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Where have all the prophets gone? The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.

The occurrence of the solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on a Sunday this year afforded us the happy occasion to reflect on the significance of the feast itself, the singular holiness of St. John the Baptist, and his role as both a prophet to Israel and indeed the model of all Christian prophets.


The Gospel of Luke (1:26) (1) records that the conception of the Baptist took place six months before the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the ever-Virgin Mary. Accordingly, six months before Christmas, the Church celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist. The Christian Church marks the birth of Christ on 25 December, just after the winter solstice (21 December) when the sun starts to return in its vigour and the days begin to lengthen. Correspondingly, on June 24, mere days after the summer solstice (June 21) and the beginning of the sun's decline, the Church observes the birth of John the Baptist. In this way, the motto of the Baptist, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:29-30) is fulfilled even in the arrangement on the liturgical calendar of his birthday in relationship to that of Christ. (2)



The Church generally assigns as the feast of a saint the day not of the saint's earthly birth but rather of his or her death or birth to eternal life, one's truest dies natalis. (3) This is because nearly every saint was conceived and born with original sin. The two exceptions to this rule, aside from Jesus Christ himself, are the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was conceived without original sin in the womb of her mother St. Anne, and St. John the Baptist, who was cleansed of original sin while still in his mother's womb. (4) In fact, it was at the moment of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to St. Elizabeth that John the Baptist was cleansed of original sin:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy (Lk 1:41-44).

Just as David the King had danced before the Ark of the Covenant on its journey from the house of Obededom the Gittite to Jerusalem (see 2 Sam 6:10-16), so John danced in his mother's womb before the expectant Mary, the living Ark of the New Covenant.


As the greatest in a long line of major and minor prophets, John the Baptist bridged the Old and the New Testaments. (5) Like every prophet, John pointed to Christ, testifying to the Messiah's role as the anointed one of God who would bring about the redemption of the human race. In the fourth Gospel, the Baptist points to Jesus, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world" (In 1:29). Hence Christian iconography and western art generally portray John pointing to Christ sometimes in the form of a lamb. (6)

Christians often overlook the fact, however, that John the Baptist was the son of a priest, and therefore was himself a priest in virtue of his genealogy. The Gospel of Luke points out that John's father Zachariah was a priest of the order or clan of Abijah and that his mother Elizabeth belonged to the tribe of Levi (Lk 1:5). In fact, Zachariah was performing his priestly duties in the temple when, according to Lk 1:5-20, he was greeted there by the archangel Gabriel and told of the forthcoming birth of the Baptist. Unlike his father, however, John the Baptist never exercised his priestly functions. Instead, he joined a community of ascetics known as the Essenes. This group avoided anything to do with the liturgical rites carried out in the second temple.


The original temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon the Wise in the mid-tenth century BC, had been destroyed by the Persians under Nebuchadnezzar II around the year 587 BC (see 2 Kgs 25). The Essenes recused themselves from worshipping in the second temple, which was erected in 516 BC to replace Solomon's temple. The second temple itself was destroyed under Titus in AD 70. The Essenes sought rather to prepare for the coming of the Lord's Anointed One by a life of penitence that featured ritual purification by means of lustral baths. Hence it is not surprising to find John living as a celibate, dressed in camel's skin, eating locusts and wild honey, and baptizing Israelites with a baptism of repentance in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

Rather than exercise his priestly role, which he had inherited from his father, John carried out instead a dramatic ministry as a prophet. It was precisely in his capacity as a prophet that John became effective not only in testifying to the messiahship of Christ, but also to the truth about morality and family life. Nevertheless, it is worth recalling that John was both a priest and a prophet.


What landed John the Baptist in prison was neither his ascetic lifestyle nor his activities as a baptizer of repentant sinners, it being a matter of indifference to the civil government whether he lived as a celibate in a religious community or baptized penitents in the Jordan River. John went to jail rather for his commitment to the truth about marriage and family life, indeed for his insistence on the truth about a particular marriage and a particular family: that of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Both Herod and Herodias, as their names suggest, belonged to the Herodean dynasty of puppet kings in Palestine.


