Thomas Becket was born in 1118, studied in Paris, and became a member of the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was sent abroad to study at seminary and was ordained a deacon and made archdeacon in 1154. In his position as chancellor of England, Thomas lived extravagantly and found great favor with King Henry II. When the king wanted to make Thomas archbishop of England, Thomas refused, worried that he would lose favor with the king. Nonetheless, the king would not take no for an answer, and so Thomas, not yet a priest, was ordained and consecrated as archbishop in 1162.
In this new role, Thomas described himself as going from “a patron of play actors and a follower of hounds to being a shepherd of souls.” He devoted himself to the welfare of the church, living a more restrained lifestyle in keeping with his new position and responsibilities. Thomas quarreled with the king over the right of clergy to be tried in the church courts. This was only one instance of the more general argument concerning the jurisdiction of the church and state in spiritual matters. The fight was as bitter as the former friendship had been close, and Becket was forced to leave England for France where he lived a monastic life in the Abbey of Pontigny. When he returned six years later, the disagreement broke out anew.
Henry said, in a fit of rage, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights, taking Henry’s exasperated words as an order, seized Thomas in his cathedral in Canterbury, and murdered him in front of the altar in a side-chapel, on December 29, 1170. His last words were, “For the name of Jesus and in defense of the church I am willing to die.” The people of England were shocked by the murder of their archbishop, and miracles were reported at his tomb.
Thomas was quite happy in his role as chancellor and would have gladly stayed there, enjoying the lavish lifestyle he had come to love. But he accepted that in his new position as archbishop, he couldn’t maintain his same preferences and penchants. He took his responsibilities seriously, and was wholly devoted to the work that he had been called to, even if it wasn’t the path he would have chosen for himself.
Questions for reflection: What are some things that you’ve given up for the sake of your work, your family, your partner, others…? If you give something up, do you expect something in return? How does this idea of doing something without getting anything in return fit with your ideas about fairness or justice? What does the phrase “God’s justice” mean to you?