SAINT JOHN FISHER, whose feast day falls on June 22, was born in 1469 in Beverly, Yorkshire, England. He was Bishop of Rochester for thirty-three years and was a solicitous bishop, stirring preacher, brilliant scholar, and model of every virtue. He hated heresy in any form, but he maintained a charity and gentleness towards heretics that converted many back to the Faith. When King Henry VIII demanded recognition of himself as supreme head of the Church in England and repudiation of the pope, Saint John refused to comply and for this was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Fourteen months later, on June 22, 1535, he was martyred by decapitation on Tower Hill, just two weeks before Saint Thomas More suffered the same glorious fate.
Saint John’s sister, Elizabeth White, was a saintly Dominican nun. While imprisoned in the Tower, he wrote two devotional works for her. One, titled The Ways to Perfect Religion, concluded with seven sentences, each a short prayer intended to be used on successive days of the week. In our consideration of these prayers, we should bear in mind: first, Saint John’s deep reverence for the Holy Name of Jesus, to whom each prayer is addressed; and second, his great devotion to the Daily Office, the official prayer of the Church, which takes into account the liturgical character of each day of the week. Sancte Joannes, ora pro nobis!
O blessed Jesu, make me to love Thee entirely.
Sunday, the first day of the calendar week and the Christian Sabbath, is consecrated to the Most Holy Trinity. It is the day on which the great work of Creation was begun by the Father (Gen.1:1), with the Son (St. John 1:3; Col.1:16) and the Holy Ghost (Gen. 1:2).
Sunday is also the day of Redemption, the day when Our Lord rose from the dead to glorious life, granting a share in that same life to His faithful servants, those who wholeheartedly respond to the Holy Spirit.
And Sunday is the day of Pentecost, the day of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles in the Cenacle (Acts 2 4). Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, which the Father sent the Son to found.
Creation, redemption, sanctification; all hallow Sunday, all are the work of the Holy Trinity, all speak most eloquently of the great love God cherishes for His children. Thus spoke David of this day of days: “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein.” (Ps. 117: 24). Small wonder the Lord wishes all work to be suspended on this day, in order that it may be devoted entirely to Him!
Saint John Fisher, who was shortly to die for the Lord Who died for him, yet felt unworthy of the honor, cast himself at the feet of Jesus daily and implored the gifts of constancy, perfect abandonment to His will, and perfect love of Him.
O blessed Jesu, I would fain, but without Thy help I cannot.
Monday is the second day of the week and the first on which work is permitted. After the day of rest begins a week of labor and battle. By ourselves we are helpless; but with God’s help all things are possible (St. Matt. 19: 26). God has given us the holy angels to guide and assist us (Ps. 90:11), and it is to them that Monday is consecrated. The word “angel” refers to a duty, not a nature. Thus, when we implore the help of Our Lord for either spiritual or temporal favors, He sends His spirits (which we then call “angels”) to assist us, guide us, and protect us. Asking the help of Jesus is asking Him to send us His angels. Devotion to the holy angels is one way of acknowledging our complete helplessness and dependence upon God and thus it is highly pleasing to Him.
Do we seek His help in all things? (Eph. 6:18) Or do we vainly and sinfully presume our own ability? With our heartfelt prayer to Jesus upon our lips and confidence in our hearts, we shall face the week with joy.
O blessed Jesu, let me deeply consider the greatness of Thy love towards me.
We are never alone. Although the week’s battle is raging, we can draw comfort from the knowledge of God’s love for us. His love is shown most clearly in the visible Church, which constantly nourishes and sustains us.
Tuesday, the third day of the week, is dedicated to the Apostles, the original “Fathers” of the Church. Everything the Church knows and every doctrine she pronounces and teaches were known, pronounced and taught by the twelve Apostles. The Catholic Church alone can call itself Apostolic. Jesus, in His great love for us, gave us the Apostolic church and promised to safeguard her against doctrinal error until the end of time. And He made His Church visible, discoverable, and accessible to all men in order that all may find light, holiness, and salvation in her. It was for this Church that Saint John Fisher lived and was martyred.
Considering the greatness of Jesus’ love towards us, can we do less than share that love with others by sharing our Faith with them?
Wednesday is the central point of the week. The battle of virtue against vice is consequently at its height. Wednesday is the day of Judas’ betrayal of Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver. Why then, is Wednesday an appropriate day to thank Jesus for His benefits?
The Church has dedicated Wednesday to Saint Joseph, the husband of Mary, virginal father of Jesus, and patron and defender of the Universal Church. Next to Mary, no saint can be preferred to or compared with him. His dignity is higher than that of all of the Apostles, popes, angels, and saints. He alone of creatures was and is called “father” by the Word-made-flesh. His intercession with Jesus is more powerful than that of any saint except Our Lady.
Saint Teresa of Avila did “not remember at any time having asked him for anything which he did not grant” and stated that while other saints seem to have power to help us in only one type of necessity, “Saint Joseph helps us in all kinds of needs.” What greater benefit could we have than such a helper on this day? Let us thank Our Lord for the gift of Saint Joseph’s intercession and not fail to implore that intercession in all of our needs!