Herod Antipas (20 BC-AD 39), the son of Herod the Great (74-4 BC) by the Samaritan Malthace, was the tetrarch of Galilee. Antipas put a familiar, if not altogether friendly, regional face on the pagan imperial government. Antipas accounted ultimately to Rome for the civil administration of Galilee and its environs. Herodias (13 BC-AD 39) was the daughter of Aristobulus IV (31-7 BC), the son of Herod the Great by Mariamne. Consequently, Herodias was Antipas' half-niece by blood. Herodias had been married already to Antipas' brother, Philip (27 BC-AD 34), who, being the son of Herod the Great by Mariamne daughter of Simon, likewise was her half-uncle. Philip was still alive when Herodias ceased living with him and took up with Antipas.

Herodias, then, was related to Herod Antipas not just by marriage (affinity) but also by blood (consanguinity). Driven by ambition, Herodias divorced Philip in order to marry his brother Herod Antipas, thereby abandoning one half-uncle to marry another. Salome, by the way, was the daughter of Herodias by Philip. According to Hebrew law, then, Herodias was a practitioner not only of adultery, but also of incest. Herod Antipas' fascination with Herodias' and Philip's daughter Salome underscores the sinister character of the Herodian family relationships. It must be admitted, however, that, for all her undoubted wickedness and wantonness, Herodias at least never sought to have marriage redefined in law.


The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37?-c. 101) acknowledges that Herodias' decision to divorce her husband Philip in order to marry his somewhat more influential brother Antipas was at variance with Jewish faith and the religious laws of Israel. (7) Nevertheless, no record survives of a complaint about this arrangement from the high priest or any of the chief priests. The single voice boldly identifying this flagrant violation of the sanctity of marriage was that of the Baptist. Here, as in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, John emerges as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'" (Mk 1:3). Perhaps the reason why no one in the hierarchy of Israel dared to raise his voice against this pernicious arrangement had to do with fear of losing the tolerance of the pagan Roman government. It would not be the only time in history when religious authorities kept mum while civil rulers flouted the laws of God and nature.


John the Baptist did nothing other than tell the truth about a union that transgressed the law of God and that offended decent sensibilities. Everyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, and this included most of the inhabitants of Palestine at the time, knew that the union of Herod and Herodias was irregular according to biblical, natural, and religious law, yet no one dared to raise the issue publicly.

Perhaps the religious authorities of the day feared that Herod might stop work on his remodeling and expansion of the temple. Or perhaps, knowing the cruelty of Herod the Great, who had not been above murdering members of his own immediate family (e.g. Aristobulus), they feared that they too might suffer imprisonment, and even death, if they were to vex Antipas. Whatever might have been the grounds for their silence, the religious authorities officially entrusted with the spiritual and moral leadership of the faithful in Israel failed to address this heinous situation.

John the Baptist lost his head because Herodias could not accept the truth about herself. Herod had John arrested lest he stir up the people against his civil rule; at least this is the reason given by the historian Josephus. (8) This supports the record of the Gospel of Mark concerning the arrest and imprisonment of the Baptist (Mk 6:17-29). Herodias seems to have inherited the cruelty of her grandfather Herod the Great. When therefore Salome had danced before Herod Antipas, and after he had promised to grant her a wish even to relegating to her half of his kingdom, the girl, at her mother's insistence, demanded the head of John the Baptist (Mk 6:28-29). This prize she received on a platter. Attentive readers will have noted a certain irony in the fact that a dance would be the first recorded event of John's life (that is, his Davidic leaping for joy in the womb of his mother on the occasion of the Visitation) and another dance would be the event that precipitated his decapitation.

Because John the Baptist had the courage of his convictions, his firm adherence to the sanctity of marriage led to his death in prison. He could have joined the conspiracy of silence over Herod and Herodias, and thereby saved his life; or he simply could have renounced his system of belief and publicly rescinded his condemnation of their behaviour. Yet John remained firm in his adherence to the truth. Therefore, even though John was beheaded before the crucifixion and death of Christ, the Church observes on 29 August the memorial of his beheading as a martyrdom because he died for his witness to "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). Christians recognize by these titles the person and figure of Jesus Christ, who so identified himself.

