Feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury
Saint Thomas a Becket, martyred in his cathedral during Christmastide, is honored today. Thomas, the son of Gilbert Becket, was born in London, in 1117, and was schooled in Paris and Bologna. In his youth his mother had instilled in him a tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He was a very good friend of Henry II, the King of England, and at the recommendation of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, he made him Chancellor of England; that is, the chief minister. At the same time, he was also the archdeacon of Canterbury, under Theobald. Henry II was not only the King of England, but also a Feudal Lord to Louis VII, King of France, because of his immense landholdings in that country.
Thomas led a life of religious austerity; many biographies mention the constant use of a hair shirt. His strict and serious nature, as the principal leader for the Catholic Church in England, became a major obstacle for Henry II when he attempted to take away some of the rights of the Church. Despite pressure and persecution to Thomas, his family members, and some acquaintances, he would not relent to the whims of Henry II.
Under the protection of King Louis VII, Thomas lived in exile, in France, for many years after receiving death threats from supporters of Henry II. Eventually, Pope Alexander III told Henry II to make peace with Thomas or he would face excommunication and England would be placed under the interdict, that is, an ecclesiastical censure of the sacraments for all of England.
The Archbishop of Canterbury returned to England, to the joy of many people, after Henry II "promised" to make amends. Despite the show of reconciliation, Thomas was met with opposition, from allies of Henry II, and turmoil continued between the two. One day Henry II had had enough. In the General History of the Christian Era an account is given of the martyrdom of St. Thomas:”The king in one of his paroxysms of rage exclaimed: 'Of the cowards who eat my bread is there not one to free me from this turbulent priest?' Four knights, personal enemies of Becket, at once crossed the channel. It was five o'clock in the afternoon of December 29, 1170, when they entered Canterbury Cathedral and found the Archbishop in prayer before the altar. 'Where is the traitor?' shouted one of the armed band. No answer came. 'Where is the Archbishop?' was again called. This time Thomas answered: "Here I am, no traitor, but the Archbishop." William de Tracy aimed the first blow at his head. The third blow prostrated him before the altar of St. Benedict—where his last words were heard: 'For the name of Jesus and the defense of the Church I am ready to die.' Richard de Bretons severed the crown of the head from the skull.”
When Henry II learned of the killing, he immediately petitioned the Holy See for leniency on the grounds that it was neither his command, nor desire, to have the Archbishop of Canterbury put to death—his overzealous minions performed the deed without his knowledge. He was able to avoid personal excommunication by his promise to submit to the judgment of Pope Alexander III. Six months after the death of St. Thomas, Henry II was publicly scourged at the shrine of St. Thomas and he restored all the rights of the Church in England.
As there were a multitude of miracles at his tomb, Alexander III canonized Thomas a saint 3 years after his death and he has become one of the most popular saints of England.
"Learn from St. Thomas" — says Fr. Faber — "to fight the good fight even to the shedding of blood, or, to what men find harder, the shedding of their good name by pouring it out to waste on the earth".