More than 400 years ago, a devout Catholic lawyer, scholar and government servant was executed for defending his faith. On June 22, Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrated Mass at Good Shepherd Church in Camp Hill to remember this man, St. Thomas More, and his companion, St. John Fisher, on their feast day. This date also marked the beginning of Religious Freedom Week, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to reflect, pray and take action for the preservation of religious freedom. Annually held on the Feast of St. Thomas More, the Mass is sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society of Central Pennsylvania.
“St. Thomas More was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, along with St. John Fisher, 400 years after Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were executed. That same year, 1935, G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay on the patron of lawyers, statesmen and politicians,” said Bishop Gainer.
Chesterton wrote that many of the first martyrs died for “refusing to extend a civil loyalty into a religious idolatry.” In short, by refusing to worship the emperor. Chesterton continued that this, “is where their case came so close to the practical problem of Thomas More and so very near to the present problem of today. State worship. In the deepest sense, More is the true champion of liberty in his public life and public death. In his private life, he is the type of the truth even less understood today. The truth that the real habitation of liberty is the home.”
Bishop Gainer added that Chesterton’s words are pertinent for the current times we are facing in our nation and Church.
“What is the real habitation of liberty? What does freedom mean for us? Because of More’s heroic witness in the face of the highest authority in the state, the Church begins today our annual Religious Freedom Week,” said the bishop.
Relating the theme of Religious Freedom Week, Solidarity in Freedom, to the Gospel reading from Matthew, the bishop said that having solidarity with Christ and His Cross is essential for discipleship. St. Thomas More is an example of living a life in solidarity with Christ and His Cross.
“We customarily, I think, understand this taking up of ones cross in the moral sense of suffering with resignation whatever sorrows life puts in our way. Such an understanding however, while an improvement over despair in the face of suffering, remains merely a form of stoicism,” said Bishop Gainer. “More shows us how to live the strong words spoken by our Lord. The precise nature of Jesus’ words do not imply the passivity of merely bearing with whatever inevitably occurs to us. But the Lord’s instruction contains two rather forceful verbs. The disciple is to ‘take up his cross’ and ‘follow’ Jesus. This is hardly passive surrender, but rather personal involvement, willing participation, ardent clinging and strenuous effort.”
This carrying of one’s cross and the call to discipleship ultimately begins within each individual heart.
“Each disciple must enter into the Kingdom by passing through his or her cross. My cross, with the singular possessive adjective, continues to stress this individual adherence to Jesus above all else, as my allotted share in the work of the world’s redemption,” said the bishop.
St. Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then beheaded by the order of King Henry VIII for refusing to sign the king’s Act of Supremacy – making him head of the Catholic Church in England – and Act of Succession – that only his children with Anne Boleyn, and not of he and his wife Catherine of Aragon, would be successors to the throne.
More was imprisoned from April 1534 until his death on July 6, 1535, and in that time he wrote numerous letters which most often spoke of his conscience.
The St. Thomas More Society of Central Pennsylvania was established in 1990 by a group of Catholic lawyers, led by Judge Genevieve Blatt, the first female Commonwealth County judge and first women elected to statewide office in Pennsylvania (Secretary of Internal Affairs). The Society, among several initiatives, aims to “promote the study of the principles of the Catholic Church relating to moral and legal problems encountered in the practice of law,” and to “promote the study of the application of Christian principles to modern problems.”
To learn more about the St. Thomas More Society of Central Pennsylvania, please visit http://saintthomasmoresociety.com. More information on Religious Freedom Week can be found at www.usccb.org/committees/religious-liberty/religious-freedom-week.
(Photos by Rachel Bryson, M.S., The Catholic Witness.)
By Rachel Bryson, M.S., The Catholic Witness