The King’s Good Servant, But God’s First

Today is the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. Both men were executed by the order of King Henry VIII of England after both refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, which required recognizing the king, rather than the pope, as visible head of the Church in England.

Who is the head of the Church? Christ is the Head of the Church. That is always the only correct answer to that question. But, given that Christ Himself is not physically present on Earth, and given that Christ Himself extended His authority to St. Peter to bind and loose and called him the rock on which He would build His Church, and given that St. Peter became the first Bishop of Rome and died a martyrs death in Rome, the Church has, from the first centuries, regarded the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, as the visible head of the universal Church.

This is the truth that St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher would not refute, would not deny, would not renounce, for in doing so they would be denying the authority of Christ over His Church, since it was Christ Himself Who made St. Peter the rock on which the Church is built.

Thomas More was a lawyer and Chancellor of England and John Fisher Bishop of Rochester. Both were highly regarded among the people of England and it is understood that their silence on the matter of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn meant that they were opposed to the divorce and marriage. As for the supremacy of the Church, neither would speak publicly about it. Both relied on the legal maxim that “silence implies consent,” so they both held their tongues, hoping it would save them their necks. Fisher, apparently in a trap set up by Richard Rich, Solicitor General at the time, acknowledged that the king was not supreme head of the Church in England. Thomas More refused to answer Rich on the matter, and Rich resorted to perjury in order to secure More’s condemnation by the court. Both men were executed by beheading, Fisher on June 22, 1535 and More on the following July 6. On climbing the stairs to the executioner’s block, More requested assistance getting up. “For my coming down,” More said, “I can shift for myself.” When placing his head on the block, More lifted his beard, which had grown during his long confinement in the Tower of London, so it would not be cut by the executioner’s ax, insisting that his beard had committed no offense against the king. Finally, More called out while standing on the block, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

John Fisher and Thomas More died for the faith of the Church in the supremacy of the papacy, but they were also martyrs of religious freedom and freedom of conscience against the tyranny of a state that denied both. More is the patron saint of politicians and statesmen, as well as lawyers. Good. Those professions can use the intercession of a great saint!

More’s story was made famous as a result of Robert Bolt’s popular 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons, which was made into a movie in 1966 that won the Oscar for Best Picture and also Best Actor for Paul Scofield, who portrayed More. It’s a superb movie and I highly recommend it.

Other quotes from St. Thomas More:

“Whoever loveth me, loveth my hound.”

“What greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?”

“Occupy your mind with good thoughts, or the enemy will fill them with bad ones.”

“Every tribulation which ever comes our way either is sent to be medicinal, if we will take it as such, or may become medicinal, if we will make it such, or is better than medicinal, unless we forsake it.”

“I do no­body harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith, I long not to live.”

“If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes.”

Finally, writing about Thomas More in 1520, Robert Whittington described him as, “A man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow [that is to say, “I know not his equal”]. For where is the man of gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, pray for us!

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

 

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