The American Catholic bishops mark June 22–29 as “religious freedom week.” It is an “octave” that begins on the feast day of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More and concludes with the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, all martyred by tyrants. In between falls the feast of St. John the Baptist, who similarly faced the fury of a wicked king.
On the feast of St. John Fisher, I received a message from a former student:
Blessings on this holy feast! Praying for you and the holy prelates you have brought to Kingston. I am amazed that one St. John Fisher speaker is being persecuted for his religious faith, to the point of imprisonment by a corrupt government.
Katherine was referring to an annual dinner I started in 2006 in support of our campus ministry at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Every year, I invited a different “Fisher Visitor” to speak at the dinner. I chose St. John Fisher as the patron not only because he was a courageous bishop and gifted theologian, but also because he was a man of letters and the university. He brought Erasmus to Cambridge when he served as chancellor there.
Katherine’s message did not specify which prelate is now walking the way of St. John Fisher, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for opposing Henry VIII’s usurpation of the governance of the Church. What is truly remarkable is that she could have been speaking about more than one of our visitors.
In response to Fisher’s imprisonment by Henry, Pope Paul III appointed him a cardinal in May 1535, hoping thereby to obtain more humane treatment. Henry’s response was ferocious. He declared that there would be no need to send the red hat to London; he would send Fisher’s head to Rome. On June 17, 1535, Henry put Fisher through a show trial. He was condemned and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered—the most cruel and grisly death then available.
The king had the power, but not the sympathy of the people. The parallels between Fisher and his patronal namesake, John the Baptist—also executed for opposing a king’s false marriage—were inconvenient for Henry VIII. He did not want to be thought of as a latter-day Herod, and thus wanted to get the Fisher matter—and Fisher himself—disposed of before the Baptist’s feast (June 24). Henry commuted the sentence to beheading to get the matter done with dispatch. Fisher was martyred on June 22, a cardinal and confessor of the Church.
Who today is our St. John Fisher? Was Katherine referring to Cardinal George Pell, our Fisher Visitor in 2008? Imprisoned in solitary confinement for more than a year on the “evidence” manufactured by a corrupt police force, Pell is certainly a John Fisher for our times.
Or was Katherine referring to Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kjiv—our Fisher Visitor in 2016, represented by Archbishop Borys Gudziak—who faces an aggressive war launched by Russia? Vladimir Putin is seeking to recreate the Soviet empire, which attempted the liquidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of which Sviatoslav is the head. Shevchuk reports that he was targeted for assassination earlier this year by Russian infiltrators.
Might she have been thinking of our 2018 Fisher Visitor, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who as the very young archbishop of Conakry faced the persecution of Sékou Touré’s Marxist regime? The Guinean dictatorship was tightening its grip on troublesome priests. Archbishop Sarah’s name was on a list of assassination targets found on Touré’s desk. Providentially, Touré had a sudden heart attack on a foreign trip and died before he could return to Guinea. Sarah’s life was spared.
It’s possible to think of our 2019 Visitor, Cardinal Jorge Urosa of Caracas, whose courageous opposition to the regime of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro earned him and his brother bishops harassment by the regime. Urosa remained a lion in retirement, dying last year after contracting COVID-19.
But I expect that Katherine had in mind our 2013 St. John Fisher Visitor, Cardinal Joseph Zen. The emeritus bishop of Hong Kong was arrested recently by the Chinese regime and charged with violating Beijing’s “national security law,” which makes criticizing the regime a crime.
I had invited Zen—without having any prior relationship—because I admired him greatly. Somewhat to my surprise, he came. For a retired octogenarian, the trip from Hong Kong was long and tiring. He explained at the dinner that it was “foolish” for him to travel so far at his age. But he said he “had to come” when he saw the invitation. “Anything to honor St. John Fisher,” he explained.
Cardinal Zen was my guest in Kingston in 2013 because he knows the Church needs more men like St. John Fisher. Henry kept Cardinal John Fisher in the Tower of London; now the Chinese regime threatens Cardinal Zen with prison.
I had no idea in 2006 that so many of the speakers I invited would become modern-day St. John Fishers. But they have, and there will be other “holy prelates” who will know persecution. Pell, Sarah, Shevchuk, Urosa, and Zen will not be the last.
St. John Fisher is known principally for his martyrdom. Some know his commentary on the seven penitential psalms, an excerpt of which appears in the breviary on the Monday of Passiontide. But he also ought to be known for his prayer for holy bishops, taken from a sermon he preached in 1508, long before he knew that his prayer would be fulfilled in his own life and death.
Lord, according to Your promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost.
So, good Lord, do now in like manner again with Thy Church militant; change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stone; set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labors, watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat; which also shall not fear the threatening of princes, persecution, neither death but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy Holy Name.
By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout all the world. Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise Thy mercy, show it indeed upon Thy Church.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
Help First Things expand our community of co-laborers by supporting our 2022 Spring Campaign with a tax-deductible gift today.
If you do not already subscribe to First Things, visit www.firstthings.com/subscribe to explore our subscription options.