No saint on the calendar, except for the Blessed Virgin Mary, ranks higher in the catalogue of holiness than John the Baptist. Jesus himself, recognizing John's fidelity and the tenacity of John's witness to him, said in reference to John, "Of all men born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). This singular holiness began with John's sanctification in his mother's womb. Christian iconography, in both the East and the West, frequently reflects the privileged position of the Baptist among the saints, particularly in the Deesis or "Intercession" where Christ in majesty is flanked on his right by the Virgin Mary and on his left by the forerunner John, both of whom plead with the heavenly King for the members of the Church militant. The Roman Canon likewise underscores the exalted holiness of the Baptist by presenting him at the head of the second list of saints, which follows the Nobis quoque peccatoribus. Here John parallels the Blessed Virgin Mary, who leads the first list of saints in the Communicantes. (9) The Virgin Mother and the Precursor, then, appear on either side of Christ, who takes his place between them at the narrative of institution and the words of consecration.


Over the centuries, an impressive number of saints have imitated the courageous witness of John the Baptist. One who bears a particularly striking resemblance to the Baptist, however, is St. John Fisher (1469-1535), the Bishop of Rochester, England, who went to his death in the Tower of London on June 22, 1535 by command of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), a monarch notorious for his marriages to no fewer than six wives. John Fisher, let it be recalled, had been highly respected and supported by Henry VIII's grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1532), Countess of Richmond and Derby, who appointed Fisher her chaplain and confessor. (10) Of Fisher's scholarship and holiness she had no doubt, and therefore brought him in due course to the attention of her son Henry VII (1457-1509). According to the earliest extant biography of Fisher, attributed to the priest Richard Hall (+1604),

After he was awhile established, he Ordered himself so discreetly, so temperately and so wisely, that both she and all her family were governed by his high wisdom and discretion. Whereby at last he became greatly reverenced and beloved, not only of that virtuous lady and all her household, but also of the king her son with whom he was in no less estimation and credit all his life than with his mistress. (11)

St. John Fisher was rewarded for his distinguished academic and administrative abilities by being chosen in 1504 as the bishop of Rochester, the smallest diocese in all England. That same year, Fisher was appointed as chancellor of Cambridge University, a position that he held until his death. (12) When it was suggested to Fisher that further ecclesial preferment likely would be forthcoming, with the result that he might become the next bishop of Ely or Lincoln, he replied, "I could never leave my poor old wife to marry the richest widow in England." (13) According to the foremost of Fisher's twentieth-century biographers, Ernest Edwin Reynolds, "John Fisher lacked the art of self-advancement, and he was more at home in the university than at court." (14) Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1543), scarcely given to the flattery of the clergy, accepted Fisher's invitation to Cambridge, and wrote of Fisher to Thomas Halsey, the English Penitentiary at Rome: "He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning, and for greatness of soul." (15) His fellow martyr, Thomas More (1477-1535), wrote of Fisher, "In my list the place of honour goes to the Reverend Father in Christ, John, Bishop of Rochester, distinguished for virtue as well as for learning, qualities in which he has no superior among living men." (16)

Upon the premature death in 1502 of Arthur Prince of Wales, Henry succeeded his elder brother as Prince of Wales and, by a special dispensation of Pope Julius II (reigned 1503-1513) was permitted to marry Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). Catherine later testified under oath that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. (17) When it came to pass that Henry sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine in order to marry the younger and presumably more fertile Anne Boleyn (1501-1536), Fisher was assigned in 1529 as a counsellor to Queen Catherine and rose valiantly to her defence. (18)


Two public figures of the highest moral calibre and known personally to the king stood out for their rigorous honesty: John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of the Realm. The foremost theologically refined clergyman of the realm and England's most astute legal mind refused to sign the petition sent to Pope Clement VII (reigned 1513-1523) requesting the dissolution of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. (19) For their fidelity to the sacramentality of marriage and for their loyalty to the Roman Pontiff, who upheld the marriage between Catherine and Henry, Fisher and More were imprisoned in the Tower of London and ultimately beheaded.

