Becket’s lesson beckons

Should God permit me to be archbishop of Canterbury, I should lose our Majesty’s favour, and the affection with which you honour me would be changed into hatred. For several things you do in prejudice to the rights of the Church make me fear that you would require of me what I could not agree to; and envious persons would not fail to make this the occasion of endless strife between us. –St. Thomas Becket

🏈 From 12-29-06. St. Thomas Becket’s death—his brutal murder in his own cathedral—is one of the most chronicled martyrdoms in the history of Christianity. But his life, which brought Thomas to his moment of Truth, certainly bears recounting. For the story of a steadfast archbishop is a tale of courage fit for any age.

In the movie Becket (starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, an excellent buy/rent if you can find it), Thomas is portrayed as an impetuous playboy until he was consecrated archbishop, and while records of his prayer life, religious retreats and regular confession show this to be a bit of an exaggeration, this depiction is not totally without merit. For the brilliant Thomas had risen, from a starving clerk (a la Bob Crachit) to the archdeacon of Canterbury in relatively short order, and when you go from poverty to commanding an entourage of over 200 (when Thomas went to France to arrange a royal marriage for the infant prince Henry, his retinue included knights and esquires, clerics and servants, musicians and singers, not to mention trained hawks and bloodhounds and eight wagon-loads of presents) something has to give. The grave problem was that these pseudo-religious titles like “archdeacon” swore allegiance to both king and pope; but of course if the two conflicted you chose the king, unless you wanted to go back to being a lowly clerk—or worse. But “archdeacon” was one thing; the higher you rose in Ecclesiastic ranks, the greater this conflict became. And thus, when his close friend King Henry II appointed the now Chancellor Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury—the highest Church Office in the land—Thomas tried to refuse, flat out telling the king the gulf between God and king in this post would be too great to serve both. Henry paid no heed, and Thomas was ordained priest, then consecrated bishop in the octave of Pentecost 1162.

Thanks to the Holy Spirit, the lives of saints and martyrs continually repeats itself, and the rest of Becket’s story is part St. Ambrose, part St. Thomas More. Like Ambrose, Becket changed his life drastically after he was consecrated, arising early to pray, study scripture, say Mass, and then personally distribute alms, doubling the amount doled out to the poor of his predecessor. Thomas wore a hair shirt under his regal bishop’s dress, and now ate moderately when attending the great banquet table of the king.

And like Thomas More, Becket’s disputes with the king were at first manageable. Becket began to use Church money for other things (alms, for example) than what the king desired, and also began denying some of the king’s men Holy Orders, for the simple reason they weren’t holy. But finally the disagreements over money and appointments became too great and Thomas, fearing for his life, exiled himself to France.

When in France, Thomas tried to resign his archbishopric directly to the pope, but Pope Alexander refused, ordering him not to abandon his calling. Sure enough, while Thomas was gone, the Archbishop of York made a power play, crowning a successor to the English throne against Thomas’ (and Pope Alexander’s) orders. Knowing duty called, Thomas bid farewell to the bishop of Paris saying, “I am going home to England to die,” and resumed his post at Canterbury.

Armed with letters from the pope himself, Thomas fired his first salvo almost immediately, officially (and publicly) excommunicating the Archbishop of York and his rogue assistant bishops in his homily while saying Mass at Canterbury on Christmas day! Enraged (for although Prince Henry wasn’t yet the rightful successor, he was the king’s son), Henry II angrily blurted out “Who will rid me of this archbishop!” and while history seems to support the theory that Henry never officially ordered the assassination, four knights took him at his word, and shortly thereafter, Thomas, who was praying in the Canterbury Cathedral at the time, was hacked to death between the altars of Our Lady and St. Benedict.

The outrage not only in England but in all of Christian Europe was so great that Henry II had to do eighteen months of penance (both private fastings and public floggings) before he received absolution. By then, Thomas had already been canonized a saint, and his shrine became perhaps the greatest place of pilgrimage in all of Europe—until Henry VIII, St. Thomas More’s nemesis, destroyed it during the Reformation. Thomas Becket proved to be one of the greatest examples the Church has ever produced of both amending your life when given a vocation, and defying civil authority when it no longer supports God’s law. If we, as priest, parent, or public servant would only do the same…

St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!


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