December 29th is the feast of St. Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket lived in England in the 1100s, where under King Henry II of England he served as Chancellor. Becket was a very worldly man who loved the rich extravagances of life. At the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, King Henry II, seeing an opportunity to deepen his power over the Church, pushed for his worldly friend and Chancellor Thomas Becket to be named in this position, thinking he would serve as a political puppet. Thus, Thomas Becket was named the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Aware of his new responsibilities as Archbishop, he had something of a conversion experience. He renounced his worldly, extravagant ways, and committed himself to prayer and penance, to service of God and of the poor. The 1964 movie “Becket” demonstrates this in a dramatic prayer in which he says, “O Lord…. I have been a stranger to prayer, undeserving of your friendship and love. I’ve been without honor and feel unworthy. I am a weak and shallow creature…seeking my comfort and pleasure. I gave my love, such as it was, elsewhere, putting service to my earthly king before my duty to you. Please, Lord, teach me how to serve you with all my heart, to know at last what it really is to love, to adore. So that I may worthily administer your kingdom here on earth and find my true honor in observing your divine will. Please, Lord, make me worthy.”
Thus, when King Henry II tried to control the Church for his own political power, including attempts to pass laws giving himself the power and authority to appoint all bishops in England, to take money from churches, to make decisions about punishment, trials, and executions of priests without any appeal to the Bishop, Archbishop Thomas Becket opposed him, not serving as the political puppet that King Henry II thought he would be.
In a moment of frustration, King Henry II cried out, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome cleric?” (referring to Archbishop Becket). Some knights overhearing this decided to serve the king by taking it upon themselves to kill Becket. Just before they killed him, Thomas Becket cried out, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” Thus St. Thomas Becket has become a sort of icon of religious liberty and freedom.
It is particularly interesting to note that this year, the current U.S. president released a proclamation on Dec. 29th (St. Thomas Becket’s Feast Day), declaring that all Americans should honor St. Thomas Becket. It is noteworthy that an American President should declare formal recognition of a Catholic Saint. Here is an excerpt from his proclamation:
To honor Thomas Becket’s memory, the crimes against people of faith must stop, prisoners of conscience must be released, laws restricting freedom of religion and belief must be repealed, and the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed must be protected. The tyranny and murder that shocked the conscience of the Middle Ages must never be allowed to happen again. As long as America stands, we will always defend religious liberty. A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure — because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.
Now, therefore, I, … President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim December 29, 2020, as the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket. I invite the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches and customary places of meeting with appropriate ceremonies in commemoration of the life and legacy of Thomas Becket.
To read the entire proclamation visit the White House’s website.