December 28, 2016

Optional Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr

The Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket

December 29th, is the optional memorial of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-1170), the 12th century English statesman, Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr. A close associate of King Henry II, in the year 1155, he was appointed Chancellor of England. Seven years later, Becket was named Archbishop of Canterbury, and his relationship with the monarchy deteriorated. Eventually, his refusal to submit to Henry’s jurisdiction resulted in Becket's six-year exile in France. Not long after his return to England, Thomas was murdered by four assassins inside Canterbury Cathedral, making him a martyr. Miracles occurred soon after his martyrdom, and Canterbury became a popular pilgrimage destination in Europe. He is venerated by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion as a saint and martyr.

Thomas Becket was born in London to Norman parents Gilbert and Matilda Beket. The Icelandic Saga provides this description of him as a young man: “To look upon he was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and loveable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment... that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.” During this period of life, Becket was not especially devout.

Although he studied briefly in Paris, when his family fell on hard times, Becket became a clerk. His father secured a position in the business of a relative. Later, Becket clerked for Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This marked Becket's entry into England's high society, soon after which, he attracted the attention of King Henry II. Theobald entrusted him with missions to Rome and sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154, Theobald named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury, with responsibilities over other ecclesiastical offices including the office of Provost of Beverley. His efficiency in dispensing these duties led to his appointment by King Henry II as Lord Chancellor, in 1155.

Almost immediately, Becket and King Henry II were at odds. Tensions between the men came to a head when Henry asserted the usurpation of Church rights in the Constitutions of Clarendon. The Constitutions were 16 articles attempting to deny ecclesiastical privileges, curb the power of Church courts and the reach of Papal authority in England. Initially, hoping for a reconciliation, Becket considered compromise. He momentarily approved, but ultimately rejected the Constitutions. Incurring the monarchy’s rage, Becket escaped to France, remaining there in exile for several years. After returning to England, he refused to lift censures he had placed upon bishops installed by the king, Henry II cried out in disgust, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!"

Formerly the Breviary included this summary of the saint's heroic martyrdom:

"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."

Saint Thomas Becket was canonized in 1173. King Henry II eventually repented, making public penance at Becket's tomb. Canterbury became the third greatest site of pilgrimage in Europe. His relics were thought to have been destroyed in 1538 during the Protestant rebellion of King Henry VIII (although some contend that a skeleton found in the crypt there in 1888 belongs to the martyr). He the patron of clergy and all those who struggle against governmental intrusions violating faith and religious freedom. O God, who gave the Martyr Saint Thomas Becket the courage to give up his life for justice, grant, through his intercession, that, renouncing our life for Christ in this world, we may find it in heaven.

No comments :