Saint of the week

St Thomas More, 22nd June

“A man of conscience is one who never acquires tolerance, well-being, success, public-standing, and approval on the part of prevailing opinion at the expense of truth,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a speech to the US bishops in 1991. In his next sentence the future Pope Benedict XVI then mentioned by name St Thomas More, who, along with John Henry Newman, he said, was “Britain’s other great witness of conscience”.

Conscience to St Thomas More was “not at all an expression of subjective stubbornness or obstinate heroism”, the future Pope Benedict XVI explained. “He numbered himself, in fact, among those faint-hearted martyrs who only after faltering and much questioning succeed in mustering up obedience to conscience, mustering up obedience to the truth, which must stand higher than any human tribunal or any type of personal taste”.

Indeed, as he awaited his execution in the darkness of the Bell Tower of the Tower of London the former Lord Chancellor of England would have been able to reflect on how he surrendered everything in obedience to the objective moral truth of God’s holy and natural law.

The specific law to which he bore ultimate witness was the negative precept of the Ten Commandments not to commit adultery. St Thomas and his friend, St John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, were both committed to the Tower after they refused to take the oath attached to the 1534 Act of Succession that recognised the progeny of Henry VIII and his mistress, Anne Boleyn, as the rightful heirs to the English throne.

St Thomas had kept his counsel and was tried and convicted of high treason in Westminster Hall only after Sir Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, claimed he had said, in a disputed conversation with him, that Parliament did not have the authority to declare the King as supreme head of the Church in England.

The saint denied the accusation but he also reminded the jury: “Ye must understand that, in things touching conscience, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience and to his soul than to any other thing in all the world beside …”.

At the close of his trial St Thomas did discharge his conscience, however, insisting that although he did in fact uphold the primacy of the Pope over the Church “it is not for this supremacie that ye seeke my bloud, as for that I would not condiscende to the marriage”.

He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered but the King commuted this to beheading on the day of the execution.

St Thomas was killed with a single blow at Tower Hill on July 6 but shares his feast day with St John Fisher who died nine days earlier, on June 22.

The King’s good servant – but God’s first

On the day of his execution the King had asked him to keep his final address brief and famously he protested that he died “in the faith and for the faith” and that he was always the King’s good servant – but God’s first. Ironically, the words chosen by St Thomas on the scaffold had originally been Henry’s, who in earlier days had often exhorted him to serve God above all else.

Even had he not died a martyr, Thomas More would probably have ranked among the most distinguished Englishmen in history – a scholar, writer, Christian humanist, and a statesman  are among the many ways in which this “man for all seasons” can be admired.

But because of his fidelity to the Gospel, witnessed by the shedding of his blood, he will always be seen ultimately as a Catholic figure, reinforced by Pope St John Paul II’s decision to declare him to be the patron saint of politicians. C

ertainly, St Thomas was always a religious man. The son of Sir John More, barrister and judge, and his first wife, Agnes Grainger, St Thomas was born in Milk Street, off Cheapside, in the city of London on 6 February 1478.

He was educated in St Anthony’s School, Threadneedle Street, before he was received into the household of Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace, later attending Oxford University, before he was called to the bar and also entered Parliament.

During his stratospheric career rise he was nonetheless considering a vocation to religious life and lived for a time with Carthusian monks at the London Charterhouse. Eventually, he opted for marriage and he had four children with his first wife, Jane, who died in 1510. He married again, this time to Alice Middleton, a wealthy widow.

St Thomas was brought into the royal court by Henry VIII and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whom in 1529 he succeeded as Lord Chancellor, and he was vigorous in preventing the Lutheran heresy from taking root in England. He resigned in 1532 for openly opposing Henry’s reforms of the Church and he infuriated the King further by refusing to attend to coronation of Anne Boleyn.

On 4 May 1535, from the window of his cell, he and his beloved daughter Margaret, on her final visit to him, watched as St John Houghton, the prior of the London Charterhouse, and his four companions, the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation, were drawn to Tyburn, “cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to a marriage”. It would be a matter of just weeks before he was to follow their example, at the age of 57 years.

His body was buried beneath the altar of the Church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London but his head was put on a spike on London Bridge, from where it was recovered by Margaret and later reburied in the Roper vault of the Church of St Dunstan, Canterbury.

Butler’s Lives of the Saints makes the point that “some saints have attained their honours by redeeming an indifferent or sinful life by martyrdom; not so Thomas More”, who was “first to last a holy man, living in the spirit of his own prayer: ‘Give me, good Lord, a longing to be with thee: not for avoiding the calamities of this wicked world, nor so much for the avoiding of the pains of Purgatory, nor of the pains of Hell neither, nor so much for the attaining of the joys of Heaven in respect of mine own commodity, as even for a very love of thee.’ And this when his ways were cast not in the cloister, but in the ordinary places of the world – home and family, among scholars and lawyers, in tribunals, council chambers, and royal courts”.

St Thomas was canonised along with St John Fisher in 1935, 400 years after their deaths.