St. John Fisher: A Martyr for Marriage

Saint John Fisher

For single Catholics hoping to find their future spouses, it might seem like all those priest and religious saints in the Catholic arsenal of Heavenly helpers are a little distant.

But really, a lot of these saints’ lives can hold quite a bit of relevance to our own.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than Saint John Fisher, whose feast day we celebrate on June 22nd.

Though he was a priest and a bishop, he was deeply convicted about the sanctity of marriage.

John Fisher can be a great saint for us to turn to for intercession during our years of preparation for eventual marriage, because he ultimately laid down his life in defense of marriage.

A holy and humble early life

Saint John Fisher

John Fisher was born to merchant parents in England in the year 1469. He was one of four children. His father died when John was just eight years old.

John was pious as a child, and he felt called to enter the priesthood from the time he was very young.

He first studied theology and the arts at the University of Cambridge. Then, at age twenty-two after completing his master’s degree, John obtained a papal dispensation to become a priest even though he was younger than canon law required for ordination.

John was soon elected as a fellow at Cambridge. While he was rising in prominence in the academic world, he was also becoming a recognized and important figure with the nobility.

John was appointed bishop of the Rochester diocese in 1504. Becoming the Rochester bishop was often seen as the first step toward a career in high-ranking ecclesiastical positions.

But despite the prominent reputation he was gaining, John chose to remain as the Rochester bishop for the rest of his life.

The need for reform

Saint John Fisher

The time in which John Fisher lived and ministered was the time of the Protestant revolt.

There were many abuses going on inside the Church, but unlike Martin Luther and others who chose to break away, John preached against the abuses and worked toward real reform.

John preached a famous sermon against Martin Luther’s actions. But John’s biggest battle came soon, when King Henry VIII began revolting against Church teaching.

At one point, John was seen very favorably by the king and the king’s court. But when King Henry began trying to unjustly dissolve his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, John strongly opposed him.

King Henry wanted to dissolve his marriage to Catherine because she hadn’t given him a male heir.

Their marriage had always been entirely valid. But Henry was attempting to have it declared invalid so that he could marry someone else and hopefully end up with a male heir to carry on his royal lineage.

John knew that this marriage was valid and that Henry was acting unjustly. Others in the king’s court were considering playing along and pretending that Henry’s actions were legitimate. After all, he was their king; he could certainly punish his subjects if they got in his way.

But John was not willing to go along with a course of action that violated the sanctity of marriage. He even stated that he was ready to die in defense of marriage.

This opposition greatly angered Henry. He never forgave John. It wouldn’t be long before John had to prove that he really was ready to die in defense of marriage.

John Fisher’s road to martyrdom

Saint John Fisher

Henry soon began trying to officially break away from the Church. He made himself the head of the Church in England when it became clear that he could not get Church approval to unjustly dissolve his first marriage.

After he did this, the king divorced his lawful wife Catherine and married a woman named Anne Boleyn. He demanded people (including John Fisher and Saint Thomas More) take an oath declaring that the children he had by Anne were legitimate heirs to the throne.

John refused to take this oath, since doing so would be to declare that this unlawful second marriage was morally legitimate. So the king imprisoned him in the Tower of London.

Henry tried to make John submit. He made sure that the conditions of John’s imprisonment were poor. Henry also didn’t allow John to see a priest.

John continued to hold fast to his belief in the sanctity of marriage, so the king tried him for treason. The court found John guilty and sentenced him to die by being hung, drawn, and quartered.

The feast of Saint John the Baptist’s Nativity was near. Because of this, the king decided to change John’s death sentence to beheading. He wanted to make sure John would die before the feast. This way, the public would be less likely to notice how similar John’s opposition to the king’s marriage was to John the Baptist’s opposition to Herod’s unlawful marriage.

John faced his beheading calmly and courageously on June 22nd, 1535.

Anyone who is seeking to find a partner for a happy, holy marriage would do well to turn to this noble defender of marriage’s sanctity.

St. John Fisher, pray for us!