge University and ordained bishop for the Diocese of Rochester. It is noted of John Fisher that he immersed himself in his pastoral responsibilities with great energy and pastoral care
A popular preacher who was in great demand, Fisher was chosen to preach at the funerals of King Henry VII and Lady Margaret herself. He was considered by many to be the holiest and most scholarly bishop in all Christendom during his life. Even the humanist, Erasmus, had the highest regard for Fisher, calling him “the best scholar in his nation, and its most saintly prelate.”
He began the study of Greek at the age of 48 and Hebrew at age 51. He wrote books defending the Catholic faith against the accusations of Martin Luther, which constituted the first serious refutation of Lutheran teachings in England. He also upheld the doctrines of the Real Presence and the sacrificial nature of the Mass against Protestants in various English universities.
At the same time, Fisher was also committed to church reform. He spoke out strongly against the worldliness and laxity of the clergy. However, he believed that, for the sake of unity, reform should be initiated within the Church rather than against it. His theological positions were influential at the Council of Trent.
When King Henry VIII contemplated divorce and remarriage, it was John Fisher who argued for the validity and indissolubility of his first marriage. Fisher later protested Henry’s new title as “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” which ultimately led to his arrest as a traitor, imprisonment in the Tower of London and death sentence.
John Fisher was beheaded on June 22, 1534 at age 66. At his execution, he retained his dignity, pardoning his executioner and declaring that he was dying for the faith of Christ’s Church. He asked for the spectators’ prayers, recited the Te Deum and then a psalm. He was a great source of inspiration and strength for fellow martyr St. Thomas More, who followed Fisher’s lead in standing against King Henry. John Fisher was canonized in 1935. His feast day is the same day as Saint Thomas More, June 22.