During this Fortnight for Freedom, I reflect on one of the great saints whose commitment to the Church and to religious liberty is an inspiration to us today.
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Sir Thomas More was a man with a bright future. A successful statesman and a loving husband and father, More was Chancellor in the Court of King Henry VIII, one of the king’s most trusted ministers.
But then came Anne Boleyn.
At the time, King Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon—a marriage which Pope Clement VII declared to be valid and indissoluble. Henry sought a legal divorce in order to wed the beautiful young Anne. In 1534, when his attempts to obtain an annulment were thwarted, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, declaring himself to be “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” He ordered all of his royal subjects to swear an oath in support of his Act of Supremacy.
Thomas More, though, refused to take an oath affirming the validity of Henry’s new marriage to Anne Boleyn. He was accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
From prison, More spoke out strongly against Henry VIII’s marriage, calling the King’s Act of Supremacy “contrary to the laws of God and his holy Church.” More explained that no temporal prince could take away the prerogatives that belonged to St. Peter and his successors, according to the words of Christ. Although most of the English bishops had accepted the king’s order, More stood his ground, insisting that the saints in heaven did not accept it.
On July 7, 1535, after fifteen months of imprisonment, More was beheaded. Calm before his executioner, he declared, “I am the king’s good servant—but God’s first.”
* * * * *Following is an excerpt from Thomas More’s letter to his daughter Margaret, written while he was in prison.
Letter of St. Thomas More to His Daughter Margaret
Although I know well, Margaret, that because of my past wickedness I deserve to be abandoned by God, I cannot but trust in his merciful goodness. His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land, and life as well, rather than to swear against my conscience. God’s grace has given the king a gracious frame of mind toward me, so that as yet he has taken from me nothing but my liberty. In doing this His Majesty has done me such great good with respect to spiritual profit that I trust that among all the great benefits he has heaped
so abundantly upon me I count my imprisonment the very greatest. I cannot, therefore, mistrust the grace of God.
By the merits of his bitter passion joined to mine and far surpassing in merit for me all that I can suffer myself, his bounteous goodness shall release me from the pains of purgatory and shall increase my reward in heaven besides.
I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.
And finally, Margaret, I know this well: that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall, therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy.
Sir Thomas More died on July 7, 1535. He is memorialized on June 22 along with St. John Fisher, bishop, cardinal and martyr, who also died during the English Reformation for refusing to acknowledge Henry as Head of the Church of England. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, and canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI. His story is told in the Academy Award-winning Hollywood classic, “A Man for All Seasons.”