Thursday, March 22, 2007

Does Anyone Believe in Purgatory Anymore?

By Ralph Roiter-Doister

Does anyone believe in purgatory anymore? In this age where prayer life is regarded as a remnant of an obsolete monasticism, does anyone believe that prayer for the suffering souls in their place of expiation on the border of hell is a worthy activity? Is Fr. F.X. Shouppe's book, Purgatory Explained By the Lives and Legends of the Saints, likely to be looked upon in Catholic circles as more than just a horselaugh? Let's see. Here's an excerpt:
Faith does not teach us the precise duration of the pains of Purgatory. We know in general that they are measured by Divine Justice, and that for each one they are proportioned to the number and gravity of the faults which he has not yet expiated. God may, however, without prejudice to His justice, abridge these sufferings by augmenting their intensity; the Church Militant also may obtain their remission by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and other sufferages of the departed.
Regarding which, can anyone remember hearing a prayer offered, say during the General Intercessions, for the poor souls in purgatory? I haven't heard many. Oh, I've heard remembrances for a particular dead parishioner in whose behalf the current Mass is being offered, and I've heard general good wishes offered for "the dead", but that's not really what I'm talking about. "The dead" is a generic, even a misleading term: our prayer should be for souls, specifically, those souls suffering the pains of purification in Purgatory. Why the eschewal of clarity in the name of – what? -- delicacy?

Fr. Shouppe continues,
According to the common opinion of the doctors, the expiatory pains are of long duration. "There is no doubt, " says Bellarmine (De Gemitu, lib. 2, c. 9), "that the pains of Purgatory are not limited to ten and twenty years, and that they last in some cases entire centuries. But allowing it to be true that their duration did not exceed ten or twenty years, can we account it as nothing to have to endure for ten or twenty years the most excruciating sufferings without the least alleviation? . . . . Shall we then find any difficulty in embracing labor and penance to free ourselves from the sufferings of Purgatory? Shall we fear to practice the most painful exercises: vigils, fasts, almsgiving, long prayers, and especially contrition, accompanied with sighs and tears?
Fr. Shouppe then describes the "calculus of probability" of a Fr. Mumford, who mentions in his Treatise on Charity towards the Departed, that "according to the words of the Holy Ghost, The just man falls seven times a day (Prov. 24-16)". Thus, "even those who apply themselves most perfectly to the service of God, notwithstanding their good will, commit a great number of faults to the infinitely pure eyes of God." Pertinacious Papist, in a recent lenten blog topic, lists the seven deadly sins, and suggests the ease with which even good people fall prey to them. Fr. Shouppe does the same here:
Let us take a moderate estimate, and suppose that you commit about ten faults a day; at the end of 365 days you will have the sum of 3,650 faults. Let us . . . facilitate the calculation [by reducing the number to] 3,000 per year. At the end of ten years this will amount to 30,000, and at the end of twenty years to 60,000.

Let us continue our hypothesis: You die after these twenty years of virtuous life, and appear before God with a debt of 30,000 faults [presumably having worked off the other half], which you must discharge in Purgatory. How much time will you need to accomplish this expiation? Suppose, on the average, each fault requires one hour of Purgatory. This measure is very moderate, if we judge by the revelations of the saints; but at any rate this will give you a Purgatory of 30,000 hours. . . . Thus, a good Christian who watches over himself, who applies himself to penance and good works, finds himself liable to three years, three months, and fifteen days of Purgatory.
Suppose each fault requires a day of Purgatory? Good thing all of this is just an outmoded parlor game.

Fr. Shouppe has no problem with clarity, and no need for relativistic accomodation of various "readings" of purgatorial metaphors. He is just a simpleminded priest of the old school, using the mind God gave him to illuminate His truth in the clearest way possible. Find a place for his book in your busy schedule of lenten reading, along with the Enchiridion of Indulgences, or perhaps the Raccolta.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Old Mass and the Great Thaw: Forbidden Opinions Suddenly Mainstream

By Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

News reports of an impending papal document freeing the traditional Latin Mass from the restrictions of the 1988 indult were all over the media throughout 2006, the first time in many years that the old liturgy had been so newsworthy. In October I got a call from Relevant Radio, a Catholic radio network whose programming appears on several dozen stations across the country as well as through a live feed on the Internet, asking me to discuss these reports and explain their significance on the air.

A couple of weeks after a friendly appearance on the network’s morning show, Morning Air, I was scheduled to appear on Relevant Radio’s hour-long call-in program called “Searching the Word.” Of the 200 or so radio appearances I’ve made over the past couple of years, this was far and away the most satisfying, and the one to which I turn my attention here.

The long and the short of it is this: it’s suddenly become all right to say things that for years have been played down or suppressed in the Catholic media.

In the first segment, before we took calls, I discussed the old Mass with host Chuck Neff, and explained why the Pope’s rumored initiative – which I said had to be more than just a rumor at that point – was a wonderful step forward for the whole Church. It would restore the sacred to our parishes, increase vocations, and bring back some of those souls who had been so disillusioned by the liturgical changes that they had stayed away from the Church for good. I talked about the sacrifices that many families make to attend the relatively few traditional Masses available now – driving hours each way, even relocating across the country in order to sanctify their souls at this copious font of grace. And I quoted the passage from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 1997 book, Salt of the Earth that by now I’ve committed to memory: “I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted to those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and makes the longing for it seem downright indecent.”

