Friday, June 22, 2012

(86) St. Thomas More & St. John Fisher: Their Inspiration for Freedom of Religion Today


      In 2010, speaking to a group of priests, Cardinal Francis George said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”[12]  - See more at: 

        With our country on an expressway to Sodom and Gomorrah those words of Cardinal George may indeed come true.  Thus our young men and women should study the lives of St. Thomas Moore and St. John Fisher who are becoming more relevant than ever almost 500 years later as models of courage and integrity when the rest of their society just went along with the flow.  In the years after their deaths the Catholic Church in England suffered one of the most violent and gruesome persecutions in world history. 

       St. John Fisher was the Bishop of Rochester and at the same time St. Thomas More was a layman serving in the government of King Henry VIII as Lord Chancellor (Prime Minister).  Both fought for religious freedom for the Church and its members to faithfully practice the faith in opposition to the tyrannical dictates of King Henry VIII.  They were both beheaded in 1535 and the two friends were canonized together 400 years later by Pope Pius XI on May 19, 1935.  Both have their feast days on June 22.  They beautifully exemplified the Church and the laity working together.  Both of them, men of principle and integrity, refused to bow to expediency and what was politically correct at the time. They did what was right despite the consequences.  Government officials, politicians, and Church leaders can learn so much from them.  

       Preceding them almost 400 years earlier was St. Thomas Becket (1119 – 1170), who was murdered after confronting King Henry II over his attempt to dominate the Church and violate its freedom and rights.   Thomas More (1478 - 1535) was born within a few hundred yards of the birthplace of his heroic patron saint and was beheaded in the same year as St. John Fisher for essentially the same reasons.  All three English martyrs died for freedom of conscience and for Church freedom…….not simply freedom to confine its worship within the four walls of a church, but also the freedom to be faithful to church teaching in the public sphere and to speak up in its defense.  The two English saints martyred in 1535 also died in defense of the institution of Marriage as Christ had ordained.

         We can learn from them to love our Country, but distrust the Government.  The Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4 is an annual period of prayer for not only freedom of worship, but also freedom of religious practice where Catholic employers would not be forced to provide medical insurance under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate that includes contraceptives and abortifacients; to have the freedom of conscience to not perform actions on the job contrary to Church teaching as declining to participate in abortions or the administration/sale of abortifacients; for Catholic charities to have the right to exclude homosexual couples from adoptions; to freely hire people that concur with the organization's mission and values; for Catholic businesses to refuse to provide goods or services for gay marriages and their celebrations; the right to voice and bear witness to the truth even if it is unpopular or considered to be politically incorrect in classrooms or public forums.


      St. John Fisher (1469 -1535) was an eminent scholar and a brilliant theologian.  He studied Theology at Cambridge and later taught there, becoming its Chancellor, president of one of its colleges, and the Cardinal Bishop of Rochester.  He was an effective and prominent spiritual shepherd, leader, and administrator in all of these posts, but still found time to write several books to refute the errors of the day.  A humble man, he led an austere life.

St. John Fisher
      Although once the tutor of King Henry VIII, St. John Fisher in conscience had to oppose his divorce of Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Ann Bolyn.  After oath of allegiance to the King as the Head of the Church in England, called the Oath of Supremacy and Act of Succession recognizing the remarriage and succession of his children with Ann Bolyn to the throne in opposition to papal authority, the king imprisoned him for “treason”.  When the Pope made John Fisher a cardinal, the angry king had him beheaded at the age of 66,

       His friend, St. Thomas More said of him: “In this realm no one man, in wisdom, learning, and long approved virtue together, meet to be matched and compared with him.”


Thomas More (1478 - 1535) was born within a few hundred yards of the birthplace of his heroic patron saint, Thomas Becket (1119 – 1170), who was murdered after confronting King Henry II over his attempt to dominate the Church and violate its freedom and rights.  Thomas More was a very learned  lawyer and a scholar, a holy man with a deep prayer life which included daily Mass as an altar server.  

     Thomas More was a statesman.......Speaker of the House of Commons of Parliament.  Later he was a counselor (adviser) to King Henry VIII who appointed him as Lord Chancellor (Prime Minister). However, More resigned that position and retired from public life because he could not approve of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Ann Bolyn.  More was actually ahead of his time in regard to peaceful means of settling disagreements among countries.  In fact he advocated constructing an agreement to make war unnecessary.
         Thomas More wrote the novel, "Utopia" and a history of Richard III among others which inspired a Shakespearean play.  He was a staunch defender of the faith in a half million word volume, "The Confutation" against William Tyndale and other writings against Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

