King Henry of England elevates his best friend Thomas to the office of lord chancellor of the realm.
But the king's desire to control the Church leads to a falling out and, eventually, to his ordering the execution of Thomas.
This sounds like the familiar story of Saint Thomas More and Henry VIII, but here it refers to events from four centuries earlier, to another famous friendship and another Thomas who responded to the call to put "God first," even when it meant opposing his friend and his king. The story of Saint Thomas Becket and King Henry II differs in context and in many circumstances from the later drama of their namesakes. Indeed, the aphorism that "history repeats itself" is not really true. What is true, however, is that the drama of history is made up of relationships, choices, and conflicts that follow similar patterns. This is because humans in every historical epoch are called to conversion as they walk together toward their destiny.
Thomas Becket (1118-1170) grew up and was educated among the nobility. As a young man, he worked with important political figures in London, and showed intelligence and sound judgment. These qualities brought him to the attention of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1141.
Theobald's mentoring friendship adds an important dimension to Thomas Becket's story of "deeper conversion" from a young courtier to the heroic bishop and, ultimately, martyr. Becket joined Theobald's staff, and the archbishop formed his faith, had him study civil and canon law, and ordained him a deacon. Becket served Theobald during a significant portion of England's 12th-century civil war over the Crown. He learned from his mentor not only the subtleties of diplomacy in dealing with contending parties, but also the vital importance of securing the freedom of the Church to fulfill her mission without hindrance from the temporal powers and their tumultuous, worldly, narrow interests.
Theobald also introduced Becket in 1154 to a man twelve years his junior, a man who — under Theobald's patronage — would become England's next king. Despite its tragic final chapter, the friendship between Becket and Henry of Anjou was deep and genuine. As Henry II's lord chancellor, Becket shared his aims for consolidating government and its juridical institutions. He shared in the life and splendor of the royal court, gave counsel to the king, and was his enthusiastic companion in hunting and recreation. Their strong friendship and jovial manner were noted by many.
Nevertheless, Becket — underneath all his regal finery — continued the conversion and growth that had begun with Archbishop Theobald. He loved fun, he loved Henry, and he loved (perhaps a little too much) the heat of the battles he fought against the French at Henry's side. But he also loved Christ and the Church. He was always chaste and devoted to justice. Henry lacked the vision and integrity of his friend, and focused on securing his own power.
Thus Henry's plan to make his chancellor archbishop of Canterbury in order to further his control over the Church was always destined to fail. Thomas Becket had already been converted, and now he readily took up his vocation as bishop and defender of the rights of God and his Church unto the shedding of his blood.
John Janaro "Saint Thomas Becket." Magnificat (June, 2016).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
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