Neff was receptive and friendly, but the calls began inauspiciously. The first came from a woman in Texas who managed, in two minutes, to repeat just about every major misconception and fallacy I’d ever heard about the traditional liturgy – it was like listening to the entire community of liturgical vandals from the 1970s, rolled into a single person. I was told that “no one understood” the old Mass thanks to the use of Latin and the priest’s having his “back to the people,” that there was nothing special about Latin anyway, that I was wrong to say the traditional Mass was older than the Council of Trent (1545-1563) – you get the idea.

It was hard to know where to begin, but with the host’s indulgence I took my time with a response that went like this. The complaint that the priest had his “back to the people” in the old rite is emblematic of a modern mentality in which “the people,” rather than God, are the center of the Mass. For weighty theological reasons, priest and people face East together as the Holy Sacrifice is offered. Mass facing the people, scholars are now coming to acknowledge, was not the primitive practice, and Mass said ad Orientem is the historic norm – Roman basilicas in which the priest might appear to have traditionally “faced the people” can be accounted for simply by their peculiar construction, which forced him to face that way in order to fix his gaze eastward. (During the consecration, moreover, the people turned to face East along with the priest.) In the 1990s, Cardinal Ratzinger, persuaded by Monsignor Klaus Gamber’s arguments on this point, spoke of the desirability of returning to ad Orientem celebrations, and later wrote the preface to Uwe Michael Lang’s book Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, which takes the same position.

To the caller’s claim that the fathers of Vatican II had all but demanded the Novus Ordo, I replied with the research of Father Brian Harrison of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico – research that appeared in these pages, I might add – to the effect that most bishops at Vatican II envisioned only minor changes to the Mass, and added that Monsignor Klaus Gamber, whose book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy features a preface by the man who is now our Pope, insisted that the vast majority of the Council fathers would not have approved of the rite of Mass imposed on the Catholic world in the name of Vatican II. As for Trent, it merely codified an already-existing liturgy; it didn’t create the traditional Latin Mass out of whole cloth.

With regard to liturgical language, I said, the use of a non-vernacular tongue is not an uncommon religious phenomenon. Islam uses Arabic even in non-Arabic-speaking parts of the world, and synagogue services are largely in Hebrew – a tongue that has only recently begun to be used once again as a vernacular language. (In the name of fostering “active participation,” Reform Judaism once tried, unsuccessfully, to displace Hebrew, which has since returned to the Reform liturgy.) The Latin language plays an especially important role for the Catholic Church, as pope after pope tried to explain to us. In Veterum Sapientia (1962), Pope John XXIII reiterated that because the Catholic Church was greater than any merely human society, it was perfectly fitting and right that she should employ an international, non-vernacular language as a sign of the unity of her members. The Church defended the use of Latin long after it had ceased to be a vernacular language, and the twentieth century saw popes drawing particular attention to the merits of Latin. When did all those arguments suddenly lose their persuasive force?

(Incidentally, what can it mean when a Catholic tells us that “no one understood” the Mass in the old days? Anyone suggesting such a thing expects me to believe the following: 1) literate human beings could not follow a simple Latin-English missal; 2) for years on end, no one possessed even the modest level of ambition it would have taken to ask a priest, or even an informed fellow parishioner, to explain to him the meaning of the ceremony his religion required him to attend at least once a week throughout his entire life; and 3) no one could be bothered to leaf through even one of the many books, including Maria Montessori’s The Mass Explained to Children, that explained the basic contours of the Mass in simple language. What kind of lifeless automatons would we have to be dealing with for all this to be true?)

Sticking to the theme of Latin and the universality it both represents and fosters, I gave as an example the experience of Douglas Hyde, the British Communist who became a Catholic in the mid-twentieth century. Hyde began to inquire into Catholicism for a variety of reasons, including his interest in the medieval world. Then something impressed itself upon him ( I had this quotation on my computer screen during the program and read it over the air):
At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I was twiddling the knob of my radio. Unable to get out to Midnight Mass I wanted at least to bring it to my fireside. And as I switched from one European station to the next I tuned in to one Midnight Mass after the other. Belgium, France, Germany, Eire, yes, even behind the Iron Curtain, Prague. It seemed as though the whole of what was once Christendom was celebrating what is potentially the most unifying event in man’s history. And the important thing was that it was the same Mass. I am a newcomer to the Mass but I was able to recognized its continuity as I went from station to station for it was in one common language. This aspect of Catholicism is but a single one, and maybe not the most important. But I have a strong feeling that it is precisely the Catholicism of the Catholic Church which may prove the greatest attraction, and will meet the greatest need, for my disillusioned generation.
I added that Father C. John McCloskey, who is not a traditionalist per se, nevertheless estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were driven away by the imposition of the new rite. Well, I said, those people matter. Those people have souls just as much as you or I have. And if making this traditional Latin Mass available once again could bring them back, how could we be so petty as not to do it?

The very fact that I was able to say these things – none of which is particularly “extreme,” but little of which has (for some reason) been able to get a hearing in much of the Catholic media until very recently – was, I thought at the time, significant in itself. Little did I know that at least as important as anything I had to offer were the comments that would come from the rest of the callers, who joined me in saying things that any loyal Catholic is of course perfectly at liberty to say, but that for years have been portrayed as vaguely subversive. (Someday, I am sure, we will look back stupefied at a time when some Catholics actually felt funny about praising their own Church’s traditional liturgy.)

