St. Thomas More Church honors religious freedom martyr

Religious Freedom Week is June 22-29

By Mary Powers

Catholic statesman, lawyer and friend and adviser to the king St. Thomas More was a fierce defender of the faith against the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Central to his uneasiness with Martin Luther’s Reformation were the changes made to the Mass and understanding of the Eucharist. Then, when English King Henry VIII broke from Rome over the divorce of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, St. Thomas More could not endorse the divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, refusing to sign the Act of Succession. King Henry VIII had St. Thomas More arrested on April 17, 1534.

Locked in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More penned a magnificent reflection titled “A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body of our Lord Sacramentally and Virtually Both,” part of the 1,458 pages of his “Workes” written in the tower before he died. The treatise, written a year before his martyrdom, poetically describes the beauty and gift of the Eucharist, while also describing the importance of preparing to receive the sacrament and living that communion with our Lord in daily life.

St. Thomas More (Courtesy Catholic News Agency)

“Now, when we have received our Lord, and have Him in our body, let us not then let Him alone … and get us forth about other things, and look no more unto Him … but let all our busyness be about Him. Let us by devout prayer talk to Him, by devout meditation talk with Him. … For surely, if we set aside all other things … and attend unto Him, He will not fail with good inspirations to speak such things to us within us. … And therefore let us with Martha provide … that all our outward busyness may be pertaining to Him: in making cheer to Him, and to His company for His sake.” (The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Yale University Press, volume 13.)

The rose stained-glass window at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in San Francisco brings More’s words and work to life. In a pamphlet created for the dedication of the new church in 1967, the window is described as having been designed and executed by Gabriel Loire in Chartres, France, with the description, “The segments of the window depict scenes from the life of St. Thomas More. …Together, the scenes portray his great love for the sacrifice of the Mass, his dedication to the office of judge, his fidelity to the precept of the law.”

“St. Thomas More was a martyr of conscience, willing to die for refusing to take an oath embracing the king as supreme head of the Church. The Catholic faith always has and always will uphold the responsibility of remaining true to one’s conscience,” noted Father Rick Van De Water, administrator of St. Thomas More Parish.

Photo of St. Thomas More Church, S.F.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops each year begins Religious Freedom Week fittingly on the memorial of St. Thomas More and fellow English martyr St. John Fischer, bishop, cardinal and defender of Catherine of Aragon. Both were beheaded for refusing to take the oath of succession, acknowledging the issue of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne. The week concludes on June 29, the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. This year’s theme is “Life and Dignity for All.”

St. Thomas More is truly a man for our times. He kept his eyes focused on Christ and the Eucharistic center of the Catholic faith, dying as “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”