Catholics of the Rochester diocese are familiar with the name of the great English martyr, St. John Fisher. We have two institutions named after him: a parish (St. John of Rochester, Fairport), and a college (St. John Fisher). Furthermore, in 1961, Pope John XXIII, at the request of Bishop James Kearney, named St. John, one-time head of the old diocese of Rochester in England, to be the patron saint of the American diocese of the same name.
It is a commonplace that church life was in decline before the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. Even though some bishops might not have been worth their salt, there were exceptions. One was John Fisher. The ambassador to England of Emperor Charles V called John “the paragon of Christian bishops for learning and holiness”.
John Fisher was born in Beverly, northern England, the son of a drygoods merchant. He was sent to Cambridge University at age 14, and for the rest of his life was associated with that center of learning. A brilliant student himself, he was ordained a priest at the early age of 22, and soon became headmaster of Michaelhouse College and vice-chancellor of the whole university.
In 1502, however, he resigned the mastership in order to become chaplain to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. Lady Margaret and her chaplain worked as a team for the betterment of the University of Cambridge. She founded Christ’s College and St. John’s College at Cambridge, and established both at Cambridge and at Oxford a Lady Margaret professorship of theology.
Meanwhile, Dr. Fisher was trying to better educational standards. To promote current scholarship, he invited the great humanist Erasmus to join the staff of the university. In 1504, John was elected university chancellor, a post he held until death.
In the same year, King Henry VII named Fisher bishop of the small and poor diocese of Rochester, England. He might well have “graduated” from this small diocese to a more important one, but he always declined the suggestion. He said, “he would not leave his poor old wife” (the Rochester diocese) “for the richest widow” (other diocese) “in England.”
Lack of worldly ambition was typical of the man. His life was that of a scholar (he began to learn Greek and Hebrew at middle age); an ascetic (he prayed long, slept short, and ate little): and a pastor (he was most diligent in his duties as a bishop).
When the Reformation broke out, he was selected to preach and write against Lutheranism. Four volumes came from his pen in refutation of Martin Luther’s teachings, although he himself thought that polemics accomplished less than prayers. In the whole English episcopate, he stood out against the political worldliness of his fellow bishops.
Only a man of independence could have withstood King Henry VIII when the king denied the validity of his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon.
Henry had previously admired Fisher. Now he found him a frustrating obstacle in the way of his securing a declaration of nullity. Dr. Fisher stood firm; so did the king. Imprisonments, attempted poisoning, and warning gunshots did not budge the Bishop. Eventually, when the rest of the bishops weakly took the oath of supremacy to the king as head of the church in England, Fisher fell into the royal net and was accused of treason.
As the bishop lingered in prison, Pope Paul III declared him a cardinal. This honor only drove the king to quicker action.
Cardinal Fisher, condemned to death in a pseudo-trial on June 17, 1535, was taken to the scaffold near the Tower of London five days later.
The frail, aged victim declared to the people that he was dying for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church. He begged them to pray that he not waver. Then he recited the “Te Deum” in thanksgiving, and the psalm “In te, Domine speravi” (“In thee, Lord, have I hoped.”). His head, once severed by the axe, was impaled on a spike atop London Bridge, as a “warning”. But history has cherished the bishop and condemned the monarch who executed him.
Throughout the Church, a joint feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More is celebrated on June 22. However, in the American diocese of Rochester, Fisher alone is commemorated on June 22, since he is the diocesan patron.
–Father Robert F. McNamara