On an unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in October, Cardinal Raymond Burke visited the parish church of St. Dunstan in Canterbury, England, where he prayed at the resting place of St. Thomas More’s head — the only first class relic of the 16th century martyr.
“I was deeply moved to pray there, for all who are in similar situations as he was: jurists and members of government who have such a heavy responsibility for the common good which he understood could only be served by serving divine law,” the cardinal told the Register Oct. 15.
St. