The Supreme Witness of Saint Thomas Becket and Christians Today
Ever since I first learned of the life and martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, whose feast day is today, I have had a great devotion to him. From the accounts in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and the 1964 film Becket, to those in the history books, the more I learned about this man, the greater my admiration for him grew.
What has always inspired me is that he never wavered in his conviction that the Catholic Church, in all of its incarnational reality, with all of its lights and shadows, is truly the instrument and means of Christ’s working in the world.
Thomas Becket first served as Chancellor of England, where he was a loyal advisor and personal friend of King Henry II. When he later became Archbishop of Canterbury, he understood that his position required that he give primary fidelity to the Church. Attempts by the king to compromise the Church’s freedom were checked and opposed by Archbishop Becket. Even when Henry tried to entice him with all kinds of prestige and power, he remained firm in defense of the Church. Frustrated in his attempts to impose his will, Henry was then heard in the court to say, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
Taking the king’s words as a commission, four knights went to the Cathedral. According to an eyewitness account, when Archbishop Becket refused to give into their demands to submit to the king’s will, the men took out their swords and slew him. Soon after his burial, people started coming to his grave to venerate him and in 1173, a little more than two years after his death, he was canonized a saint.
With his holy death, giving his life for Christ and the Church, Saint Thomas Becket joined a long line of martyrs that had come before and who came thereafter – a long line of Christian faithful, in positions high and low, who were deemed bothersome because they refused to give in to demands contrary to the faith.
As a young priest in the 1970s, I also came to know that martyrdom is a never-ending story as, again and again, I would hear news of another Christian killed or mistreated for remaining faithful to Christ and his Church. Those killed, imprisoned, tortured or otherwise persecuted for their faith included priests, bishops, cardinals and consecrated religious who stood for the Church and the Gospel against oppressive regimes, as well as countless ordinary believers who loved Jesus and would not deny him. Sometimes we learned of their names, sometimes not.
Like Saint Thomas Becket before them, these figures of yesterday and today who dared to resist the cruel demands and fashions of their age have inspired me in my life and work – and I am not alone in this sentiment. In fact, the compelling testimony of the martyrs, sealed with their blood, has shown to be so inspiring to people that their blood has been called “the seed of the Church.” Instead of diminishing the Church, persecution has often led to growth in the faith.
The martyrs stood steadfast in the faith, urging their contemporaries to be ready to suffer for the faith. We too must be ready to speak truth, to refuse to go along and remain silent in the face of oppression, injustice and restrictions on religious practice.
Intrigued and moved by their stories, while still a young priest, I wrote a couple of books, The Forty Martyrs: New Saints of England and Wales (1971), and Fathers of the Church (1982). With today’s news again telling of religious persecution and people being killed simply because they are Christian, I have written a new book, To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness.
It is my hope that the stories of these supreme witnesses will inspire you too in living the faith today. The Age of the Martyrs is not passed. In fact, more people died for the Christian faith in the 20th century than in all the other centuries combined. The 21st century appears to be no better – with not a few of the executioners posting videos of their atrocities online to make a public spectacle of each death, as in the days of the Roman persecutions.
Yet, although martyrdom may be constant and inevitable as a follower of Christ, that does not mean that we should abandon fellow Christians and leave them to suffer thinking that they have been forgotten. We cannot rest content knowing that our brothers and sisters are being oppressed, imprisoned and killed. When they suffer, we suffer too. The injustice should rouse us to speak more loudly and effectively for justice.
The martyrs, like Saint Thomas Becket whom we remember today, tell the world that Christian faith is worth the price, no matter how high. We must make it our mission to live in communion with them, to re-echo their testimony to all the world, standing in solidarity with those who are suffering today. In this, they and we are not alone. We stand with the whole Church on earth and with the saints and angels in heaven, one people in Christ.