It is a great honour to be able to preside at this Mass with you as we honour the memory of St Thomas More and pray for the repose of the souls of the deceased members of our society.
There is much that can be said about St Thomas More. In looking for “the angle” as they say in media land, I wondered about the significance of Richard Perrignon including Flemish composer, Jacob Clemens non papa’s Requiem Aeternam and the Sanctus from his Office of the Dead.
What might we learn from reflecting on More’s death?
Some of us have had the experience of a confrontation with the reality of death. It was just before Christmas in 2002 when my specialist at St Vincent’s Clinic showed me the shadows in the bone scans. He was uncertain about the diagnosis and needed more tests to exclude a false positive (which fortunately eventuated). As it stood he “hoped” he could get me another five years.
I went back to Canberra, somewhat pre-occupied, and then next morning in the psalms for the Office of Readings, I read the line: “Lord make me know the shortness of my life that I may gain wisdom of heart.”
At Christian Brothers Lewisham we were taught to memorise various pious exhortations and say them at various times during the day. This is a good one to focus the mind on what really matters.
“Lord make me know the shortness of my life that I may gain wisdom of heart.”
One might well assume that Thomas More’s mind was well focused on what seemed to be the inevitability of an imminent death. He spent from April 1534 until his death on July 6 1535 in the Tower. He knew what the King was capable of doing. He had no reason to assume a happy release for himself. In fact he alluded to the reality of death in his response to the request to declare his mind about the supremacy.
His words are often quoted: “I do nobody no harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this not be enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live.”
What else might there be among his writings in those months he spent in the Tower that could serve as an inspiration and lesson for us some 500 or so years later?
In the introduction to the Yale edition of More’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, the editor, Frank Manley says this:
“Considered biographically, the dialogue is one of the means by which More attempted to embody in some external form his fears for his family and himself during the last months of his life – the destitution of those he loved, the strong possibility of torture at the hands of Thomas Cromwell and other agents of the king, the fear that he would deny himself under the stress of hard handling and destroy his relationship with God, and finally the fear of death itself.”
This lengthy work is More’s last spiritual testament, or as one commentator has said – the final summing up.
It is a complex and intriguing work. Just by way of illustration is the concern about the scrupulous conscience. This is played out in the book in the section on the fable of the lion, the ass, the wolf and their confession (chapter 14 of Book II). More was wrestling with the accusations of those who thought his position of silence on the king’s supremacy was borne of scrupulosity. His concern was about the temptation to spiritual pride. If his position was a result of excessive scrupulosity could it not follow that the outcome might be a false martyrdom, even a suicide, prompted by the vain desire to prove himself better than other men?
How we should understand the role of conscience and one’s adherence to its judgment is much debated and I will spare you any comment on the philosophical and theological issues that are well canvassed in a vast literature.
The late Honourable Justice Terry Ludeke, in a paper presented in Newcastle on May 3 1985, and included in the McCarthy Reynolds collection The Saint and the Society quoted Professor Chambers’ Life of Thomas More:
Thomas More died for the right of individual conscience as against the state; for the belief that there is an ultimate standard of right and wrong beyond what the state may at any time command.
More’s final act of obedience to conscience and, as he saw it, obedience to God, presents to us an ideal. The practical day to day decision making that is the essence of the moral life, the ever present need to discern the good to which we adhere and the evil which we shun, is beset with difficulty.
We are constantly bombarded in the mass media, in political and social commentary, and more recently through the phenomenon of social media, facebook, twitter and the rest, with words. They are, in reality, points of view. There are strident assertions about what is right and wrong, about who ought to do what and what consequences ought to follow.
Yet I wonder how much of this chatter is securely grounded. In the text frequently used for the Red Mass the prophet Isaiah warns about judging on appearances, yet this is commonplace. Everyone has an opinion about the guilt or otherwise of other people. We are less inclined to examine ourselves.
We find in More’s writings the basic issues of life that require resolution through an application God’s gift of grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wisdom of heart. How, in the face of grasping the shortness of our life do we stand with those we love? How do we stand with God? What is it that we need to do in order to better face divine judgment?
And to answer those questions on a positive note may I offer these words from Pope Francis in an address to prisoners in a pastoral visit to Calabria last Saturday:
“It is more difficult to allow ourselves to be looked upon by God than to look upon God. It is more difficult to allow ourselves to be encountered by God than to encounter God.”
“The Lord is a master of reintegration,” he said. “He takes us by the hand and brings us back to the community. The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always understands.”
And from a homily last May:
“Do you have peace of soul in times of darkness, in times of trouble, in times of persecution, when everyone else rejoices at your suffering? Do you have peace? If you have peace, you have the seed of joy that will come later. May the Lord help us understand these things.”
May St Thomas More and all the angels and saints pray for us and guide you in your work.
This homily was given by Fr Brian Lucas on the occasion of the Feast of St Thomas More 2014.