The Fortnight for Freedom observance in support of religious liberty — which will close locally on July 4 with a 5 p.m. Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken at in downtown Green Bay — includes the feast of St. John Fisher. He was martyred for opposing King Henry VIII’s divorce.
John was a scholar, educator and bishop who lived a simple life and sought reform of church hierarchy. Born at Beverley, Yorkshire, he attended Michaelhouse College (later merged into Trinity) at Cambridge University. He was ordained at age 22 and served four years as parish priest in Northallerton, Yorkshire.
In 1497, he became master at Michaelhouse and, in 1502, chaplain to Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, whom he encouraged to found Christ’s and Saint John’s colleges at Cambridge, and the Lady Margaret divinity chair there and at Oxford.
In 1504, he was elected chancellor of Cambridge and Bishop of Rochester, England’s poorest and smallest diocese. He later refused more prominent dioceses, saying he “would not leave his poor old wife for the richest widow in England.”
At Cambridge, John endowed scholarships and hired his friend Erasmus (1466-1536), the Dutch Renaissance humanist, priest and classical scholar to teach divinity and Greek. All the while, John served as a bishop, visiting parishes and the sick and giving alms. Despite his simple lifestyle, John was known to keep a good table for everyone but himself. He gave the funeral orations for both Henry VII and Queen Margaret.
Erasmus said of him: “There is not in the nation a more learned man nor a holier bishop.” Henry VIII said: “no other prince or kingdom had so distinguished a prelate.”
Henry’s attitude changed in 1527 after he asked John to study his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. John not only upheld its validity, he became the queen’s leading supporter. After Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage, Henry passed laws to limit papal jurisdiction and revenues. In 1531, he declared himself head of the church in England.
After John preached against the divorce in 1532, he was imprisoned for 14 months. When he refused to sign the oath of allegiance in 1534, he was again sent to the Tower of London. He was tried for treason and beheaded soon after Pope Paul III made him a cardinal in 1535.
Sources: americancatholic.org; catholic.org; elvis.rowan.edu; findagrave.com; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; and wikipedia.org.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.