Born in London to an old Norman family in 1118, Thomas Becket
rose rapidly through the clerical ranks after he finished
his education. In 1154, he was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury,
a post of honor. Thanks to his diplomatic skills in dealing
with the papacy, Thomas, only 36, was named Englandís chancellor
by King Henry II.
Like many clerical politicians of the time, he lived a lavish lifestyle
supported by income from a number of revenue-generating clerical benefices or
posts. Nevertheless, Thomas was a man of regular prayer and penitential practices.
In 1162, the king named him archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after, he received
the pallium, a symbol of his authority, from Pope Alexander III.
Thomasís rise to the highest ecclesiastical post in England
became an occasion of conversion. He abandoned his love of luxury to lead a
rigorous life of personal piety. He gave alms daily and tempered his judgments
with mercy. He also proved more zealous than the king might have thought about
protecting the privileges of the Church against secular intrusions. That zeal
led to increasing tension between king and prelate.
In his final decade of life, Thomas fought the king on a number
of issues: the right of the secular power to appoint to clerical benefices;
the place and power of ecclesiastical courts; and, most notably, the crowning
of the heir to the throne by the archbishop of York, who had usurped the primacy
Thomas, with the popeís backing, excommunicated the archbishop of
York and the bishops of London and Salisbury for their collusion. When Henry
heard this news, he raged that someone needed to rid him of Thomas. Four knights
obliged by hacking Thomas to death inside his church on December 29, 1170.
The king, who may well not have desired anything so drastic, did
public penance for his sins in the same cathedral in July 1174, right after
the canonization of Thomas as a martyr. In 1220, the saintís body was transferred
to a place under the high altar from its previous crypt to accommodate better
the vast number of pilgrims coming to Canterbury.
The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to venerate St. Thomas
is im-mortalized in Chaucerís Canterbury Tales. As the Prologue says,
ďTo Canterbury they come, the holy blessed martyr there to seek, who gave his
help to them that were sick.Ē
In the 16th century, aware of the powerful
symbolism of a bishop who stood up against the monarchy to
ensure the Churchís independence, Henry VIII, after breaking
with the papacy, had the shrine of St. Thomas razed and
the pilgrimages stopped. Todayís pilgrims can see the two
places where Thomasís body was buried and view the stained-glass
windows depicting his martyrdom. His feast is observed in
both the Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars.
Thomas Becket stands in the great tradition of
martyrs who lost their lives by speaking truth to power. England
has provided two conspicuous examples: Becket and St. Thomas
More. In our day, we have seen Bishop Oscar Romero gunned
down while celebrating Mass. These lives exemplify the observation
of Pope John Paul II that the martyrs demonstrate that truth
is worth giving up even oneís life in its defense.
This concludes our series on saints.