Acta Sanctorum: St. Thomas Becket (Dec 29)
December 29, 2023
Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S.
Life (1118-1170)

Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury, martyr to the freedom of the Church, is venerated on December 29. His feast is within the Octave of Christmas because that was the date of his death. But it is also appropriate to commemorate him soon after the birth of Christ the King, for he died in defense of the Kingdom that is not of this world.

Becket was a Londoner of upper middle-class stock, the son of the sheriff of London. He started to work as a merchant’s clerk, but then, with a view to a clergy career, he joined the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, England’s primatial see. He may also have studied at Bologna, Italy. Prizing Thomas’ talents, Archbishop Theobald subsequently chose him as his chief counselor and representative. With good reason: this tall, handsome, vigorous, extroverted young man was highly intelligent and competent.

On Theobald’s recommendation, the young king Henry II appointed Becket, then thirty-six, as his chancellor. Thomas proved more than equal to the task. Henry not only appreciated his talent but also his company, and the two became closely attached socially. This was all the easier in the sumptuous royal court because Thomas, though a cleric, shared the King’s devotion to banqueting and hunting. He lived magnificently, even on a regal scale. In 1159, clad in armor, he led 700 of his own knights in combat in the siege of Toulouse. Wearing secular garb troubled him little. The prior of Leicester, meeting him at Rouen, properly exclaimed, “What do you mean by dressing like that? You look more like a falconer than a cleric.” Becket was certainly worldly and ambitious, impetuous and harsh. Yet there was in him an idealistic and devout and pure side that would show itself more and more as he matured.

King Henry was meanwhile laying plans to gain complete control over church as well as state in his kingdom. When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry foisted Thomas on the see of Canterbury, thinking that his boon companion would assist him in subjugating the Church. Thomas declined the position. He knew only too well the King’s motives, and he was cleric enough to realize that what he had done as chancellor he could not in conscience do as archbishop. He warned the King about this, but Henry did not believe him. On being consecrated a bishop, Thomas resigned the chancellorship.

After his installation, Thomas changed his life style to one of order, prayer and penance. The break in the royal friendship came only gradually. Conflict peaked in 1164, when Henry declared his intention to revive certain unspecified “royal customs”.

Thomas was at first willing to go along. Then, when the King presented a list of three “customs”, he saw that he could not support them. Among them were the demand that clergy be subject to trial in civil courts as well as church courts; that the king had a right to the income from empty clerical benefices; that no prelate could appeal from the king to the pope, or even travel to Rome, without royal consent.

Thomas refused to accept. Henry stormed. Trial for treason being in the offing, the Archbishop fled to France, seeking shelter in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny. Even from afar, Henry lashed out at Thomas by persecuting his relatives and the local Cistercian monks. But Becket did not hesitate to excommunicate the bishops who sided with the crown against the Church.

In July 1170, monarch and archbishop met in France and patched up an agreement, but without discussing the principal issues. When Thomas returned to England on December 1, the people greeted him triumphantly. Three bishops whom he had suspended for breaking church law, now appealed their cases to the King, still in France. In one of his famous rages, Henry cried out, “Will nobody rid me of this pestilent cleric?” Four knights who took the King at his word, left at once for England, rode to Canterbury, and murdered Thomas in his cathedral.

All Europe was shocked at this sacrilegious assassination. Miracles were soon reported at Becket’s tomb. The pope excommunicated King Henry, who retracted his anti-church legislation and did public penance.

Thomas was canonized in 1173. Ever since then the Church has celebrated his feastday as a martyr on December 29th. He had made up for his early failings by reforming his ways, but most of all, by sacrificing his life for the liberty of the Church.

--Father Robert F. McNamara

Scripture.    2 Timothy 2:8-13; 3:10-12
Beloved: Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my Gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal.
But the word of God is not chained. Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory. This saying is trustworthy:
If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.
But if we deny him
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself.
(Year B) 
    Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!
    I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
    The sanctuary, turned into a fortress.
    The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
    As oak and stone; stone and oak decay,
    Give no stay, but the Church shall endure.
    The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!
 Unbar the door!
    You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
    You argue by results, as this world does,
    To settle if an act be good or bad.
    You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
    Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
    And as in time results of many deeds are blended
    So good and evil in the end become confounded.
    It is not in time that my death shall be known;
    It is out of time that my decision is taken
    If you call that decision
    To which my whole being gives entire consent.
    I give my life
    To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
    Those who do not the same
    How should they know what I do?
    How should you know what I do? Yet how much more
    Should you know than these madmen beating on the door.
    Unbar the door! unbar the door!
    We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by
    Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
    And have conquered. We have only to conquer
    Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
    Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
    Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR
It is the just man who
    Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
    I am here.
    No traitor to the King. I am a priest,
    A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
    Ready to suffer with my blood.
    This is the sign of the Church always,
    The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
    His blood given to buy my life,
    My blood given to pay for His death,
    My death for His death.
For my Lord I am now ready to die,
    That His Church may have peace and liberty.
    Do with me as you will, to your hurt and shame;
    But none of my people, in God’s name,
    Whether layman or clerk, shall you touch.
    This I forbid.
Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed
John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed
martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the
(T.S. Eliot; Murder in the Cathedral)
Musical Selection

Lord God, 
who gave grace to your servant Thomas Becket 
to put aside all earthly fear and be faithful even to death: 
grant that we, disregarding worldly esteem, 
may fight all wrong, uphold your rule, 
and serve you to our life’s end; 
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with you, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
God, now and for ever. Amen. (English Missal)