O blessed Jesu, give me good will to serve Thee and to suffer.
Thursday, the fifth day of the week, is consecrated to the Holy Eucharist, for it was on this day that Our Lord instituted the greatest of the Sacraments. The entire sacramental system (indeed, the entire Church) is centered in what has the distinction of being called the Blessed Sacrament. The Sacrament of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Savior under the appearances of bread and wine is so essential to the spiritual life that Jesus Himself declared It to be indispensable to salvation (St. John 6 54). So devoted was Saint John Fisher to this Mystery that whenever he said Mass, according to an early biographer, “ye might then perceive him in such earnest devotion that many times the tears would fall from his cheeks.”
But the glorious institution of the Eucharist was shortly followed by the agony of Gethsemane. It was there that the Apostles, who had just been Sacramentally united to Jesus, cowardly deserted Him. How many so-called Christians have followed their example! “Many follow Jesus to the breaking of Bread, but few to the drinking of the Chalice of His Passion” (Imitation of Christ, Book II, Ch. 11).
St. John Fisher, who witnessed the desertion of every bishop in England except himself, was aware that the will to serve Our Lord is inseparable from suffering. When he had been sent to the Tower of London on April 17, 1534, for refusing to deny the Pope’s authority, his house was eagerly rifled by the king’s agents, who hoped to enrich themselves and their master. Finding nothing of value except books, the thieves at last discovered a locked coffer in the oratory. “But when it was open,” runs the account, “they found within it, instead of the gold and silver they looked for, a shirt of hair and two or three whips wherewith he used full often to punish himself.”
O sweet Jesu, give me a natural remembrance of Thy Passion.
Friday, the sixth day of the week, is consecrated to the Passion of Our Lord, the contemplation of which was a favorite devotion of Saint John Fisher. The saint was doubtless aware that Adam was created on a Friday, the sixth day of the first week, and that Our Lord had been crucified on the hill called the Skull (also on a Friday), which the Jews had long pointed out as the burial place of Adam. The Christian legend is that the Cross of Jesus was planted atop the skull of Adam at His Crucifixion. Saint John, very likely with this connection in mind, and to remind himself of death (Ecclus. 7 40), kept a skull on the altar at Mass and on the table before him as he ate.
The resemblance between our saint and his namesake, Saint John the Evangelist, is remarkable. Both were bishops at times when the Church was under severe persecution by dissolute monarchs. Both were fishers: the Bishop of Rochester in name, and the Evangelist by profession. Both became fishers of men by preaching and example. Both suffered for the Faith, lived to old age, were imprisoned, and are accounted martyrs of the Church. Both wrote and preached against lax clergy and heresy. Both were apostles of charity and were devoted to Our Lady.*
As Fisher was the only bishop in England to remain faithful to Christ’s Church, so was the Evangelist the only Apostle to be found at the foot of the Cross. Just prior to reaching the scaffold, Cardinal Fisher (he had been created a Cardinal while in prison) opened his New Testament for the last time. We are not surprised to learn that it was upon the Gospel according to Saint John the Evangelist that his eye fell. And this is what he read:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent.
He closed the Book, saying “Here is even learning enough for me to my life’s end.” Thus did the saint end his life re-affirming the truth that eternal life is in knowing God and His Son; and by his death he declared that the way to this knowledge is the Catholic Church.
O sweet Jesu, possess my heart, hold and keep it only to Thee.
Saturday, the seventh and last day of the week, is dedicated to Our Lady. It is also a day special to the Church Suffering, for on that day each week, according to ancient authority, Our Lady visits Purgatory and delivers a number of souls to eternal bliss. Thus, Saturday, the end of the week, reminds us of the end of our earthly life and the judgment to follow. Mary, Purgatory, and death were all subjects of sermons by Saint John Fisher.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary await our heart to complete the loving trinity. When we ask them to possess, hold, and keep our heart, we are asking them to mold and shape it, making it conform to their hearts in every way. Our attitude should be one of total surrender to the Will of God, especially at the hour of death. This is the meaning of the petition in the second half of the Hail Mary, for devotion to the Mother infallibly leads us to the Sacred Heart of her Son.
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SAINT JOHN FISHER declared on the scaffold that he had come “to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church.” Yet, he never trusted his own constancy and asked the witnesses of his martyrdom to pray “that at the very point and instant of my death’s stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for any fear.”
The willingness of this great saint to suffer death rather than rend the seamless garment of Christ’s Church must serve as an example to all of us, especially in these compromising times.
O God, who didst grant unto Thy blessed Bishop John to lay down his life with great courage for truth and justice; grant us by his intercession and example to lose our life in this world for Christ, that we may find it in heaven. Amen. (Collect from the votive Mass of St. John Fisher)
* Both were devoted to the Name of Jesus. (The Evangelist mentions the Holy Name 251 times in his Gospel.) So anxious was St. John to write the Holy Name that out of humility whenever he spoke about himself he refers to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” and when he spoke of Our Lady he calls her tenderly “the mother of Jesus.”