Thought for the Day – 29 December – Fifth Day of the Octave and the Memorial of St Thomas a Becket
I think we know that the twentieth century is probably the century of the greatest flowering of Christian martyrs: across Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, in communist regimes in Latin America and other places too. Now the twenty-first century is following a similar pattern in other parts of the world: the Middle East, parts of Africa, Pakistan. This moment of prominence for St Thomas a Becket helps us to remember and focus on this fruitfulness of courage and faith which is always the seed of the Church.
For some, Thomas died a traitor, betraying the loyalty they believe he owed to the King. For others he died a martyr, put to death for his defence of the things of the Lord, in this case the honour and rights of the Church.
We know that this relationship between the role and powers of the state on the one hand and the role and commitment of the Church on the other, is never an easy one. It is always a point of tension, a daily struggle in conscience and in public debate. But Thomas’ martyrdom reminds us what can happen when the state seeks to dominate religious belief and reshape it to its own ends, to its own selection of values. When observance of those particular values becomes absolute requirement then we are on a path of confrontation. The example of Thomas a Becket stands before us as a reminder to every age that the point may come where there is no longer any space left for that religious freedom, such a basic human right, which permits the holding and expressing of religious belief in word and action in the public forum.
The tensions that can lead to that point were well delineated in the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 when he spoke in Westminster Hall. He said:
‘Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authorities can moral dilemmas be resolved. These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.’ Pope Benedict called modern democracies, including our own, to engage in constructive dialogue which brings together faith and reason, affirming that ‘religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to national conversation.’
I have only to think of another Thomas, four hundred years after Becket, whose dilemma and heroism echoes that of the earlier Thomas. Thomas More was also asked to show where his fundamental loyalty lay and he too, lacking support from his fellow clergy, stood alone, an uncompromising figure, yet never seeking conflict or confrontation. What was well summed up of him, in words beautifully attributed to him, can also be applied to Thomas a Becket. ‘I am indeed the King’s good servant, but God’s first.’
Excerpt from the Archbishop of Westminister at the Symposium on St Thomas a Becket at Lambeth Palace on 27 May 2016.
St Thomas a Becket, God’s good servant, pray for us!