Excerpts, Part 6: A Zealous Pastor

The Bishop of Rochester did not content himself with condemning abuses in the Church whether in England or far-away Rome, but spared no pains in rooting them out in his own diocese. His constant journeys about his diocese were undertaken for the discovery of abuses as well as for the consolation and help of the unfortunate. He was never mealy-mouthed when he lit upon injustice or idleness or avarice. He wrote that: "Bishops be absent from their dioceses and parsons from their churches . . . We use by-paths and circumlocutions in rebuking, we go nothing nigh to the matter and so in the mean season the people perish with their sins." He also insisted that: "All fear of God, also the contempt of God cometh and is founded of the clergy." Any cleric with a guilty conscience trembled at the coming of the bishop who never hesitated to apply canonical penalties even to those with friends at Court. The diocesan registers of his episcopate have been preserved and prove him to have been a truly pastoral bishop. During his first twelve years at Rochester he carried out four visitations:

He carefully visited the parish churches in his own person; sequestering all such as he found unworthy, he placed other fitter in their rooms; and all such as were accused of any crime, he put to their purgation, not sparing simony and heresy. And he omitted neither preaching to the people, nor confirming of children, nor relieving of needy and indigent persons.

Everywhere the bishop went, he would preach to the people. When preaching to the ordinary faithful his style was simple and direct, avoiding rhetorical embellishments or the display of learning for learning's sake. His objective was that they should easily understand what he was saying, and that they should become better Catholics as a result of listening to him. After his sermon he would visit the sick in their homes, often mere hovels. A contemporary account reads:

He was in holiness, learning, and diligence in his cure and in fulfilling his office of bishop such that for many hundred years England had not any bishop worthy to be compared unto him. And if all countries of Christendom were searched, there could not lightly among all other nations be found one that hath been in all things the like unto him so well used and fulfilled the office of bishop as he did. He was of such high perfection in holy life and straight and austere living as few were in all Christendom in his time or any other.

Of his revenues of his bishopric which passed not yearly above 400 marks, he bestowed in deeds of charity all that remained after supplying the needs of his own household. He was not sumptuous but careful, according as might well become the reverent honour and degree of a virtuous bishop.

He studied daily long, and some part of the night He fasted very much, and prayed and meditated daily divers hours, and much part of the night also. He was much given to contemplation, and many years before his death never lay he on feather bed, but on a hard mattress. nor in any linen sheets, but only on woollen blankets . . .

He was of great, godly, stout courage and constancy, never dejected in adversity; nor elated with any prosperity; as one that put no trust in worldly things. Gentle and courteous too was he to all men, and very pitiful to them that were in any misery or calamity. THE HAND OF THE GOOD SHEPHERDHe, like a good shepherd, would not go away from his flock, but continually fed it with preaching of God's word and example of good life. He like a good shepherd, did what he could to reform his flock, both spiritually and temporally, when he perceived any to stray out of the right way, either in behaviour or doctrine.

Fisher's concern for the poorest of his flock was unique among the English bishops of his time. Other bishops did indeed have alms distributed to the poor on their behalf; but this did not suffice for Fisher:
To scholars he was benign and bountiful, and in his alms to the poor very liberal as far as his purse extended, and himself visited his poor neighbours when they were sick, and brought them both drink, meat, and money. And many times to him that lacked he brought coverlet and blanket from his own bed, if he could find none other meet for the sick person.
Although the bishop regarded every minute of each day as precious, and regretted the time that courtesy demanded he should bestow upon the rich and important visitors who called on him on their way to and from London, he never begrudged the countless hours that he spent with the poorest of his flock:

Many times it was his chance to come to such poor houses as for want of chimneys were very smoky, and thereby so noisome that scarce any man man could abide in them. Nevertheless himself would then sit by the sick patient many times the space of three or four hours together in the smoke, when none of his servants were able to abide in the house, but were fain to tarry without till his coming abroad.

The bishop showed boundless solicitude for the dying. Hewould visit all who were likely to die, no matter how poor they might be, and teach them how to die as a Catholic should, and it was rare for him to leave without the sick person accepting death with true Christian resignation. The poor flocked to his gate each day, and always received money and food according to their need.

The most evident charact~ristic of Fisher's manner of dealing with heretics arrested within his own diocese was the intention of saving the sinner rather than condemning him. All those brought before him abjured their heresy after he had reasoned with them, and there is no record of an heretic ever having been sent to the stake in the Diocese of Rochester while he was bishop.

