Not all Christians are hypocrites all the time. The proof of that statement resides in the Church Triumphant, specifically in the witness of the martyrs for the Faith. Yes indeed, the Communion of Saints is a treasure house of role models of redeemed fallenness.
Take, for instance, St. Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers, martyr for religious freedom, whose Feast we celebrate today. On this day on the Liturgical Calendar, we also celebrate the sainthood of John Cardinal Fisher, another martyr dispatched at the hands of King Henry VIII’s authorities. Admittedly, I don’t know much about St. John Fisher, but Sir Thomas More is one of my favorites. He’s another of a long line of folks who are way smarter than me, but were Catholics nonetheless.
Here’s what the good folks over at Universalis write of him,
He was born in London, the son of a judge, and himself became an eminent lawyer. He married twice, and had four children. He was a humanist and a reformer, and his book, Utopia, depicting a society regulated by the natural virtues, is still read today.
You read that right, but he didn’t get a divorce. His first wife died while giving birth to their child. And yes, he was a humanist, before being a humanist was cool.
Thomas More was a close friend of King Henry VIII. As a judge, he was famous for his incorruptibility and impartiality, and he was made Lord Chancellor – the highest legal position in England – in 1529.
Taking a break from the Universalis bio for a moment, let me share a description of Thomas written by his friend Erasmus,
To begin then with what is least known to you, in stature he is not tall, though not remarkably short. His limbs are formed with such perfect symmetry as to leave nothing to be desired. His complexion is white, his face rather than pale and though by no means ruddy, a faint flush of pink appears beneath the whiteness of his skin. His hair is dark brown or brownish black. The eyes are grayish blue, with some spots, a kind which betokens singular talent, and among the English is considered attractive, whereas Germans generally prefer black.
Proof that even smart folks tend to judge folks on the basis of their appearance. Qoheleth says, “nothing new under the sun.” Erasmus continues,
It is said that none are so free of vice. His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery. The right shoulder is a little higher than the left, especially when he walks. This is not a defect of birth, but the result of habit such as we often contract. In the rest of his person there is nothing to offend . . .He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and enduring friend . . .When he finds any sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life . . .In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More . . .In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent, if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter. No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense . . . (see Father Bridgett’s Life, p. 56-60, for the entire letter).
He sounds like what Erasmus called him, “a man for all seasons.” I wonder what kind of beer he likes? Back to the Universalis piece, which starts at the juicy part.
When Henry VIII demanded a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Thomas More opposed him. He resigned the chancellorship in 1532 and retired from public life; but he could not retire from his reputation, and so it was demanded that he take an oath to support the Act of Succession, which effectively repudiated papal religious authority. He refused, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. After the execution of John Fisher (ed. who’s Feast we also celebrate today), he was tried on the charge of high treason for denying the King’s supreme headship of the Church, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He went to his execution, on 6 July 1535, with a clear conscience and a light heart; he told the spectators that he was still “the king’s good servant – but God’s first,” and carefully adjusted his beard before he was beheaded.
He wrote a number of devotional works, some of the best of them while in prison awaiting trial. He fought his fight without acrimony, telling his judges that he wished that “we may yet hereafter in Heaven merrily all meet together to everlasting salvation.”
The execution is depicted quite accurately in the Showtime miniseries, The Tudors. Take a look.
Perhaps King Henry had hoped More would have a change of heart, be a hypocrite, knuckle under, beg for his life, and live under his thumb for the rest of his days. As we know, that did not happen. In the Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character consuls us to “get busy living’, or get busy dying.” St. Thomas More chose to get busy living, though he had to die to continue to do so.
Viva Cristo Rey
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