It’s not Thomas More’s fault. His fame is so widespread that he has put in the shade the only English bishop who had the guts to stand up to Henry VIII, and lost his head because of it. That bishop was St. John Fisher (1469-1535).
Certainly, most if not all of the Register’s readers will recognize that name. But let’s face it, what Fisher needs is his own version of A Man for All Seasons—a big, gorgeously filmed, beautifully written, destined-to-be-a-classic film, with an all-English cast. So, until some Hollywood producer gives this concept the green light, here’s a very brief introduction to one of the glories of Catholic English.
John Fisher grew up to be one of the “new men,” a sneering term the English aristocracy used for intelligent, clever, accomplished fellows who came from the lower classes yet rose to high office. It was the unshakable opinion of the English nobility that by right of birth and inheritance, those distinguished positions belonged to them. So, when Fisher, a cloth merchant’s son, was elected chancellor-for-life of Cambridge University, and Henry VIII appointed Thomas More, a lawyer’s son, Chancellor of England—and worst of all, when Thomas Wolsey, a butcher’s son, rose to became cardinal, papal nuncio, and Chancellor of England—the nobles were close to apoplectic.
To their credit, Fisher, More, and Wolsey ignored the snubs and the snickers and went about their work.
In John Fisher’s case, people began to notice his intellectual brilliance and his religious devotion when he was just a teenager studying at Cambridge. His spiritual life was so mature that he received a dispensation to be ordained a priest when he was only 22.
He was happiest at the university. Yet, when he was named chancellor of Cambridge he found a school where virtually nothing had changed in centuries, that could use what we would call a few upgrades. At a time when there was an almost feverish interest in the study of Sacred Scripture, no one at Cambridge taught Hebrew or Greek—the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. Then there was the university library—it was an embarrassment, with barely 300 volumes on its shelves. To correct these defects, Fisher found men who were fluent in Greek and Hebrew; he established scholarships for students eager to master these ancient languages; he transformed the anemic library into a serious collection of books; and he invited Erasmus, the Christian humanist rock star of his day, to settle in Cambridge as a long-term visiting professor.
As a full-time university administrator, Fisher was not expected to take on parish duties, but he did assist souls one-on-one. Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII, asked Fisher to be her confessor and spiritual director. They were a perfect fit—both the priest and the lady were people of deep piety and deep learning. Lady Margaret also had immense wealth, and with Fisher’s encouragement she founded two new colleges at Cambridge, Christ College and St. John’s College, and she endowed two professorships in divinity, one at Cambridge and another at Oxford. It was probably at his mother’s recommendation that Henry VII named Fisher bishop of Rochester.
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