'St Thomas More had no lack of plausible excuses if he had wanted to avoid the crown of martyrdom; no lack of sincere people who urged him to take refuge in them. Never, I suppose, was man so tempted both by friends and foes to abandon his purpose. His own wife, his own daughter took the part of his enemies, and entered into a loving conspiracy to save him from himself. But to friend and foe alike he opposed the impenetrable wall of his good-natured banter.
You see, he realised, long before other men of his time, that what stood before England was a complete parting of the ways. He saw that, in the conditions of his time, you must needs throw in your lot either with the old faith or with the heresies that were beginning to spring up all over Europe; that a nation which defied the authority of the Pope, although it might do so merely in the name of national independence, would be forced, sooner or later, into the camp of the heretic.
It is amazing to us, looking back upon all the intervening centuries have brought, that so many good men of that age – men who were afterwards confessors for the faith – were hoodwinked for the moment into following the King when he incurred the guilt of schism. But perhaps if were could think ourselves back rather more successfully into the conditions of the time, we should pardon them the more readily; and for that reason we should feel even greater admiration for the few men who, like our martyr, were wise enough to see what was happening. It was a time of national crisis, a time of intellectual ferment. There were only a few people who kept their heads, and those few who kept their heads lost their heads, like St Thomas More.
Let us thank God’s mercy for giving us the example and the protection of a great Saint, our own fellow-countryman, who knew how to absorb all that was best in the restless culture of his day, yet knew at once, when the time came, that he must make a stand here; that he must give no quarter to the modern world here. His remembrance has long been secure in the praise of posterity; it only remained for us to be assured by the infallible voice of the Church, what we could not doubt already, that he is with our Blessed Lady and the Saints in heaven. He knows our modern needs, let us turn to him in our modern troubles; his prayers will not be lacking for the great country he loved so, for the great city in which he lived and died.
Let us praise God, then, for our English martyrs, Thomas More and John Fisher and the Charterhouse monks, and, from Blessed Cuthbert Mayne onward, the long line of proscribed and hunted priests. Men of our blood, they have left sayings which ring more familiarly to us than the translated pieties of the Continent; men of our latter-day civilization, they stand with more of human personality than the mist-wreathed heroes of the medieval world. And surely, if they have not forgotten among those delights of the eternity the soft outlines and the close hedgerows and the little hills of the island that gave them birth; if in contemplating the open face of God, they have not ceased to take thought for the well-loved kingdom that exiled and disowned them, the patiently evangelised people that condemned and hurried them to the gallows, their prayers still rise especially, among all the needs of a distracted world, for the souls we love whom error blinds or sin separates from God'.
from Captive Flames, 1940, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
Fr Lee Kenyon
Priest, Husband, Father, Lancastrian, Mancunian