Relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher draw crowds to Cathedral

| June 27, 2016 | 0 Comments
Catholics venerate the relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul June 26 as part of the relics' U.S. "Strength of the Saints" tour. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

Catholics venerate the relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul June 26 as part of the relics’ U.S. “Strength of the Saints” tour. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

Hundreds of Catholics visited the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul June 26 to venerate the relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, icons of religious liberty because of the circumstances of their martyrdom. Their relics were briefly on view at the Cathedral as part of a national tour coinciding with the Fortnight for Freedom.

The 6:30 p.m. prayer service featuring the veneration included eucharistic adoration, a gospel reading and presentations on the 16th-century British martyrs from John Boyle, professor of theology and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and Jan Graffius, curator at Stonyhurst College in England, which holds the relics.

Following the brief prayer service at which Cathedral Rector Father John Ubel presided, people waited as long as an hour to process up the Cathedral’s center aisle to the Communion rail, where the relics were displayed in two simple glass boxes. People briefly kneeled and prayed before the relics; many touched the reliquaries or pressed rosaries, medals or other holy objects against them.

The men behind the martyrs

During his presentation, Boyle didn’t focus on the saints’ stance on religious freedom as much as “how they did it” — how their daily practices fostered a life of deep faith and the formation, confidence and courage they needed to face martyrdom.

“They did not set out to be martyrs, but when the time came, they were ready,” he said.

Generally better known today than his contemporary St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More daily spent early morning hours in a library and chapel in prayer and study — time he prioritized despite his responsibilities as a husband, father, lawyer and the first layman to serve as chancellor of England. He also regularly attended Mass and confessed his sins.

St. John Fisher was also known for a deep love for the Church, despite the failings of its clergy that played a role in the Protestant Reformation that was underway.

Both men were recognized in their youth for their high intelligence, and both began serving King Henry VIII early in their vocations. St. John Fisher taught the young Henry as a boy; St. Thomas More was advisor and friend to the king and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Both men were described by contemporaries as good, virtuous and holy.

“Goodness, virtue and holiness: This is the secret to the lives and martyrdom of these two saints,” Boyle said. “They worked hard at knowing and loving their sweet savior, Jesus Christ.”

Prayer, study and discipline helped them discern what was right, and how to act rightly, he said.

“If one is to do good, then one needs to know what the good is,” Boyle said.

After the king divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533 without an annulment from the pope, he severed ties with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. He demanded England’s bishops sign a document acknowledging him as head of the Church. Only one — Bishop John Fisher — did not.

Later, King Henry required all men who held office in England to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn by signing the Act of Succession, which confirmed that his children with Boleyn were legitimate heirs to the throne. Again Bishop Fisher abstained, as did Thomas More, who had resigned his position as chancellor.

Both men studied the king’s divorce with great care, Boyle said, and deliberated over their responses.

“They understood with remarkable clarity what was at stake at that time, which was an attack on the Church,” he said.

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher were imprisoned for treason in the Tower of London for months. They were beheaded 14 days apart in 1535; Bishop Fisher was 65, Thomas More was 57. St. Thomas More’s famous last words were, “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Ring and bones

The relics on tour are a personal ring with a cameo of the philosopher Aristotle that St.

John Fisher wore throughout his life, and a tooth and jawbone of St. Thomas More that his daughter, Margaret, saved from his severed head, which she received after it had been exposed on London Bridge.

St. John Fisher's personal ring, which features a cameo of Aristotle. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

St. John Fisher’s personal ring, which features a cameo of Aristotle. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

The relics were passed down in the More family before being received into the care of Stonyhurst College’s relic collection, England’s largest.

The Jesuit primary and secondary school in Lancashire formed in 1593 and, from its founding, aimed to preserve Catholic manuscripts, relics and other holy objects at risk of loss or destruction during the English Reformation.

Parishioners of St. Bonaventure in Bloomington Catherine Hartman, 79, and Helen Quast, 86, said they learned of St. Thomas More as Catholic school students and welcomed the opportunity to venerate his relics.

“It’s nice to come to any kind of veneration,” Quast said.

“It was wonderful,” Hartman added. “It just gives you a feeling of awe.”

Sarah Kunkel, a 38-year-old self-described “history buff,” brought her 9-year-old son, Thomas, to venerate the relics. St. Thomas More was one of the saints for whom her son is named, she said.

Thomas More relic

A reliquary containing fragments of St. Thomas More’s tooth and jawbone. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

“I wanted him to see this,” said Kunkel, a pharmacist and parishioner of St. John the Baptist in New Brighton. “It’s such a strong character, a strong intellectual standing up to King Henry VIII at that time. I’ve always been inspired by that.”

Seeing the relics also connects the past and present, she said. “The physicality of being present makes it more real.”

Due to long lines, the pair was among the last to venerate the relics at 8:30 p.m., a half-hour past the event’s scheduled end.

George Younes, a building contractor and parishioner of St. Maron in Minneapolis, also brought three of his four young children with him to venerate the relics. He said national religious liberty issues, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and political attacks on marriage and family, have piqued his recent interest in St. Thomas More.

Younes, 38, said he is interested in how the saint was “able to discern God’s will and the [civil] law at the same time.”

The martyrs’ examples challenged him “to look at all controversial issues in the light of Christ’s Church and be prepared to accept the consequences to our own lives by following the decrees of his Church,” he said, “whether that means we are ostracized, we are criticized or even if we lose our own life; it is better than losing our soul.”

‘Witnesses to freedom’

St. Paul was the fifth city the relics had visited since arriving in the U.S. Other stops include Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington.

“This week has been a revelation for me,” Graffius, the relics’ curator, told the congregation at the Cathedral. “I have been moved deeply by the depth of faith and the depth of knowledge and the depth of devotion shown by the people I’ve met to the memory of these two great British saints, and it has made me realize that these are not men contained by their nationality; these are saints for the whole world.”

Jan Graffius, the relics' curator at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England, holds them for veneration by a Little Sister of the Poor June 26 at the Little Sisters' Holy Family Residence in St. Paul. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

Jan Graffius, curator from Stoneyhurst College in England, shows Sister Lucille Botz the ring of St. John Fisher, during a special visit at The Holy Family Residence run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Paul. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

In Minnesota, the relics are stopping in each diocese. They were scheduled to be at Queen of Peace in Cloquet, St. Philip in Bemidji and the Cathedral of St. Mary in St. Cloud June 27, and at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm and St. John the Evangelist in Rochester June 28. The Minnesota Catholic Conference facilitated the statewide tour.

“The Strength of the Saints Tour” is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as part of the Fortnight for Freedom, two weeks of prayer, education and advocacy for the cause of religious freedom in the United States, June 21-July 4. This year’s theme is “Witnesses to Freedom,” which highlights men and women in the Church’s past and present who have fought for religious liberty. Among them are Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, whose feast day was June 22.

Also recognized are the Little Sisters of the Poor, who took their opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “contraception mandate” to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled earlier this year to send the case, Zubick v. Burwell, back to the lower courts.

Before arriving at the Cathedral of St. Paul, the relics visited the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, symbolically uniting past and present “witnesses to freedom.” The Little Sisters and residents in their care had the opportunity to venerate the relics for about an hour before they went on to the Cathedral.

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