Everyone else who called, in fact, was thrilled at the news that the old rite could be coming back to us on a larger scale. One gentleman wondered about the practical issue involved in training priests in the use of the old Missal; I pointed to the instructional videos that are available, the Low Mass guide for priests available at the website of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales (see, and the possibility (perhaps) of instructional retreats put on by priests of the traditional orders. He also had a more serious concern about whether the bishops might still obstruct the celebration of the Mass, but a commercial break prevented me from answering. (Without knowing the terms of the Pope’s motu proprio I could not have answered him perfectly in any event, but my sense is that some bishops will welcome the old rite out of loyalty to the Pope and , in a few cases, perhaps even out of genuine affection for it, while others will be indifferent and some fraction will be hostile. It is no less a dramatic papal move for all that.)

Another gentleman called to recount his own experience with returning to the traditional Mass, which he had known in his youth. A customer of his told him that the old rite was being offered about 40 miles away, so he went. “I was just awestruck at the reverence of it,” he said. “And I picked up the ’62 missal and I began to read it. It’s in English and it’s in Latin. It explains the Mass entirely. I never understood the Mass before I went to the Latin Mass and got the ’62 missal.” How’s that for turning the usual claim upside down – he never understood the Mass until he attended the traditional Latin Mass and read the old missal! He then mentioned some of the literature he found and read there, including Michael Davies’ A Short History of the Roman Mass. And now, with the old Mass poised to make a comeback? “If my Mom – my saintly Mom – could be alive to see this, she would break down in tears.”

Before hanging up he asked to add one more thing: “ I see whole pews of families – families with nine children. Young people go there, and they have these large families. It’s just the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Then we took a call from a woman in Wisconsin. “I grew up in the old Church,” she began. “I had 13 years of education in the Catholic school system, and it seemed in the mid-60s where I was living, where I was form on the East Coast, overnight we lost our Church. Everything that we’d grown up with, been taught, revered, thought was holy, just walked out the door….It seems to be there’s been nothing but mass confusion all along the way since that time.

“The one thing that kept me on track throughout,” she went on, “was the holiness that I remembered and the reverence for the Holy Eucharist. The one thing that kept me in the Church.”

This caller then joined the previous gentleman in finding it impossible to believe that people before the Council really didn’t follow the Mass. “As far as the Latin goes, that was never a problem. We had wonderful missals with English right alongside, things were very simply put, anyone could understand it…. I think it was more geared to the person in the street than it is today.”

The last call came from New Jersey. “When I was a kid,” this gentleman recalled, “the churches were packed, and you could walk up to any Catholic and he could explain to you what the Church was all about. Try to do that now….The new Mass – and where I go it’s celebrated reverently, it’s wonderful – but you go other places, and people have their own agendas that they’ve put in, and it’s opened the door for things that are not part of the Church to enter the Church.” I added, as time was running out, that in the traditional Mass the Latin language and the priest’s eastward posture both served to prevent such things from happening. (Are our liturgical vandals talented enough to improvise Latin prayers?)

News reports alone, in advance of Pope Benedict’s initiative, have thus initiated a most welcome thaw in the Catholic world, such that the previously marginalized can at last begin to be heard. Of course, self-styled “progressives” do not want to hear the laity saying such things. It is those who congratulate themselves the loudest on their eagerness to cater to the needs of the laity, to listen to their concerns, and to open the windows in the Church, who are most contemptuous of popularly expressed support for the traditional Latin Mass. But it is both coming out and picking up momentum all the time. With separate statements on behalf of the Pope and the old Mass issued in recent months by French, Italian and Polish intellectuals, the lid has perhaps been ripped off the issue for good – how, after all this, can the old Mass become a forbidden subject once again? It is this kind of thaw, we may confidently hope, that will at last foster a true springtime in the Church.

[Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (a free chapter of which is available at, as well as The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times best-seller. His book The Church Confronts Modernity has just been released in paperback from Columbia University Press. The present article, "The Old Mass and the Great Thaw: Forbidden Opinions Suddenly Mainstream," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2007), pp. 16-18, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Preaching of St. John Fisher

By Michael Davies

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester [pictured right], was the greatest theologian and the greatest preacher of sixteenth-century England,1 and certainly her greatest preacher until the advent of Newman. He was almost certainly Europe’s greatest Catholic theologian of that century, whose influence upon the Council of Trent was greater than that of any other individual. It must be borne in mind that the majority of English bishops never preached. They were civil servants, servants of the King, and rarely visited their dioceses. A contemporary writer pays this tribute to the Bishop of Rochester:
He was also a very diligent preacher and the most notable in all this realm, both in his time or before or since, as well for his excellent learning as also for edifying audiences, and moving the affections of his hearers to cleave to God and goodness, to embrace virtue and to flee sin. So highly and profoundly was he learned in divinity that he was, and is at this day, well known, esteemed, and reputed and allowed (and no less worthy) not only for one of the chiefest flowers of divinity that lived in his time throughout all Christendom. Which hath appeared right and well by his works that he wrote in his maternal tongue, but much more by his learned and famous books written in the Latin tongue.
His English sermons, although erudite, were intended to be understood by a lay audience. There are frequent Latin citations, but he always provides an English paraphrase. The vast majority of his references come from the New Testament, and he is especially found of St. Paul. Augustine is the Church Father most frequently cited. Fisher followed Augustine’s dictum that the aims of preaching were to instruct, to divert, and to move. Other patristic writers quoted by Fisher include Chrysotom, Origen, Jerome, Ignatius, Ambrose, Gregory, Cyprian and Eusebius.

