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St. Thomas More, whose feast is celebrated on June 22, is a shining examples of a virtue in dire need today: Civility. And his life shows that far from being a doormat virtue of pusillanimity, civility comes from the fortitude of a courageous heart.
Any weak person can lash out at enemies and answer back at the taunts of bullies. Only a brave person can respond to persecution with respect and love. What was the secret to St. Thomas more’s bravery?
First, he challenged his own peers without abandoning them.
St. 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 Chancellor of England, and later climbed the ladder of offices to become chancellor himself.
He didn’t criticize or abandon his peers, but he did balance his life of wealth and privilege with strong counter-measures. 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 also wearing a hair shirt to tame his self-will.
Jesus often teaches how difficult it is to be both well-off and faithful. More showed that can be done, but only by radical intervention.
Second, he stayed faithful to God when he lost the trappings of privilege.
St. Thomas More was “the toast of the town” all his life — until he refused to sign an oath that called Henry VIII the leader of the Church in England.
Then his position was as the high chancellor of the realm was stripped from him, his friends turned their backs on him, and he found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London. None of it made him lose his hope in God.
He told his daughter that even in this God had some design.
“I will not mistrust Him, Meg, although I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear,” he wrote from the Tower. “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.”
Third, he kept his respect for human beings and human institutions, even when they seemed to forfeit their right to his respect.
As the chancellor of the realm, St. Thomas More had made a living from the law of the land, and both trusted in the political order and expected others to do so. When he was imprisoned and then put on trial for his death, he didn’t stop trusting.
More’s story could be a parable about being a perfect citizen or as a story about being a saint. 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.”
Then, beside the chopping block where he would lose his head for remaining respectfully silent rather than rejecting outright the claims to religious authority of King Henry VIII, he said: “I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”
Saints know that God himself placed his trust in human freedom when he became a man and founded a Church, and that gives them the confidence to trust the freedom of others, too.
Fourth, he may have respected others, but he kept his humility regarding himself.
Lashing out at opponents comes from a place of unease with oneself and one’s circumstances. Saints don’t have that problem.
Thomas More believed that “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all,” and once said that “This hellhound (pride) creepeth into men’s hearts and plucketh them back from entering the right path of life and is so deeply rooted in men’s breasts that she cannot be plucked out.”
His humility would be glad that he shares his feast day with Bishop John Fisher, of whom More said, “I reckon in this realm no one man, in wisdom, learning and long approved virtue together, meet to be matched and compared with him.”
In America, as the gaps between political opponents widen and public discussions are marked by anger and name-calling, St. Thomas More could be our patron saint of civility. Only someone who knows themselves, knows God and matches respect for others with true humility can be rise above the polarizing politics of our day.
St. Thomas More, pray that we can be as boldly civil as you are.