On June 20th of this year, news broke that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been removed from public ministry following credible claims of sexual abuse. In the weeks that have followed more claims and more details have emerged which have shaken the faithful, not just because of what they say about the now former Cardinal, but about the seeming willingness of many in the church hierarchy to turn a blind eye to such corruption in a spiritual father. While many priests have spoken up strongly in condemnation, the silences or lackluster responses of others have continued to anger a laity who had wanted to believe that the revelations of 2002 had brought a real change in the handling of such matters.
Just two days after the announcement from the Archdiocese of New York, the church celebrated the feast of a very different Cardinal: St. John Fisher. While this humble man of God probably wouldn’t mind, his feast is usually overshadowed by the man he shares it with: St. Thomas More. I, like many know much more about St. Thomas thanks to the play and film A Man For All Seasons. Yet it is St. John Fisher’s little known writings that speak to our distressing times.
John Fisher served as tutor to Henry VIII and confessor to the king’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. Later he became Bishop of Rochester. He referred to his diocese as his spouse, expressing a wish never to leave her for higher advancement. He was known for his personal charity towards the poor as well as for his preaching and erudition. St. John Fisher’s books and sermons reveal a man deeply versed in scripture and the Church Fathers.
Fisher’s personal charity and lack of political ambition also stand in contrast of the stereotypical bishop condemned by the Protestant Reformers. He was only granted a Cardinalate in the hopes it would alleviate his treatment under King Henry. (The King instead refused to allow the hat into England, vowing to send Fisher’s head to Rome instead.) He was all one might ask for in a shepherd, but he was only one; the only bishop of England not to swear to the Act of Succession.
Words for Our Time
Sadly, in all the history of the Church there are many examples of the lonely road of true discipleship. It was another St. John who stood alone of all the apostles at the foot of the cross. For every John Fisher there is a nation of apostates. Today it can also feel like the bad shepherds may outnumber the good. At least the truly brave and forceful seem rare. Fisher’s life and death show us that this is no new trial for the faithful.
While Fisher preached and wrote robustly in defense of the priesthood and the sacraments in several books and sermons he also wrote these lines in his commentary on the penitential psalms (emphasis is my own):
Truly, it was a more glorious sight to see St. Paul, who got his living by his own great labour in hunger, thirst, watchings, in cold, going woolward, and bearing about the Gospel and law of Christ both upon the sea and on the land, than to behold now the Archbishops and Bishops in their apparel, be it never so rich. In that time were no chalices of gold, but then was many golden priests; now be many chalices of gold, and almost no golden priests. Truly neither gold, precious stones, nor glorious bodily garments be not the cause wherefore kings and princes of the world should dread God and His Church…. But holy doctrine, good life and example of honest conversation be the occasions whereby good and holy men (also wicked and cruel people) are moved to love and fear Almighty God.
Here we find the two main lessons Fisher can teach our current church. One is what a true shepherd should aspire to be: A theologian, a friend to the poor, morally upright and passionately committed to the truths of the Faith. We do not need mere administrators and politicians. We need successors to the Apostles. We need men who will speak, not only of systemic failures and committees, but of sin and salvation.
For of a truth, if every person of the clergy from the highest degree unto the lowest were able and worthy to occupy their rooms and places, every man according to his degree, and every one of them would execute all that pertaineth to his office quickly, without feigning of partiality, and with ardent faith, then the most hard-hearted creature that might be found among all people could not but love and dread our Lord God. Also by their good and virtuous living, they should in manner be compelled to the serving of Him.
For the flock there is a lesson, too. In this crisis some have been tempted to despair and apostasy. How can we belong to a church that, yet again, has harbored such evil? St John Fisher shows us the middle way between acquiescence to wrongs perpetrated by leaders of the Church and rejection of the authority granted them by Christ. We can believe with all our hearts in the structural Church founded upon the Rock and still condemn corruption. Let us give the last word to our oft forgotten saint:
Found Thou many stones, that is to say much constant people, when Thou began to edify Thy Church? Were not they which Thou did set in the foundation, soft and slippery earth? Yes. Truly unto the time Thou made them hard as stones by the virtue and strength of Thy burning charity. Peter, the head of all the others, at the fearing of one hand-maid… did he not give place and denied Thy Son Jesus Christ His Master? Was not also contention and debate among other of the Apostles, which of them should be chief and have the sovereignty among them? Further, all they fled for fear when the Master Christ was taken and brought to judgement. Lo how great pusillanimity, cowardness and unsteadfastness was in them! But as soon as the heat of Thy charity descended upon them in the similitude of fire, they were then made so constant and sure in their minds that, from that time forward, by no dread, threatening, nor persecution they feared to shew Thine embassade and commandment pronouncing and expressing Thy Gospel…. So good Lord, do now in like manner again 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…. By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout all the world.