Father Tirso

The days immediately after Christmas Day are dedicated feast days to several martyrs and other saints. For example, the day after Christmas is the feast day of St. Stephen, the First Martyr. He was stoned to death in plain sight of the man who would later be known as St. Paul.

On December 27th , the Church celebrated the feast of St. John the Evangelist. One of the symbols of this gospel is the eagle because just as the eagle flies high into the sky, the gospel of John has a lofty nature to it.

Likewise, December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents. King insatiable thirst for power and great fear of losing that power drove him to order the despicable act of having infant and toddler boys brutally murdered.

Then, we have the date of December 29th . This year because it falls on a Sunday, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family. But, December 29th is usually the feast day of St. Thomas of Canterbury—someone I remember fondly for the mere fact that immediately prior to coming to this parish I had been pastor of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury in the Uptown area of Chicago. St. Thomas of Canterbury, in some ways, is a neglected hero of the Catholic faith but one who remains a model of courage.

Also known as St. Thomas Becket, St. Thomas lived in 12th century England and was made Archbishop of Canterbury during the time of King Henry II. Before this appointment, Thomas and Henry had been close friends. When offered the position of archbishop of a very important diocese in England, Thomas warned the king that he might not accept all of Henry’s intrusions into Church affairs.

As Thomas had predicted, conflict arose between friends when Thomas would not accept Henry’s constant attempts to usurp church rights. One such interference would have taken away rights from priests that was granted to them by Church Law. St. Thomas came to refuse cooperation with actions born out of sinfulness and evil. He opposed the king’s decrees that made it difficult for the Catholic Church in England to remain true to its teaching, autonomy, and practice.

After fleeing England and living exiled in France for seven years, Thomas returned to Canterbury knowing that it would mean his death. True to his conviction, St. Thomas of Canterbury continued to resist the king’s involvement in Church affairs. In a fit of rage, King Henry II cried out, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights took it upon themselves to kill Thomas in his own cathedral in Canterbury.

It was on December 29th, 1170 that the four knights forced their way into the cathedral at Canterbury. The monks who resided there tried to bolt the doors to keep themselves safe. But, St. Thomas ordered them to open the doors because it was not right to make that house of prayer into a fortress. The four knights attempted to force St. Thomas to recant his refusal to follow the king’s orders. When the saintly bishop was adamant in his resolve, each of the four knights delivered several blows that eventually led to St. Thomas’ death. The first knight scalped St. Thomas with his sword. With his brain exposed by the severe wound, the second knight struck a second blow to the saint’s head. At the strike of the third knight, St. Thomas fell to his knees. There were so many strikes to the saint’s head that he died from severe trauma to his brain.

It might seem odd to celebrate the feasts of martyrs and other saints immediately after the celebration of the Savior’s birth. But, if we think about it, it makes perfect sense. The feast days of the martyrs and saints remind us that the birth of Jesus is not meant to be simply a “cute” celebration. Rather, the birth of Jesus calls for a response on our part. Jesus’ birth reaches its full meaning and significance for us as Catholic Christians when we are able to offer our lives in witness to the Savior and to do all we can to spread the Word of God to all the four corners of the world.

Today, St. Thomas of Canterbury remains a reminder that loyalty to Christ will come at a great price. Still, our vocation, like his, is to maintain fidelity to the practice of our Christian faith. His life, like all the other saints we have celebrated since Christmas Day makes it very clear that Jesus remains the reason for the season.

Fr. Tirso S. Villaverde, Jr.

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