The Catholic Church in England celebrates today the Octave of St. Thomas of Canterbury. It is but fitting that the Country which was beautified with the blood of the illustrious Martyr should honor his memory with an especial fervor, and keep up his Feast during the joyful Octaves of Stephen, of John the Beloved Disciple, and of the Innocents of Bethlehem.
We have seen, on the Feast itself, how the Catholic world gave expression, through the sacred Liturgy, to its love of our great Martyr. In the Ages of Faith, a victory gained by the Church was considered as a victory for the whole human race. It is impossible for us to write the Lives of the Saints in our Liturgical Year, which is crowded enough as it is—and hence we cannot enter, with anything like detail, into the actions of this the Martyr for the Liberty of the Church. But we cannot withhold from our readers the following eloquent proof of the affection and esteem in which St. Thomas was held by those who had been eyewitnesses of his sublime virtues. It is a Letter written by Peter of Blois, Archdeacon of Bath, to the Canons of Beauvoir, a few days after the Martyrdom of the Saint, whose blood was still on the pavement of the Metropolitan Church of Canterbury. Let us notice, as we read it, the self-possessed and meek enthusiasm with which even the grandest victories of the Church inspire her children.
“The Shepherd of our souls is dead, and my first impulse is to mourn with you over this death. Yet Death I may not call it, for the death wherewith our Lord has honored his Saint is rather a sleep than a death. It has been the harboring him into rest. It has been to him the gate of life, and the admission into the delights of the heavenly country, into the power of the Lord, into the abyss of eternal light. Having to set out on a long journey, he has taken with him all he needed, and will return on the day of the full moon; for his soul, full of merit, has left the body, in order to return to its ancient dwelling in the general and complete resurrection. Jealous and crafty Death came to scrutinize this treasury of merit, suspecting something to be there which he could claim. But Thomas was too circumspect and prudent, and never permitted his true life to be tampered with. He had long desired to be dissolved and to be with Christ; and at the close of his life, was pining to take his departure from the body of this death. He has now thrown a handful of dust into Death’s face, as a tribute which he owed to the old enemy: and the false report has gone abroad, and people are telling each other, that an evil beast hath devoured our Joseph. The coat, of which he has been stripped, has given rise to this false news of his death; for Joseph lives, and rules through the whole land of Egypt. His blessed soul, unburthened of its corruptible garments, and freed from the dust of this present life, has taken her flight to heaven.
“Yes, he of whom the world was not worthy, has been called away to heaven. This light is not put out; it is but shaken by a passing wind, that it may shine all the brighter, and may, no longer kept under a bushel, give light to all that are in the house. He hath seemed in the eyes of the unwise to have died; but his life hath been hid with Christ in God. It has seemed as though Death had conquered and swallowed him up; whereas, in reality, Death is swallowed up in victory. Thou hast given him, O Lord, his heart’s desire, for he had long served thee, and because of the words of thy lips, had kept hard ways. From earliest youth, his conduct was such as to be worthy of one advanced in years, and he restrained the rebellions of the flesh, by watching, fasting, disciplines, hair shirt, and perpetual continency. The Lord chose him for his Priest, that he might be to the people a guide, and teacher; a mirror of life, a model of penance, and an example of holiness. The God of wisdom gave him eloquence of speech, and abundantly infused into him the spirit of wisdom and understanding, making him the most learned of the learned, the wisest of the wise, excellent even among the best, and superior even among the greatest men. He was a herald of the divine word, a trumpet of the Gospel, a friend of the Bridegroom, the support of the Clergy, an eye to the blind, a foot to the lame, the salt of the earth, the light of his country, a minister of the Most High, a vicar of Christ, a Christ of the Lord.
