None of us can foresee what witness we will need to give to our faith in the course of our life, nor what that witness might cost us. We will all feel at times mired by aspects of the world, compromised in different ways: that is part of the human predicament that members of the Church have known down the ages. What we might pray for is the grace of knowing, like Eleazar, where the line must be drawn, where we need to take a stand, both for our own integrity, but also for the witness to the Truth that our actions will give to others. It would be a special grace to be like Eleazar an ‘example of nobility’ to some if not, as in Eleazar’s case, to ‘the great majority of the nation’.
If we are to be capable of this, we need not just to be against something, but for something, actively and engagedly for that life of love that Christ foresees grows cold when people draw back in times of difficulty. If we do not exercise ourselves in that life of love, in that discipleship of Christ, we will never know when or where we need to take a stand. We honour St Thomas More as a martyr, but his martyrdom is to be seen in continuity with the rest of his life, with his brave and principled participation in public life, with his creative engagement in scholarship and the promotion of Christian humanism, by his support and defence of the Church, by his love and care for his family, with his generally acknowledged capacity for friendship, for the more hidden but profound life of prayer and devotion. It is also not to be forgotten that he was a man known for his humour.
There is, as many of you know, a very famous portrait of St Thomas More by Hans Holbein, that hangs now in the Frick Museum in New York City. A couple of years before it was acquired by Henry Frick it was on loan for a short time, this was in 1910, to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. A publication called the ‘Cambridge Review’ reported: “it is indeed so noble and life-like that it is not surprising that visitors often uncover their heads, as though in the actual presence of the keen-eyed Chancellor who suffered death for his principles”.
Ten years before Holbein painted this portrait, More’s great fellow humanist friend, Erasmus, provided his own sketch of More but in words. ‘His face’ he wrote, ‘corresponds to his mind, having always a gracious and cordial expression. It is somewhat disposed to habitual smiling, … is completely free from stolidity and villainy’. It was Erasmus who famously spoke of Thomas More as ‘a man for all seasons’.
On the occasion of this year’s Thomas More lecture we once again, metaphorically, uncover our heads before the image we hold of St Thomas, we thank God for the example of his life. We ask for his intercession.
He was a man, of course, of his times, a saint but not perfect. He knew how much he was in need of the Lord’s grace. We can make our own one of his fervent prayers:
Give me, good Lord, a full faith, a firm hope, and a fervent charity, a love to the good Lord incomparable above the love to myself; and that I love nothing to Thy displeasure, but everything in an order to Thee.
Fr Matthew Power SJ, the Senior Chaplain to the University, delivered this homily on the occasion of the Votive Mass of St Thomas More for the 2022 St Thomas More Lecture