St. Thomas More: A Saint for the Persecuted Church
Constance T. Hull
St. Thomas More is one of the great English saints of the Church and he is a wonderful saint for those individuals who are undergoing persecution for their Christian faith. St. Thomas More was born in 1478 in London where his father was a lawyer and judge. He received a stellar education at St. Anthony’s school and became a household page for John Morton who was the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. The Archbishop saw potential in More and nominated him for a place at Oxford University. He began his studies at Oxford in 1492 where he received a top notch classical education. His education and training would take him far in his adult life. He was a lawyer, politician, author, and eventually caught the eye of King Henry VIII and was appointed Lord Chancellor of England.
As a young man he considered the call to become a monk. He took this discernment very seriously and his friend Erasmus wrote of this period:
Meanwhile he applied his whole mind to the exercises of piety, looking to and pondering on the priesthood in vigils, fasts, and prayers and similar austerities. In which matter he proved himself far more prudent than most candidates who thrust themselves rashly into that arduous profession without any previous trial of their powers. The one thing that prevented him from giving himself to that kind of life was that he could not shake off the desire of the married state. He chose, therefore, to be a chaste husband rather than an impure priest.
Once More had settled the matter of his vocation, he became dedicated to his work and future family. He was eventually elected to Parliament in 1501 and married Jane Colt in 1505. They had four children together before she died in 1511. He dedicated his life to providing her with a strong education and bestowed that gift upon his daughters as well. In a surprising move, he re-married one month after her death. He was then married to a widow named Alice Middleton. She was older than him and devoted her time to carrying for his children, her daughter, and eventually Anne Crescare of whom he became guardian.
In 1529 St. Thomas More was appointed to one of the highest offices in the land, that of Lord Chancellor of England. In the beginning he was completely dedicated to the King’s policies, but that quickly changed when the King decided to divorce his wife, Catherine. More had initially agreed that their marriage was unlawful because the King claimed it had not been consummated, which is a requirement for a valid Catholic marriage. The King, however, took the matter further and began to deny Papal authority. It was here that More began to disagree with Henry.
More was also an ardent supporter of the Catholic Church and decried the Protestant Reformation. He prevented the importation of Lutheran texts as well as investigated suspected Protestant publishers and other supporters. More was accused of abusing heretics, but responded in his “Apology” that he had only used capital punishment twice throughout the investigations. He tended to focus on an intellectual response to the heresies of Martin Luther.
The real issue for More, however, rested in Papal primacy over the King. He remained steadfast that the Pope as the Successor of Peter retained supremacy over the King of England in Church matters, including in marriage. Things began to unravel when More refused to sign a letter by leading English churchmen and aristocrats that demanded Pope Clement VII annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry then proceeded to isolate More and by 1531 he was one of the only people left working for the King who held firm to Rome. More tried to resign after Henry attempted to force him to sign an oath that the King was the Supreme Head of the English Church. At the time, the King kept More in his office because of his stature and his respect for him. It would not last.
In 1532 King Henry finally let More resign from his post due to medical reasons. A year later More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, which was not well received by the Monarchy. He then went through a series of false charges and hearings. On April 13, 1534 he appeared at a commission that asked him to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession. More did accept Parliament’s right to declare Anne Boleyn Queen, but refused to hold that the Crown had supremacy over the Church. This would lead to his eventual death. St. John Fisher, whose feast day is also today, also refused the oath and was beheaded nine days before More. On July 1, 1535 More was charged with treason, a charge which he responded to with, “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality.” He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but the King commuted the sentence to beheading. At his execution More said to his executioners, “I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself”. Before he was martyred he stated, “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
There is much that we can learn from St. Thomas More. He lived during a tumultuous time for the Church and Europe. No matter the difficulty, even the under the threat of death, More stayed true in his obedience and submission to Rome in all matters of faith, ecclesiology, and morals.
Forgiveness and CharityMore was persecuted and betrayed by many people who were close to him. He had served under the King in devotion and loyalty. In the end he was abandoned by his friends who chose the way of the world. More truly understood the Agony in the Garden, the carrying of the Cross, and martyrdom. Through it all he maintained a Christ-like disposition. When his sentence was handed down, he did not yell, rant, or fight. He stood his ground in love and forgiveness. At his trial he told the judges, “we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to everlasting salvation.” He did not hold them in contempt, but continued to hope for the salvation of their souls regardless of what they were about to do to him. His countenance remained rooted in charity and forgiveness until the end.
Detachment from the WorldBy worldly standards, More had it all. He had a family, position, he was a knight, and held a very high political office. He had wealth and prestige, but through it all he kept his eyes fixed on his eschatological end: Heaven. He even wore a hairshirt to remind him of his ultimate purpose. He gave up everything and went to his martyrdom because he understood where his true treasure dwelt.
This is a valuable lesson for us this day-in-age. There are people right now throughout the world who are giving up their worldly possessions, position, and livelihood for Christ. In the West, Christians are being forced out of businesses and politics for their understanding of the moral law. Decisions have to be made: Christ or mammon. It is a tremendous test and St. Thomas More shows us how to persevere and keep our eyes fixed on Christ. We must rely on Christ even as we lose our very livelihood.
Many Christians throughout the world are facing martyrdom or enslavement. The recent martyrs throughout the Middle East show us how to stand firm until the end, even unto death. There is great hope in martyrs because they show us, once again, that we were made for Heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ died a martyr’s death, and so it is the highest calling of the Christian to be like their Lord.
CourageCourage goes hand-in-hand with charity, forgiveness, and detachment. When difficult times arise and when persecution comes to our front door, it is then that we need courage. We must pray for courage. Do we run as the Apostles did when Our Lord’s hour came, or do we walk through the suffering as Mary and St. John did to the very foot of the Cross? Looking at the life of St. Thomas More and his words throughout his own passion, it is clear that he relied on courage, through Christ. Persecution is promised to us by Christ. Many of us in the West have lived lives rather insulated from outright persecution. That time is over. Great persecution is building in the West and the ground is soaked with blood in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. St. Thomas More is a great saint to befriend and ask for courage through Christ.
ConclusionOn July 6, 1535 St. Thomas More was given his eternal reward through martyrdom. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII along with 53 other English Martyrs in 1886. He was then canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 19, 1935 and St. John Paul II declared More to be “the heavenly Patron of Statesman and Politicians”. More is a saint for our times. He knew the danger and struggles of government overreach into Church affairs. This is something that we are seeing more and more in the West and in other areas of the world. We must all remember that we are ‘God’s servant first’. In those times of persecution, look to the amazing example of St. Thomas More, that you too may persevere to the end in forgiveness, charity, and truth.
St. Thomas More, ora pro nobis.