“He was upright in his judgment, energetic in administration, discreet in his orders, modest in his speech, circumspect in his advice, most abstemious in his food, gentle in temper, an angel in human flesh, meek amidst injuries, humble in prosperity, most courageous in adversity, prodigal in almsgiving, and was ever exercising some work of mercy. He was the glory of Religious, the favorite of the people, the terror of Princes, the god of Pharaoh. If some men, when exalted to the supreme dignity of the Episcopacy, begin at once to be carnal-minded, and shun every bodily suffering as the greatest evil, and desire to enjoy as long a life as possible—it was not so with our Pastor. On the very first day of his promotion, he longed, but more ardently than can be told, for the end of life, or, more correctly, he thirsted to begin the life of eternity. For this purpose, he looked on himself and comported himself as a pilgrim, and drank of the torrent in the Way; therefore is his name glorified in the heavenly Country. Thus it is that our Brethren, the Monks of the Cathedral Church, are become as orphans, without their Father.”
The sixteenth century brought an unexpected addition to the glory of our Saint. The enemy of God and man, Henry 8th, hated the very name of the Martyr that had died for the Liberty of the Church. There was an honor which such a Tyrant could still add to St. Thomas’ glorious name: he could insult the Shrine where, for four hundred years, the Saint had received the homage of the entire Catholic world. The venerable Relics of the Martyr were dragged from beneath the Altar: an absurd action was brought against Thomas, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was found guilty of high treason! His Relics were put upon a pile; and in this second Martyrdom, the fire destroyed the last remains of the holy man, whose intercession drew down upon England the protection and blessings of heaven. After all, how could a country that was on the eve of its great apostasy from the True Faith be expected to appreciate the rich treasure of such Relics? Besides, the See of Canterbury was defiled. Cranmer sat on the Chair which had been that of an Augustine, a Dunstan, a Lanfranc, an Anselm, and a Thomas à Becket. If our holy Martyr and Archbishop had looked through the then existing generation of his Brethren, he would indeed have found one who followed his example and died a Martyr—John Fisher—but he was the only one; and his sacrifice, glorious as it was, had not power to save his country. The Liberty of the Church had long before then been destroyed; Faith was sure to die out.
The Mass and Vespers are as on the Feast.
Thy Feast ends today, and we come before thee to pay thee a last tribute of our devotion, O glorious Champion of the Liberty of the Church! who standest near the Crib of our Emmanuel, as the representative of the combats he would have to fight in the future of his Church. The whole of Christendom implores thine intercession; but England claims thy special protection. Thou art one of her grandest glories, and neither heresy, which has laid waste the land, nor impiety, which has covered her with sacrilege, have made her forgetful of her great Martyr of Canterbury. She is now in the first years of a new period, which is fraught with promise of a bright future—and thy dear name is honored with a love, which is worthy of the devotion shown thee in times now long passed away. Churches are being built in thy honor on that very soil where it was once made obligatory to the number of members of the true Church; and they whose conversion thus gladdens the Angels of God are men whose early training taught them to look on contempt for Thomas à Becket as a sign of patriotism and refinement. Each year, as thy Feast comes round, the day is kept with greater solemnity; thy merits are better understood, and the increase of faith sets men’s hearts on thanking their God for having given thee to his Church as the type of a Bishop.
Bless then, O holy Pontiff! this flock of thine own land, which is so fast increasing. Pray for them who are still wavering, that they may have light to see the light granted them by God. Four centuries of error and revolt!—oh! terrible but just chastisement of our dearest country! Pray that it may be taken away from her and show, by thy loving intercession, that thou art still the good Shepherd and the affectionate Father.
At the bidding of the successor of Eleutherius and Gregory the Great, the Episcopal Hierarchy has reappeared in this beautiful Isle of ours, where thou wast once the Primate, vested with the sacred Pallium. Oh! protect the Bishops who are now so zealously governing the vineyard over which thou didst once preside, and for which thou didst shed thy blood. Ask our Lord to increase the number of his Priests; for the harvest is great, and the laborers are few. May they be endued, by the Master of the Vineyard, with the spirit of patience and courage; may they be powerful in word and work, and may their name, as thine is, be held in blessing by future generations!