Celebration of St. Thomas’ life, dedication to faith and children
The church celebrates the feast day of St. Thomas More (1478-1535) on June 22, together with St. John Fisher, bishop of Rochester. Both men were martyrs for their Catholic faith on orders of King Henry VIII.
St. Thomas was the only surviving son of Sir John More, London lawyer and judge. He studied the classics at Oxford University and law at the Inns of Court in London. At the age of 19 Thomas met Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist scholar and priest. Together, they discussed theology, read and wrote Greek, and tried to reconcile the traditions and teachings of the church with the insights of classical scholarship (known as Christian humanism).
After becoming a lawyer, More was elected to Parliament and married Jane Colt. Jane died after four years of marriage, leaving More with four young children. He remarried one month after her death. More chose a widow who was seven years older because he felt that she would be a good mother for his children as well as a dutiful housekeeper. Love was never a consideration.
More supervised the education of his three daughters and one son. His home in Chelsea became a center of learning, hospitality and prayer. St. Thomas frequently invited poor neighbors rather than the rich or powerful to dine with his family. Upon learning that a woman in his household or in the neighborhood was undergoing childbirth, he would offer prayers for the mother and child.There were at least four tutors in More’s household during the childhood years of his offspring. It was More’s belief that an outside tutor had the ability to mold the character of his children and to instill in them a desire for acquiring such virtues as modesty and wisdom. Learning itself, however, was clearly secondary to the attainment of virtue, and the pursuit of wealth and beauty had no place in the curriculum of More’s academy. In order to obtain true learning, More urged his tutors to introduce his children to the works of the church fathers, especially St. Jerome and St. Augustine.
The major evil that More singled out to his tutors was pride, which he believed took root in the child soon after birth. He blamed its cultivation on the adults who cared for infants and young children. More hated pride because it was contrary to the message of Christ in the Gospel wherever Christ exhorted adults to imitate the ways of children. The household curriculum was focused on Latin and Greek, but there was also instruction in mathematics, astronomy, logic, philosophy, theology and music.
More was also anxious to arouse the problem-solving interests of his family. He employed the elements of a mystery in which there were no right or wrong answers. Each child was given the freedom to devise their own solution and in the process to reveal his or her ingenuity. More clearly saw himself as the temporary custodian of his children, whom he believed were gifts from a providential God. More displayed affection toward all his children by composing special poems for them. His chief motive was to give them pleasure.
As a parent, More was mindful of his responsibility to be a disciplinarian and used corporal punishment in dealing with his offspring, but his gentle manner prevented him from exercising a heavy hand. He compared his “whip” to a “peacock’s tail.” Because More was aware of his own deep emotional attachment to his offspring, he deliberately chose tutors for his children who would mitigate his own indulgent relationship with them. Central to More’s household curriculum was the importance of the father as role model. He believed that moral virtue is achieved with practice and that teachers of children must themselves be of pure character. In order to balance the classical education of his children, More collected different animals, ranging from birds to weasels, on his estate. He also took interest in observing the stars and planets and took delight in weather forecasting.
Knighted by Henry VIII, More was appointed Lord Chancellor of England in 1529 while serving as a judge. After three years, More submitted his resignation because he opposed the king’s plan to marry Anne Boleyn after he had annulled his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon. Both More and Bishop Fisher were then imprisoned in the Tower of London. Even the efforts of his family to induce him to comply with the decrees of King Henry were fruitless. At his ensuing trial, More said to the jury: “You must understand that in things touching consciences, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience and to his soul than to any other thing in all the world beside.”
Although More refused to say why he would not take the Oath of Supremacy, he was found guilty on false evidence and condemned to death. Once convicted, St. Thomas denied categorically that a temporal lord could or ought to be head of the spirituality – that is the head of the Church of England.
For a brilliant retelling of the life of Thomas More see Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons” (film and play). Yale University Press has published a critical edition of More’s writings in English translation between 1963 and 1998. The best biography of St. Thomas More is by Richard Marius, which was published by Harvard University Press in 1984.
– Richard De Molen is priest at Our Lady of Tahoe Catholic Church
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