St. Thomas More loved his family.  He enjoyed them at Chelsea, his country estate built in 1524.  After his first wife died, More married again.  He educated his daughters, which was unusual for the time.          
        King Henry VIII at first defended the faith against Martin Luther, who rebelled against the Catholic Church and formed his own church.  In response he attacked his critic, Henry VIII in print, calling him a “pig, dolt, and liar”.  Apparently such name calling was more acceptable then than now. At the request of Henry VIII, Thomas More set about composing a rebuttal.  The resulting Responsio ad Lutherum  (Latin was the international language of the day) was published at the end of 1523. In the Responsio, More defended the supremacy of the papacy, the sacraments, and other church traditions. More’s language, like Luther’s, was virulent, and he branded Luther as an “ape”, a “drunkard”, and a “lousy little friar” among other insults.  This shows that Thomas More had his faults and was, like all of us, a saint under construction until his death 12 years later.
Thomas More was a close friend and confidant of King Henry VIII.  He was always loyal to the King in temporal matters, but loyal to the Pope in spiritual and Church matters.  Thus he could not recognize the King's supremacy as the head of the Catholic Church in England nor recognize the divorce of the King's first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  When Henry VIII separated the Church of England from Rome, St. Thomas More opposed it.  Furthermore, he refused to take an oath accepting the First Succession Act which recognized the daughter (Elizabeth) of his second wife as the successor to the crown over Mary, the daughter of his divorced first wife. 
Refusing to sign a statement of allegiance to the King as the Head of the Church in England, called the Oath of Supremacy, despite pressure from his wife and four children to yield, he was imprisoned and later executed at the age of 57 in the Tower of London fourteen days after his friend, Bishop John Fisher for similar reasons.  From prison, St. Thomas More wrote letters of consolation to his family and other spiritual works such as: "I will not mistrust God, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear.  I trust God shall place a holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning".  

      A man of great wit, he jokingly told his executioner in a friendly way to be careful not to cut his beard.  Just before being beheaded, he said: "I die as the King's loyal servant, but God's first."  St. Thomas More did what was right no matter what rather than bow to convenience and what others did.......including nobles, bishops, priests, etc.     
More was greatly admired by Anglicans as writers Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. Johnson said that ""He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced".  St. Thomas More was a man of good will, honor, and integrity......true to his principles.  He had a sense of justice, fair play, and conscience. Winston Churchill wrote about Thomas More in the "History of the English-Speaking Peoples": "The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a noble and heroic stand. They realized the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom".   

      What a model for all of us, especially lawyers, politicians, government officials, administrators, managers, and leaders in general!  He did what was right despite the consequences.  In 1966, St. Thomas More's life inspired the hit Academy Award winning movie: "A Man For All Seasons", available at
         Under Queen Elizabeth I and her successors, persecution of Catholics was so intense, that any Catholic priest found, was dismembered by a team of horses and his impaled head was placed at one of the London bridges.  There is considerable evidence that Henry Shakespeare was an undercover Catholic. Faithful seminarians and priests had to be educated abroad.  They came back to minister, often to their deaths. It wasn't until 1793 that religious freedom to Catholics was restored.  It was miraculous that the Church survived against all odds and today in Britain it is stronger that the Anglican Church.  The Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption in Marietta has a special chapel dedicated to the English Martyrs to the extreme right of the main altar near the exit.  See and Blog #135 at

Thomas More was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 19, 1935 and named the patron saint of lawyers, which includes politicians.  He could have been canonized a saint without having been martyred.  From an early age, he strived for holiness.  He even joined the Carthusian Order to test a possible vocation, but after a while decided to follow in the footsteps of his father as a public figure and have a family.  Despite being Chancellor (Prime Minister), he wore a hair shirt as penance and woke up at 2 am each day to pray in the Carthusian tradition.  As prisoner in the Tower of London, he lived the life of a monk in prayer, reading, and writing.  For all of that he was grateful to King Henry VIII.  He even wrote a prayer asking for forgiveness and mercy for his enemies.  He actually hoped to share the joys of Heaven with Henry VIII.

APPENDIX: Prayers and Quotes Attributed to St. Thomas Moore

Prayers that this saint composed give insights into the character and holiness of St. Thomas More as a True Man of God.
-Grant me, O Lord, good digestion,
and also something to digest.
-Grant me a healthy body, and
the necessary good humor to maintain it.
-Grant me a simple soul that knows to
treasure all that is good and that
doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things
back in their place.
-Give me a soul that knows not boredom,
grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that
obstructing thing called “I.”
-Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
-Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke
to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.

Give Me the Grace, Good Lord
-To set the world at naught. To set the mind firmly on You and not to hang upon the words of men's mouths.

-To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly pleasures. Little by little utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of all its business.

-Not too long to hear of earthly things, but that the hearing of worldly fancies may be displeasing to me.

-Gladly to be thinking of God, piteously to call for His help. To lean into the comfort of God.  Busily to labor to love Him.

-To know my own vileness and wretchedness.  To humble myself under the mighty hand of God.  To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity.

-Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life.

-To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me.  To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes.

-To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me. For His benefits unceasingly to give Him thanks.

-To buy the time again that I have lost. To abstain from vain conversations. To shun foolish mirth and gladness. To cut off unnecessary recreations.

-Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.

-To think my worst 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.

-These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasures of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all in one heap.  Amen

Quotes on the Wall of the St. Thomas More Newman Center of the Ohio State University

           Lord, Grant Me a Holy Heart
-Lord, Grant Me a Holy Heart that sees always what is fine and pure and is not frightened at the sight of sin, but creates order wherever it goes
-Grant me a heart that knows nothing of boredom, weeping and sighing.
-Let me not be too concerned with the bothersome thing I call “myself”.
-Lord, give me a sense of humor and I will find happiness in life and profit for others.

Short Quotes Attributed to St. Thomas More

§  Happy is the person who can distinguish between a rock and a mountain--- it avoids so many inconveniences.

§  There is never a pilgrim who returns home without one less prejudice and one new idea.

§  I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.

§  These things good Lord that we pray for, give us the grace to labor for.

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