ROCHESTER — St. John Fisher died nearly 500 years ago, but his life and example are as relevant and inspiring today as they were in the 16th century, Bishop Salvatore R. Matano told the faithful gathered for Mass June 22 at Sacred Heart Cathedral. More than 50 priests were among those who traveled to the Mass from all corners of the diocese, and the liturgy was enhanced by the music of more than 30 choristers and the presence of a number of Knights of Columbus.
The Mass was offered in celebration of the June 22 feast day of St. John Fisher, who is the patron saint of the Diocese of Rochester, and also marked the first day of the annual Religious Freedom Week, during which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invites Catholics throughout the nation to pray, reflect and act in support of religious freedom. The theme of this year’s week is Solidarity in Freedom, and the U.S. bishops are encouraging Catholics to focus specifically on issues related to adoption and foster care; Catholic social services during the pandemic; the Equality Act currently before Congress; church vandalism; Catholics suffering in Nicaragua; conscience rights for medical professionals; Christians in Iraq; and free speech.
Catholics must be free to proclaim and uphold the church’s teachings on such issues as the sanctity of marriage and the dignity of every human life — including the sick, elderly and vulnerable — from the moment of conception until natural death, Bishop Matano said during his homily.
“We must be free to bring Jesus into our streets and communities. We must be free to be Catholic. We must be free to be the sons and daughters of God before any other affiliations, political or otherwise,” Bishop Matano said.
St. John Fisher was not afraid to articulate and defend the teachings of the Catholic Church, even when his own life was at stake, and he provides “an extraordinary example of one who rejoiced that he shared in the sufferings of Christ,” the bishop added.
By 1525, then-Bishop John Fisher was on good terms with England’s royal family and was on his way to becoming the most famous Catholic theologian in Europe, Bishop Matano said. Nonetheless, the future saint was content to serve for 30 years as bishop of Rochester, England, which was the poorest diocese in the country. His standing with King Henry VIII plummeted, however, when he refused to support the annulment of the ruler’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and after a lengthy imprisonment, St. John Fisher was martyred on June 22, 1535.
Bishop Matano quoted the words of St. John Fisher contained in his work, De Unitate Ecclesiae (on the Unity of the Church), which he contemplated prior to his execution. Bishop Fisher lamented that the bishops of the time had remained silent in the face of opposition to church teachings and failed to be true pastors of the faithful, and their silence led to “innumerable souls … falling into destruction.” The example of St. John Fisher’s life and death, however, stood out “like a shining star for hundreds of fellow English men and women, who would later have the courage to face imprisonment and death rather than betray the faith,” he remarked.
The life of St. John Fisher still provides an example for laypeople and clergy to emulate even today. Bishop Matano expressed his deep admiration for Bishop Fisher, who did not let despair and discouragement dim the fire and the flame of that enthusiasm on the day he became a priest of Jesus Christ, and then was honored to become a successor of the holy apostles.
“St. John Fisher was without fear, one without compromise, but at the same time so humble and so faithful,” Bishop Matano said.
The June 22 feast day of St. John Fisher and his fellow martyr, St. Thomas More, provides an opportunity for bishops to look inward and examine their own consciences and reflect upon how well they have served their people, he added.
“The color (bishops) wear, red, is not simply a decoration or a sign of honor, but rather a sign of blood, and that it means taking up the cross before we ask the faithful to take up that cross,” Bishop Matano said. “How much I still have to learn after these almost 50 years, of what it means to be a priest and a pastor after the image of St. John Fisher.”
Faith in God’s merciful love, despite his own imperfections, allows the bishop to face each day and strive to follow St. John Fisher’s example.
“Let us be of courage, embrace ever more deeply the faith, keep our eyes upon the cross, fear not criticism or even the persecution experienced by our brothers and sisters in other countries, but let us look beyond temporal suffering to the glory of the truth who is Jesus Christ, who has endured through the ages and paved the way to eternity for our ancestors in the faith,” he said.