St. Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury

St. Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury: Lives of the Saints by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ., 1876.

Glorious and celebrated is the great Archbishop, St. Thomas, on account of his fortitude in defending the rights of the Christian Church. He was born at London, in England, of noble, pious and rich parents, who led him early in the path of virtue, and had him carefully instructed in the arts and sciences. Thomas progressed rapidly in both, and gained so high an esteem among both clergy and laity, that Henry II. chose him as Chancellor of the kingdom. He discharged his functions to the entire satisfaction of king and people, until the episcopal See of Canterbury became vacant by the death of Theobald, who had long since ordained Thomas deacon. The king, of his own free will, appointed Thomas as successor to the late archbishop. Thomas refused, for a long time, to obey the king’s wish, but at length, recognizing the will of the Almighty, he accepted the high but burthensome dignity.

No sooner had he done this, than he renounced every bodily enjoyment, and in consideration of the grave duties of his station, endeavored so to conduct himself, that his life might shine as a bright example to those under him. Zeal for the honor of God and the salvation of his flock took entire possession of his heart, so that he left nothing undone to further both. The poor and needy enjoyed the greater part of his income, while he used the rest for his own maintenance, being far from delighting in pride or luxury, but devoted to mortifying himself continually. So edifying a mode of life made the new Archbishop agreeable both to God and men. But when he claimed several ecclesiastical benefices, which had been unjustly taken from the church, the usurpers of these estates roused a part of the people against their shepherd, disseminated scandalous reports against him, and endeavored to withdraw from him the love and esteem of the king. At that time, two ecclesiastics had committed grievous faults; and when St. Thomas wished to punish them, some of the courtiers told the king that he, as Lord of the land, should claim the right of judging and punishing as well the clergy as the laity; that he had the power over all, and ought not to permit any encroachment on his rights; and that it was a disgrace to him that the clergy were independent of his power. Not content with this, they persuaded the king to issue laws entirely contrary to the rights and liberties of the church, but approved by the highest nobility of the kingdom, and even by many bishops, whom fear had influenced. St. Thomas boldly resisted these laws, ready rather to die than consent to anything that was against the vow he had made to God and the Church.

This lost him the king’s favor; and seeing that still greater disturbances might arise if he remained in the country, he secretly left the court, and with two ecclesiastics, went to Rome, related to the Pope what had taken place, and begged him to appoint another Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope praised his constancy, but would not listen to his request, but advised him to live in retirement, until the king should come to the knowledge of his fault. Hence, the holy archbishop went into the Cistercian monastery of Pontigni, in France, and lived there in great austerity and holiness, until he was informed that the king of England had notified the Abbot of Pontigni that he would destroy every monastery of his Order in England, unless his enemy, Thomas, were dismissed. The holy man then voluntarily left Pontigni in order that his presence might not cause evil to the Order. Louis, king of France, informed of this, came to meet the exiled Archbishop, and took him to another monastery at Sens, which was named after St. Columba. Here he remained until the king of England became reconciled to him. Thus, after seven years, St. Thomas returned to his see, and was received by his flock with inexpressible joy. The Saint discharged his functions as before with great zeal, not in the least complaining of the wrong that had been done to him.

But his enemies gave him no peace, they accused him of conspiring against the kingdom and the general welfare of the people, and even of aspiring to the crown. Senseless and plainly false as these accusations were, still they made an impression upon the king, who, in his wrath, said more than once: “Can I have no peace in my kingdom on account of one single priest? Is there no one who will free me from so proud and obstinate a man?” Some of those, who heard these words, supposed that the king would regard them with great favor if they would rid him of the bishop. Hence, they gathered together, went to Canterbury and entered the church, where the holy man was at Vespers. The priests present, when they heard of the arrival of the murderers, would have closed the doors of the church; but St. Thomas would not permit it. “The Church,” said he, “is no fort where one prepares for an attack. I am willing to sacrifice my life for the Church of God.” During this time, the murderers pressed into the church, and one of them exclaimed on entering: “Where is Thomas, the traitor?” “I am here!” answered the holy man, “but I am no traitor. I am a priest of God, and ready to give my blood for God and His Church. But, in the name of the Almighty, I forbid you to hurt one of my people.”

He then knelt before the altar and commended himself and his church to God, the Divine Mother, St. Dionysius and other patrons. He had hardly finished his prayer, when the most daring of the murderers gave him so violent a stroke with his sword, that he clove the holy archbishop’s head. The others followed and maltreated the Saint so cruelly, that his brains were scattered over the steps leading to the altar, and the pavement before it was covered with blood. After this, they demolished the episcopal palace, and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands. The religious and priests, who, in fear and trembling, had endeavored to flee, returned, after the departure of the assassins from the church, called the other ecclesiastics, and with great veneration, interred the body of the murdered Saint. In taking off his clothing, they found a hair-shirt, which the Saint had always worn. This sad and, at the same time, cruel event took place in the year of our Lord, 1170.

The king, who, although he had not desired the assassination of the archbishop, had occasioned it by his angry words, did severe and public penance. The murderers were punished by the Almighty. He who had dealt the blow, after long internal suffering, in rage and despair, tore his own body with his teeth, and cut with knives one piece after another from it, until he miserably expired. The other three, who had laid their sacrilegious hands on the holy archbishop, wandered insane and trembling through England, for three years, and at last ended their lives in despair. They were frequently heard to exclaim; “The vengeance, the punishment of God has overtaken us.” The tomb of St. Thomas was glorified by many miracles, and all England honored him as a Saint, until the time of Henry VIII, who separating from the Catholic Church, proclaimed himself head of the English church. This king, in a most unprecedented manner, summoned St. Thomas, who had been dead 490 years, to appear in court, and there sentenced him as a convicted traitor. In consequence of this act, his holy relics were exhumed, burned to ashes and then given to the winds. At the same time, a royal command was issued, no longer to call the archbishop holy or to invoke him as a Saint.

