Sunday, December 29, 2002

29 DECEMBER

. . . . .
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sundry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blissful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
--from the Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales


Today is a Sunday and the feast celebrated liturgically is either the “Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity” in the traditional Roman Rite of Bl. Pope John XXIII or the “Feast of the Holy Family” in the Pauline Rite.
Were it not a Sunday, on the 29th day of December we would celebrate the feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury – Thomas á Becket. The feast of the great martyr and patron of England was at one time classed as a double, and in England was a double of the first class with its own octave. These days he has been reduced to a commemoration.

St. Thomas was “born in 1118 of a merchant family. He studied in London and Paris, entered the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, became lord chancellor under King Henry II in 1155, and in 1162 archbishop of Canterbury. Till then a submissive courtier, he now initiated a fearless struggle against the king for the freedom of the Church and the inviolability of ecclesiastical property, occasioning his imprisonment, exile, and finally martyrdom (December 29, 1170). Canonization came quickly (1173); in 1539 King Henry VIII ordered his remains burned.” [Parsch, The Church’s Year of Grace]

A more comprehensive biography can be found here.

An eyewitness account of St. Thomas’ martyrdom can be found here.

What happened to St. Thomas?
There have long been stories that St. Thomas’ relics were not in fact burned by Henry’s men but rather that the monks, knowing of the royal decrees, had substituted other bones for Thomas’s and secretly buried the saint’s. The evidence doesn’t, alas, seem too compelling to me. But since I love that kind of stuff, I pass along a citation to those of you who do, too.

If you have some time, I would also suggest Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s “The Holy Blissful Martyr St. Thomas á Becket”. A good read and only a little over 100 pages in the Neumann Press edition.

Introit: Rejoice we all in the Lord, keeping holy-day in honor of blessed Thomas the Martyr: in whose solemnity the Angels rejoice and glorify the Son of God. Ps. Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for it becometh well the just to be thankful.

Collect: O GOD, who for thy Church’s sake didst suffer the glorious Bishop Thomas to fall by the swords of wicked men: grant, we beseech thee; that those who call on him for succour may obtain the fulfillment of all their petitions. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.