Very little is known about St. Thomas More, the patron of statesmen and politicians as declared by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000. He lived a very inspiring life and is a model of firmness of conscience to the end.
Thomas More was born in London in 1478. He studied law in at Oxford and London. His other interests were in the spheres of culture, theology and classical literature. He mastered Greek and enjoyed the company and friendship of important figures of Renaissance culture, including Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.
He was married to Jane Colt, with whom he had four children. When Jane died, Thomas married Alice Middleton, a widow with one daughter. He was known to be an affectionate and faithful husband and father, deeply involved in his children’s religious, moral and intellectual education. Family life gave him ample opportunity for prayer and lectio divina, as well as for happy and wholesome relaxation. He attended daily Mass in the parish church.
He was first elected to Parliament in 1504 under King Henry VII. The latter’s successor, King Henry VIII, renewed his mandate in 1510, which launched him to a prominent career in public administration. He became speaker of the House of Commons in 1523.
He was highly esteemed for his unfailing moral authority, sharpness of mind, his open and humorous character, and his extraordinary learning. In 1529, at a time of political and economic crisis in England, he was appointed by the king as lord chancellor, the first layman to occupy the position. (The lord chancellor’s principal responsibility was to administer justice and keep the independence of the courts.) In fidelity to his principles, Thomas concentrated on promoting justice and restraining the harmful influence of those who advanced their own interests at the expense of the weak.
Eventually, he faced a dilemma. His king, Henry VIII, wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne Boleyn. To do this the king had to get the approval of the pope. Failing to get such approval, King Henry VIII wanted the Church of England to separate from the papacy and take control of it, so he could give himself his desired divorce. Not wishing to support this plan of his king, Thomas resigned, and withdrew from public life. He suffered a life of poverty, and was deserted by people who proved to be false friends.
In view of his continuing and firm refusal to support his king, he was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Despite various kinds of pressures, he did not waver, as giving in to the king’s wishes would result in a political and ecclesiastical arrangement that would lead to uncontrolled despotism. At his trial, he made an impassioned defense of his own convictions on the indissolubility of marriage, the respect due to the juridical patrimony of Christian civilization, and the freedom of the Church in her relations with the State.
He was condemned by the court, and was executed by beheading.
After the passing of centuries, Thomas More, together with Bishop John Fisher, was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, and was canonized by Pius XI in 1935, on the fourth centenary of his martyrdom.
Note: Most of the above information was taken from the text of the Proclamation of St. Thomas More as Patron of Statesmen and Politicians by Pope John Paul II.
Next: The values and principles St. Thomas More stood for, an inspiration for our times. Watch out for it.