The real cause of this proceeding was, that St. Thomas had been so fearless a defender of the rights and privileges of the Church of God and of the Apostolic See, upon which Henry VIII. would set his foot, while, at the same time, he laid violent hands on the dead, who had so bravely protected them. So far goes the rage of heresy, regarding neither Christian nor heathen laws; sparing neither the dead nor the living; and not hesitating to dishonor God and His Saints.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS.

Some godless noblemen plotted against St. Thomas of Canterbury, who, as in duty bound, defended the rights of the Church. In our days there are thousands and hundreds of thousands who join secret societies, which in their way labor to overthrow the Church and her rights.

The Holy Fathers call Satan the ape of God. Lucifer had only too well perceived how greatly the assemblies of the Catholics in the catacombs had contributed to the spread of the gospel in the first century, and he has seen in all ages, what help the Church received from her many religious orders, congregations, associations and brotherhoods. Hence his hatred against these institutions. On his side, therefore, he endeavors by means of secret societies and associations, to ruin the foundation of the Church and to overthrow the work of God. That he may have easier play, he seeks to cover the end and aim of these societies under honorable names, such as the rights of man, philanthropy, humanity, enlightenment, advancement, culture, pretending that these associations are only mutual aid societies, founded through pure humanity, and that every Catholic might join them without burdening his conscience. But, dear reader, let not this syren song deceive you. Under the honey of sweet words is hidden the deadly poison. Hear and consider well what I tell you of the wickedness of these associations, which are called secret societies. If you converse with people who endeavor to entice you into their net, they will say: “Why will you not join us, though you are a Catholic? We know one religion only: to believe in God, and be honest, that is sufficient.” Answer: “If you do not regard the religion of a man, this in itself is a bad sign which induces me not to join you. I esteem religion and cannot join men to whom it is indifferent.” In fact, no Catholic ever joined a secret society, and became thereby better, more zealous or more pious; on the contrary, such persons sink only too soon into entire indifference in regard to matters of faith, and become scoffers.

Besides this, how can a Catholic join a secret society? He would be excommunicated and cease to be a Catholic; which means, that the Church would expel him from the community of the faithful and refuse him the Sacraments and Christian burial. How blind are those who think they can belong to secret societies and yet remain Catholics! They ought to be ashamed that they know so little of the consequences of excommunication. But they will say: why does the Church excommunicate secret societies, as they are only associations for mutual aid? Answer: They are apparently mutual aid associations, but in reality, they injure and destroy the root of brotherly love, which says, without making any distinction: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” hence, also, aid him as thyself. And though it is impossible for us to practice this commandment literally in regard to all men on earth, yet we must observe it in favor of those with whom we come in contact, on principles very different from those on which secret societies are based.

An example will make this clear. Travelling on the Pacific ocean, I met on board of a steamer the agent of an American lodge of free-masons, with whom was his wife, who was an excellent Catholic. I said to this agent: “Dear Sir, would it not be far better for you to learn what the Church teaches and become a Catholic?” He replied: “The Church would not accept me.” “I know the reason,” said I, smiling, “you are a mason.” “I am,” answered he, “and everybody ought to be one; masonry is pure brotherly love.” “On the contrary,” said I, “the principles of masonry wound true charity in its very root. I will prove it to you immediately. Listen to that man near us, what abominable language he uses!” “I think him,” he said, “a very bad fellow.” “Suppose now,” I continued, “that I should fall overboard, and that fellow too, and that you had only one rope, to whom would you throw that rope in order to save him?” “Of course to you, father.” “But he makes a sign to you that he is a mason, and should another mason stand by your side what would he say? would he not say: ‘that is a mason, pull him out and let the priest be drowned.’ Is that right?”

Secondly: to take an oath of secrecy for something that one does not know, cannot be done by an honest man. An honest man will say: “No, I do not promise silence, unless your secret is something good; if it is bad, I will not conceal it, but do my duty. And to bind myself to fulfil blindly any order that may be given, is repugnant to my sense of freedom. I do not wish to make myself a slave.” “Well, if you speak thus, we will not aid you.” Answer: “Then God will aid me; I trust more in Him than in you.” Oh! how many a mason has said: “Had I trusted more in God than in men, than in this society, I should not have been visited by misfortune.”

Lastly, “by their fruits shall ye know them,” says Christ. Masons, and their affiliated societies, may say a hundred times that they do not trouble themselves about church and religion; yet all the outrages which are done to the Church in our days are only the consequence; of the labors of the secret societies, whose grand-masters are the princes of the earth and their counsellors. It is true that the brothers of the lower grades suspect and know but little of all this; they are used only as tools. Besides, a Catholic must believe that the Church, inspired and guided by the Holy Ghost, has reasons for condemning such societies and that she would not be so strongly opposed to them, if they were not so dangerous to the salvation of souls. The Church is our mother and we are bound to obey her voice; we cannot fail in this, without paying dearly for our folly.

A solicitous mother not only sees that her child, when wounded, is healed, but also takes care to keep it out of danger. Father of a family! would you suffer your children to hold secret assemblies in your house during the night and not permit you to know what they do? In the same manner and by the same right, the Church, our Mother, acts in not permitting her children to join societies, with whose workings, not even the confessor can be made acquainted.

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