Seventeen of Fisher’s sermons have survived, the most notable being the ten on the seven Penitential Psalms, which have recently been republished in modern English.2 The cycle was preached soon after Fisher had become Bishop of Rochester, and was first published in 1508 and reprinted seven times before 1529. It is not known for certain to whom they were addressed, but in all probability it was to the household of his patron, Lady Margaret Beaufort [pictured left], mother of King Henry VII. The length of the sermons indicates that they would have been preached outside Mass. Father Edward Surtz, S.J., considers Fisher’s sermons on the Penitential Psalms to be “his most popular and brilliant, undoubtedly his literary masterpiece.”3

A strong sense of structure manifests itself in every sermon. Brendan Bradshaw writes: “Formally they belong to a scholastic tradition, highly structured and analytical. But they achieve and often powerful rhetorical effect by means of an imaginative manipulation of imagery, deployed by was of simile or allegory to illuminate and develop the argument.”4 J.W. Blench, in his book Preaching in England in the late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, describes “the most felicitous aspect of Fisher’s ornamentation” as “his frequent use of similes.”5 The sinner who produces contrition and confession, but not satisfaction, is compared to a tree which brings forth buds and flowers but no fruit.6 The soul needs grace or it will wither, just as an herb withers without moisture.7 God can no more withhold his grace from a soul prepared to receive it than the sun can fail to shine through an open window.8 The hungry lion waiting for its prey resembles sinners waiting for the occasions of sin.9 Rubbing makes rusty iron bright; thus do tears of penitence wash the soul.10 Confession is compared to the lancing of a wound.11

Some of his imagery might appear somewhat crude to present-day ears. In his commentary on Psalm 31 Fisher speaks of those who continue in sin without availing themselves of the healing remedy of confession:
In reality, true bliss is in heaven, where all goodness and pleasure can be found without end, while the utmost wretchedness is in hell, where all evil and no pleasure can be found. We are brought to this misery by our sin and on the contrary, to bliss by the purging of our sins. Once the filthiness of sin is conceived in the soul and continues there a long time by unfortunate habit, the soul becomes foul and more and more infected. We see that the longer urine or any other stinking liquid is kept in a vessel, the more that vessel becomes foul and corrupt. And in another example, we see that the more and the longer a boil or a swelling full of matter and filth is hidden, the more its corruption and venomous infection grows, until it finally pierces to the bones and corrupts them. Likewise, the longer sins are kept confined in souls, the more feeble and contagiously corrupt the souls become.12
This can hardly be said to get the message across beautifully, but it certainly does so effectively.

In Fisher’s preaching there are quotations from the Bible, the apocryphal acts of the Apostles, the Fathers, the great medieval theologians, classical allusions, and historical references. Thus Fisher:
In the beginning of the world, almighty God made paradise a place of honest pleasure. And from out of that place issued a flood divided into four parts, signifying the four capital virtues, justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude, with which the whole soul could be washed and made pleasant as with so many waters. But contrariwise, the devil has conceived and made another paradise of bodily and sensual pleasure, and from out of that come four other floods, far contrary to the others: the flood of covetousness contrary to justice, the flood of gluttony against temperance, the flood of pride against prudence, and the flood of lechery against fortitude. Whoever is drowned in any of these floods finds it hard to be turned to God by true contrition, for the raging of them is so great and overflowing. For this reason, the prophet says, verurntamen in diluvio aquarum multarum, ad eum non approximabunt, those who have all the pleasures of this world and are, in a sense, drowned in them shall not draw near almighty God for their salvation. But what is the remedy for us who are in the midst of all these floods? Where shall we fly? Truly, God is the only remedy and refuge, for without his help none can escape without being drowned.13
Among my favorites are the saint’s frequent similes and allegories derived from nature. His half-sister, Elizabeth, became a Dominican nun, and it was for her, while a prisoner in the Tower of London, that he wrote A Spiritual Consolation and The Ways to Perfect Religion. Elizabeth refused to take the Oath of Supremacy in the reign of her royal namesake, Elizabeth I, and went to live out the remainder of her life in a poor monastery on what was then the Island of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Of her life there and her death nothing is known.

In The Ways to Perfect Religion, the saint is almost ecstatic in describing the beauty of God’s creation: “Behold the Rose, the Lily, the Violet, behold the Peacocks, the Pheasant, the Popinjay: behold all the other creatures of this world: All these were of his making, all their beauty and goodliness of him they received it.”14 The closeness of his observation of God’s creatures is made clear in his sermon on Psalm 101, where he comments on verse 8: Vigilavi, et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto – I have watched, and am become as a sparrow all alone on the housetop:
When the sparrow suspects that snares or traps are laid for her on the ground, she quickly flies up to the covering of the house or the eaves, and if at any time hunger forces her to come down again, yet out of fear she quickly goes back up, fleeing there for shelter and safety in her danger and peril. There she wipes and sharpens her beak; there she preens and sets her feather in order; there she also brings forth birds; and there she rests and makes merry as she can, after her manner. Likewise, those who desire and go about to make satisfaction for their offenses must be wary and wise to keep themselves from the devil’s snares and must fly to heaven, set their felicity not in worldly pleasures but in heavenly things, which are a defense and a covering over all the world.15
In his famous sermon against Luther at St. Paul’s Cross in May, 1521, the saint seems almost to have taken inspiration from the May day on which he was preaching. The first third of the sermon is filled with allusions to nature in the English spring: the sun, the clouds, the light, the stronger sunbeams, the burning glass using sunbeams to set fire to tinder or clothe, the greater warmth, the difference between the tree in winter and in spring, the stock of a dead tree, the live tree with its buds and leaves, the tree and its shadow, and so forth.

