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Given at the annual Fisher Mass in Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, on Monday 6 May 2024

The words we have just heard from the Second Book of Maccabees readily evoke the image of the elderly John Fisher, standing on Tower Hill at 10am on the morning of 22 June 1535 awaiting his execution. He was weak in body but clear and generous in mind and heart. Sources tell us that on that morning Fisher was awakened by the prison officer at 5am and told that his execution was to be at 10am. He promptly asked to be allowed to sleep a few more hours. Herein lies something of his true greatness: peace before God and peace within himself.

St John Fisher, whom we honour today, stood among a considerable number of martyrs of that age. We celebrated their feast day on Saturday. I recalled then the words of Pope St Paul VI from the ceremony of their canonisation. Noting the variety of their personalities and backgrounds, he said that it was a ‘deeply spiritual cast of mind’ that they had in common. He continued: ‘What unites them all is that interior quality of unshakeable loyalty to the vocation given them by God — the sacrifice of their lives as a loving response to that call.’

I find it deeply moving to be celebrating Mass here in Great St Mary’s which has been the University Church since the thirteenth century. St John Fisher himself must have celebrated Mass here too. Surely it is the same celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass which lay at the heart of that ‘interior quality’, that ‘unshakeable loyalty’ of which Paul VI spoke. Today we pray that these same qualities will be strengthened in us so that we, too, in the words of the Gospel, will ‘stand firm to the end’.

Today, as we celebrate the centenary of the establishment of the Catholic University Chaplaincy in Fisher House, we can rightly reflect on the resonance of his name in the story of this University. 

John Fisher first came to Cambridge, in 1481, at the tender age of 12. He studied at Michaelhouse from 1484. In By 1501 he had completed all his studies and had achieved his doctorate in sacred theology. Ten days later he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University. By 1504 he was elected Chancellor and continued to be elected to that post every year for 10 years until 1514 when it became a lifetime privilege.

There are many initiatives attributed to him in Cambridge, together with Lady Margaret Beaufort, with whom he enjoyed a firm and creative partnership. Two qualities characterise these initiatives: the reforming of the purpose and rigour of University administration and an unswerving determination that academic activity was to be in the service of the Church. John Fisher’s focus was on its clergy in their ministry and preaching. A forthright expression of these concerns is to be found in his reports as Visitor to Christ Church in 1510. No punches pulled there! The same purpose and determination are expressed also in his purpose in founding St John’s College, opening in 1516.

At that same time there was another great figure associated with this Church of Great St Mary. It is Erasmus, the great Dutch Christian humanist. He preached here during his visit to Cambridge in 1511. Erasmus is widely regarded as a figure of the Reformation. Yet it was Fisher, held as a much more traditional figure, who invited him to Cambridge precisely as part of his drive to equip theologians to be better preachers and leaders of faith. Differences between them did exist. For Erasmus, the project centred on the figure of Christ, found through the Bible, especially the Gospels, without any reference to the dogmatic definitions of scholasticism or many popular forms of piety. For Fisher it was much more a question of ‘both/and’. But they stood shoulder to shoulder in their endeavour and, indeed, in their friendship.

So, at St John’s, for example, the learning of Greek and Hebrew were required of every student. Fisher himself set about learning Greek and Hebrew. In 1516 Erasmus sent to John Fisher a pre-publication copy of a book of Greek grammar to assist him in his learning of Greek. In this study Fisher was determined to enter the Scriptural texts more fully. Incidentally, that book was written by Theodore of Gaza; a place not now associated with academic learning but much in our prayers. In another expression of the same intent, in the 1530 Statutes of St John’s College, Chaldaic and Arabic were added as languages required by theologians to ensure that their Biblical studies were more rounded.

Fisher, then, was a radical academic innovator. This indefatigable spirit of the promotion of profound scholarship and of the ‘new learning’, in the service of the faith, is the hallmark of Fisher’s shaping of this University in that period. Even if these characteristics no longer shape its life, his name continues in the title of the chaplaincy. In founding St John’s, Fisher stated, in its 1516 Statutes, that the overall purpose of the College was that of ‘the worship of God, uprightness of life and the strengthening of the Christian faith’. As we celebrate this centenary of the chaplaincy, perhaps these words can still serve, but now as an expression of the purpose of the house which today bears his name.

The presence and role of the chaplaincy is today as important as it was in the minds of the pioneers who helped in its establishment. We salute the courage of the Trustees of one hundred years ago in their decision to purchase the Black Swan as a permanent home for the chaplaincy. This brought to an end the chaplaincy’s nomadic existence for the previous twenty-nine years after its establishment by the Papal Indult of 1895. I thank Prof Janet Soskice for her leadership of the present body of trustees and through her all who serve the Cambridge University Catholic Association in their work of supporting the chaplaincy. I thank those who have served, and today who serve, as chaplains here, mentioning by name only one: Mgr Gilbey, chaplain for 33 years and robust defender of Fisher House when it was under threat. At this Mass I am privileged to be using his chalice.

St John Fisher, great martyr;
St John Fisher, reformer and theologian of this University;
St John Fisher, bishop dedicated to the poor of your beloved diocese of Rochester, pray for us, protect us, inspire us, that in our day we too may serve the Lord in gladness of heart, firmness of will and sharpness of mind. Amen.

Photo: Detail from St John Fisher's coat of arms at the Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy, which bears his name (Mazur/