The decision to divorce Catherine and to marry Anne, making her queen in Catherine's stead, was by no means popular, (20) since Catherine had proven an able regent in Henry's absence abroad in wartime and had become renowned for her munificent charity. Yet no English figures in the Church's hierarchy, aside from Bishop Fisher, came to the public support of Catherine as well as of the rights and prerogatives of the pope as the Vicar of Christ and the successor of St. Peter. The aged Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham (1450-1532) had dithered over the validity of the marriage, but died well before the matter reached its climax in 1535. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), Archbishop of York, had compromised himself by his own dubious morals, having sired two illegitimate children (Thomas Wynter, b. 1510, and Dorothy Clancey, b. 1512) by his mistress Joan Larke (1490 to post 1529). Moreover, Wolsey's ambition drove him to strive for an accommodation of Henry's demands in "the King's great matter" In the end, Wolsey, despite his mightiest efforts, fell from power chiefly because he could not obtain from the pope the dissolution of the marriage so urgently demanded by the king. It ought to be recalled, though, that as cardinal and as the Chancellor of the Realm, Wolsey had acquired a great deal of property (e.g. York Place--the future Whitehall; Hampton Court) and material wealth which the king confiscated for his own use.

People in the streets of London and in other parts of England noted the similarity between John Fisher and John the Baptist, and remarked that a second John was giving his life for a second marriage. (21) Henry might have been content to keep Fisher in the Tower until the frail old bishop died there, except that Anne Boleyn, like Herodias, could not accept the truth about herself, and did her utmost to have Fisher executed. (22) It certainly did not help Fisher's cause with Henry that Pope Paul III (reigned 1534-1549) had elevated him to the college of cardinals on 21 May 1535 as cardinal-priest of the title S. Vitale, and had sent to him the red hat of his new office. (23) Henry, sensitive to the comparison between John Fisher and John the Baptist, had the deprived bishop of Rochester beheaded on June 22, thereby deliberately preventing him from seeing the vigil and feast day of his patron saint and namesake on June 23-24. (24) Likewise, Sir Thomas More, aptly named after St. Thomas Becket (1118-1171), the archbishop of Canterbury who stood up to the bully Plantagenet king, Henry II (1133-1189) over the rights of the Church, was beheaded on July 6, 1535, the vigil of the summer festival of St. Thomas Becket--the transfer date of the holy archbishop's relics near the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral. (25)



Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (26) Who will guard the watch guards? The abuse of Herod's power in beheading John the Baptist exposed him as a bully, just as Henry VIII's claims to be the supreme head of the Church in England led him to bully the Catholic hierarchy and laity alike of his day. John Fisher and Thomas More, despite the bonds they wore and the bars that confined them, were the freest men in all England, just as John the Baptist, in spite of his imprisonment, was the freest man in Galilee.

Truth is neither a social construct nor the fruit of a social contract. Truth is determined neither by a majority vote nor by the declarations and pronouncements of a civil government. Even less does truth derive from the arbitrary decree of a temporal government that arrogates to itself jurisdiction over divine and natural laws, not to mention the rights of God. The state, after all, is scarcely the source and origin of all human rights, regardless of any pretensions to the contrary.


John the Baptist stands as the last of the great prophets of the Old Testament and, in Christ's own words, the greatest man born of woman. St. John Fisher remains the epitome of a godly churchman because of his constant profession of the truth "in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword." (27) And St. Thomas More, the model of personal integrity, is not only the patron saint of Catholic lawyers, but also the patron saint of Catholic statesmen and politicians. Mores contribution to posterity consisted not in twisting facts or in changing laws to suit the fluctuations of fashion, but in remaining "a man for all seasons." Canadians today stand to profit from a viewing of Fred Zinneman's 1966 cinematic production of Robert Bolt's eponymous 1960 play. They may find themselves hard pressed indeed to find today Catholic politicians of More's intellectual calibre, his sober wisdom, his thorough formation in humane letters, his Catholic instinct, and his penetrating spiritual insight. Mores the pity.

