A stained glass window of St. Thomas Becket is seen at St. Alban’s Cathedral in St. Albans, England. CNS photo/Gene Plaisted, The Crosiers

The saints who kept church doors open

By  Dr. Pascal Bastien and Dr. Lucas Vivas, Catholic Register Special
  • January 20, 2022

Amidst the bustling liturgical season that runs from the feast of the Lord’s Nativity to the Epiphany, it is easy to lose sight of the memorial of Dec. 29 on the Roman calendar. St Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr that the Church commemorates on the fifth day of the Octave of Christmas, is truly worth remembering here and now.

 St. Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in an era when kings often believed their divinely-sanctioned authority should extend not only over the secular realm, but also over the Church. In refusing to accept Henry II’s attempts to assert royal authority over the clergy, St. Thomas set himself against his sovereign. For this ultimate loyalty to God, the holy bishop would die a martyr. In 1170 Knights arrived at Canterbury insisting St. Thomas comply with the king’s authority. When he refused, they left the cathedral to fetch their weapons. The cathedral monks rushed to shut the doors, St. Thomas reportedly said: “It is not proper that a house of prayer, a church of Christ, should be turned into a fortress, as with its doors open, it is a fortress of His people.”

St. Thomas died because he believed no reason was good enough to close the doors of the church, to sunder the flock from their pastor, to separate the faithful from the liturgy and the sacraments. He could well be invoked as the “patron saint of keeping churches open.”

Over several decades, there are those who will invoke a purported “separation of Church and State” to constrain religious influence in the public square. It is a less convenient civic doctrine when others argue to protect the Church from overreach by the civil authority. As such, the boldness of the Quebec government to limit participation in public worship to holders of vaccine passports, and then within five days close churches altogether (excepting funerals), could have been foreseen. Our ruling class places little value on divine worship, whether through ignorance or malice, so this decision is internally coherent. What is not coherent is the ready acquiescence of the Church, most notably by the bishops, to this gross violation of the Church’s proper authority.

The Church offers countless examples of holy bishops who exercised their mission amidst persecution. More recent than St. Thomas is the heroic example of a certain Archbishop of Kraków leading his local Church while it suffered under Communist oppression in the 1970s. Confronted with problems, challenges and opportunities, it is reported that the young Karol Wojtyła would always ask: “What is the truth of faith that sheds light on this?”

What can we do as Christians when the State declares that we ought to keep our churches closed? Like St. Thomas Becket, our answer is that no reason is good enough to close the doors of the church. We do not have to choose between blind compliance with the State’s demands and reckless endangerment through rejection of science on the other. The faithful should seek to cooperate with the public health leadership to limit COVID spread. The Church, however, cannot stop making the holy sacraments available. In a world where the doors of Costco and Walmart remain wide open, who could suggest Christians ought not to approach the Bread of Life and the medicine of immortality?

The Gospel, the sacraments and the Church’s prayers are essential. Can the State redefine what is essential for the life of the world? Can the Church somehow fulfil her mission while closing her doors to those who wish to enter and be nourished? The entire Church — the bishops united with their clergy and the laity — needs to reject these errors. Failure to do so betrays the spirit of the Gospel and St. Thomas Becket’s ultimate witness. Prayer and evangelization are more important than safety.

We urge all Catholics, and especially our bishops, to embrace this spirit. The world longs for the extraordinary witness and loving display of our faith and our dependence on the Gospel, the sacraments and the prayers of the Universal Church. It may be that our times call for clearer preaching about Christian priorities, for more forthright engagement with the State and civil disobedience when justified. The Gospel has always demanded courage and sacrifice.

St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!

(Bastien and Vivas are both hospital-based specialists in Internal Medicine and have worked on COVID wards since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa and the GTA, respectively.)

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