Feast of St. Thomas Becket (December 29)   2 comments

Above:  King Henry II and St. Thomas Becket

Image in the Public Domain

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SAINT THOMAS BECKET (DECEMBER 21, 1118-DECEMBER 29, 1170)

Archbishop of Canterbury, and Martyr, 1170

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For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.

–The last words of St. Thomas Becket, December 29, 1170

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St. Thomas Becket was a controversial figure during his lifetime.  He has continued to be one.

(“Controversial” is a word that prompts me to roll my eyes.  Who or what is not controversial during polarized times?)

Many of the details of Becket’s family have not survived in the historical record we have.  Becket, born in London on December 21, 1118, was a son of Gilbert Becket, apparently prosperous and well-connected.  Gilbert was, at different stages of life, a knight and a merchant.  Our saint grew up distracted from his studies; courtly pursuits including hunting, were more interesting.

Becket made his own important connections.  Circa 1142, he joined the household of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Our saint became Theobald’s clerk.  The two men attended the Council of Rheims (1148).  Becket also studied canon law at Bologna and Auxerre before becoming a deacon in 1154.  He served as the Archdeacon of Canterbury to the new king, Henry II (reigned 1154-1189).  Theobald had secured the position for his former clerk.

Theobald regretted his decision.  Becket, as Chancellor, befriended Henry II and sided with the monarch in church-state controversies.  Henry II disagreed with the independence of the Church, a large landowner with its own court system.  The Church answered to the Bishop of Rome, not the Plantaganet monarch.  Theobald died in 1161.  Henry II recognized the opportunity to appoint a compliant Archbishop of Canterbury.

The elevation of Becket, a priest for just one day in 1162, to the highest clergy office in England was a political move.  Henry II soon realized that Becket would not take orders from him.  When Becket became the Archbishop of Canterbury, he became a new man.  He lived austerely, ate simply, and defended ecclesiastical privileges against actions of the crown.  The relationship between Becket and Henry II deteriorated rapidly.  In 1164, the Archbishop of Canterbury, labeled a traitor and stripped of his financial assets, fled to France.

Becket was busy during his exile.  Aside from continuing his studies of canon law, he corresponded with allies and foes regarding his case.  Our saint asserted his rights and sought a negotiated settlement, in which Pope Alexander III was instrumental.

Becket returned to England in 1170.  His reconciliation with Henry II was brief.  Becket excommunicated Archbishop of York Roger de Pont LEvêque, who had crowned Henry, the heir-apparent.  (Crowning the heir-apparent was a task reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury.)  On December 25, 1170, Henry II, livid, shouted,

Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?

Some knights took him literally.  Four days later, they murdered the Archbishop at Canterbury Cathedral.

Becket’s cultus started immediately.  The murder at the cathedral backfired on the monarch and tainted his reputation permanently.  Pope Alexander III canonized Becket as a martyr in 1173.

In a way, Henry II won, though.  The office of Archbishop of Canterbury remained vacant for years at a time.  Furthermore, Becket’s immediate successors generally did the monarch’s bidding.

The stain on Henry II’s reputation has remained as stubbornly as the “damned spot” on the hands of Lady MacBeth.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 5, 2019 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT ANTONIO MARY ZACCARIA, FOUNDER OF THE BARNABITES AND THE ANGELIC SISTERS OF SAINT PAUL

THE FEAST OF GEORGES BERNANOS, FRENCH ROMAN CATHOLIC NOVELIST

THE FEAST OF HULDA NIEBUHR, CHRISTIAN EDUCATOR; HER BROTHERS, H. RICHARD NIEBUHR AND REINHOLD NIEBUHR, UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST THEOLOGIANS; AND URSULA NIEBUHR, EPISCOPAL THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOSEPH BOISSEL, FRENCH ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARY PRIEST AND MARTYR IN LAOS, 1969

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O God, our strength and our salvation, you called your servant Thomas Becket

to be a shepherd of your people and a defender of your Church:

Keep your household from all evil and raise up among us

faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel;

through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

2 Esdras 2:42-48

Psalm 125

1 John 2:3-6, 15-17

Mark 11:24-33

Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), 145

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2 responses to “Feast of St. Thomas Becket (December 29)

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  1. Such a courageous man! He must have know when he returned to England that his life could be in danger but he came anyway!

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