On this eve/feast of St. John the Baptist, dare we pray that Catholics in Canada might find the wherewithal to speak up for truth when it is under assault? It is by no accident that the Octave of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of French Canada, was selected as the day for signing the British North America Act, which brought into existence on July 1, 1867 the Dominion of Canada. (28) During the days between the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the national holiday, it is apposite to do some soul-searching, and to ask how we might follow the prophetic witness of that last of the great prophets. Prophets emerge in the Christian era whenever they stand up for the truth, and especially when they speak the truth to authority.

Bullies are not born; they are made. Bullies prosper and carry out their works of tyranny when those in authority no less than those in the majority remain silent. In order for Catholics to exercise their prophetic role in the Church and in society at large they cannot be muzzled or intimidated. Obviously, Catholics should speak the truth in charity, but for heaven's sake let the truth be spoken. Otherwise Catholics in Canada and elsewhere may find themselves applauding an emperor without clothes, or, worse, adopting his sartorial manner. And if, in the Terror launched by the mounting tyranny of relativism, the tumbrel should arrive with the midnight knock, then a prelate could scarcely go to the scaffold better dressed than wearing a red hat.


"Lord, according to Thy promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost. So, good Lord, do now in like manner with Thy Church militant. Change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stones. Set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labors--watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat--which also shall not fear the threatenings of princes, persecution, neither death, but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy Holy Name. By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout the world. Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise Thy mercy, show it indeed upon Thy Church."

This prayer was spoken by St. John Fisher in a sermon in 1508. Twenty-seven years later he underwent martyrdom on Tower Hill in London during the reign of Henry VIII.


As to you, Bishop of the Most High, whom do you desire to please--the world or God? If the world, wherefore are you a priest? If God, why are you a worldly priest? We cannot serve two masters at once. To desire to be the friend of the world is to declare oneself an enemy of God. If I please men, said the Apostle, I shall not be the servant of Jesus Christ ... For, in short, if the priest be the shepherd, if the people are his flock, is it reasonable that there should be no distinction seen between them? If my pastor imitates me, who am one of his sheep, if he walk with his back bent, his face looking downwards, his eyes turned towards the earth, seeking to fill his belly whilst his soul is famished, where is the difference between us? Is it fitting for a pastor to gratify his appetites like a brute beast, to grovel in the dust, to tie himself down to the earth, instead of living according to the spirit, and seeking and tasting the things of heaven? The poor murmur ... your horses, say they, amble under housings studded with gold and precious stones, whilst we walk barefooted; your mules are richly caparisoned, adorned with buckles, chains, bells, and long trappings, shining with golden nails and jewels, whilst you refuse your neighbor wherewithal to cover his nakedness! Tell us, O bishop, of what use is your gold, we say not in the temples, but upon the harness of your horses. Though I did not name these disorders, the misery of the poor would proclaim them.

(1) Scriptural citations are drawn from the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition [RSVCE] (Westminster: Catholic Truth Society, 1966).

(2) See Prosper Gueranger, L'Annee liturgique, 11th ed., III.12: le temps apres Pentecote (Paris: Oudin, 1911) 320 [English: The Liturgical Year, tr. Stanbrook (Powers Lake ND: Marian House, 1983) 239; also Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace, tr. W.G. Heidt (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press 1963) 4:208.

(3) See Parsch, 4:206-207.

(4) Hence the first reading of the vigil is drawn from Jeremiah 1:4-10. See Amalarius of Metz (c. 750- c. 820) Liber de ordine antiphonarii 59.1: "Hieremias et Ioannes utrique sanctificati sunt in utero matris, utrique fortissimi praedicatores extiterunt contra duelles. Ideo verba quae facta sunt Hieremiae, congruenter deputantur Iohanni baptistae." [Both Jeremiah and John were sanctified in their mothers' womb; both were quite strong preachers against warriors; therefore the words that came to Jeremiah are aptly applied to John the Baptist." My translation.] Amalarii episcopi opera liturgica omnia III, ed. J.M. Hanssens (Studi e testi 140; Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1949, 1967) 95.

