St. Thomas Becket is one of the most remarkable English bishops who have had the honour to be raised to the altars. He was pre-eminent among the English saints to stand up and resist what has been the perennial temptation of the English church, which is to seek acceptance and compromise with the social and political elites of this country. It has almost always been the church's ruin to follow this path, for it was the compromise of the bishops which led to the reformation.
Becket had been a typical career ecclesiastic and was a close friend of the King, who had made him Lord Chancellor. He was thought to be an ideal man for the see of Canterbury who would do what was wanted of him. But as soon as he was elevated to the post he renounced his worldly ways, put on a hair shirt and stood firmly for the church's rights. For this he was to suffer exile in France and a great campaign of calumny against him.
Secular history has often taken a dim view of Becket, and has presented King Henry as the one of the founders of English common law, who demanded that cases that were handled by ecclesiastical courts by handed over to the civil law. But the reality was that if Becket had compromised, it would have been the first step to a national church under the King. Who knows if the reformation could have occurred several centuries earlier?
For a short time Becket was to be reconciled with the King and restored to the see of Canterbury, but very soon they fell apart again. The rest is well known in the legend of King Henry's cry, 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?', and Becket's subsequent murder. Such was Becket's reputation for sanctity and the outcry following his death, the King was forced to do public penance. The tomb of Becket at Canterbury was to become one of the greatest shrines in Europe.
Alas, all was not well from then on, for four centuries later another King Henry succeeded where his predecessor had failed, and usurped the spiritual authority and goods of the church for himself. Like Becket, another lord chancellor and bishop were to suffer martyrdom: St. Thomas More and John Fisher. And one of the first acts of Henry VIII was to destroy the shrine of Becket and prohibit the celebration of his feast.
Today St. Thomas of Canterbury has particular relevance to the Catholic church in England, following immediately after the feast of the Holy Innocents. The English church faces the choice of either compromise with the liberal establishment and complicity in the culture of death by its silence, or like Becket, to suffer disgrace and social alienation for a courageous moral stance. Alas, the attitude of our bishops to St. Thomas Becket can be gauged by the fact that his feast has been reduced to an optional memoria in the calender.
But let us also hope, that just as Henry II made public penance for complicity in Becket's murder, by the intercession of St. Thomas Tony Blair will make a public retraction for his involvement in abortion, euthanasia and human cloning legislation. Then we will know his conversion his real, and we can welcome him fully as a member of the mystical body of Christ.
St. Thomas of Canterbury, pray for us.