|Patronal Festival Procession at STM - Msgr Steenson presiding, June 22, 2014|
HOMILY BY MSGR. JEFFREY STEENSON
St. Thomas More, Toronto / June 22, 2014
St. Thomas More: Noble Patron for Our Time
St. Thomas More is “more important at this moment than at any moment since his death … but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years time” (G.K. Chesterton, A Turning Point in History, 1929).
1. Four years ago, I had the great privilege of attending the Beatification mass for John Henry Newman in Birmingham. I remember the remarkable reception of Pope Benedict XVI's address to politicians, diplomats, academics and business leaders at Westminster Hall. The Holy Father had come to bear witness in the very place where Sir Thomas More was tried and convicted, on July 1, 1535, at the very heart of four centuries of England's identity as a Protestant nation.
No one can match the cheeky prose of British journalists, and here is how The Guardian reported the associated Evensong at Westminster Abbey:
"The Pope of Rome processes into the Church where Protestant monarchs are crowned, declares unambiguously that he is the successor of Peter with responsibility for the unity of Christendom, and then walks out again --to hearty applause."
2. It is deeply moving to watch the video of the Pope’s Westminster Hall address -- it's on the website of the UK Papal Visit operated by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales. It is something of a deja vu moment: you feel as though you have been there before, and indeed you may have, through the film, A Man for All Seasons (1966). A similar thing happened to me not so long after. I had gone to to visit the director for the U.K. Ordinariate's clergy formation program at Allen Hall (the principal Catholic seminary in the south of England).
I walked a few blocks up Beaufort Street from the Thames in Chelsea, thinking this is so familiar. And indeed so! This is where Henry VIII jumped off his boat into the mud and then walked up to the estate of his Chancellor. It is an incredible experience to see Allen Hall and the few things that remain from Thomas More's day. But what impresses the most is the simple memorial to some 44 priests who laid down their lives for the Catholic Church. This is far off the beaten tourists' trail, but well worth the effort to visit if you go to London.
3. Let us recall the Pope's main point in his Westminster Hall address: The world of faith and the world of secularity need each other. Each is needed to keep the other honest and genuinely open to the light of reason, which shines on us from above and is accessible to all. Faith has a crucial role to play, as a corrective to the distortions of reason manipulated by ideology.
The Holy Father spoke of the basis of all decision-making, the primordial law, the common law, those objective norms that are accessible to reason, "the true light that enlightens every man." "If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident."
This, many of us here will recognize, is precisely the reason why we have come to the Catholic Church ... Certainly not to a safe haven, for we have boarded a ship amidst a great battle: the See of Rome, More said, inevitably attracts the hostile attention of all enemies of the Christian faith.
4. Our bishops have spoken powerfully about the fundamental human right of religious freedom. How can we not hear in their statements the voice of St. Thomas More? But there is a kind of disconnect too. We don't speak the same language as many leaders in public life today. What we understand by law is not what many of our leaders and fellow citizens understand. Natural law vs. positive law ... in accord with an ordered society vs. that we get to say how it should be. We are talking past each other. Listening to the bishops of two episcopal conferences talking about the very real threat that the modern state poses to religious freedom, I could not help but think of two other lawyers so prominent in the history of the Church, the 2nd century fathers St. Justin Martyr of Rome and Tertullian of Carthage.
The Apologia Prima and the Apologeticus are perhaps the Church's earliest and greatest texts engaging with a hostile social and political system. Both Justin and Tertullian argue: We Christians are good citizens of Rome; against your own legal traditions you have violated our fundamental rights. But the apologists' argument doesn't stop there. It is a kind of prolegoumena to the main argument. Christians are called to follow their Lord, even accepting the vocation of martyrdom if necessary. Truth comes first. We have the transcript of Justin's trial before Rusticus, the prefect of Rome:
Rusticus encourages: “Having come together, offer sacrifice with one accord to the gods.” Justin replies, “No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety.” From what is true to what is false.
We Christians are loyal citizens of the Empire. Truth be told, we are probably your best citizens. And you are violating our rights. This cannot bode well for the Empire. But the early Fathers move on, to deal with the great meta-themes, particularly the fundamental metaphysical conflicts played out on the stage of this world.
5. The vocation of martyrdom – is this not the principal theme? What does our epistle say? “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12). Christians have throughout the ages found tribulations a difficult thing to bear, because they have been told that a prosperous and secure life is promised to those who turn to God. But St. Peter here reminds us of two important truths – (i) this is what it means to follow Christ and identify with him; (ii) we are experiencing the refiner’s fire and will come out better for it. [“Fiery ordeal” = in a very short time, Nero will burn Christians on crosses as streetlights, on the way to his circus at the Vatican Hill (Tacitus).]
What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ in the earthly city? We need to speak to the philosophical and theological foundations of Western civilization – or its embers at least. But be aware – not many people today are able to speak in the graceful old tongue of Christendom. The message of the saints is persistently consistent – martyrdom remains the one genuinely creative and transformative witness in the earthly city. The good cheer of St. Thomas More as he approached his martyrdom is perhaps the most astonishing thing in the whole story: how he encouraged his family, never lost his sense of humor, never was in doubt about the obligations of conscience and virtue. St. Peter’s words are beautifully expressed in St. Thomas More’s witness: “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (I Pet. 4:13).
[Thomas More on the Most Blessed Sacrament (written in the Tower of London, 1534): a beautiful meditation that ends by reflecting on the story of Zaccheus, the little man in the Gospel who had to climb a tree to see Jesus (Lk. 19:9). “Today salvation has come into this house,” Jesus said to him. He says these words to each one of us, every time we receive the blessed Sacrament. “With such alacrity, with such quickness of spirit, with such gladness and such spiritual rejoicing, as this man received our Lord into his house, our Lord give us the grace to receive His Blessed Body and Blood.” And then we go forthwith, like Zaccheus, to do the things that Jesus commanded us: reconciliation, caring for others, living the truth.]