St. John Fisher liked to spend his day in the company of Our Lady. He would say: “Therefore let us go into this mild morning, our Blessed Lady Virgin Mary.” Throughout his life he had a very great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, whom he would compare to a morning:
The blessed lady, Mother of our Savior, may well be called a morning, since before her there was none without sin. After her, the most clear sun Christ Jesus showed his light to the world, expelling utterly by his innumerable beams this darkness in which all the world was wrapped and covered before. We see by experience that the morning rises out of darkness, as the wise man says, Deus qui dixit de tenebris lucem splendescere. Almighty God commands light to shine out of darkness. (2 Cor 4:6). The clerk Orpheus marveled at it greatly, saying O nox, que lucem Amadeus, O dark night, I marvel greatly that you bring forth light.16 And of a truth it is a marvel to man’s reason that light should spring out of darkness.
So in like manner, we may marvel at this blessed Virgin, she being clean, without a spot of any manner of sin, and shining, even though she came forth originally from sinners who were covered and wrapped in darkness and the night of sin. Likewise, after the morning the sun rises, as if it were brought forth and had its beginning from the morning. In the same way our Savior Christ was born and brought forth from this blessed Virgin and spread his light over all the world. We also perceive that when the sun rises from the dawn, he makes the morning grow clearer by the effusion of his light. So Christ Jesus, born of this Virgin, defiled her not with any spot of sin, but endowed and filled her with much more light and grace than she had before.

Lastly, although it seems as if the morning is the cause of the sun, it is the sun that is undoubtedly the cause of the morning. And likewise, although the blessed Virgin brought forth our Saviour Jesus, yet he made her and was the cause of her being brought froth in to this world. Thus, you can perceive by nature that this Blessed Virgin may well be compared to a morning…. Every generation of mankind since the creation of Adam was wrapped and covered with the darkness of sin, and although the spirit of God was ever aloft, ready to give grace, yet for all that none was found able to receive it until the time this blessed Virgin was ordained by the holy Trinity to spring and to be brought forth in to the world. By the providence of almighty God, she was safely kept and defended from every spot and blemish of sin, so that we may well say to her:
Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te, O blessed Lady, you are all fair and without spot or blemish of sin (Canticles 4:7). The angel at her Annunciation said, Ave, plena gratia, Hail, full of grace (Lk. 1:38). This blessed Virgin, full of the beams of grace, was ordained by God as a light of the morning and she afterward brought forth the bright shining sun with his manifold beams, our Savior Christ, Qui illuminant omnem hominem, venientem in hunc mundum, who gives light to every creature coming into this world (Jn. 1:9).17
In John Fisher’s sermons far more attention is given to the joys of haven than the pains of purgatory or hell. The most striking feature of his sermons on the psalms is their strong emphasis on God’s mercy, and on the efficacy of penance: “Our most gracious Lord, almighty God, is merciful to them that be penitent.” His message was dominated by the concepts of God, sin penitence, and mercy. These four words and their many synonyms run through the sermons and put other themes into the shade. Where hell and damnation are mentioned about a hundred times (about as frequently as heaven), mercy and forgiveness are mentioned more than five hundred times, God and sin more frequently still. Sin (rather than hell) is presented as the enemy; and devils, when they are mentioned, are agents of temptation in this world rather than of torture in the next.18

A consoling evocation of the boundless nature of God’s mercy can be found in the sermon on Psalm 50:
It is written, nemo bonus nisi solus Deus, no man is good but only almighty God (Lk 18:19). Only He is of so great a meekness and pity that no pint of malice or falseness can be in him. Therefore, since he is so meek and merciful, and since he is above his laws, or in no way subject to them, he can forgive and be merciful to whom he will. And so shall he do, for he cannot have little mercy but always great and plentiful mercy. Truly, the mercy of our most might and best Lord God is great, that it has all measures of greatness. Trees are sometimes called great for their excellent height; pits are called great for their depth; far journeys are called great for their length; and streets and highways are called great for their breadth and width. But the mercy of God contains and is measured by all these measures of greatness, not just by one of them. Of its greatness in height it is written, Domine, usque ad celos misericordia tua. Lord, your mercy extends and reaches up to the heavens (Ps. 56:11). It is also great in depth, for it reach down to the lowest hell. The prophet says, misericordia tua magna est super me, et eruisti animam meam ex inferno inferiori, Lord, your mercy is great over me, and you have delivered me form the lowest and deepest hell (Ps. 85:13). It is broad, for it occupies and spans all the world, the same prophet saying, misericordia Domini plena est terra, the earth is full of the mercy of our Lord (Ps. 32:5). It lacks no length, for also by the same prophet it is spoken: misericordia eius ab eterno, et usque in eternum supertimentes eum, the mercy of God is without end on those who fear him (Ps. 102:127). Therefore since the mercy of God is so high, so deep, so broad, and so long, who can say or think it is little? Who will not call it great by all measures of greatness? Then everyone who want to acquaint himself with this mercy can say, Miserere mei, Deus, secunum magnam misericordiam tuam, Lord, have mercy on me according to Thy great mercy.19
If, as the saint assures us, God cannot have little mercy but always great and plentiful mercy, how are we to explain that His wrath is directed against sinners? If God can be wrathful then He cannot be consistently merciful. Fisher explains that God is immutable, unchanging.

Although almighty God in himself and of his eternal being and nature is without mutability or change, yet diverse human affections are attributed to him, as if it might be thought he is sometimes angry, sometimes merciful, or changed from wrath into meekness. But St. James says, apud Deum nulla transmutatio est neque vicissitudinis obumbratio, God is without mutability or change, he is always one (James 11:17). For just as we see that the sunbeam is always one in itself and without any change in its operation, yet hurts and grieves the eye that is not clean and perfect while it comforts the eye that is pure, so almighty God, without any mutability in himself, is called grievous to a sinner who is infected with the malice of sin but meek and gentle to the righteous man who is purged from sin. Truly as long as a creature continues in the wretchedness of sin he shall think that God is angry with him, just as the eye, as long as it is sore, shall find the sunbeam grievous, offensive, and never comfortable till the sickness and disease be done away.20

The saint stresses the fact that satisfaction is an essential element in the Sacrament of Penance:
By the virtue of contrition our sins be forgiven, by confession they be forgotten, but by satisfaction they be so done away that no sin or token remains in any condition of them, but as clean as ever we were. We are shown and warned that it is not enough just to be contrite and confess our offences, but we must also be active in doing good works to make satisfaction for them. For if we are negligent in this third part of penance, which is satisfaction, it is to be feared that some sort secret guile or fault is left in us by which we are deceived. When we see a tree bringing forth buds and flowers but afterward no fruit, we think that there must really be some fault in that tree; even so, in a man’s soul that has first brought forth the bud of contrition and afterwards the flower of confession, if at last it douse not bring forth the good works of satisfaction, it is to be dreaded that some secret guile or deceit still remains. That is to say, the soul is not really contrite and truly confessed.21
Fisher illustrates this point with an analogy that might require some explanation, the scraping of words from paper. By paper he is referring to parchment, and in his day writing could be scraped off and the parchment reused.

Only those who are penitent are blessed, for they alone take their journey into the heavenly country of real blessedness, now in this life by true faith and hope and after it in reality. But since penance has three different parts, that is to say, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, the more diligently anyone exercises himself in each of them, the nearer he is to eternal bliss, for by those three, as by so many instruments, we erase and cleanse our soul perfectly from sins. When we are about to erase and remove any sort of writing, we first scrape the paper and, by that erasing or scraping, remove something of the letters, like a defacing of true, perfect knowledge. And if we do so the third time, then shall nothing of the least letter be seen, but the paper shall be as clean as ever it was. In this way the three parts of penance achieve in our souls the removal of sins. By the virtue of contrition, our sins are forgiven; by confession, they are forgotten; but by satisfaction, they are s full removed that no sign or token remains of them of any sort, but we are as clan as ever we were.

Even if sin is removed after contrition and confession, a duty remains in the soul that needs to be paid and performed by suffering pain. For although the eternal pain that we would have suffered is removed by contrition and confession, yet there abides in the soul a certain tax or duty that must surely and undoubtedly be paid and satisfied, either here in this life by temporal pain or else after this life in purgatory. But when a person has made due satisfaction in this life, he shall never after suffer more pain; he is completely out of debt, and nothing after that shall ever be claimed of him. Therefore, the prophet says, beati quorum remisse sunt iniquitates, blessed are they whose sins are forgiven.22

That Fisher was a close observer of human nature is made clear by many of the allusions he makes to it in his preaching. He urged women to put their souls before their shoes:
Ye women, when there is any black spot upon your faces, or any mool in your kerchiefs or any mire upon your clothes, be ye not ashamed? Yes, forsooth, sir. But I shall tell you whereof you ought to be ashamed. Surely, if your souls have any spots of deadly sin in them, for when our Savior so dearly with His most precious blood and with all these grievous pains did wash and wipe and cleanse our souls from every spot of deadly sin, ye should be much ashamed to defile them again, If you he ashamed for a foul, miry she, and not of a foul stinking soul, ye make more dearer your shoes than your souls.23
The year 1509 was a significant one in the life of the saint. Both Henry VII and his mother, Lady Margaret, died, and John Fisher, acknowledged as the greatest preacher of his day, preached the funeral sermon for the king and the sermon for her month’s mind (that is, the Requiem Mass celebrated on the 30th day after death) for his mother. In his funeral sermon for Kind Henry VII, Fisher employed classical devices used by secular orators in their funeral orations: 1) the commendation of the dead, 2) the stirring of the hearers to have compassion on him, 3) the comforting of them again.24 In the presence of the greatest in the realm, the saint had no hesitation in reminding them of the ephemeral nature of material possessions of political power:
First, as touching his laud and commendation, let no man think that my intention is to praise him for any vain transitory things of this life, which by the example of him all kings and princes may learn how fleeting, how slippery, how failing they be. Albeit he had as much of them as was possible in manner for any king to have…his treasure and riches were incomparable, his buildings most goodly and after the newest cast all of pleasure. But what is all this now, as unto him all is but fumus et umbra, a smoke that soon vanisheth and a shadow that soon passeth away. Shall I praise him then for them? Nay forsooth.25
If the king’s great wealth and power gave him no hope for the attainment of eternal life, then the saint spoke of where that hope could be found: “The cause of this hope was the true belief he had in God, in his Church, and in the Sacraments thereof, which he received all with marvelous devotion, namely in the sacrament of penance, the sacrament of the altar, and the Sacrament of anointing.”26

King Henry VIII would have done well to have taken careful heed of a passage from the saint’s commentary on Psalm 101, one of the most striking passages of Fisher’s eloquence:27
The life of man here is only for a while; it will shortly perish and be at an end. No space, no void of time, no leisure can be had, but always it draws to an end. It cannot be at a point; it is never truly at rest for one minute of an hour. Whether we eat or drink, wake or sleep, laugh or weep, our life here is always drawing to an end.

