St. Richard of Chichester


Droitwich, England, was called simply “Wyche” when St. Richard was born there towards the end of the 12th century. He and his older brother Robert lost their parents when very young. By the time they were adults, their father’s small farm had gone to rack and ruin. Richard undertook to restore it, doing all the menial work himself. Robert, out of gratitude, deeded the property to Richard, his enterprising brother. But when Richard learned that Robert later regretted giving up the farm, and that his family wanted him to marry a rich bride, he gave back the land, and desiring to remain celibate, he went to Oxford to study. There he was an impoverished student, but no poorer than most of his classmates. For St. Richard, his university days were the happiest time of his life.

Having spent some years at Oxford, he transferred to the University of Paris, and after that, it seems, to the University of Bologna, famous for law. Then he joined the faculty of Oxford and rose to be chancellor of the university. Not long afterward, however, he accepted the appointment as chancellor of the archdiocese of Canterbury. Its new archbishop, St. Edmund Rich of Abingdon, previously an outstanding Oxonian professor of theology, needed an assistant, and in Richard he found a devoted right-hand man.

King Henry III was to be the torment of Archbishop Edmund and his chancellor. He made practice of leaving diocesan sees empty for prolonged periods, so that he could profit by their income himself. Then he would nominate as new bishops the men who paid him the most. He drove St. Edmund so hard that the Archbishop fled to France, a dying man. Richard accompanied Edmund and took care of him until his death. Even after that, he stayed on in France with the Dominican Friars, whom he served as a lecturer. It was while in France that he was ordained to the priesthood (1243).

When he finally returned to England, he worked for a while as a parish priest. But he was too valuable a man to go unused, so before long he was back in his position of chancellor of Canterbury, reappointed by the new archbishop, Boniface of Savoy.

In 1244 the bishop of Chichester died. Henry III, still scheming to rob the Church, saw to it that the canons of Chichester elected as bishop one Robert Passeleue, a worthless man who had practically purchased the office. Archbishop Boniface and his suffragan bishops declared the election invalid, and confirmed Richard de Wyche as the new bishop of Chichester.

Henry III was furious. He kept control of the temporalities of Chichester and forbade Richard to touch any of its properties. Richard twice approached the monarch, seeking a settlement, but was twice rejected. King and Bishop both appealed to the pope, Innocent IV, then in France. Innocent decided in favor of Richard, and personally ordained him to the episcopate on March 5, 1245. But the King remained obdurate, and even forbade anybody in the diocese of Chichester to give the bishop shelter! One good priest did welcome him, however, and he started to work in his diocese like a missionary, traveling mostly on foot. Only when the pope threatened to excommunicate Henry did the King yield a little.

Bishop Richard spent the last seven years of his life as an admirable residential bishop. When questions arose of the rights of the church, he was an adamant reformer. Personally, he was a man of great sensitivity, charitable, austere (a vegetarian because he loved animals), and much admired by his people.

According to medieval custom, English bishops were supposed to do a good deal of entertaining. St. Richard felt he had to continue this tradition, but at the banquets he would continue his practice of abstaining from meat. He even good-humoredly expressed sympathy for the animals picked to be slaughtered for the banquets: “Poor little innocent creatures … We are the cause of your death, and what have you done to deserve it?”

Although much loved as a bishop, St. Richard could be a stern disciplinarian with his priests. He would not tolerate avarice, heresy or immorality. He refused to bestow profitable offices on kinsmen (then a common abuse). “Jesus,” he would point out, “gave the power of the keys, not to his relative, St. John, but to a nonrelative, Peter.” Most of all, Richard placed no boundaries on help to the needy. When he ran out of funds for alms, he sold the diocesan gold and silver dishes and even his own horse.

A diligent preacher, the bishop was given the added duty of preaching a Holy Land crusade throughout the land. Worn out by his efforts and by a heavy fever, he died at Dover on April 3, 1253, in a hospice for the sick poor. Pope Urban IV canonized him nine years later.

Perhaps we can gather best the flavor of his sanctity from the lovely “Prayer of Gratitude” that he composed, and that remains popular even today:

“Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits and blessings which you have given me, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for me. Merciful Friend, Brother and Redeemer, may I know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara