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Sunday, September 7, 2008

St. Thomas More: A Sign of Courage for Our Time

--> by Susan Fox

I have been a daily Mass going Catholic since the age of 13. But yet in my teens and my twenties I yet was a relativist. I believed firmly in my faith and lived my life accordingly. But if a friend of mine told me of their plans to commit a serious sin, I said, “That’s cool. That’s your business.” In short, relativism which holds that everyone’s opinion is correct and there is no objective right and wrong, leads to the sin of omission.

Relativism began to creep into our culture with the Reformation. Somehow denying the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the authority of the Magisterium and the role of the human mother of Jesus in our sanctification that brought about many of the evils we face in our culture today.
What is fascinating is the life of the Catholic martyr St. Thomas More, who suffered and died on the the cusp of the Reformation actually foreseeing the horror that would befall the world because almost every prominent Catholic of his age except himself and Bishop John Fisher were willing to sign a piece of paper saying that King Henry the VIII was the head of the Church of England. Thomas More had to spend 15 months in the Tower of London facing the possibility of a beheading for his stubborn position. And while there, we must believe he suffered the Agony in the Garden all over again, and wrote about it in a book called “The Sadness of Christ.” I highly recommend this book.
Born in 1477 in England, More was the son of a lawyer who became a lawyer. He lived in a time when everyone thought that marriage was a concession to weakness. As a result, many were lured by romantic images of grandeur and glory associated with priestly and religious life. More considered it a grave problem that the Catholic Church did not adequately test those who thought they had a vocation. He judged that half the Church’s problems in those days could be traced to the fact that there were too many priests.

Growing up in London at the peak of the Middle Ages, More did not have any attractive or compelling models of people who consciously set out to achieve Christian perfection in and through marriage. He did have many attractive models of priests who achieved sanctity by renouncing the world. To some extent More actually never shook completely this prejudice of his age that marriage was not a path to sainthood.

But in his early 20s he lived near the London Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery, where he participated in the monk’s life of prayer, and learned their austere ways of living. He learned from the best spiritual masters in the London of his time. Many of these Carthusians later joined More in suffering death and some torture rather than reject their Catholic faith. But More discerned through these men that he was called to marriage. He became in his own words “a chaste husband rather than a licentious priest.” But he continued the practices of prayer and mortification he learned there throughout his life, actually wearing a hair shirt until his death.

The manner in which he chose his wife was unusual too. He picked her based on the good character of her parents. Jane Colt, age 17, was the oldest of 11 daughters, but More was actually attracted to her younger sister first. But feeling that it would be an insult if the younger sister married first he fixed his interest on the eldest. Unfortunately, she had not been educated as had been More, who at age 27 was already an accomplished scholar, lawyer and writer. When he set about improving her education, she resisted violently. She repeatedly threw herself on the floor and cried.

More looked for a solution to this problem, so arranged to visit her family and go hunting with her father. The father-in-law did not want to get involved so he told More that he had given her once and for all, and More should simply exercise his rights as a husband and beat her. More responded: “I know my rights as a husband, but I’d prefer to have her cured by your authority.”

So the father-in-law spoke to his daughter, reminded her that she had been a very homely girl, and he had not thought he could find her a husband for her at all. But with great difficulty he’d found the kind of husband any girl would long for. And now she was setting about to rebel against his authority. After that scolding, the girl promptly went down on her knees, begged her father’s forgiveness and did the same with her husband. After that both spouses were devoted to each other as both made the basis of their marriage the pursuit of virtue. Jane died in the sixth year of their marriage leaving More with four little children and no one to care for them. Within one month he married Alice Middleton. Six years his senior, Alice was the best and most virtuous of all the available women he knew. But again she lacked his education, or even his sense of humor. But they came to love each other well because of his kindness and humor.

Just before Jane’s death, (in 1510) More was elected to Parliament, and then Undersheriff of London. This meant that he was hearing hundreds of cases a year as a judge in London where his careful concern for justice got him a reputation as a completely incorruptible judge who would even make decisions against his own family members if they were in the wrong.

After 8 years of serving the common people as undersheriff, More reluctantly joined the king’s service because he saw an opportunity there to end the wars King Henry the VIII had undertaken in his ambition for power. More had known King Henry the VIII since they were boys, and they were good friends. King Henry would sometimes show up at More’s house in Chelsea unexpectedly “to make merry,” have dinner, and then stroll through More’s gardens arm in arm. This prompted More’s son-in-law, Roper, to congratulate him on the extraordinary favor he enjoyed with the King. But in this relationship, Sir Thomas More showed great realism and humility. “Son Roper,” More responded,” I may tell you that I have no cause to be proud because of this; for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.”

More rose to the position of Chancellor of England and the King’s secretary. But King Henry the VIII was getting restless in his 20-year marriage to Queen Catherine, his first wife. While he had had other affairs that had ended amicably without disturbing his marriage, a young woman named Anne Boleyn refused to bed the king, holding out for marriage. Ann Boleyn wanted to be queen in Catherine’s stead. King Henry wanted Ann. The Catholic Church did not grant divorce. What to do?

Ann began feeding the king Protestant texts. These texts said that the king ruled by divine right and not by the will of the people. Despite More’s efforts to constantly remind the king that he had previously spurned these Protestant authors, Henry gradually gave in to the bad advice of a group of straw men who used Henry’s lust to gain power. Amazingly Parliament defended the Church, but the Church’s own governing body gave in. In 1531, Henry was declared Supreme Head of the Catholic Church in England. In 1532 More resigned his office, but did everything he could to avoid confronting the King directly. In 1533, the king’s puppet archbishop approved the king’s divorce. Ann Boleyn had her coronation as queen of England and many Catholic bishops attended. They sent More money for a gown so he could go also, but More sent it back saying diplomatically through a story that he did not want to compromise his virtue. By 1534 Henry was trying to get More indicted for treason against the king. And everyone had to sign a document saying the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, or else they faced execution. More’s friends and family signed. All the Roman Catholic bishops in England signed except one, John Fisher, and he was executed as was More. More would not sign.
It is ironic that when More first entered the king’s service, Henry had promised More he would accept the freedom of his conscience. Yet early in his career, More had already realized the danger. He wrote that tyranny comes through sins of omission – respectable people in high positions are guilty of negligence, greed and cowardice. (It is fascinating that in the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II says that the democratic state has descended to a form of totalitarianism when human life is no longer protected from conception to natural death. “How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practiced: some individuals are held to be deserving of defense and others (unborn, handicapped, and aged) are denied that dignity? When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the state itself has already begun,” Pope John Paul II warned in the Gospel of Life.) More in his writing respectfully pointed out that the Catholic bishops of his time were the ones most at fault. They failed to stand up for the Church’s right to exist independent of the king, a right which had existed in England since the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. But King Henry tempted by lust turned the Magna Carta on its head.

Locked in the Tower of London, for 15 months before his execution on July 6, 1535, More wrote the “Sadness of Christ.” He had meditated long and hard on the Passion of Christ his whole life. Now, the fruit of that meditation would allow him to go to the gallows telling jokes.

In the Agony in the Garden, More saw a “clear and sharp mirror image” of what occurs in every age. Many of God’s martyrs went to their deaths joyfully, hardly
noticing that they were being killed. But for some reason, the Gospels record that Christ was so full of fear he sweat blood and had to be consoled by an angel. More pondered why Christ, who was God, allowed Himself to show such weakness. Besides He had told his followers not to fear death, but the enemy who can take away eternal life.

More wrote, “For He hardly intended it to mean that they should never under any circumstances recoil from a violent death, but rather that they should not, out of fear, flee from a death which will not last, only to run, by denying the faith into one which will be everlasting.”

He compared this decision for martyrdom when it absolutely cannot be avoided to an amputation. The doctor tells you to endure the momentary pain of the amputation so that you might have the pleasure of health and the avoidance of even more pain. “Indeed, though our Savior Christ commands us to suffer death (when it cannot be avoided) rather than fall away 
from Him through a fear of death (and we do fall away from Him when we publicly deny our faith in Him), still He does not require us to do violence to our nature by not fearing death at all.”

In fact, Jesus said, “If you are persecuted in one city, flee to another.” All of Christ’s disciples did just that until God in His Providence led them to their end. More counsels us not to volunteer to for martyrdom. It is only required if your last remaining choice is to deny God or die.

More said that Christ foresaw that there would be many people of such a delicate constitution that they would be convulsed with terror at the thought of being tortured, so he chose to encourage them by the example of his own sorrow, sadness, weariness and unequalled fear. For these little sheep, Christ deliberately placed the story of His own Agony in the Garden into Scripture by telling it to the apostles after His Resurrection! More concludes there were no
witnesses to the sweating blood of Christ because they were all asleep. Plus he didn’t have time to tell anyone about it until after He was dead. Nevertheless, he wanted us to know of his weakness and fear to encourage his followers in future ages.

More also says that Christ gave us the model for how to deal with imminent danger. He took Peter, James and John and asked them to pray with Him. Then He went a little way and fell face down on the earth and prayed. By this passage, Christ taught us when assailed by fear that we should ask others to watch and pray and still place our trust in God alone. That was wise in Jesus’ case because the men he asked to watch and pray with him that night, Peter, James and John, they fell asleep. They loved Jesus intensely, but they fell asleep.

More gives us a lesson on prayer at this point. Imagine, you have committed a crime of high treason, and you are seeking a pardon from President Bush to commute the death sentence. Stroll around. If courtesy requires you to kneel first, request someone put a cushion under your knees. Then yawn, spit, sneeze and belch. In short, while talking to President Bush, conduct yourself in such a fashion that he can see you are clearly thinking of something else. What success could we hope from such an approach? “And do we think it is reasonable, when we have been caught committing a whole series of far more serious crimes, to beg pardon so contemptuously from the king of all kings, God Himself, who when He has destroyed our bodies has the power to send both body and soul together to hell?”

More says it’s okay to pray while walking, etc. as long as we turn our hearts and minds to God while doing so. He strongly recommends nevertheless that we also put aside time to prepare for serious prayer and pray in a more reverent posture.

The point of the interactions between Jesus and the Apostles, however, is that we must pray constantly because Satan seeks to sift us like wheat. More sees this passage of Scripture where Jesus keeps returning to the apostles and asking them to stay awake and pray as an admonition to the future pastors of the Church “not to allow themselves the slightest wavering, out of sadness or weariness or fear, in their diligent care of their flock, but rather to conduct themselves so as to prove in actual fact that they are not so much concerned for themselves as for the welfare of their flock.”

More lived during the time of Martin Luther and other false Protestant reformers of the Catholic Church, who seeing her faults sought to destroy her rather than make her better. So when he reads the passage in Scripture, “And there appeared to Him an angel from heaven to strengthen Him,” he thinks about those who think it’s futile to seek the intercession of an angel or a departed saint because we can confidently pray directly to God Himself. How many times have you been told that Catholics worship Mary because they pray to her? This is the fruit of that thinking in the Reformation.

More says these so-called Christians “express their envious displeasure at the glory of the saints. . . Why should these shameless men not follow the same line of reasoning here and argue that the angel’s effort to offer consolation to our Savior Christ was utterly pointless and superfluous?” More argued that Christ had a twofold purpose in relating this experience to the apostles after His death. He wanted us to know that He, who brought men back from the dead, was God, yes, but also a man, who experienced fear until the point of sweating blood and needing an angel’s consolation. Moreover, Christ wanted to give us hope that when we are in danger, we cannot lack consolation as long as we pray – not in a lazy and perfunctory way – but sighing and praying from the bottom of our hearts as Christ did.

More says there seems to be two kinds of martyrs. Those who go bravely to their execution filled with joy. Think of St. Lawrence the Deacon, who being grilled on an oven, joked with his captors, “Turn me over. I’m done on that side.” And then there are those whose knees shake and they are in terrible terror. More says that the ones who are filled with joy are not necessarily better than those who are scared. They simply may be weaker, and God knows it’s the only way they’ll get through the experience, so he gives them that grace. He says, yes, God loves a cheerful giver, but he loved Tobias and Job as well, and they bore their calamities bravely and patiently, but neither of them were exactly jumping for joy in their sufferings.

You’ll be happy to know that while it’s clear that St. Thomas More faced this terrible fear in the Tower of London, on the day of his execution he was merry indeed. His good humor startled and scandalized many. We know five jests he told on the way to the gallows. For instance, one of the officers demanded his upper garment for his fee, meaning his gown. More answered that he should have it, and gave him his cap, saying it was his uppermost garment. One of the sheriff’s gave him a hand to help him up the scaffold, and he said, “When I come down again, let me shift for myself as well as I can.” Also the hangman knelt down and asked for forgiveness for his death as was the custom, More said, “I forgive you, but I promise you that you will never have glory for striking off my head since my neck is so short."

More frequently expressed a desire to “make merry in heaven” with those who betrayed him. He prayed for the grace to think my greatest enemies my best friends. “For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.” In the Old Testament Joseph, beloved son of Isaac,
Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt
was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. By this means, he rose to a very high position in Egypt and was able to save all his family from famine.

But nevertheless, in the “Sadness of Christ,” More contrasts sharply Judas being wide awake planning Jesus’ betrayal, while the other 11 were asleep. “Does not this contrast between the traitor and the apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image, a sad and terrible view of what has happened throughout the ages form those times even to our own? Why do not bishops contemplate in this scene their own somnolence? Since they
have succeeded in the place of the apostles, would that they would reproduce their virtues just as eagerly as they embrace their authority and as faithfully as they display their sloth and sleepiness! For very many are sleepy and apathetic in sowing virtues among the people and maintaining the truth, while the enemies of Christ in order to sow vices and uproot the faith are wide wake – so much wise are the sons of darkness in their generation than are the sons of light.”

And while the apostles slept out of sadness, many sleep down through the ages even until More’s time “because of a fear of injury to themselves, a fear which is so much the worse as its cause is the more contemptible, that is, when it is not a question of life or death, but of money.” How many times have I heard that we cannot preach against abortion from the pulpit because we will lose our non-profit tax exempt status. The bishop of Arlington, Virginia, some years ago said if money is preventing us from standing up for human life, Catholic Churches should surrender our tax exempt status voluntarily.

And yet Christ commands us not to fear the loss of the body for His sake. “The good shepherd,” says Christ, “lays down
his life for his sheep.” “But” More writes, “if every good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, certainly one who saves his own life to the detriment of his sheep is not fulfilling the role of a good shepherd.”

Thomas More and brave Bishop John Fisher were not canonized until 1935-- 400 years after their deaths. The Catholic religion which More defended with his life was outlawed in England until 1829. Only in 1850 did England have its Catholic hierarchy restored, and their first act was to request Sir Thomas More be given his due.

Nothing happens accidentally, everything is gifted providentially. G.K. Chesterton said in 1929 that “Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about 100 years time.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, St. Thomas More was canonized on the eve of the atrocities of World War II. But he is gaining in popularity now.

What has happened to our world in the meantime! In California, a court has legalized homosexual unions, which will lead to homosexual marriage nationwide because anyone can marry in California, whether resident or not. In Boston, the Catholic Church has been forced to stop handling adoptions because they are required by law to allow homosexuals to adopt. The Anglican Church is ordaining both women and homosexuals as bishops. The remnant of true Catholics in the Anglican religion are petitioning Rome directly to accept them back into the Catholic Church because when they tried to return to the Catholic faith some years before, they were not welcomed by the Catholic bishops in the United Kingdom. In Florida, Terri Schiavo, a handicapped woman was starved to death by a judge who ruled in favor of her estranged husband. Terry’s Catholic bishop would not send a priest to her side when she was dying so a bishop from another diocese in the United States sent one of his bishops. Recently, I heard Jesse Ramirez on the radio, and the same thing happened to him. He was having a fight with his wife over her infidelities. She grabbed the steering wheel on the car he was driving and he ended up in hospital in a vegetative state. She had his feeding tube removed. Jesse had joined his wife’s religion, the LDS, to keep the peace in the family, but he was a lapsed Catholic. So his parents asked the Catholic bishop to give him the last sacraments, but the bishop refused saying Jesse was dead. However, another court stopped the starvation, and Jesse recovered to return to the Catholic faith, receive the sacraments and tell us the story on the radio a few weeks ago.

My dear friends, please do as St. Thomas More said, and pray constantly. Pray for priests. Pray for bishops. Pray for lay Catholics in United States in positions of authority. Ask God to give them the courage of Christ as exemplified in the life of St. Thomas More. Lord, keep us all awake. The only way for these catastrophes to have fallen upon us in our age is because many, many Christians have fallen asleep. Many voters have fallen asleep. Some years ago I was contrasting the persecution we suffer in the Legion of Mary in the U.S. versus China. In China, they imprisoned us, they killed us, they tortured us. In the U.S. we suffer from benign neglect and supreme indifference. But as
St. Thomas More told his family, “We’re not going to heaven in a featherbed.”


  1. Just admiring your work and wondering how you managed this blog so well. It’s so remarkable that I can't afford to not go through this valuable information whenever I surf the internet!

    1. Thank you so much. I am an ex-newspaper reporter and my husband and friends write for this blog as well. But it was written over a periods of years! And the work is still ongoing. God bless you. Susan Fox