Where are now the kings and princes that once reigned over all the world, whose glory and triumph were lifted up above the earth? Where are now the innumerable company and power of Xerxes and Caesar? Where are the great victories of Alexander and Pompey? Where are now the great riches of Croesus and Crassus? But what shall we say of those who once were kings and governors of this realm? Where are they now whom we have known and seen in our days in such great wealth and glory that it was thought by many they would never have died, never have been forgotten? They had all their pleasures at the full, both of delicious and good fare, of hawking, hunting, also of excellent horses and stallions, greyhounds and hounds for their entertainment, their palaces well and richly furnished, strongholds and towns without number. They had a great plenty of gold and silver, many servants, fine apparel for themselves and their lodgings. They had the power of the law to proscribe, to punish, to exalt and set forward their friends and loved ones, to put down and make low their enemies, and also to punish by temporal death rebels and traitors. Every man held with them, all were at their command. Every man was obedient to them, feared them, also honored and praised them, everywhere now? Are they not gone and wasted like smoke? Of them it is written in another place, mox ut honorificati fuerint et exaltati, dificientes quemadmodum fumus deficient, when they were in their utmost prosperity and fame, they soon failed and came to nothing, even as smoke does (Ps. 36:2). St. James compares the vanity of this life to a vapor, and he says it shall perish and wither away as a flower in the hay season. (James 4:15).28
The saint’s most celebrated sermon is, without doubt, the one that he preached at the Month’s Mind of Lady Margaret Beaufort [right], the mother of King Henry VII [below left], who had a great respect for her. She had a deep devotion to the Church and a great love of learning. She was a patron of the relatively new printing press. Caxton had produced the first book printed in England when John Fisher was eight years old. She very soon came to appreciate the exceptional worth of the young priest, and asked him to be her confessor. He was able to say in all sincerity in a letter written in 1527: “Though she chose me as her director to hear her confessions and to guide her life, yet I gladly confess that I learned more from her great virtue than ever I could teach her.”

Under John Fisher’s guidance Lady Margaret was to do a great deal for religion and scholarship. The depth of her religious devotion can be gauged from Fisher’s references to it in his oration for her Month’s Mind. “This sermon,” one scholar explains, “like the funeral oration for Henry VII, shows evident classical characteristics. Fisher followed the classical scheme for the praise of a great personage; before life, and after death. The orator was expected to praise the ancestors, the gifts of body, fortune and mind, of the subject of his discourse, together with his noble deeds and glorious death. Thus Fisher speaks of Lady Margaret’s noble family, her exemplary manners, her gifts and virtues, her ascetical practices and good works, her painful but holy death, and the hope of her salvation.” 29
In prayer every day at her uprising, which commonly was not long after five of the clock, she began certain devotions, and after them, with one of her gentlewomen, the matins of Our Lady, then she came into her closet, where, with her chaplain, she said also matins of the day, and after that daily heard four masses on her knees, so continuing in prayer until the hour of dinner, which on the eating day was ten o’clock, and on the fasting day eleven.

After dinner full truly she would go to her stations to three altars daily, and daily her dirges and commendations she would say, and her Evensong before supper, both of the days of Our Lady, besides many other prayers and Psalter of David through the year, and at night before she went to bed she failed not to resort unto her chapel, and a large quarter of an hour to engage in her devotions. No marvel all this long time her kneeling was to her painful, that many times it caused in her back pain and disease, nonetheless when she was in health she failed not to say the Crown of Our Lady, which containeth sixty and three Aves, and at every Ave a kneeling, and as for meditation she had divers books in French wherewith she occupied herself when weary in prayer, wherefore divers she did translate into English.
In his final surviving sermon, “A sermon very fruitful, Godly and learned,” the saint presents the crucifix as a book, a book that will “suffice for the study of a true Christian man all the days of his life.” He urged the faithful to imitate St. Francis did, to see or remember the image of the crucifix as often as possible, and say to themselves while doing so: “Who art Thou, Lord, and who am I?”
Is it not a wonderful thing, that he that is the Lord and author of all liberty, would thus be bound with ropes and nailed hand and foot unto the Cross? Thus whoever with a meek heart and a true faith muses and marvels over this most wonderful book (I speak of the Crucifix), he shall come to more fruitful knowledge than many others who each day study their common books. This book may suffice for the study of the true Christian man all the days of his life. In this book he may find all things that are necessary for the health of his soul. St. Francis could pass his time with this book, and was never weary thereof, and his great study was within the compass of a few words. Quis tu, et quis ego Domine? That is to say, who are thou Lord, and who am I? ... This holy St. Francis so profited in this lesson, that it caused in his heart such a fervent love, such a devotion, such an affection for Christ, that the capital wounds which he beheld in the hands and feet and side of Christ were, by a miracle, imprinted in his own hands and feet....A man may easily say and think with himself (beholding in his heart the Image of the Crucifix), who are Thou and who am I. thus every person, both rich and poor, may think, not only in the church here, but in every other place, and in his business where about he goeth. Thus the poor laborer may think, when he is at plough carrying his ground, and when he goeth to his pastures to see his cattle, or when he lies in his bed waking and cannot sleep.30
The saint explained the spiritual fruits that we would derive from this devotion:
Contemplation of the crucifix should therefore cause Christians to fear the punishment of sin which Christ bore for them on the cross; to be ashamed of their own sins against Christ, who had done so much for them, and for breaching their baptismal promises; to feel sorrow at his sufferings; and to hate their own sins which had brought such suffering upon him.31
No matter how great his sins, the sinner should never despair of Christ’s forgiveness, and Fisher quotes St. Bernard, who considered the very posture of the corpus on the crucifix to be one of welcome:
But peradventure thou thinkest that our Savior because thou hast been so unkind to Him, will not receive thee unto His mercy? I say, therefore forsake thy sin and accuse thy unkindness, receive thee again unto his great mercy….Behold earnestly the manner how thy Savior hanged on the cross, and thou shalt see great cause of hope of his mercy if thou thus return. St. Bernard sayeth: Who may not be ravished to hope and confidence if he considers the order of His body, His head bowing down to offer a kiss, His arms spread to embrace us, His hands bored through to make liberal gifts, his side open to show unto us the love of His heart, His feet fastened with nails, that he shall not start away but abide with us. And all His body stretched forcing himself to give it wholly unto us.32
The saint concludes this, his final surviving sermon, preached upon Good Friday, with words that have lost none of their relevance today. He urges the sinner to have this wonderful book constantly before his eyes, and warns him that his response to its lesson will decide his eternal destiny. If he sincerely laments his sins then their debt shall be thoroughly paid and he will escape everlasting woe:
But if thou dost refuse this remedy, and follow the desires of this world and of the flesh, be thou well assured that then thou shalt pay thine own debts amongst the devils in hell with everlasting woe. From the which may he defend us, that for our love as this day suffered on the Cross, his most painful and sorrowful death, our Savior Christ Jesus. Amen.
The essential teaching here is “if thou dost refuse.” Throughout his sermons the saint is adamant that God does not condemn us to hell; we condemn ourselves. Until the very last moment of our lives we have the chance to repent:
What about these obstinate sinners who would never be converted by the great benefits of God? It had been far better for them to have suffered the greatest punishment that might be in this life. For they shall be drawn down by the cruel tormentors, the devils, into the deep pit of hell, there to be crucified eternally, where the worm of their conscience shall never die….But whoever in this life will do penance, no matter how great a sinner he was before (if he does not despair of forgiveness) almighty God shall be merciful and forgive him. St. Augustine says, if all the sins of the world were compared to the mercy of God, they would be in comparison to it no more than a spark of fire in the great sea. And I dare well say to the sinner, no matter how wicked he is in his living, if at any time in this life he will be penitent for it and desire forgiveness and mercy, almighty God of his great goodness will forgive him as quickly the water in the sea can quench a spark of fire that is cast upon it. For when the sinner is very penitent, nothing remains in the soul that can withstand the infinite mercy of almighty God, which stands round about, ready on every side. The prophet makes this point in the following words: Sperantem autem in Domine misericordia circumdabit. The mercy of God shall be ready round about on every side to defend the sinner who trust in him and will do penance for his sins. 33


