December 29, 2015

Optional Memorial of Saint Thomas Becket

Detail from an English psalter showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.
Today, the fifth day in the octave of Christmas, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr. He was born December 21, c. 1119 in London, the son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket. Becket was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and later attended a grammar school in London, perhaps the one at St Paul's Cathedral. Later, he spent a year studying in Paris. Becket was appointed  Lord Chancellor to King Henry II in January 1155. Seven years later, in 1162 he was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket absorbed himself in the duties of his new office, defending the rights of the Church against the Monarchy. Henry and Becket clashed frequently as the new archbishop sought to recover the Church's jurisdiction. This included disagreements with the king, over whether secular courts could levy ecclesiastical penalties on English clergymen. Ultimately, King Henry exiled Becket to France for six years. Upon his return, Becket endured many trials and was murdered in the cathedral by agents of the king.

The Life of St. Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket was born in 1119 of a merchant family. He studied in London and Paris, entered the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, became Lord Chancellor under King Henry II in 1155, and in 1162 Archbishop of Canterbury. Till then a submissive courtier, he now initiated a fearless struggle against the king for the freedom of the Church and the inviolability of ecclesiastical property, occasioning his imprisonment, exile, and finally martyrdom (December 29, 1170). Canonization came quickly (1173); in 1539 King Henry VIII ordered his remains burned.

Formerly the Breviary included this summary of the saint's last days: "Calumniators informed the king that the bishop was agitating against him and the peace of the realm; and the king retorted that with one such priest he could not live in peace. Hearing the royal displeasure, several godless courtiers agreed to do their sovereign a favor by assassinating Thomas. Secretly they traveled to Canterbury and fell upon the bishop while he was attending Vespers. His priests rushed to his aid and tried to bar the church door; Thomas opened it himself with these words: The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God. Then to the soldiers: I command it in the Name of God: No harm may be done to any of mine. Thereupon he cast himself on his knees, commended his flock and himself to God, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to St. Denis and other holy patrons of his church, and with the same heroic courage with which he had withstood the king's laws, he bowed his holy head to the sacrilegious sword on December 29, 1170."

With all the strength that is given us for the defense of God's rights, we must resist those who seek to subject the Church to their power, even if they are those to whom on other grounds we owe service. In St. Thomas of Canterbury the Church celebrates one of her great bishops; by applying to him the Gospel of the Good Shepherd she venerates in him the true pastor of Christ's flock who gave his life for his sheep.

Patron: Clergy; secular clergy; Exeter College Oxford; Portsmouth, England.

Symbols: Sword through a mitre; pallium and archbishop's cross; battle axe and crosier; red chasuble; altar and sword.

Collect Prayer

O God, who gave the Martyr Saint Thomas Becket the courage to give up his life for the sake of justice, grant, through his intercession, that, renouncing our life for the sake of Christ in this world, we may find it in heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


St. Thomas Becket - Bishop and Martyr


Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God. ...

Remember then how our fathers worked out their salvation; remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter has weathered because it has Christ on board. Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.

From a letter by Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

[Epist. 74: PL 190, 533-536.]

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