St. Thomas Becket

December 27, 1998
Brother John Raymond

As an Archdeacon of Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket was also chancellor to England's King Henry II, twelve years younger then himself. Both men liked each other. Thomas went along with the King insofar as his conscience permitted. When Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury died King Henry, who in those days had some say in such affairs, recommended St. Thomas as his successor. He figured that by placing Thomas in such a position he could then have more control over Church affairs. A mistake he was soon to regret.

Thomas was born in the city of London in 1118. His father was a Norman knight, Gilbert, who had become a prosperous merchant in London; his mother was also Norman. To his mother he owed his early piety, his devotion to our Lady, and generosity to the poor. As a boy Thomas liked to play field sports. After school at Merton priory and Paris he became, at twenty-one, financial clerk to a relative in the city. Three years later he was employed by Archbishop Theobald.

At thirty-six years old Thomas had warned the King against recommending him for Archbishop of Canterbury, as conflicts over Church issues would certainly be unavoidable. With a Cardinal's insistence Thomas accepted the office. He was ordained a priest and then a bishop. He immediately led a more austere and spiritual lifestyle and devoted himself to the interests of the Church. To the Kings displeasure he gave up his office as chancellor.

Soon the new Archbishop found himself opposing policies of the King. Conflicts reached a crisis point when in 1164 the King demanded assent to the Constitutions of Clarendon, which brought back customs of the past that were contrary to the law of the Church and the practice of the papacy. Thomas gave in for a short time but then he opposed the King. Facing threats of death or imprisonment Thomas fled to France where Pope Alexander III was residing. Together they tried to settle the controversy and bring back peace to the Church in England.

Thomas returned to Canterbury in 1170 under a tentative peaceful accord reached with the King while he was in France. Thomas' opponent, the Archbishop of York, told the King that while Thomas lived he would never have peace. The King responded to him by exclaiming angrily, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Four knights hearing this thought they would gain the King's favor by getting rid of Thomas. On December 29th the knights followed Thomas to the Cathedral and killed him. Thomas was canonized by the Pope two years later and King Henry II in 1174 did public penance at the Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Because so many miracles occurred at this Shrine it became, for the rest of the Middle Ages, the wealthiest and most famous one in all of Europe.

St. Thomas is an example for us today of a person who kept priorities straight in his allegiance to both his country and his Church. When the two came in conflict, he correctly chose to obey the Church. His last words are reported to have been "I accept death for the Name of Jesus and for the Church." From the government and sometimes at work there is pressure from those in authority and those around us to compromise our allegiance to the beliefs and morals the Church has given us. At times like this we, like St. Thomas, are called upon to oppose misguided authority for the sake of Christ and His Church. Jesus warned His followers of persecution. May we, like St. Thomas, remain steadfast in our uncompromising fidelity to Christ and His Church.