(5) See St. Augustine of Hippo (354-431), Sermon 293, 1-3 in Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologia latina 38: 1327-1328, assigned as the second reading, Office of Readings for 24 June, Liturgy of the Hours, tr. ICEL (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co.) 3:1488.

(6) See for instance Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528), Crucifixion panel, Isenheim altarpiece: oil on wood 269 x 307 cm [105 7/8 x 120 7/8 in] Colmar: Unterlinden Museum, 1515.

(7) See Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.1; in The Works, tr. William Whiston (New York: Leavitt and Allen, 1853) 491.

(8) See Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2, pp. 491-492.

(9) See Neil J. Roy, "The Roman Canon: Deesis in euchological form," in Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy. Proceedings of the First Fota International Liturgy Conference, 2008, ed. Neil J. Roy and Janet E. Rutherford (Dublin: Four Courts, 2010) 181-199, especially 191-197.

(10) See the earliest extant biography of Fisher, attributed to Richard Hall (+1604) and edited in English and Latin by the Bollandist Francois Van Ortroy under the title Vie du bienheureux martyr Jean Fisher, cardinal, eveque de Rochester, in Analecta Bollandiana 10 (1891) 121-365 and 12 (1893) 97-287, here [section]7 in 10:208.

(11) Hall/Ortroy [section]7 in 10:208; cited in Ernest Edwin Reynolds, Saint John Fisher (New York: Kenedy, 1957) 12.

(12) Upon Fisher's suggestion that he resign the chancellorship of Cambridge University, once he foresaw conflict with Henry VIII over the matter of the latter's appeal to dissolve his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, the senate of the university passed a statute to honour the chancellor in perpetuity and rejected the resignation of the "most learned father, head and glory of this our republic of learning." Reynolds, 145.

(13) According to T.E. Bridgett, CSSR, The Life of Blessed John Fisher (London: Burns and Oates, 1888) 61, "the Bishop of Rochester was the least wealthy in England, his revenues not amounting to 300 [pounds sterling] a year. Fisher's six immediate predecessors had been transferred to richer sees. Far from seeking to imitate them, Fisher used to say that it was safer to have fewer souls and less money to account for, and that he would not desert his poor old wife for the richest widow in England." Similarly, Nicholas Sander (1530-1581), De schismate anglicana (1585) 1.16; English: The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, tr. David Lewis (London: Burns and Oates, 1877; reprint Rockford IL: TAN, 1988) 1:16, p. 121: "There was not in England a more holy and learned man than John Fisher, bishop of Rochester. He was now worn out by age, and though he had been offered more than once a better endowed see, he could never be persuaded to leave the poor church to which God had first called him."

(14) Reynolds, 27.

(15) Letter to Thomas Halsey in Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P.S. Allen, I (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), no. 254; see also letters 242 and 253 for similar witnesses; cited likewise by Reynolds, 42.

(16) St. Thomas More: Selected Letters, ed. Elizabeth Frances Rogers (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967) Letter 26 [83] to a Monk [John Batmanson] p. 125.

(17) See Reynolds, 151.

(18) See Reynolds, 141.

(19) According to Reynolds, 165: "Henry VIII persuaded some of the lords and bishops to sign a petition setting out the support so far received and asking for the pope's favourable constitution. Both John Fisher and Sir Thomas More refused to sign the petition. The king was so annoyed that [Spanish ambassador Eustache] Chapuys believed the Great Seal would be taken away from the new chancellor."

(20) See Sander, Anglican Schism 1.6, p. 28, as well as David Lewis' "Introduction" to Sander, xxvi; also Frederick Maurice Powicke, The Reformation in England (London and New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1949) 7: "There was widespread indignation against the King's treatment of Queen Catherine; the royal insistence that More and Fisher should declare themselves was probably due to the fear that, if criticism and passive resistance were not quelled in high quarters, the management of the public temper might become too difficult; yet the general acquiescence is one of the most mysterious things in our history, and remains, from the point of view of the historian, the chief explanation of the drastic treatment of the Church and the ruthless exploitation of the religious houses."

