St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher are examples of a virtue St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also exemplified: The courage to be civil.
“I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first,” St. Thomas More famously said beside the chopping block where he would lose his head for remaining respectfully silent about King Henry VIII’s authority claims over the Church.
“He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul,” famed scholar Erasmus said of St. John Fisher, who was martyred for his steadfast defense of Catherine of Aragon against Henry’s attempts to divorce her.
“I am gently, quietly, and silently a good Catholic,” Elizabeth Ann Seton told a friend even as she faced the nonviolent but truly hurtful persecution of snubs, slander, and ostracization.
Any weak person can lash out at enemies and answer the taunts of bullies. Only a brave person can respond to persecution with respect and love. Here are four ways these saints became brave.
First, each of these saints were members of two communities — one was the upper echelons of society, and the other an ascetic religious community.
Thomas More was born in 1478, and attended the finest schools in England, up to and including Oxford, where he studied with leading intellectuals of the time before entering law school. In his youth he was a page to the Lord Chancellor of England, and later climbed the ladder of offices to assume the position himself.
He lived near a monastery as a young man, prayed regularly with the monks, and considered joining them. Instead, he remained a layman who never forgot the monastery, keeping to his prayers and wearing a hair shirt to tame his self-will.
John Fisher was born in 1484 to a prosperous merchant’s family. He rose through the ranks of academia to Cambridge, where he was a scholar and administrator, and rose through the Church to become a bishop. He was known for placing a human skull on the altar at Mass and on his dinner table as a memento mori. Like Thomas More’s hair shirt, Fisher did this to remind himself to be humble.
As a young wife, Elizabeth Seton was immersed in the excitement of 18th century New York, which was already a bustling city of commerce by day, and of high society and entertainment by night. She was an accomplished young woman, an avid reader, and a devout Episcopalian active in charitable causes.
Elizabeth discovered the Catholic Church in Italy where her husband died of tuberculosis. Eventually, she founded a religious community dedicated to the care and education of the poor.
Jesus often teaches how difficult it is to be both well-off and faithful. More, Fisher, and Mother Seton showed how it can be done — by living in a spiritual community and embracing redemptive suffering.
Second, in order to be civil you have to trust God even when your life circumstances change dramatically for the worse.
All three saints were “the toast of the town” in one way or another before they found themselves rejected and, in the case of Fisher and More, persecuted by their peers.
Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London for fourteen months for refusing to sign an oath that proclaimed King Henry VIII head of the Church in England. Throughout his ordeal, he refused to give up on God.
“I will not mistrust Him, Meg, although I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear,” More wrote to his daughter. “I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to Him for help. And then I trust He shall place His holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.”
Elizabeth said the same thing in response to the many sorrows of her life: “I am in your hands my God — punish, but do not destroy. Listen to that voice from the height of the cross which, rising to your throne, cried ‘Father forgive!’ It is for me that voice intercedes.”
Third, civility comes from a real, if wary, trust in God’s human agents.
As the Lord Chancellor, St. Thomas More had made a living from the law of the land, and trusted in the political order. When he was imprisoned and then put on trial for his life, his trust did not waver.
During More’s trial, Solicitor General Richard Rich claimed that More had made treasonous statements in private conversation with him. More asked the magistrates if they thought it was likely that “I should in so weighty an affair as this, act so unadvisedly, as to trust Mr. Rich, a man I had always so mean an opinion of? … I refer it to your judgments, my Lords, whether this can seem credible to any of your Lordships.”
The magistrates found More guilty, but his defense has become famous, most recently in Robert Bolt’s 20th century play and subsequent movie A Man for All Seasons.
Mother Seton trusted both in God and the freedom of those made in His image in a similar way. She wrote to a friend of her new position leading a religious congregation: “I shall be at the head of a community which will live under the strictest rules of order and regularity, but I shall not give those laws, nor have any care of compelling others to fulfill them.”
Saints know that God allowed the world to be subject to human freedom, and that gives them the strength to risk submitting themselves to human authority, even when it leads to injustice and suffering .
Fourth, civility comes from a humble acceptance of one’s role in society.
St. Thomas More’s story could be a parable about being a perfect citizen. He never turned against either the King of England or the King of Heaven. He is famous for having said, “I would uphold the law if for no other reason but to protect myself” — he would rather be unjustly convicted by people who respect the law of the land than go free at the expense of public order.
More praised Bishop John Fisher for combining high achievement and deep humility: “I reckon in this realm no one man, in wisdom, learning and long approved virtue together, meet to be matched and compared with him,” he said.
And Mother Seton remained a humble, dedicated mother even as she was an admired Mother of a religious congregation.
She explained to a friend how her biological children had the first claim on her attention. “The dear ones have their first claim which must ever remain inviolate. Consequently, if at any period, the duties I am engaged in should interfere with those I owe to them, I have solemnly engaged with our good Bishop John Carroll, as well as my own conscience, to give the darlings their right, and to prefer their advantage in everything.”
In America, as the divide between political opponents widens and public debate becomes increasingly marked by rage and name-calling, Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher, and Elizabeth Ann Seton could be our patron saints of civility. They sought God’s peace in communities of faith, prepared for suffering, and offered it up when it came.
If we follow their example, we can become as “boldly civil” as they were.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Public Domain
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