Michael Walsh a Historian and parishioner of St Thomas More wrote the following article.
There is a well-known hymn, written by Fr Frederick Faber in the mid 19th century, called “Faith of our fathers”. You don’t hear it too often nowadays, which is perhaps a good thing. Even as a boy growing up during the Cold War and hourly expecting invasion by the USSR – I had my hiding place already picked out, in the disused chimney of a school friend’s house – even then I was uneasy about the sentiments the hymn expressed. I was really quite proud, and I remain quite proud, of the notion that the faith is “living still, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword”. I am also proud, especially on this day when we celebrate the life and martyrdom of our patron saint, Thomas More, that our Catholic forefathers, though “chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free”. It was the next bit I was doubtful about, “how sweet would be our children’s fate, if they, like them, could die for thee”. Personally I am a mite ambivalent about dying for the faith, and I certainly didn’t, and don’t, wish that sweet fate on my children.
So it is worth asking, what are we doing when we commemorate the feast days of our English martyrs – Sir Thomas More, Cardinal John Fisher, the Jesuits Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell the poet, and the many others, priests, monks, lay men and women. Is the act of declaring them to be saints simply an award for gallantry in defence of the faith, rather like decorating a brave soldier with the Victoria Cross? Or is there something else? Catholic churches are typically full of images of the saints – it was one of the things to which, during the Reformation, the Reformers took most exception as one can see from the headless statues and the empty niches in our ancient cathedrals. But what are they for? What are saints for?
One answer is that they are there to be imitated. All lives of saints are written in such a way that the saint is held up before us as a model to be imitated. Well, as I have just been saying, that can be a rather difficult idea to come to terms with. A saint are not always, perhaps even very rarely, the sort of person whom you would want to copy. I wouldn’t myself want to be thrown into prisons dark if I could help it. I certainly would not recommend as a means of holiness living on a dung heap, as did Benedict Joseph Labre, one of the most popular saints of the eighteenth century. And I don’t think many of us have the opportunity to be like the 13th century St Christina the Astonishing, who so disliked the smell of her fellow human beings that she used, when in a crowded church, to levitate up to the ceiling. Her corpse even did so during her funeral.
Of course, Thomas More had much more in common with us. He was born in Milk Street on 6 February 1478. Milk Street still exists. It is just off Cheapside in the City of London. Now it is a narrow thoroughfare between the banks and the guild halls of the livery companies, but at the end of the fifteenth century it was full of large houses. Thomas More’s father, John, had one – he was a relatively wealthy man, becoming a judge of the King ’s Bench. Thomas went to school at St Anthony’s in Threadneedle Street – again, you can still walk down Threadneedle Street though any school long ago disappeared. For a time he lived at Lambeth Palace, in the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury, then went to Oxford University but returned to London to study law, becoming a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn. He married, and had four children.
Apart from the time at Lambeth Palace, it was a path which might be followed today by a young man or woman intending to make a career as a lawyer. But there were differences. For one thing, before his marriage in 1505 he spent some time living with Carthusian monks. The abbey is long gone, but the name of Charterhouse Street in Smithfield recalls their one time presence. And he was also a great scholar in subjects well outside the law. He passed his learning on to his children, insisting that all, girls and well as his son John, be fluent in both Latin and Greek. He wrote several books, one of which gave a new word to English, and to other languages. Utopia describes an island paradise where, interestingly, there were no churches. But then neither are there temples in the New Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelations.
As lawyers in the City still tend to do, he became quite rich, and moved to Chelsea, where his Chelsea tractor was a barge which rowed him down river to Hampton Court to confer with Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, or up river to Westminster Hall where he had become speaker of the House of Commons. A couple of days ago I was at a meeting in a room just off Westminster Hall, and I thought of Thomas More, presiding over meetings of the MPs, and gazing up, as everyone inevitably still does, at the great hammer beam roof which in his time was already 150 years old.
And it was in Westminster Hall he stood trial. He had been imprisoned in the Tower of London – you can see his cell – not directly for treason but for refusing to take the oath entailed in the Act of Succession. He refused it not because he was concerned who succeeded King Henry VIII to the throne of England, that he thought was up to the King in parliament to decide, but because it denied the authority of the Pope. He was eventually tried for denying that the King was the Supreme Head of the Church in England. The English bishops had agreed to it, so why could not he, he was asked at his trial. He answered “For of the aforesaid holy bishops I have, for every bishop of yours, above one hundred; and for every council or parliament (God knows what manner of one), I have all the councils made these thousand years. And for this one kingdom, I have all the other Christian realms.”
He was not greatly impressed by the Popes of his own time, but nevertheless the papacy was for him the centre of Christendom. Thomas More stood, and died, for the unity of the Church down the centuries, and for the unity of the Church world-wide, which is what brings us together in this place in England from so many different lands.
Thomas More was martyred on Tower Hill on 6 July 1535. He had originally been sentenced as a traitor to be hanged, dawn and quartered, but because of his high office – he had become Lord Chancellor in succession to Wolsey – his sentence was commuted to beheading. When he was canonised, along with John Fisher, in 1935 Pope Pius XI spoke of them as men who had stood their ground against totalitarianism,presenting them as a powerful symbol in a Europe seemingly about to be overrun by Fascism. And when leaders of the solidarity trade union were imprisoned in Poland in the 1980s they wrote to England for copies to be sent to them of Thomas More’s books, the Dialogue of Comfort in Tribulation and his prison writings, those he composed while in the Tower.
So if we ask what saints are for, this is what Thomas More was for. Not that we might suffer the same fate as he, but as a reminder, a reminder that there are those who are ready, for the love of God and his Church to sacrifice even life itself. They fact that they have that courage is a comfort. We are all stronger in our faith for their confidence in the love and justice of God.