In my previous column I reflected upon a great saint whose feast we celebrate during the month of June - St. Anthony of Padua. During this month, on June 22, we also celebrate another great saint in the life of the Church - St. Thomas More. St. Anthony and St. Thomas More lived at different times, in different cultures and in different political contexts. Their lives were completely different but both lived their lives in the context of what holiness is all about - faith in and love of Christ and His Church.
St. Anthony lived in Spain and Italy during the 12th and 13th century as one of the early disciples of St. Francis of Assisi. He was a Friar priest of the Franciscan Order and lived in poverty while teaching and preaching the Gospel in the spirit of St. Francis. St. Anthony was attracted to the Franciscan Order because he encountered friars willing to shed their blood for the sake of Christ as they went out as missionaries to preach the Gospel. He himself desired to be a martyr which was one of the reasons he became a Franciscan.
St. Thomas More lived during the 15th and 16th centuries in England, always with a close connection to political and government life. He was a husband, father, lawyer, diplomat, statesman, philosopher, theologian, linguist, teacher, poet and writer who had a wonderful balance of life and a healthy sense of humor. Always centering his life on Christ and His Church, Thomas, probably never expecting to be a martyr, gave his life in witness to the Gospel by dying as "the king's good servant but God's first."
As we commemorate the Fortnight for Freedom which will take place at this time from June 21 through July 4, St. Thomas More is a wonderful patron to place before us. In fact, his feast day, with that of St. John Fisher, falls on the eve of the Fortnight and is one of the reasons the Bishops chose this period of time for the Fortnight. During these days, in our personal lives and in our common prayer in our parishes, we will again focus, as we did last year, on the importance of religious liberty and of the threats that are present to it in our day and age.
We are not truly free unless we are free to express our religious beliefs and to bring them to the public forum. Anything which in any way limits this freedom is a threat to our birthright as American citizens. Our ability to express our moral beliefs and to have them reflected in the laws of our land includes such critical matters: as the right to life, as denied by legal abortion; the government's intrusion of mandating practices against our convictions, as in the case of the HHS mandate; the government’s intrusion into the definition of marriage as anything but a union between a man and woman; and the protection of the dignity of migrants who come to this country with a right to equitable immigration laws. These are but some of the issues that infringe upon religious liberty to which St. Thomas More has a great deal to say.
Thomas More was born of a very respectable family in London in 1478. He studied law at Oxford and London cultivating interest in the realm of culture, theology, classical literature, as well as cultivating friendships with important figures of the Renaissance culture. Called to the married state, he was a model of a husband, father and family life in which God was always the center. He had a remarkable political career and was eventually appointed as Chancellor of England by King Henry VIII. Thomas concentrated his political life on promoting justice and restraining the harmful influence of those who advanced their own interests at the expense of the weak. In 1532 he resigned his office in the face of King Henry VIII’s intention to take control of the Catholic Church in England and thereby condone his invalid marriage. Thomas withdrew from public life and lived in poverty with his family having been deserted by many people who proved to be false friends. He was imprisoned in 1534 for his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy which recognized the king as leader of the Church. At his trial, Thomas made an impassioned defense of his own convictions on the Catholic teaching on marriage, the respect due to the juridical Patrimony of Christian civilization and the freedom of the Church with regard to the state. Condemned by the court, he was beheaded on July 5, 1535.
St. Thomas More did not set out looking for martyrdom. Unlike St. Anthony, who chose the Franciscan way of life, because of the possibility of martyrdom, Thomas More chose a life in service of his country in order to bring his faith into the public sphere. When he was no longer able to do this and when his religious beliefs were threatened because of his service to the state, he was willing to accept martyrdom as a natural consequence. He went to his martyrdom with great grace and peace. He went as a man of faith who, like St. Anthony, was totally committed to Christ and His Church. This commitment was the foundation of his life and this is the foundation of holiness. The Church is blessed with martyrs like St. Thomas More who remind us of the importance of living our faith and that not even the state can interfere with it. They also remind us that our faith cannot be separated from public life. The good statesman is the one who brings his beliefs to the public realm, not to impose his religion, but to ensure that all are able to live and proclaim their faith especially in a country that was founded for that very reason. St. Thomas More's life and example are a good focus for us to begin this year's Fortnight for Freedom as we give thanks for our nation and our religious liberty and continue to do all we can to preserve that liberty.
As last year, during this Fortnight for Freedom, all Catholics are encouraged to offer their prayers of thanksgiving for our nation and our religious liberty. The celebration of Mass, time in Eucharistic adoration, praying the rosary and other practices and devotions are encouraged during this time to foster the preservation of our religious freedom. We should also consider offering the Fridays during the Fortnight for Freedom as days of penance by abstaining from meat or taking part in another form of penance. We can also study and reflect upon our religious freedom and the threats posed to it by reading the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops statement, Our First Most Cherished Liberty, as well as the many other materials available through the special USCCB website, www.fortnight4freedom.org, and on our own diocesan website, www.diocesepb.org.
We are all called to holiness. We need always to give thanks for the gift of religious liberty and to preserve our rights as Catholics to practice our faith and bring it to the public forum. Our relationship to Jesus Christ and the Church is the foundation of our lives no matter who we may be. Our call to holiness will take many different forms and shapes as was the case in the lives of St. Thomas More, St. Anthony and all the saints. May we always be free to live our call to holiness and to practice our faith in this great nation where religious liberty is a treasured gift.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 21, 2013