Becket was an unlikely Archbishop, chosen in no small measure because he had been a real buddy of the King and was expected to be sympathetic and supportive of the King’s interests with little regard to what the spiritual implications of those interests. This notion was reinforced as Becket served as Chancellor to the King. As Chancellor it was his job to enforce the system of tribute from landowners to the King and so was of vital economic interest to the crown.
What Henry didn’t count on is that Becket would take as seriously the traditional role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as he took his role as Chancellor. It was upon his nomination to fill the See of Canterbury in 1162 that his transformation from sometime playboy and consort of the King into ascetic Primate of the English Church began in earnest.
Oral tradition holds that Becket’s assassination came about as four of the King’s night’s heard King Henry mutter, in frustration of Thomas Becket’s stubborn resistance to the will of the King, “will no one rid me of the meddlesome priest?” Apparently acting on those words, the knights sought out Becket and murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral as he celebrated Mass with one of his close associates, a monk.
The historical event inspired T.S. Eliot’s dramatic verse drama Murder in the Cathedral.
Speaking the truth to power is always part of the responsibility of the Church in every age. The same is for us today as we face injustice and violence done to the least and the lost in our midst. It is part of our charge as Christians to do the right thing in spite of the political wind that is blowing at any given time AND to accept the consequences without lowering our selves to the violent and virulent level of those whom we call to account in the name of the Gospel.
The Church today has fallen away from the inner circle of power and prestige. Maybe that’s not altogether a bad thing. Remember that the temptations for Jesus in the Wilderness were power, prestige and possessions (see Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13).
As the New Year approaches I invite us all who dare to call ourselves disciples to pray ourselves into the truth and then speak with the conviction of a Becket. Those who remain silent in the face of injustice are ultimately complicit.