Keep the Memorial of St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170) by watching “Becket,” a classic film starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.
O’Toole plays English King Henry II. When they are both young men, Henry appoints Thomas as his chancellor. Thomas enjoys the advantages of his closeness to the king, but he also begins to take seriously the demands of his office.
A “yes man” who can hear his confession, this is just what Henry has in mind.
Then, when Henry needs an Archbishop of Canterbury, he decides to promote his childhood friend and companion in the high life. Henry believes their easy friendship will continue, as he understands the archbishop’s role to be nothing more than another perk-laden appointment. Thomas isn’t a priest; he is a deacon. But Henry insists on his ordination and appointment, as does Pope Alexander III. A “yes man” who can hear his confession, this is just what Henry has in mind. That is what he expected.
Thomas, who has indulged his baser instincts right along Henry, nevertheless understands that the office of archbishop is larger than any of the individuals who occupy it. The office doesn’t fit the man; the man must grow to fit the office.
When Thomas does, indeed, begin to grow into his office, Henry is alarmed. Thomas begins to dress simply, pray daily and turn his attention to the poor. He rejected crony appointments to the church and looked instead for holy and faithful men.
Henry wants Thomas to be a friend first and a bishop second. Then Thomas and Henry clash politically and Thomas seeks refuge in France. When he returns to England, still unwilling to bend to Henry’s demands, the king calls for Thomas’ death. And he gets his wish.
Perhaps nothing so demonstrates the man Thomas became than the manner of his death. He receives a letter warning him that he is being hunted. On December 29, 1170, he prepares, as he does daily, to celebrate Mass in Canterbury Cathedral. He walks into the church carrying his cross.
When his devoted brother monks tell him that armed men are coming, Thomas neither runs nor hides. He continues to prepare for the sacraments. He does what he has been appointed to do.
The loving monks try to hold the doors against Thomas’ killers.
The knights shouted, “Where is Thomas the traitor?”
Thomas answered, “Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.”
The knights rushed in, striking Thomas repeatedly with their swords. He sank to his knees and cried, “For the name of Jesus and in defense of the church, I am willing to die.”
He died on the altar, a faithful son of God.