On June 22, the Church celebrates the memory of Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More, both martyred in England for refusing to join Henry VIII’s revolt against the Papacy.
“Let me Sleep Another Hour”
We will begin with a narration of the saint’s life and especially his death that follows:
Before he was appointed Bishop of Rochester, Saint John Fisher had been chaplain to Henry VII’s mother and the chancellor of Cambridge University. He opposed the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. He rejected the establishment of the Church of England by refusing to take the oath required of the English bishops recognizing the king as head of the Church in England. Thus, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. In May 1535, during his imprisonment, he was created a cardinal by Pope Paul III.
Saint John Fischer was sentenced to die by torture, but his sentence was commuted to beheading due to his deplorable state of health. In the early hours of June 22, the Tower officer met the prisoner in his cell and reminded him that he was old, unable to bear the prison regime for long. Then he announced the king’s decision that the execution takes place that very morning.
“All right,” replied the saint. “If that’s the message you bring, it’s nothing new to me. I waited for it every day. What time is it?”
“What time is my departure from this world scheduled?”
“Then I would thank you if you allow me to sleep another hour or two, as I didn’t sleep much last night, not out of fear but because of my illnesses and great weakness.”
Taking Extreme Care of His Health Even on His Way to the Scaffold
When the officer returned at nine o’clock, he found Fischer ready and dressed. The holy bishop took the New Testament and read with great consolation these words of Saint John: “Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with thee.” Then he asked to be given his fur-lined robe. To which the officer questioned him:
“But, my lord, why should you take such care of your health if your time is up and you have little more than an hour to live?”
“I ask for my cloak to keep me warm until the moment of execution. For even though I do not lack the courage to die a holy death, I still don’t want to jeopardize my health even for a moment.”
He walked towards the scaffold, straightening his body, which was so thin and gaunt that it looked like death had taken a human form. On the platform, in an intelligible and clear voice, he asked those watching the execution to pray for him:
“Until now, I have never been afraid of death. However, I am flesh, and Saint Peter, fearing for his flesh, denied the Lord three times. Help me, therefore, that at the precise moment that I receive the mortal blow, I do not give in through weakness on any point of the Catholic Religion.”
Saint John Fisher, engraving by Gerard Valck, published 1697
“I have never been afraid of death. However, I am flesh, and Saint Peter, fearing for his flesh, denied the Lord three times. Help me, therefore, that at the precise moment that I receive the mortal blow, I do not give in through weakness on any point of the Catholic Religion.”
In place of the ordeal, he was offered pardon several times if he only would say what they asked of him. But he was unshakable. After the execution, his body was exposed, naked, throughout the day. His head, stuck in a spear, was placed on the London Bridge. Fifteen days later, as it still looked alive and people began to believe in a miracle, they threw it into the Thames.
Thus, ends the narration.
A Punishment Every Man Dreads
Here we see the reactions of a great prelate on the eve of his martyrdom. He does not hide his fears in the face of death.
I believe that no man can say he does not fear death without the assistance of grace. For death in itself is a punishment that God inflicts on men for Original Sin. Therefore, it naturally instills fear. We cannot imagine the suffering caused by the definitive separation of the soul from the body at the time of death. We can suppose it is a profound, more or less unimaginable pain. If the slightest twisting of the body’s tiniest bone can be very painful, then the pain must be very great at the time of the laceration caused by the soul gradually losing its influence and completely abandoning the flesh.
Thus, a blunt appraisal of death causes a person to be afraid at the supreme moment of facing it.
The act of dying is only part of the suffering. Any reasonable person who has witnessed death can see other more profound reasons for fearing it connected to the person’s spiritual state.
I remember, for example, watching my father during his agony and making this reflection: “There he is between eternity and the earth. He has completely lost consciousness of everything. External facts no longer touch him. However, in the back of his mind, he might be facing other things. What forms of fear, temptation and trial is he enduring? What consolations, joys, or help can a soul like this also feel at this moment?”
Indeed, such circumstances fraught with uncertainties should cause fear in man.
Admirable Tranquility at the Time of Death
Returning to Saint John Fisher’s example, let us consider how admirably this saint practiced the virtue of vigilance and self-examination. After receiving the news of his death with all serenity, he then asked for two more hours of sleep. This petition shows extraordinary unconcern at his imminent departure from this world: “I didn’t sleep well last night, I’m tired, let me rest a little longer.”
He sleeps in the peace of his soul because he is ready to appear before God. He places himself into God’s arms and rests until it is time to lie down for eternal rest. This is an impressive manifestation of a clean conscience and the supernatural help that enabled him to possess such tranquility in the last hours of his life.
After resting, he arises, gets ready and calmly presents himself to the officer who comes for him.
Fearing Being Afraid
At the scaffold, he felt that his human weakness could get the upper hand. He was afraid of becoming afraid. The saint did not want to lose his magnificent state of soul in the face of death. Thus, he asked those present to pray for him.
How appropriate it was for him to distrust himself! There, on the scaffold, his tormentors insisted on perverting him and making him deny the Catholic faith. Their last-minute harassment had a purpose. They know that it would be a triumph for the Anglican cause if he accepted their heretical proposals. Nothing is more seductive than choosing between saying “yes” or dying. If the saint accepted the offers, he would leave that scaffold surrounded by honor and applause. He would sleep that night comfortably in some palace and have a few years of pampered life ahead of him.
However, Saint John Fisher feared his fear. He feared a temptation from the devil at that time. He recognized that he might fall. Thus, practicing the virtue of vigilance as recommended by the Divine Master, he asked for others to pray on his behalf. Above all, he must have begged for the intercession of Mary Most Holy at the throne of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
He remained unshakable in his faith, was beheaded, and received the crown of martyrdom.
Trusting in Our Lady, we Will Have the Strength to Face Death
He serves as a model for us Catholics on how to face the moment of our deaths. Let us have that spirit of vigilance and humility that Saint John Fisher manifested. Let us never imagine that, being devotees of Mary Most Holy who practice good works of the apostolate, we will not be tempted or weakened at the last minute.
We must therefore ask for the grace to be vigilant about ourselves. Let us seek the grace always to resist temptations, realizing that the spirit may be ready, but the flesh is weak. Let us especially ask Our Lady to assist us with her mercy when we leave this world for eternity. As the Holy Church recommends, we must implore the grace of a good death, as we do not know what can happen to us in the last moments of our lives.
Such considerations should not cause panic or unwholesome terror. On the contrary, when people confide in Our Lady—and, through Her, in Our Lord, they understand how terrible death is but move toward it serenely. However, I must often ask for trust in God and supernatural help from Heaven, which is the only remedy to avoid the unhealthy terror of death.
We should take to heart these precious lessons from the example of Saint John Fisher, bishop, cardinal, and martyr of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on June 21, 1967. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.