This is an article once published in Precious Blood Family. It is posted for the Feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More celebrated tomorrow.
Echoes Through the Centuries
Devotion to the blood of Christ is the fount from which all other devotions spring. No devotion is more fundamental. And we find this truth echoing through the Centuries.
There are some remarkable echoes we see in the life of St. Gaspar when reading the story of St. John Fisher. John Fisher was a martyr in 1535, a contemporary of St. Thomas More. Their feast is celebrated together on June 22.
Refusing the Oath
On June 13, 1810 St. Gaspar was brought before the magistrate to profess an oath of allegiance to Napoleon. "I would rather die or suffer evil than to take such an oath. I cannot. I must not. I will not," was the now famous reply, echoing the strength of confessors of the Faith from Jesus before Pilate to the present day. St. Gaspar spent the next four years in a variety of prisons.
John Fisher was Bishop of Rochester, a friend and teacher of Henry VIII. When Henry decided to separate the church in England from the Church of Rome, many of the other bishops signed an oath in support of Henry’s action. John Fisher refused and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
John Fisher was born in 1469 in Yorkshire. John's father Robert Fisher was a mercer, a merchant of fine cloth. In 1482 or 1483, when he was 13 or 14, John Fisher's mother sent him off to the University of Cambridge. The School where John Fisher studied had a strong theological orientation. John completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1488 and his Master of Arts degree in 1491. After ordination he began the long course of studies for a doctorate in theology, which we was awarded in 1501 commencing an impressive academic career. He was so respected by other scholars that they named him chancellor for life, a rare honor. In 1504, King Henry VII nominated John Fisher to be the bishop of Rochester, a post he held for 30 years.
Despite his duties at Cambridge and in London, Fisher was tireless in the service of his diocese. It is noteworthy that Fisher was content to remain bishop of Rochester, when he could have easily secured appointment to a richer and more prestigious diocese. John Fisher's steadfast service and his personal prayer were noted by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo of Milan, now also a saint, when he sought to describe how a bishop should live. Like Gaspar, Fisher was concerned with the theological education and formation in preaching available to diocesan priests.
In the first three months of 1534, in a short space of ten weeks, Parliament passed a number of acts that asserted the king's power over the bishops and set in motion the Reformation in England. All the King's subjects of full age were required to take an oath to the whole arrangement. On April 13, 1534, Fisher was summoned to appear in London to take the required oath. He refused the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas More and a number of other priests were summoned and imprisoned on the same dates.
Throughout their imprisonment, Fisher and More were quite specific in their resistance to the oath. Pope Paul III, created John Fisher a cardinal on May 20, 1535. Henry flew into a rage when he received the news and demanded that Fisher and More's jailers quit stalling. John Fisher was brought to trial on June 17th. There was no doubt that Fisher was guilty as charged. On June 22, 1535, John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill, outside the city gates. His head was stuck on a pike on London Bridge, reminiscent of the actions Gaspar complained about when the papal armies worked against the bandits of Sonnino in his own time.
Devotion to the Blood
The focus of Fisher's preaching, reinforced by a rich collection of scriptural quotations, is the mercy and love of God. Fisher presents a number of grounds for the sinner's confidence in the mercy of God, but the preeminent one is clearly the blood of Christ. "By the effusion of his holy blood, [he] has given so great efficacy and strength to the holy sacraments of his church, that when we receive any one of them, we shall be sprinkled and made clean by the virtue of his precious blood." The selection for the Office of Readings for Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent is from this series of sermons.
In a sermon preached on Good Friday (the year cannot be determined) Fisher presents an extended metaphor of the crucifix as a book, a summary of "the very philosophy of Christian people. He draws on the scriptures from the Good Friday Liturgy of his day, on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, and on the writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The crucifix is a universal book, which Christian women and men in all states of life and circumstances can read.
Generations later we find an echo in the life of St. Gaspar as he writes to his brother missionaries in his eighth circular letter:
“Jesus the Savior ardently desires to remind us to be recollected during the retreat and to read the great book of the Cross that we may acquire heavenly wisdom for the sanctification of ourselves and others. But, my dearly beloved, what do we read in the wounds of Jesus Crucified if not this, that Christ is the mystic rock struck with the staff of the Cross: “When he struck the rock, waters gushed, torrents streamed out.”
Gaspar's Second Circular Letter also recommends the crucifix as the book for the missionaries to read.
Also in his preaching, Fisher was devoted to the seven blood sheddings of Jesus, drawing on the same font of spirituality that would touch the life of Francesco Albertini and St. Gaspar centuries later.
Every age, every generation, is called to know the riches of God’s mercy found in the Precious Blood of Jesus. Now in our Family of Saints we have a friend from England who is witness for us of this devotion. May we be as fearless as this noted scholar and preacher in defending the faith in our own day.
“Companion to the Calendar” Mary Ellen Hynes, Liturgy Training Publications, 1993
“Saint John Fisher”, E. E. Reynolds. The University of Glasgow Press, revised edition, 1972.
“The Works and Days of John Fisher,” Edward Sturz, S.J. Harvard University Press, 1967.
“Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher,” edited by Brendon Hanshaw and Eamon Duffy, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Precious Blood Companion Maureen Lahiff served as research assistant on this article