ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hundreds of Catholics crowded into the Cathedral of St. Paul to venerate the relics of two English saints who are known as icons of religious liberty because of the circumstances of their martyrdom.
Relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, whose lives spanned the 15th and 16th centuries, were viewed at the cathedral June 26 as part of a national tour coinciding with the Fortnight for Freedom.
A prayer service was part of the event and included eucharistic adoration, a Gospel reading and presentations on the martyrs from John Boyle, professor of theology and Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and Jan Graffius, curator at Stonyhurst College in England, which holds the relics.
The faithful waited up to an hour to process up the cathedral’s center aisle to the Communion rail, where the relics were displayed in two simple glass boxes. People briefly kneeled and prayed before the relics; many touched the reliquaries or pressed rosaries, medals or other holy objects against them.
Boyle’s presentation did not focus on the saints’ stance on religious freedom as much as “how they did it” — how their daily practices fostered a life of deep faith and the formation, confidence and courage they needed to face martyrdom.
“They did not set out to be martyrs, but when the time came, they were ready,” he said.
Generally better known today than his contemporary St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More daily spent early morning hours in a library and chapel in prayer and study — time he prioritized despite his responsibilities as a husband, father, lawyer and the first layman to serve as chancellor of England. He also regularly attended Mass and confessed his sins.
St. John Fisher also was known for a deep love of the Catholic Church, despite the failings of its clergy that played a role in the Protestant Reformation, which was underway during his life.
Both men began serving King Henry VIII early in their vocations. St. John Fisher taught the young Henry as a boy; St. Thomas More was adviser and friend to the king and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Contemporaries described both men as good, virtuous and holy.
“Goodness, virtue and holiness: This is the secret to the lives and martyrdom of these two saints,” Boyle said. “They worked hard at knowing and loving their sweet savior, Jesus Christ.”
Prayer, study and discipline helped them discern what was right, and how to act rightly, he said.
After the king divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533 without an annulment from the pope, he severed ties with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. He demanded England’s bishops sign a document acknowledging him as head of the church. Only one — Bishop John Fisher — did not.
Later, King Henry required all men who held office in England to recognize his marriage to Boleyn by signing the Act of Succession, which confirmed that his children with Boleyn were legitimate heirs to the throne. Again Bishop Fisher abstained, as did Thomas More, who had since resigned his position as chancellor.
Both men studied the king’s divorce with great care, Boyle said, and deliberated over their responses.
“They understood with remarkable clarity what was at stake at that time, which was an attack on the church,” he said.
St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher were imprisoned for treason in the Tower of London for months. They were beheaded 14 days apart in 1535; Bishop Fisher was 65, Thomas More was 57.
The relics on tour are a personal ring with a cameo of the philosopher Aristotle that St. John Fisher wore throughout his life, and a tooth and jawbone of St. Thomas More that his daughter, Margaret, saved from his severed head, which she received after it had been exposed on London Bridge.
The relics were passed down in the More family before being received into the care of Stonyhurst College’s relic collection, England’s largest. The Jesuit school in Lancashire formed in 1593 and, from its founding, aimed to preserve Catholic manuscripts, relics and other holy objects at risk of loss or destruction during the English Reformation.
Catherine Hartman, 79, and Helen Quast, 86, who are both parishioners of St. Bonaventure Church in Bloomington, said they learned of St. Thomas More as Catholic school students and welcomed the opportunity to venerate his relics.
“It’s nice to come to any kind of veneration,” Quast told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“It was wonderful,” Hartman added. “It just gives you a feeling of awe.”
Sarah Kunkel, 38, a self-described history buff, brought her son, Thomas, 9, to venerate the relics. St. Thomas More was one of the saints for whom her son is named, she said.
“I wanted him to see this,” said Kunkel, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in New Brighton. “It’s such a strong character, a strong intellectual standing up to King Henry VIII at that time. I’ve always been inspired by that.”
George Younes, 38, a parishioner of St. Maron Church in Minneapolis, brought three of his four young children to venerate the relics. He said religious liberty issues — such as the Little Sisters of the Poor’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandating contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act and political attacks on marriage and family — have piqued his recent interest in St. Thomas More.
The martyrs’ examples challenged him “to look at all controversial issues in the light of Christ’s church and be prepared to accept the consequences to our own lives by following the decrees of his church,” he said, “whether that means we are ostracized, we are criticized or even if we lose our own life; it is better than losing our soul.”
St. Paul was the fifth city the relics had visited since they arrived in the U.S; they will visit five other Minnesota dioceses — Duluth, Crookston, St, Cloud, New Ulm and Winona. Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington will follow. The relic tour already stopped in Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The “Strength of the Saints” tour is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as part of the Fortnight for Freedom, two weeks of prayer, education and advocacy for the cause of religious freedom in the United States June 21-July 4.
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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.