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A patron saint for diocesan priests

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St. Thomas Becket (c.1120-1170)


Feast day: Dec. 29


People who knew Thomas Becket didn’t like him much. He was a superb administrator, with a genius for making himself indispensible to the most powerful people in England. And he was very good at making himself wealthy. Considering that he was canonized only two years after his death, it must have come as a shock to them that Becket was now a saint and a martyr.


Becket was born in London, the son of a solidly middle class family. But he wanted more. Ambition, not godliness, led him to choose a career as a cleric. Typically, power politics was reserved to members of the royal family and the nobles. The church, however, did not discriminate. The children of poor peasants could rise to great heights on the basis of their abilities, not their birth.


Early in his career he came to the attention of Theobald, the elderly archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald could no longer fulfill the onerous responsibilities of governing the church in England, so Becket took over these tasks. He was so good at it, he won the gratitude and affection of England’s leading churchman. Alas, Becket broke the old archbishop’s heart when he “traded up,” leaving Theobald’s household to become a close adviser to King Henry II.


When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry asserted a privilege claimed by many kings in Europe, naming Becket as the next archbishop of Canterbury. With one of his closest friends as archbishop, Henry felt he could extend his royal authority over the church in England. He was wrong.


Once Becket was consecrated, grace touched his heart and to everyone’s surprise — maybe shock is a better word — he became a changed man. He was as careful about his prayers and celebrating Mass as once he had been about the king’s business. He did penance for years of careless living. He gave lavishly to the poor. Yet Henry failed to notice the change that came over his friend.


When Henry tried to extend his authority over the church, Becket insisted that the church must be independent of the state or else it would be a tool for monarchs.


Stung by Becket’s opposition, Henry brought a host of false charges against his one-time friend, including treason. Death threats from the king’s men followed. Fearing for his life, Becket fled to France. For the next six years, Henry and Becket jockeyed for position, each trying to win the support of the pope. In the end, arbitrators for each side worked out a truce that permitted Becket to return home to Canterbury, but the central issue of the liberty of the church had never been resolved. When Becket excommunicated bishops who had supported Henry in his feud with the king, Henry threw one of his notorious tantrums that ended with him crying, “Will no one relieve me of this troublesome priest?” Four of the king’s knights set out at once for Canterbury. There they confronted Becket in his own cathedral, demanding that he give in to Henry’s demands. When the archbishop refused, the knights hacked him to death at the foot of the altar.


St. Thomas Becket quarreled with his king over the independence of the church. Monks had their abbot to defend them, but the diocesan clergy whose rights would have been lost if the king won, looked upon the archbishop as their particular champion, in heaven just as he had been on earth.


Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017