Fisher Mass 1989 Address

John Fisher, it seems, is a saint more respected than loved. Stolid saintliness brought him to the scaffold, and to a martyr’s crown; but the execution of this aged ecclesiastic has captured the imagination of posterity far less than the martyrdom of Fisher’s younger, lay, contemporary, Sir Thomas More. This pattern of relative neglect has a long pedigree. It begins with Erasmus’s encomium on the two martyrs, composed in 1536, the year after their deaths. Fisher scarcely rates a mention.

There is no cult of John Fisher. Even in the chaplaincy which bears his name, he is perfunctorily commemorated. His gaunt and cadaverous image glares down from a reproduction of Holbein’s unflattering drawing. The only statue of him (in pre-cast concrete) stands not in the chapel, but adorns the Fisher House roof-garden terrace like some ecclesiastical gnome.

Nor are there any miracles to speak of. No cure or remedy can be laid to his intervention, and at his canonization in 1935, Fisher had to be exempted from the usual requirement of at least three authenticated miracles before admissions to the ranks of saints. When news of the canonization reached Cambridge in that year, Harrison, the University Registrary, and a Protestant Fellow of Trinity, remarked dryly to his colleague, the Catholic Outram Everett, one of the promoter’s of Fisher’s cause: ”˜I see your candidate has been exempted his practical’. No miracles, no cult.

So why are we here, in St Michael’s Church? Why is it that once a year, we Catholics of Cambridge leave the makeshift, improvised surroundings of our hall, and come here to a redundant church? Throughout the year, the Church of England uses this secularized church for coffee-mornings and jumble sales. Why do we, who are so used to celebrating Mass in a hall designed for jumble sales, come to this place intended for the Mass? Annually, the money-changers are temporarily evicted from the Temple; for one day a year, this church is used for the purpose for which, in 1325, it was built.


We celebrate John Fisher today principally because of one historical fact: that four hundred and fifty-four years ago almost to the day, on 7 May 1535, he spoke the words, ”˜The King our sovereign lord is not supreme head in earth of the Church of England’. Fisher denied the royal supremacy. What did this mean then, and what possible relevance could it have for us Catholics of Cambridge so many centuries later?


Today, the royal supremacy has dwindled almost to insignificance as a theological issue, even within the Anglican Church. Fisher did not die, like St Sebastian or St Lawrence, affirming his faith in Christ against a pagan tyrant, buy for denying the provisions of an act of a lawful English Parliament and a Catholic king. He knowingly committed treason against a king who was in doctrine probably as much a Catholic as Cardinal Hume – except in one point, his repudiation of the jurisdiction of the See of Rome.


No other English Catholic bishop followed Fisher’s example. All conformed to ecclesiastical changes which left the Mass and the sacraments (for the moment at least) untouched. Even Fisher’s friend, Sir Thomas More, was not so uncompromising. More was questioned about the supremacy on the same day as Fisher. More equivocated, refusing to answer the question. Fisher was at first alone in his denial that the king had power to break with the jurisdiction of the See of Rome. So was Fisher’s death, as it seemed to many contemporaries, the fate of a stubborn and foolishly punctilious old man, refusing to acquiesce in a change in the administration of the church? What meaning can such a death have for us in ecumenical, secular, late twentieth century Cambridge?

Fisher’s martyrdom takes us to the centre of the reason why, through God’s grace, we are not simply Christians, but Catholics. For to Fisher, the central question was how was God’s saving truth to be defined and transmitted in its purity to future generations. Only in Christ’s church, the church to which Christ had committed his authority, could those truths which lead us to salvation be found. And the seat of that authority, the foundation stone which kept the whole of the rest of the edifice true, was Peter and his successors, the Popes.

Yet Fisher was not a simple papalist, with a blind, doctrinaire obedience to the monarch of the church. His ecclesiology had far more in common with the conciliarism of Gerson and d’Ailly than it did with the papalism of Juan de Torquemada. It was not the papacy alone, but the whole church – united by the papal office – that was the means by which the saving truths of divine salvation were made known to the whole world. Authority existed to prevent error which might lead to heresy. But it was the universality of the church, its catholicity, which guaranteed the purity of the truth. The papacy was the ”˜foundation stone’ upon which the ”˜living stones’ of the faithful were built into one ”˜spiritual church’, a church which could never err in any matter upon which salvation depended. ”˜Jesu Christe commyng downe from the father of heaven in to this worlde made open and shewed unto his churche the hyd and pryvy mysteries of his godhead ”¦ so that [by the Holy Ghost] nowthing may be more certain to us then it which is taught by holy church’.[1]

In severing the church of England from the universal body of the catholic church, the English church was cut off from the means to authenticate the truth; it would leave itself vulnerable to error; it broke with the one institution which, for all its human failings, was the one certain repository of the divine truth.

So Fisher did not die for some simplistic view of the primacy of the pope over the king; he died because he believed there could be no such things as an autonomous national church. There was only Christ’s church, founded on Peter and his successors. In repudiating Rome, England was amputating herself from the living body of the universal church; once severed from that catholic church, it had cut itself off from the means of authenticating the truth. Scripture is not enough; the reflection of the individual conscience is not enough; for the truths of divine revelation were conveyed in the tradition of the Fathers, in the councils, and the consensus of the faithful of the universal church. Securus judicat orbis terrarum, St Augustine had declared. They were words which, three hundred years after Fisher had died in their affirmation, were to impel John Henry Newman along the path of reconciliation with Rome.

