Relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher to visit Minnesota parishes

| Bridget Ryder | June 9, 2016 | 3 Comments
This statue of St. Thomas More is located in the church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul. Courtesy St. Thomas More parish

This statue of St. Thomas More is located in the church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul. Courtesy St. Thomas More parish

Renaissance men role models for religious freedom

As anti-discrimination, anti-immigration, health care and other laws can leave individual Catholics and Catholic institutions penalized for following their consciences, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is bringing the relics of two 16th-century English martyrs, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, on a tour of the state. The relics will be in the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul June 26.

“The witness of these saints is important for American Catholics today,” said Jason Adkins, MCC executive director. “Our faith compels us to go forth into our communities to serve and be witnesses to the love of Christ. But our government is increasingly trying to force Catholics and others to violate their faith as a requirement for full participation in society. Though their circumstances were different from our own, like More and Fisher, we need to reflect on the point at which we will refuse to bend the knee to the powers and principalities of our day. Our public service can never come at the expense of our fidelity to the Lord.”

Catholics today also face pressure to conform to government laws that might violate their consciences.

“The threat of a different kind of martyrdom — expulsion from a profession, loss of a job, having to close one’s business or ministry, penalization by the government, enduring social scorn and ridicule for standing up for what is right — is very real and becoming more and more prevalent,” Adkins said.

The present reality makes these Renaissance men relevant today.

Who were Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher?Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, who share a feast day June 22, endured government attacks on the Church that reached into their individual consciences. The men are patrons of the Fortnight for Freedom.

Thomas More was a layman, lawyer, father of four children and daily Massgoer who became chancellor of England, the closest adviser to King Henry VIII.

John Fisher was the bishop of a small diocese who was known for his holiness and pastoral concern at a time when many bishops were more interested in amassing wealth or political power.

The two were convicted of treason and beheaded a few months apart in 1535. They had refused to support the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn since his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had not been granted the decree of nullity he requested from the pope. More and Fisher also would not support Henry’s declaration of himself as head of the Church of England over the authority of the pope. More had resigned from his government position and retired to a quiet life in order to avoid a confrontation with the king, but the issue turned into a battle when Henry pushed More to sign the Act of Succession and the Act of Supremacy publicly affirming his support for the king’s second marriage and authority over the Church in England. Fisher was the only bishop in the entire country who did not sign the oaths.

Father Joseph Weiss, a Jesuit and pastor of St. Thomas More parish in St. Paul, said Thomas More matters because he didn’t compromise his own moral values, “knowing that true allegiance to authority is not blind acceptance of everything that authority wants.”

“At the place of his execution, Thomas More told the crowd, ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’ St. Thomas More matters because he continues to be a role model for individual Christians and Christian family life in a complicated, and many times confusing, world of values today,” Father Weiss said.

Deciding what to do in a complex situation is never easy. John Boyle, a theology and Catholic Studies professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul who will present on the saints June 26 during their relics’ visit to the Cathedral, said it’s too easy to characterize More and Fisher as saints and everyone else around them as scoundrels. Henry’s concern for a male heir that prompted his marriage to Anne Boleyn might have seemed like just another of the many conflicts between temporal and spiritual power typical of the middle ages.

However, Boyle said, “The reality is that these are prudential judgments, and men of goodwill disagreed. The interesting question is not why everyone capitulated, but why these two didn’t. Why didn’t they think this was 16th-century business as usual?”

He attributes it to their life of prayer and strong faith.

“First and foremost, they were men who had deep lives of piety, who had an intense personal devotion to Jesus Christ as their savior and to the Triune God,” and were nourished in Church doctrine and the sacraments, he said.

Church teachings formed their consciences and gave them the strength to remain true to their convictions, despite social pressure and government oppression. More and Fisher understood the proper hierarchy of spiritual and political authority, Boyle said.

“When the law of the king came into conflict with the law of Christ, they chose Christ,” Adkins said. “These men gave their lives for the freedom of the Church. They bear witness to the truth that no king can make a claim on a person’s soul, nor can any government make its laws superior to those of God.”

Venerating their relics brings Christians close to these witnesses of faith both as real people and intercessors. Boyle explained that although people think of the saints as being in heaven, the reality is that the body of the saint is part of the person, too.

“We have immediate personal contact with the saints through their relics,” he said, which brings people into the communions of saints with God.

There are two kinds of relics: First-class relics are pieces of the body of the saint, and second-class relics are artifacts that they used and touched. On tour will be a piece of bone from St. Thomas More and the signet ring of St. John Fisher.

Boyle points out that second-class relics complement first-class relics and serve as a reminder that saints are real people who lived real lives.

The Strength of the Saints Relics Tour is part of the Fortnight of Freedom promoted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The relics will also tour nationally, sponsored in part by the Knights of Columbus and organized by the USCCB.

For more information, visit mncc.org/relics.

Strength of the Saints Relic Tour

The relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher will visit six sites in Minnesota during the Fortnight for Freedom.

June 26

  • 6:30-8 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul

June 27

  • 9:30-11 a.m. at Queen of Peace in Cloquet
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m. at St. Philip in Bemidji
  • 7:30-8:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Mary in St. Cloud

June 28

  • 8:30-9:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm
  • Noon-1:30 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist in Rochester

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  • Paula Ruddy

    It is a serious mistake for Jason Adkins to compare the the ethical questions for Catholics in the U.S. in the 21st century with the ethical questions of Thomas More and John Fisher in England in the 16th century. The forms of government and the governments’ relation to the Church are entirely different. In our religiously pluralistic society with a system of government where the people are the law-makers, our ethical responsibility is to reason together to promote the good of all. What is the value in fomenting Catholic rebellion against their civil government?

    • Charles C.

      Dear Paula,

      Whenever a government, in any form and in any age, demands obedience contrary to the law of God, rebellion in one form or another is called for.

      You may be most familiar with the concept of “civil disobedience.” It has been used on many occasions, sometimes improperly, but sometimes as a necessary path to correct unjust and sinful actions.

      Surely, you don’t desire total obedience to every government decree. We may rebel against a government action, or in dire circumstances, against the government as a whole. That, after all, was how our country was founded.

  • DebraBrunsberg

    It is wonderful that the relics of these Saints are coming here. We all need a reminder that our first obedience, always, is to God. When our government OR our employer or our neighbor, or anyone, wants us to live in opposition to the teachings of Christ, we must have the courage to choose God first. We live in times where our government has turned a blind eye to Truth and Morality and we have no choice but to speak out against the evil in our midst.