(21) Stephen Gardiner (1483-1555), secretary first of Wolsey, then of Henry VIII and after November 1531 bishop of Winchester, replying to Fisher's opinion submitted to the legatine court on June 28, 1529, bristled against Fisher's claim that he [Fisher] "had now a juster cause, in withstanding the dissolution of this marriage than Saint John the Baptist had once had against Herod." Gardiner particularly resented the implied casting of Henry in the role of Herod. See his Address to the Legatine Court in Gardiner, Obedience in Church and State: Three Treatises, ed. Pierre Janelle (Cambridge: University Press, 1930) 6-9, here 7.

(22) Nicholas Harpsfield (1519-1575, archdeacon of Canterbury under Mary I) in his Treatise Touching the Pretended Divorce of Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon, transcribed in 1707 by William Eyston, later edited by Nicholas Pocock, maintains that Anne Boleyn sought the heads of both Fisher and More: "So by the marvelous providence and vengeance of God, this woman which at such time as with her playing, singing, and dancing, she had best opportunity, never ceased (as the other damsel that craved St. John Baptist's head importunately) to crave the good bishop's and Sir Thomas Moore's [sic] heads, which thing at length, to their immortal glory, she compassed ere the year turned about, to her perpetual shame and ignominie, lost her head also, as did the foresaid dancing [p. 61] damsel" (Camden Society 21, 1878) 254-255. Harpsfield here underscores the similarities between Anne and Salome. Sander, Anglican Schism treats in lurid detail the origins and character of Anne Boleyn, and his remarks are placed in an appropriate context by Stephen Lewis in his "Introduction" to that work.

(23) See Sander, Anglican Schism 1.16, p. 121, n.1. The red hat was sent as far as Calais, but did not cross the channel. In a letter sent to Emperor Charles V, the imperial ambassador Eustache Chapuys wrote that, "As soon as the king heard that the Bishop of Rochester had been created a cardinal, he declared in anger several times that he would give him another hat, and send the head afterwards to Rome for the cardinal's hat. He sent immediately to the Tower those of his council to summon again the said bishop and Master More to swear to the king as head of the church, otherwise before St. John's day (June 24) they should be executed as traitors." Calendar of Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, no. 876, cited in Reynolds 264-265.

(24) Fisher actually went to his death on the feast of the English protomartyr St. Alban (June 22).

(25) The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, ed. Elizabeth Frances Rogers (Princeton: University Press, 1947) Letter 218, to Margaret Roper, Tower of London, July 5, 1535 [London: British Museum MS Royal 17 D xiv, fol. 426] : "I cumber you goode Margaret muche, but I woulde be sorye, if it shoulde be any lenger than to morrowe, for it is S. Thomas evin, and the vtas of Sainte Peter and therefore to morowe long I to goe to God, it were a daye very meete and conveniente for me" (p. 564). The editor explains in note 20 the dual significance of the date: "The eve of the translation of the relics of St. Thomas of Canterbury (Becket), kept in England on July 7th. Octave of the feast of St. Peter, June 29.

(26) Juvenal, Satire VI, lines 347-348 in D. lunii luvenalis Saturae, ed. A.E. Housman (New York: Greenwood, 1969) 48; literally, "Who will watch the watchmen?" or "Who will police the police?"

(27) Frederick William Faber, "Faith of Our Fathers," Hymn 93 of Hymns, 3rd American ed. (Batimore, MD: John Murphy, 1887) 313-314. Faber wrote this hymn at Cotton College in honour of the Martyrs of England and Wales. Although doubtless familiar with copious bowdlerizations of this hymn proliferating through the Anglosphere, far too few Catholics today have heard, much less sung the third verse: Our Fathers, chained in prisons dark, Were still in heart and conscience free: How sweet would be their children's fate, If they, like them, could die for thee!

(28) Although Catholics since 1624 have venerated St Joseph as the principal patron saint of Canada, Anglicans regard St John the Baptist as the patron saint of Canada.

Fr. Neil J. Roy, S. T.L., Ph.D. teaches liturgy and sacramental theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is a priest of the diocese of Peterborough, ON.
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Author:Roy, Neil J.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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