  1. HRR, p.4. [back]

  2. St. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998). [back]

  3. E. Surtz, The Works and Days of John Fisher (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 238. In his Chapter XIII, “A Method and Style of the Preacher,” Surtz provides the most scholarly and detailed analysis yet written of Fisher’s style and literary accomplishment in these sermons and orations for Henry VII and Lady Margaret. [back]

  4. HRR, p. 4. [back]

  5. J.W. Blench, Preaching in England in the late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964), p. 131. [back]

  6. EW, p. 26. [back]

  7. Ibid., p. 112. [back]

  8. Ibid., p. 82. [back]

  9. Ibid., p. 67. [back]

  10. Ibid., p. 17. [back]

  11. Ibid., p.127. [back]

  12. Fisher, Exposition, p. 29. [back]

  13. Ibid., p. 36. [back]

  14. EW, p. 376. [back]

  15. EW, p. 154, Gardiner, pp. 159-160. [back]

  16. An allusion to Greek mythology. [back]

  17. Sermon on Psalm 37, EW, pp. 47-49. [back]

  18. Rex, p.35. [back]

  19. EW, pp. 95-96. [back]

  20. Fisher, Exposition, pp. 8-9. [back]

  21. Ibid., pp. 26-28; EW, pp. 24-26. [back]

  22. Fisher, Exposition, p. 26 (Psalm 31). [back]

  23. EW, p. 402. [back]

  24. Blench, Preaching in England, p. 86. [back]

  25. EW, pp. 269-70. [back]

  26. EW, p. 273. [back]

  27. Blench, Preaching in England, p. 229. [back]

  28. EW, pp. 146-46; Fisher, Exposition, pp. 151-52. [back]

  29. Blench, Preaching in England, p. 86. [back]

  30. EW, pp. 390-91. [back]

  31. Rex, p. 47. [back]

  32. EW, pp. 410-11. [back]

  33. EW, pp. 41-42; Fisher, , pp. 42-43. [back]

Art credits:
(1) Top: West Window from the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge (detail) by Juan de Jaunes;
(2) Bishop John Fisher (about 1532–4) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543), Tate Gallery, London -- Lent by Her Majesty The Queen; Coloured chalks, watercolour, brush, pen and ink on pink primed paper;
(3) St. Paul’s Cross, in St. Paul's Cathedral Churchyard, London (sketch by unknown artist);
(4) The Annunciation by El Greco;
(5) Lady Margaret Beaufort, c1500, by Rowland Lockey (Cambridge University);
(6) King Henry VII, by unknown artist (early 16th century);
(7) Portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort (after 1510), dressed in habit of a widow of vowess (woman vowed to chastity), holding a devotional book, probably based on posthumous image by Maynard Vewick, a Netherlandish painter who worked for both Henry VII and Henry VIII;
(8) Bishop John Fisher, by Hans Holbein, digitally remastered by the Giclee printing process.
[Michael Davies was president of Una Voce International and the author of many books on Catholic history and liturgy. His biography of St. John Fisher and the Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms in modern English can both be obtained from the St. John Fisher Forum. 1546 Concord Road, Jacksonville, IL 62650; Ph: (217) 245-0023; The present article, "The Preaching of St. John Fisher," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Summer 2003), pp. 10-17, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]