A Saint Who Was A Lawyer – Saint Thomas More

detail from 'Portrait of Sir Thomas More' by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527, tempera on wood, Frick Collection, New York, New YorkIn the days when England was still completely Catholic, there lived in London a little boy who showed by his life that people can live in the world as ordinary lay-folk, yet become saints just as much as Popes and bishops, hermits and nuns.

Thomas More was born on February 7th 1478. He grew up with his three sisters and one brother in a good Catholic household, and when he was quite young, his father saw that this son of his was going to be very clever. Thomas knew he was clever, too, but he realized that his cleverness was a gift of God, and he studied very earnestly in order to make good use of the talents God had given him.

He knew, however, what a great saint had once said, that “prayer without study is presumption; study without prayer infidelity.” Therefore his duty to God always came first, and while he learned all he could about literature, science and music, all these studies were based on a foundation of deep and true piety. Life at Oxford University in the days of Thomas More did not always help a student towards a faithful practice of his religion, yet young Thomas received Holy Communion frequently, and later when he was Chancellor of England, he was at Mass every morning, and quite often, he acted as altar boy.

After More left Oxford, he continued his studies at Lincoln’s Inn, because his father wanted him to be a lawyer, and it was here that young men studied law. But Thomas was not quite certain of his future. He was certainly very keen about law, but, like many another young man, he wondered if God might be calling him to be a priest. To make quite sure, he went to live with the Carthusian Monks at their Monastery, called a Charterhouse, in London. He stayed there for four years, not as a monk, but just as a layman, working, praying and studying, and asking God all the time to make known His Will.

Finally Thomas was convinced that he should return to the world, and although he loved the life of a monk, he was quite determined that he was meant to serve God faithfully and loyally as a lawyer and father of a family. When he was twenty-six he was made a Member of Parliament, and the next year he married.

What a happy place was that More household. He loved his wife and children, and together they assisted at Holy Mass before the work of the day commenced. All the time Sir Thomas More could spare from the affairs of state he spent with his family, helping the children with their lessons, taking part in their games, sharing their childish joys and sorrows. People loved to visit the Mores because they were always so contented and happy together. At the close of the day, they would all gather round Sir Thomas as he led the family prayers.

The old King had died and the new King of England was Henry VIII. He was very fond of Thomas More and was not happy until he had the young lawyer near him at the Royal Court. King Henry raised Thomas to the highest office in the land by creating him Lord Chancellor of England. What a long way he had come from the little boy at Oxford. Here he was now at the peak of fame, loved and honoured by the King, respected by all who knew him, with wealth and a beautiful home and his loving wife and children.

But the Lord Chancellor was to be tested, and in the testing, he showed that he was still the same Thomas More who was determined to put loyalty to God and his conscience before any other loyalties. Henry VIII wanted to marry again while his wife, Queen Catherine, was still living. Of course, not even the Pope himself could give Henry permission to do this, and the King was so angry that he would no longer obey the Pope, but set himself up as head of the Church in England.

To make his position quite clear, Henry called on his subjects to take an oath declaring him to be head of the Church. He was particularly anxious for Sir Thomas More to take this oath, because the Lord Chancellor was so respected by everyone. Sir Thomas had gone to London with his son-in-law to hear Mass at Saint Paul’s, and while he was there, he was summoned to take the new oath. He returned home to prepare for this ordeal. He went to Mass and received Holy Communion, as he always did before any serious event, then he said goodbye to his dear family, and took a last look at his happy home.

Sir Thomas refused to take the oath! The king and his court were astounded. They pointed out that others had taken it, people who were considered very good Catholics, even Bishops and priests; but the Lord Chancellor remained firm.

Others must look to their own consciences, he said, but he could not make a decision that would cause danger to his immortal soul, and he firmly believed that in spiritual matters the Pope alone was Head of the Church.

Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and all the time he was there he prepared himself for the death he knew would come. In prison, too, just as at home, he was cheerful and contented and tried to make others happy. Finally, on July 6th, 1535, he was beheaded, a brave martyr who died because of his loyalty to the Pope and the Church.

What are some of the lessons we can learn from the life of Saint Thomas More? One could be the lesson of praying earnestly about our vocation in life, asking God to show us what He wants us to do just as Saint Thomas did. And we can also imitate Saint Thomas More in his devotion to the Pope. We should pray often for the Holy Father in these troubled times.

The feast of Saint Thomas More is kept on July 6th in many places but is now usually kept on June 22nd with his fellow Martyr, the holy bishop Saint John Fisher, who was executed on that day in 1535.

– from the pamphlet Hero Stories especially for Boys. (Girls too!), by Eileen Taylor, Australian Catholic Truth Society, #1258, 1957