A Successful Man in the Eyes of the World
From the world's perspective, St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was a successful man. The second of six children, he received a top-notch early education from the prestigious St. Anthony's School in London and at Oxford University. After two years in college, he heeded the advise of his father, Sir John More, who was a lawyer and judge, and began his legal training at Lincoln Inn in London. After completing his legal education, he was called to the bar in 1502.
Despite the demands of his legal education and career, St. Thomas did not ignore his spiritual life. Instead, he would join in the spiritual exercises of Carthusian monks who lived in a monastery just outside of London. Although he contemplated becoming a monk, he sensed that his vocation was as a layperson. Nevertheless, throughout his life he maintained a monk-like spirituality which informed all aspects of his life.
Marriage and Family Life
At the age of 27 he married Jane Colt, and they had four children (three girls and one boy) before her death in 1511. St. Thomas did not remain a widower for long and married the widow Alice Middleton shortly after Jane's death. St. Thomas and Alice did not have any of their own children, but they happily raised St. Thomas' children and Alice's daughter as their own. The household also grew when they became the guardians of two other young girls.
Education was a primary concern for St. Thomas, and he insured the everyone in the household received a quality education. Almost without precedent, St. Thomas insured that his daughters received the same classical education as his son. As a humanist and philosopher, St. Thomas wanted his children to be exposed to the best of the classics while remaining firmly ground in the truth of the Faith.
Throughout his work career, St. Thomas was required to be away from home for long stretches at a time, and he was sure to write letters to his wife and daughters and would request that they reply to him. In his letters he would praise his children for their virtues and hard work and gently encourage them in areas in which they needed improvement.
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Raised Up by the King and Then Imprisoned
His political career had begun when he was elected to Parliament in 1504. Over the course of the next 28 years, St. Thomas would rise through numerous public service offices which eventually led to him becoming a trusted adviser and friend of King Henry VIII. The king's trust in St. Thomas led him to make him Lord Chancellor after his predecessor Thomas Wolsey was relieved of his office by the king.
However, the king did not value his friendship too highly when he began his split from the Church of Christ when Pope Clement VII would not grant him an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Instead, he put St. Thomas on the horns of a dilemma. Either St. Thomas acknowledge that King Henry VIII could usurp the authority of the pope over the Church in England or be charged with treason. St. Thomas More could not in good conscience acknowledge that anyone was the supreme ruler of the Church on earth beside the pope.
In response to St. Thomas' refusal to take the oath, Henry VIII had him sent to prison in the Tower of London. Although his family supported him, they did not follow St. Thomas' lead and instead took the oath which acknowledged the king as head of the Church in England. Eventually, St. Thomas was tried and found guilty of treason. He was beheaded for his holding fast to the authority of Peter as established by Christ.
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Why did St. Thomas More Die?
In the end, St. Thomas was willing to die for two important teachings of the Catholic Church. First, he believed in the unity of the Church which we proclaim every time we recite the Nicene Creed. In that creed, we say, "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." The Church is one, not many. It is united under the successor to Peter. The moment, someone breaks away from the successor to Peter, that person has broken with the unity of the Church. St. Thomas was unwilling to join Henry VIII and Parliament as they broke away from Church, and because of that stance, he was executed.
Secondly, St. Thomas died for his belief in the indissolubility of marriage. When the Church reviewed the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, it found no reason for the marriage to be considered invalid. Therefore, the marriage between Henry and Catherine was indissoluble. Consequently, St. Thomas stood by the decision of the Church against the will of Henry VIII who believed that he was not validly married and could enter into another marriage. In order to circumvent the teaching of the Church on marriage, Henry found clerics who would grant him an annulment. When St. Thomas would not confirm that decision by taking an oath, Henry saw fit to have St. Thomas killed.
St. Thomas Shows us the Way
Despite his important roles in the English government, we can relate to St. Thomas the layman. He was first a son of the Church and a husband and father. St. Thomas demonstrated how to honor his parents with the way he treated them. And he shared the same cares of most of us including paying bills, planning for dinner guests, seeing to his children's education, and meeting the demands of work life.
In another important way, we can relate to St. Thomas. He was forced to make a choice between obeying his conscience or not. Whether we like or not, we all have to make those kind of choices all of the time. We might not face martyrdom as he did, but they are important choices all the same. Each one of our small decisions adds up over time and prepares us for remaining faithful to Christ to the end or turning away from him when the going gets tough.
Finally, in one other crucial way, we need to be able to relate to St. Thomas. He had to make this decision without much support from friends or family. Most of those around him did not think that his stand was necessary. Their consciences did not bother them like his did. We cannot always expect to receive the support we would like for standing fast for the teachings of the Church even from our closest family and friends. We pray to the Lord that although that might be true, we will still remain faithful to the Lord and His Church. St. Thomas More, pray for us!
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