This Tuesday marks the feast day of St. Thomas More – husband, father, lawyer, politician and the first layman to serve as Lord Chancellor of England. St. Thomas is best known for being a devout and faithful Catholic whose staunch defense of the rights of conscience and unshakeable fidelity to the Church’s teachings - most notably the indissolubility of marriage and the supremacy of the pope – cost him his life.
Thomas More was born in London in 1478. As a young man, he was quick to show his brilliant mind, quick wit and dedication to the service of truth. His intellectual passion took him to Oxford and London to study law and letters, where he excelled and was well noted for his eloquence and moral integrity. Less well known was the rigorous asceticism which he practiced all his life, and his detachment from success and wealth.
During his youth, he considered entering a religious order, either the Carthusians or the Franciscans, but with the help of his confessor, he finally discerned that his calling was to the married life.
In 1505, Thomas married Jane Colt. They had four children, whom they raised with great care. Jane died in 1511, and Thomas later married widow Alice Middleton.
Thomas had been active in political life since his 1504 election to parliament. With a glowing reputation for learning and integrity, he quickly advanced, becoming Lord Chancellor in 1529.
It was in his post as chancellor that he was to encounter the great trial of his life, in which he was faced with the choice between his conscience or his security.
King Henry VIII wished to be rid of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she could not bear him an heir, but the Pope would not annul the marriage. Therefore, in 1532, parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which recognized the king as the head of the Church of England.
Thomas resigned that same year. Not willing to betray his conscience and the Church, he refused to sign the Act. He was forced into a life of poverty and abandonment by many of his old friends. However, not wishing to provoke his own martyrdom, he maintained total silence over the question of supremacy.
To the public, this silence was seen as an eloquent denunciation of Henry's actions. So in 1534, the king had Thomas imprisoned in the Tower of London in an effort to coerce him to take the oath. Thomas did not waver and was subsequently tried for high treason.
When the court condemned him on false evidence, he finally broke his silence, affirming his belief in the indissolubility of marriage, the supremacy of the pope, and the inviolable freedom of the Church in her relation with the state.
Thomas was beheaded on July 6, 1535, with his now famous last words expressing his devotion to both his country and his faith: “I have been ever the king’s good and loyal servant, but God’s first.”
He was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI and named “The Martyr of the Papacy.”
Pope John Paul II declared St. Thomas More patron of statesmen and politicians on October 31, 2000, noting “the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power.”
The Holy Father pointed to holiness as the key to the saint’s life and martyrdom:
“His profound detachment from honors and wealth, his serene and joyful humility, his balanced knowledge of human nature and of the vanity of success, his certainty of judgment rooted in faith: these all gave him that confident inner strength that sustained him in adversity and in the face of death. His sanctity shone forth in his martyrdom, but it had been prepared by an entire life of work devoted to God and neighbor.”