Following are Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s prepared homily notes for the June 30, 2016, Mass in honor of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher:
Neither Thomas More nor John Fisher wanted to be martyrs. They wanted to be friends of God and to be faithful to those whom God gave them to love: as a husband and father, lawyer and chancellor of England, or as a bishop and servant of the flock entrusted to his care. Both of them sought to be, as Thomas More put it, “the king’s good servant but God’s first.”
That there is a cost to fidelity to God did not come as a surprise to Thomas More and John Fisher nor should it come as a surprise to you and me. Jesus tells us quite bluntly (Mt 10:34f), “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” The Kingdom of God clashes with the kingdom of darkness. God’s word is a two-edged sword. It requires each person either to accept it or to reject it. Earthly loyalties, even those within the family, are put to the test. “For I have come,” Jesus says (Ibid), “to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
In the last months of his life, Thomas More was called a traitor by King Henry; and his successor as Chancellor of England labeled him “a foolish scrupulous ass.” Far more painful were the words of his own family. His wife Lady Alice disagreed with his “scruple of conscience” and even his beloved daughter Meg, his closest and dearest confidante during his last days in the Tower of London’s dungeon, failed to understand her father, and repeatedly tried to convince him to change his mind so as to save his life in this world. Certainly her words but especially her tears broke her father’s heart.
Jesus goes on to say, in our Gospel, that (Ibid) “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” When Jesus first spoke these words, crucifixion was the most horrifying form of execution employed by the Roman government. Not only was it excruciatingly painful, it was intended above all to be publicly humiliating. Public shaming was a political ploy to secure the grip of control by Rome. Shame was also a primary tool of torture in the days of Thomas More and John Fisher. Public shaming remains a popular tool today, used not only by ISIS terrorists but even by forces within our own country set on destroying the Church’s witness to the Gospel, aimed at silencing voices that uphold the dignity of every human person, that proclaim God’s plan for marriage and that insist on the first of all human rights, that of religious liberty.
In the daily administration of his duties, Thomas More was keenly aware of his own shortcomings and of his constant need of the mercy of God. He knew, too, of the need for reform among the clergy and religious in his day, and the need to restore honesty and civility among the powerful and those seeking positions of political influence. Both he and John Fisher resonated with the wisdom of our First Reading today where St. Peter writes (1 Pet 4:12), “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.” It is not strange that followers of Jesus should face hard times, unfair criticism, public shaming, outright persecution and even death for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is strange and foolish to think that you can be a disciple of Jesus without sharing in the cross.
The irony of the martyrdom of these heroic Englishmen is that both of them had faithfully served the King for many years and were among those he trusted most. Moreover, he knew their loyalty; in fact, he had depended on it constantly. He even appreciated their impeccable integrity—that is, until one day when he asked them to do something that their very integrity did not allow them to do. Even then, Thomas More and John Fisher refrained from speaking out against the person of the king. Still, they refused to tell a lie. They refused to act like false prophets who play with the truth, rather than shape their lives in accord with it. They would not say what the king wanted to hear because they knew it was not what he needed to hear, for his own good on earth and in eternity. They refused, in other words, to say that the king could pretend to be head of the Church in England instead of the Successor of St. Peter. No matter the cost to themselves, they would not betray a well-formed conscience, would not act contrary to the truth they knew by faith in Christ. Thomas More wrote, “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short road to chaos.”
Since Thomas More is my patron saint, I trust you will understand if I focus a little more attention on him than on John Fisher, although the only bishop in England to remain loyal to the Catholic faith at the time of Henry VIII is certainly worthy of our veneration.
More important to Thomas More than his political influence and public office of Lord Chancellor were his wife and family, his Catholic faith, his daily pursuit of holiness, and his well-trained conscience. Pope St. John Paul II said of him (Cf. Motu Proprio), “Thomas More witnessed the primacy of truth over power…He died as a martyr because of his passion for truth…for him his moral conscience was a defining voice, the voice of God in his soul.”
Thomas More’s ultimate stand in defense of the truth was determined long before his imprisonment and execution. It was the consequence of seeking, day after day and year after year, to know God’s will and put it into practice.
Already at the beginning of his public career, Thomas More knew that the greatest threat to freedom of conscience did not come from outside a man but from within his own heart. No one can force you to betray your conscience. Freedom of conscience requires freedom from self-deception, freedom from pride and freedom from fear. It has to be won anew through a daily examination of conscience, sincere contrition for any failures and sincere renewal of commitment to Christ. That is what Thomas More did.
It is highly instructive to recall that the first book he published was not about the law or the legal profession but about the spiritual life. At about the age of 25, he wrote, “…if you desire to be secure from the snares of the devil, from the storms of this world, from the hands of your enemies; if you long to be acceptable to God; if you covet everlasting happiness—then let no day pass without at least once presenting yourself to God in prayer, falling down before Him flat on the ground with a humble affection and a devout mind; not merely with your lips, but from the innermost recesses of your heart, crying out
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the heroic witness of Thomas More and John Fisher is needed today more than at any time in our nation’s history. We Americans are facing an assault on religious liberty from forces within our own country that is unprecedented and constantly on the increase. For this reason, Pope Francis spoke about it more than once during his historic visit last September. In the presence of President Obama at the White House, the Holy Father said, “[Religious] freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions… All are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
When speaking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis said, “Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights. May you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God Himself.”
We Americans must also take care not to close our eyes to far worse violations of religious freedom happening in many other countries around the world. We have refugees coming to Arizona as a result of these violations of conscience, and we have much to learn from their words and courageous example.
In its 2016 Annual Report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated, “By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last Annual Report in 2015…” The 2016 report said that the number of those held as prisoners of conscience, those imprisoned for reasons of religion, “remains astonishingly widespread;” and harsh conditions are faced by many millions of believers around the world. We must not close our eyes to these human rights violations or our ears to their cries for help.
In 1929, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death…but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.” May the Lord give us the grace to imitate John Fisher and Thomas More. Let the words of St. Peter resonate in our minds and hearts (1 Pet 4:12f), “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when His glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.”