Monday, June 22, 2009

St. Thomas More Delivers The Perfect Homily

I heard one of the most perfect, succinct homilies over lunch today. First of all, today is the Feast Day of Ss. Thomas More and John Fisher. John Cardinal Fisher is the only member of the College of Cardinals to be marytered: like More, he ultimately went to a martyr's death. [Turns out, my biographical info. on Fisher may have been not only incorrect, but libelous of him. Mea culpa, St. John Fisher, pray for me! See Comments for more details.]

I imagine everyone knows who St. (and Sir) Thomas More is: he was the brave English lawyer and scholar who refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII (a layman) as head of the Church of England, and lost his own head as a result (famously declaring himself "the king's good servant, and God's first"). A mere three years prior to this, he had been Lord Chancellor, and he ghost-wrote A Defense of the Seven Sacraments for Henry, earning his king the ironic title "Defender of the Faith." A brilliant thinker, he coined the word "utopia" in his book by the same name, and had left a deep impression upon history before dying a martyr's death. But the depths of his mind couldn't near the depths of his soul. In the famous portrait of More, you'll note upon careful inspection that he wears a hair shirt underneath his lordly robes. It was a reminder to him not to store up his treasure upon earth. He was willing to play the part of a statesman, but at his core, he was quietly a saint. More is the patron saint of public officials, lawyers, and judges, and (in my opinion) ought to be the patron saint of Washington, D.C.

So it's the feast day of Fisher and More, and the Gospel reading happened to be the beginning of Matthew 7, the famous (and often misunderstood) "Judge not, lest ye be judged" passage. So when it comes time for the homily, Father makes a brief reference to the relevance of judgment in More's life - although not a judge, he was a lawyer and a statesmen, so judgment was a concept very near his mind (In fact, More wrote a book worth reading called The Four Last Things, which deals with Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell). Then he quotes an extended passage from More himself (this is taken from Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage, by Gerard B Wegemer):
Bear no malice or evil will to any man living. For either the man is good or wicked. If he is good and I hate him, then I am wicked.

If he is wicked, either he will amend and die good and go to God, or live wickedly and die wickedly and go to the devil. And then let me remember that if he be saved, he will not fail (if I am saved too, as I trust to be) to love me very heartily and I shall then in like manner love him. And why should I now, then, hate one for this while who shall hereafter love me forever, and why should I be now, then, an enemy with whom I shall in time be coupled in eternal friendship?

And on the other side, if he will continue to be wicked and be damned, then is there such outrageous eternal sorrow before him that I may well think myself a deadly cruel wretch if I would not now rather pity his pain then malign his person."
I loved it. It was as if St. Thomas More gave the (brilliant) Matthew 7 homily on his own feast day.

6 comments:

  1. Bishop Fisher did not ever swear the Oath of Supremacy. He opposed Henry VIII from the start. He was the only Bishop in the Convocation of Bishops who directly and openly opposed Henry. He proposed the language "as far as the law of Christ allows" in the Convocation, but it was not part of the Oath that Parliament legislated. Bishop Fisher served as Catherine of Aragon's counsel, and compared himself to John the Baptist, upholding the sanctity of Henry's marriage (which made Henry comparable to Herod). Fisher's opposition to Henry was absolutely direct; the only Oath he swore was to uphold the succession of heirs to the throne as Henry saw fit.

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  2. Oh, and FYI: Thomas More was a judge. As Chancellor of England he served as chief justice, hearing about 912 cases a year!

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  3. Are you certain? As I understand it, he swore the Oath of Supremacy, but not the Oath of Succession (which would have recognized Henry and Anne's invalid marriage).

    The Church of St. Vincent Ferrer describes part of its St. John Fisher stained glass window (http://www.churchofstvincentferrer.org/Architecture-T.html) thusly:
    "The scroll in his hands states, ‘So far as God’s law permits’. When the English Parliament under Henry VIII passed the Law of Royal Supremacy, thus declaring Henry the supreme head of the Church of England, St. John Fisher withheld his signature until these famous words were added. For insisting on these six words, he was condemned to death." I know that the last sentence isn't quite accurate, but I took the rest of it as accurate: that he didn't sign until these words were added, then he did.

    This Rock Magazine had a story on Fisher here (http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2008/0812_final.pdf): "At the same time, the king demanded that they acknowledge his self-proclaimed title as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Through Fisher’s efforts, the clause was added,'So far as God’s law permits.'"

    And Catholic Encyclopedia mirrors that account very closely (almost verbatim at points).

    None of these come right out and say "Fisher succeeded in getting these six words added, so he could sign without technically violating conscience," but it was the implication from them. Do you know of anything saying the opposite? If so, I'll change it right away, so as not to impugn a Saint's good name.

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  4. His biographer E.E. Reynolds clearly states on page 226 of the 1972 revised Anthony Clarke edition of "Saint John Fisher,":
    "It was on 17th April that the oath was again proferred to Sir Thomas More and John Fisher. Both again refused and were sent the Tower."

    Since "the Act of Supremacy was not passed in Parliament until after Fisher and More were sent to the Tower" (p. 227), Fisher could not have inserted those words into the Parliamentary bill as the web site at St. Vincent Ferrer notes.

    This site also briefly outlines Fisher's opposition to Henry: http://catholicinsight.com/online/saints/article_614.shtml

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  5. And this site makes the chronology between the first Oath they were asked to swear (an Oath of Succession with clauses against the Pope being able to grant dispensations, validating Henry's marriage to Anne and invalidating Henry's marriage to Catherine, while claiming that the bishops of England could so without recourse to the Pope) and the Oath of Supremacy, which was passed while Bishop Fisher and Sir More suffered in the Tower: http://www.cin.org/saints/johnfisher.html
    The essential paragraph is:
    "The Supremacy Act and a new Statute of Treason were passed while John Fisher and Sir Thomas More were in the Tower. Treason was now made to cover anything said against the king's titles, so that to refuse to recognize him as Supreme Head of the church of England became treason. Neither of the prisoners would give him that recognition, for to do so was to deny the authority of the pope. Each, however, was careful not to put that refusal in words that could be used against them; they begged to be excused. Many attempts were made to get them to say the fateful words. At length Richard Rich, the solicitor-general, visited John Fisher in the Tower and told him that the king 'for the satisfaction of his own conscience' wished to know the bishop's opinion on the Supremacy; Rich assured the prisoner that whatever he said would not be used against him but would remain private to the king. Thereupon John Fisher declared 'that the King was not, nor could be, by the law of God, Supreme Head of the church of England.' As a priest he could not refuse to answer a question of conscience, but he had fallen into a trap, and the words he had spoken were used against him at his trial on June 17th, 1535. In spite of his protest at this breach of trust, he was condemned as a traitor."

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  6. Thank you for making the correction. I noticed the article in THIS ROCK did not make the chronology of events in Convocation and Parliament very clear (and the information from St. Vincent's is obviously wrong). The fact that the Convocation of Bishops did not stand up to Henry and that Bishop Fisher had been very ill and unable to attend (he had been poisoned; Reynolds mentions a rumored connection with the Boleyn family--as you can imagine, Anne Boleyn would not have been happy with a very holy man who interfered with her goal of being Queen of England) directly led to Thomas More stepping down as Chancellor. He would have been responsible for introducing all the legislation in Parliament for the dismantling of England's relationship to the universal Church, something he obviously could not bear to do.

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