Feast Day: December 29
Canonized: February 21, 1173
In the Opening Prayer of the Mass on the feast of St. Thomas, we pray, “Almighty God, you granted the martyr Thomas the grace to give his life for the cause of justice” (Sacramentary). The justice Thomas died for was the right of the Church to be free from control by the government.
Thomas was born in 1118 in London. He studied law and became an assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas met influential people in the Church and the government. The archbishop trusted him and sent him to Rome several times on Church matters. Thomas was also ordained as a deacon. That same year, a new king was crowned in England, Henry II. Thomas and Henry became good friends. Henry appointed Thomas the chancellor of England, an important position in the government. A large salary came with the job, and Thomas began to live like a wealthy man.
After the archbishop died, King Henry decided to have Thomas take his place. Thomas was ordained a priest, then a bishop. Thomas took his vocation and his new responsibilities seriously. He changed the way he was living. He welcomed the poor into his house and served them meals himself.
Thomas and King Henry began to disagree about the power the king had over the Church. They argued over unfair taxes on Church lands. They argued about whether priests accused of crimes should be tried by the Church or government court. Thomas was forced to go into hiding out of the country for over six years.
When he returned to England in 1170, the situation had not improved. Four knights overheard King Henry say, “Will I never be rid of this priest?” So the knights decided to kill Thomas. They drew their swords and attacked him in the cathedral at Canterbury on December 29, asking “Where is the traitor?” Thomas replied, “Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.”
As word of his murder spread through the land, the cathedral filled with people mourning their archbishop. Within two years, Pope Alexander III declared him a saint. St. Thomas Beckett is buried at Canterbury and many people visit his grave each year to pray to the man of God who stood up for the fair treatment of the Church and its people. We can honor St. Thomas by praying for all Catholics who are not free to live their faith.