Reflections on St Thomas More: an 'uncomfortable' witness for our time

 Thomas More was an exemplary family man, professional and witness whose figure continues to be acutely relevant for the modern day, argued three Opus Dei priests in a series of lectures on the saint's life delivered last week in London. The priests, all linked to St Thomas More church in Swiss Cottage, North-West London, gave their lectures as part of celebrations for the parish's 70th anniversary, which culminated in a Sunday Mass presided over by Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor just before he headed off to Australia for the World Youth Day with Pope Benedict. Speaking on Friday, Fr Joseph Evans, Catholic chaplain to the University of London's King's College and Institute of Education, spoke of St Thomas as a witness. The saint was able to offer the witness of his life, said Fr Evans, because he had struggled to be faithful to Christ throughout his life. "Thomas More was courageous at the end because he tried to be courageous every day", he argued. Furthermore, it was his outstanding professional prestige which made his witness so powerful and his constant cheerfulness which made it so attractive. More was a witness to conscience but not in the subjective, individualistic way conscience is understood today, Fr Evans claimed. "Thomas More did not die for his own truth. He died precisely in opposition to the idea that we can invent our own truth, that we can change the rules, that we can invent a new church, as Henry sought to do. More died for the ancient religion, for a universal moral law which our conscience discovers but does not invent and certainly cannot change. More is not a hero for the modern 'make your own morality' mentality. In this, he is indeed a witness to conscience but a very uncomfortable one for our contemporary culture." Linked to More's witness to a universal law was his witness to the Church's authority. This universal authority should not be seen as an obstacle to freedom but precisely as a defence of it against the excessive pretensions of the State which "does not have a right to dictate all aspects of our lives, whose power has limits, and which is itself subject to the higher law of God." Fr Gerard Sheehan, parish priest at St Thomas More, spoke of the saint as a family man. "More," he said in his July 3rd talk, "lived his Christian vocation as a family man with such exquisite care and effectiveness, despite the exceptional demands made on his time by professional and state affairs." Though attracted by monastic life and at times oppressed by the corruption he found in London, St Thomas realised that he was called to stay in the world not flee from it. Living out his call to marriage, he was a devoted husband and loving father. In the midst of what he called his "bothersome business" in the king's service, he wrote to his children, "I long with all my heart to hasten home". And when State duty kept him often away from them, he was in constant communication with them about the progress of their education. Indeed, More's ideas on the education of his children were well ahead of his time. For example, he gave his three daughters as profound an intellectual formation as his son John, something unheard of in that age. He was saddened by contemporary male prejudices against the intellectual abilities of women. As Fr Sheehan said, More "made a significant contribution to an authentic 'liberation' of women centuries before the term became a universal slogan." His primary concern was to help his children achieve a proper synthesis between learning and Christian virtue and overcome intellectual pride, something rife among the humanist scholars of the time. In our results-dominated society, More's educational vision is thus particularly relevant. In a famous letter to one of his children's tutors, William Gunnell, he told him "to put virtue in the first place, learning in the second; and in their studies to esteem most whatever may teach them piety towards God, charity to all, and Christian humility in themselves". More prayed daily with his children and Sundays were celebrated with special piety. His friend Erasmus informs us that in the More household, "dice, cards and flirtation were forbidden; gardening, study, music and matrimony were encouraged". Yet, Fr Sheehan explained, St Thomas did not try to isolate his family from the harsh realities of life. Poor people often ate at More's table in Chelsea and he set up a special house to look after the aged and infirm, with Margaret in charge. There were no bitter arguments or disputes at More's home as he showed exceptional patience, and a spirit of prayer, in overcoming family difficulties. For example, it was through prayer more than words that he eventually won back to the faith his son-in-law William Roper who had accepted the new Lutheran ideas coming from the continent. In the series' second lecture, Fr Stefan Hnylycia said we have a lot to learn today from More's attitude to work. He always began punctually and he did not shy away from unattractive and nitty-gritty tasks (for example, he worked on legal contracts for the construction of London sewers). In the 31 months of his tenure as Chancellor, he dealt with 2,356 suits and worked so intensely that he managed to clear them all! This was such a prodigious feat that it even gave rise to a popular rhyme: When More some time had Chancellor been/ No more suits did remain./ The like will never more be seen,/Till More be there again. More, Fr Hnylycia concluded, worked with a spirit of service to his country, with concern to maintain his family, and with an honesty which eventually cost him his life, but won him eternal glory. These are the qualities we must imitate in our daily work.

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