29 December 1170
On December 29, we remember Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain in his own cathedral in 1170, for his defiance of King Henry II. The death of Thomas reminds us that a Christian, even when safe from others, can be in danger from his fellow-Christians. It also reminds us that one can be martyred in a cause where the merits of the particular issue at hand are not obvious to all men of good will. The issue here, or one of the issues, was one of court jurisdiction. King Henry claimed that a cleric accused of an ordinary crime ought to be tried in the King’s Courts like any layman. Thomas, who was Henry’s Chancellor and his close friend, vigorously upheld the king’s position. However, when he was made Archbishop of Canterbury with the king’s support, he reversed himself completely and upheld the right of clergy to be tried only in Church courts, which could not inflict capital punishment. (This reversal does not imply fickleness or treachery. As Chancellor, Thomas was bound to serve the king. Now, as Archbishop, he was bound to defend the Church.) Henry wanted an arrangement by which (for example) a priest accused of murder would be tried by a Church Court, which if it found him guilty would degrade him to the rank of a layman, whereupon a King’s Court would try him, and if it found him guilty would order him hanged. Thomas objected that a man could not be tried and punished twice for the same offense.
O Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Thomas triumphed over suffering and was faithful even unto death: Grant us, who now remember him with thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.O God, our strength and our salvation, who called your servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of your people and a defender of your Church: Keep your household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.