Although 850 years have passed since his martyrdom, St. Thomas Becket remains a controversial figure. His dispute with King Henry II of England continues to divide historians. And as some admirers of Henry see Thomas as the cause of all his miseries and death, devotees of the saint are inclined to demonize Henry. As is the case with life, the reality is more complicated. But it is this complication — and the broken humanity at the heart of it — that makes Thomas Becket relevant for all times and particularly for our own.
The details of Thomas’ life are well known. Born in London in around 1120, a wild youth led to a more sedate career as a clerk under Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Nursing ambition, he rose to become an archdeacon and later, spotted by King Henry II, Royal Chancellor of England. Living a lavish lifestyle, as a personal friend of the king, Thomas was understood to be corrupt and rakish. In reality, though, he was virtuous enough, just a little too fond of the good life. Forced to become archbishop of Canterbury by the king in 1162, he experienced a conversion as he realized there was a greater Master he was obliged to serve.
Henry was expecting his friend to be a puppet, but Thomas became a strong shepherd of his people with a deepening spiritual life. Relations festered and a dispute broke out. Various arguments with Henry finally led to Thomas’ exile in 1164, followed by six years of hardship. A series of complicated negotiations finally led to his return to England in December 1170. A few weeks later, on Dec. 29, four of Henry’s knights murdered him in his own cathedral, after the archbishop continually refused to give in to the king’s demands.
The quarrel between Thomas and Henry concerned the liberty of the Catholic Church in England. Standing for the reforms of Pope St. Gregory VII, Thomas was trying to diminish secular control over the Church while, among other things, championing the authority of ecclesiastical courts. Christians often have faced the problem of secular powers trying to intrude into the life of the Church, with related attempts to conform Church teaching to the mores of the time — limiting the right to worship and the right of Christians to adhere to the values of Christ. Of late, Catholic organisations have fallen victim to anti-Christian policies and have had to fight for their rights in courts. As pressure increases on religious liberty, Christians are urged to submit to be good citizens, for the sake of peace, to be progressive in a world that is leaving them behind. Thomas’ response to such encroachments was to resist, to stand firm, to remind the secular powers that they too are subject to a greater Master.
Thomas’ relevance for us extends beyond public resistance to tyranny. He offers us a deeply personal insight for those trying to live their Christian faith, namely, his interior struggle to transform into a faithful disciple of Christ. Traditionally his conversion was understood to be dramatic. In reality, it was a gradual process. Conversion usually is not spectacular or instantaneous, but is often a personally difficult process requiring commitment, humility and determination. As it conforms one to Christ, it involves suffering and even a sense of alienation as one moves from what is familiar to what is new and challenging. Thomas experienced this, and at times he felt alone, isolated, immersed in a dark night. As a child, his mother had instilled a simple piety in him and a generosity toward the poor. These provided a firm foundation for his revitalized spiritual life, guiding him as he delved deeper into the life of faith. Thomas’ interior struggle offers an insight for our spiritual lives. We are to understand that God calls all of us to an intimate relationship with him, regardless of our past. Thomas’ enemies never gave him a chance — he was always the luxury-loving chancellor. But God saw his potential and harnessed it for the good of the Church.
For all his faults, Thomas had been a man of duty. This led to his realization that, as archbishop, his true master was Christ: it was his duty to serve Christ and his people. Intent on governing his diocese with skill, he understood that he had to teach the Faith and sanctify his people. For this he had to study. That required great effort and even greater humility, as it did to become holy himself. In this he serves as a model for bishops, urging them to fidelity and duty, warning them of the consequences of sacrificing the Faith and the flock to appease the ambitions, norms and ideologies of a particular time. In his ministry, he faced many difficulties and disappointments. He made mistakes. But his determination to be faithful remained. He understood that the Church was not subject to a secular ruler or a state. It is subject to Christ and his teachings, and it falls primarily to the bishops — the servants of Christ and the flock — to safeguard the Church in every age.
Defending the Church brought Thomas great loneliness. At times even his friends did not understand what he was doing. He seemed reckless to many, and at times he was. But he knew fidelity to Christ and the Church was not an option. He knew he had to die to self to find the courage to do his duty. In time, he also realized he would be put to death for that same fidelity. He submitted to that sacrifice for the sake of the Church.
Thomas Becket challenges Christians in all ages to embrace the faith in its fullness, regardless of the cost, and to recognize that it comes at a price worth paying. He encourages us to love the Church and defend it if necessary — not with dogged awkwardness or shallow ecclesiastical pride, but out of love for Christ himself. For this, Thomas is always relevant, even though he may well remain a controversial figure for years to come.
Fr. John S. Hogan is a priest of the Diocese of Meath, Ireland, and author of “Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church” (OSV, $24.95).