They are also words which cause discomfort in Cambridge. It is axiomatic to the idea of a liberal university that we should be taught to question, to believe that truth is relative, indeed to accept the great existentialist fallacy that truth can never be objective, much less immutable; that it can only be subjective, the transitory, malleable, creation of the individual mind or conscience. Yet as Catholics we are called to be sceptical of the power of the individual mind and its powers of reason, even in the greatest of intellects. We are called on to be wary of the individual conscience, which – alone in the pursuit of truth – can easily be deceived and misguided. This is not the say we must receive uncritically the teaching of the Church; but we are called to do so in humility, accepting that God’s kingdom is, as St John’s Gospel today reminds us, in radical conflict with the materialist world. The means of coming to the revealed truth of God’s kingdom are qualitatively different from the means of coming to knowledge of the material world. Only through the Church Catholic can we come to the fullness and purity and power of that revelation.

That is why Fisher died. And it was here, in Cambridge, that the undergraduate who was to become one of the greatest scholars of his generation, the friend of Erasmus and More, came to a knowledge of that humbling truth. Fisher’s witness is all the more compelling upon us because his saintliness was not the pure, illiterate, easily sentimentalised piety of a Saint Bernadette, but the witness of an intelligent and sophisticated man; an academic who well knew his intellectual powers and the temptations of intellectual vanities. Yet he also know their limitations; Father, he prayed in a sermon he wrote in his thirties, thou has hyd and kept secreat the prevyties of thy godhead from wyse and cunnynge men, and shewed them to suche as bee small and of lyttell reputacion in this worlde. Jesu Christe, commying downe from the father of heaven into this worlde, made open and shewed unto the church the ”¦ mysteries of his godhead; to a church, that is of such men as bee small and of lyttell reputacion in this worlde.[2]

Obedience to that church will at times call us, too, to martyrdom; not in the sense that we must die on the scaffold, but that we must (in St Paul’s words) die to ourselves, die to our intellectual vanity, to our consciences which can err in arrogance, and rise to life in the church which is nothing less than the body of Christ.

This Mass is then a pilgrimage Mass. We come to a place made holy by the presence of the saint. Moreover, this is a place which Fisher knew, not as the sere and septuagenarian figure of the Holbein portrait, but – as your know it today – as an undergraduate. It was here that Fisher heard sermons as an undergraduate in the 1480s, here that he celebrated Mass as a young Fellow in his twenties, before he left the college in his thirties to become President of Queens’.

Except for the porch by which you entered (which dates from 1850), and the stencilling on the walls of the nave, much of what you see in this church was known to Fisher as a young man. As an undergraduate, he would probably have sat in the oak seats in the chancel, installed around the time he came up. Presiding at Mass, he would certainly have sat in the sedilia in the south side of the chancel, dating from around 1327.[3] It was here that he was formed and strengthened in the faith; and by his example he calls you to follow on that glorious road to martyrdom, to go out as ”˜living sacrifices’ to God’s praise and glory.

Fisher the saint needs no monument in stone, no votive image, for his commemoration. For we commemorate the martyr, the witness to the truth, in that most perfect and triumphant act of martyrdom, the redemptive sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross – that sacrifice which is shortly to be revealed to us in the mystery of the holy eucharist.

Christ our paschal sacrifice has conquered death, and we honour the martyrs who, by their deaths, beckon us to affirm our faith in that conquest. This was the affirmation Fisher sought from Lady Margaret Beaufort as she lay dying in June 1509. Fisher describes how he showed her the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament and asked her whether she believed it there was verily the Son of God that suffered his blessed passion for all mankind? Fisher rejoiced that she replied that in that sacrament was contained Christ Jesu, the Son of God that died for ”¦ sinners upon the cross.[4]


Fisher calls us to that cross, and to accept our martyrdom; he calls us to die to ourselves, calls us to obedience in humility and love to the teaching of Christ’s church. And he holds out to us the beatific vision of resurrection and transfiguration that sustained him in the world, and which us today to his church.

Ego sum resurrection et vita; [for in the risen Christ we shall find] a sweet life, a life full of comfort, a life full of joy ”¦ a life void of all sorrow and encumbrance, a life not like unto the life of this wretched world, which is always [mixed] with much bitterness ”¦ [for] every person that hath .. this full trust in Jesu shall never die ”¦ Therefore we put aside all weeping and tears, and be not sad nor heavy as men without hope, but rather be we glad and joyous, and each of us herein comfort one another, always praising and magnifying the name of our Lord, to whom be praise and honour, endlessly.[5]


Dr John Adamson, Fellow of Peterhouse

The Fisher Mass was in previous decades celebrated in St Michael’s, the former chapel of Michaelhouse which St John Fisher attended. Reference is made in this sermon to the situation then obtaining at Fisher House, whereby the chapel was a large hall, used during the week for a market, and on Sundays for Mass. This unhappy situation was ended with the renovations of 2011.


[1] John Fisher, This Treatyse Concernynge the Fruytfull Sayings of Davyd (1555), sig. K iiii [lv-2]

[2] Ibid, sig. K. iiii [lv-2]; on obedience, cf. sig. B. v. [3v]. See also the story recited in Thomas Bailey, The Life and Death of the Renowned John Fisher (6th edition, Dublin, 1765) p 142.

[3] Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, England: An inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge (2 vols, 1959), ii. 284-6. His indulgence to be ordained a priest is dated 14 June 1491; B. Bradshaw and E. Duffy (ed.) Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: the career of Bishop John Fisher (Cambridge 1989) p 235n.

[4] John Fisher, Funeral Sermon for Lady Margaret Beaufort (1509) unpag. (C.U.L., SSS. 17.23)

[5] Ibid.