St John Fisher was born in 1469, in a north Yorkshire town named after a beaver’s stream. He had nine brothers and sisters – four from his mother’s first marriage and, after his father died, when he was eight, she had five more children having remarried. Being the eldest, John developed leadership skills like straight-talking, courage, determination, vision and organization – which he drew on throughout his life. He remained close to his family and held big gatherings at Christmas time. While having a quiet, reclusive, austere side, he enjoyed being with friends and offering generous hospitality. He only ate simple meals himself and wore one threadbare cloak.
The experience of growing up in Beverley laid the foundations for John’s pastoral priorities as a priest, bishop, cardinal and witness to Christ as a martyr. His birth place was as a major centre where criminals and other sinners came to reform their lives. The area of sanctuary measured a mile from the church door and had four entrances marked by crosses. This designated land was known as “the peace of St John of Beverley”. His shrine attracted many groups of pilgrims, including royalty, who claimed his intercession gave them military success (e.g. Henry V and Agincourt, 1415).
Few parts of the country had such a large, open retreat facility. The theme of God’s mercy was expressed through many opportunities for reconciliation and personal conversion. This would result from responses to advice given about human mortality, the promise of heaven, the reality of final judgement and the possibility of going to hell. These topics all feature significantly in the writings of St John Fisher we have in English. He was conscious of the shortness of life all around him. His contemporaries often died before the age of 50. Therefore, he concentrated people’s attention on growing in holiness by following Jesus by bringing his love to others.
Beverley had four hospitals, two of which were dedicated to those with leprosy. This helped to sow in John’s heart a commitment to the poor and needy. Made a Bishop in 1504, he spent most of his time in the Rochester diocese founded by Pope St Gregory the Great in 604AD. During parish visiting, he devoted many hours to meeting the infirm in their smoke-filled houses. If the stairs were too to hazardous climb, he used a ladder.
John was an able administrator who, after gaining his BA, MA and PhD, became the Chancellor of Cambridge University and founded two colleges for the training of priests. He put into the governing statutes clauses ensuring that students received the most up-to-date teaching. He also provided funding for those from deprived backgrounds.
John modelled his style of sermons upon the importance of sharing the best bible scholarship available. As well encouraging the fruits of a priest’s general education in subjects like English, Latin, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, public speaking and debating skills, to be shared with their parishioners.
St John Fisher, described as the best preacher in the country, challenged Martin Luther. He had rejected the authority of scholars, bishops and the Pope to develop teaching on matters, Luther argued, which were not entirely covered by specific bible passages.
The method of drawing on examples from medieval life indicates how John could relate to a wide range of people. We find him noting trees and flowers like roses, lilies and violets. Birds such as peacocks, pheasants and popinjays together with dogs, game, snakes, toads and spiders also feature. Many of these are to be found in one of two reflections he sent to his sister, Elizabeth, as he awaited his execution in the Tower of London with St Thomas More. They had denied that Henry VIII could, legally, declare himself the Head of the Church in England and marry Anne Boleyn with the hope of having a male heir. In the midst of John’s trials he invited Elizabeth, who is a nun, to think about eternal life and how precious she is to God. If He loves the natural world, how much more does God care for her? John asks. He entitles this beautiful, tender, meditation on creation ‘The Ways to Perfect Religion’. The first treatise he gives to Elizabeth is called ‘A Spiritual Consolation’.
John also draws on Beverley’s industrial heritage of wool and cloth weaving, brick and tile making, copper and blacksmithing, milling and glass blowing, metal and precious stone work. He brought all of these things into how he spoke and wrote. His world-famous writings include the all-consuming focus of a hunter being compared to a person’s fervour for Christ. Another well-known metaphor John uses is to liken Jesus’s crucifixion to a book opened to be read.
John’s missionary zeal committed him to remain, for thirty years, in the poorest diocese in the country. This was despite turning down opportunities to move to more prestigious areas like Ripon.
John was taken, as Bishop, to his imprisonment in The Tower and executed, in the manner of St John the Baptist, in 1535. Some 400 years later, he was canonized in 1935.
As with St Gregory, we can see that St John Fisher was: grateful and generous; attentive and discerning; compassionate and loving; faith filled and hopeful; eloquent and truthful; learned and wise; curious in active; intentional and prophetic.
May we follow the examples of our parish patron saints.