For thirty years he went among his people until his gaunt figure was a familiar sight in the countryside. Men knew that if his eyes were always sad, his expression was seldom stern. It was pity for souls which motivated him, pity for these very souls who, were entrusted to his care and who relied on him to be taught God's truth. He could not bear to think of Our Lord's sacrifice on Calvary being wasted, even in one individual case. His long prayers during the silent night were often dedicated to pleading for the victory of truth and virtue. In a sermon preached in 1505 he prayed for bishops who would be true shepherds to their flocks:
Set in Thy church strong and mighty pillars, that may suffer and endure great labours----watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold, and heat----which also shall not fear the threatenings of princes, persecution, neither death, but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer, with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy Holy Name.
In this passage he had, without realizing it, painted his own portrait and prophesied in detail the sufferings that would precede his Martyrdom. Geoffrey Chaucer's account of the poor parson in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales could be seen as a description of Fisher, had it not been written eighty years before his birth:

A good man was ther of religioun,
and was a povre persoun of a toun,
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.

The poor parson was praised because he did not persecute parishioners who could not pay their tithes, but would share the little that he had with the poor. Although his parish covered a wide area he would never fail to visit even the furthest homes, come rain or thunder, even when sick himself; or suffering from some personal adversity. He provided a fine example to his flock by practising in his own life what he taught them in his sermons. ("This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf; that first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte.") This priest made no attempt to find a more lucrative position, but stayed with his flock so that no wolf might enter their fold: "He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarine." Despite his great personal virtue he was not disdainful to sinners, doing his utmost to lead them to Heaven by fairness and good example, but if a sinner was obstinate, no matter how high his position, he would receive a stinging rebuke: "Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys." No better priest than this poor parson could be found, and the reason was because "Cristes loore and his apostles twelve he taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve."

In a tribute to Fisher, in which he insists that the Saint was the holiest bishop in Christendom, Cardinal Pole echoes Chaucer's description of the poor parson:

What other have you, or have you had for centuries, to compare with Rochester in holiness, in learning, in prudence, and in episcopal zeal? You may indeed be proud of him, for, if you were to search through all the nations of Christendom in our days, you would not easily find one who was such a model of episcopal virtue. If you doubt this, consult your merchants who have travelled in many lands; consult your ambassadors; and let them tell you whether they have anywhere heard of any bishop who has such a love of his flock as never to leave the care of it, ever feeding it by word and example; against whose life not even a rash word could be spoken; one who was conspicuous not only for holiness and learning but for love of country? 34


Like all great Saints, John Fisher realized that holiness cannot be achieved without regular and fervent prayer.

He never omitted so much as one collect of his daily service, and that he used to say commonly to himself alone, without the help of any chaplain, not in such speed or hasty manner to be at an end, as many will do, but in a most reverent and devout manner, so distinctly and treatably pronouncing every word that he seemed a very devourer of heavenly food, never satiate nor filled therewith. Insomuch as, talking on a time with a Carthusian monk, who much commended his zeal and diligent pains in compiling his book against Luther, he answered again, saying that he wished that time of writing had been spent in prayer, thinking that prayer would have done more good and was of more merit.

And to help this his devotion he caused a great hole to be digged through the wall of his church in Rochester, whereby he might the more commodiously have prospect into the church at Mass and evensong times. When he himself used to say Mass, as many times he used to do, if he were not letted (prevented) by some urgent and great cause, ye might then perceive in him such earnest devotion that many times the tears would fall from his cheeks.

John Fisher always lived an austere life, eating little, and only the plainest food, and sleeping for only four hours a night on a hard bed. There was no luxury in the furnishing of his great, damp palace, save perhaps in the number of books it housed. It is probable that his predecessors had neglected necessary repairs and improvement as they used the see as no more than a stepping stone to more lucrative bishoprics. Towards the end of his episcopate, he became a weak old man, racked with rheumatism, but even then he would never give up his preaching and sat in a big, upright chair to teach the people. Erasmus once wrote to him that his austerities were too great for his health. The great scholar could speak from first hand experience gained during his stay in the Bishop's Palace in August 1516 when he gave Fisher his preliminary instruction in Greek.

Your illness arises chiefly from the locality in which you live, the sea is near you, and a muddy shore, and your library is surrounded with glass windows which let in the keen air at every chink, and are very injurious to persons in weak health. I am quite aware what an assiduous attendant you are in your library which is your paradise; I should have a fit of sickness were I to stay in it three hours. A boarded and wainscoted chamber would be much better-brick and plaster give out a noxious vapour. It is important to the Church in the penury of good bishops, that you should take care of yourself.

The Protestant bishops who succeeded Fisher would not even consider living in the damp, unhealthy palace at Rochester, but had a brand new red brick palace built in Bromley where it can still be seen.

34. Pro Ecclesiasticæ Unitatis defensione, lib. iii.


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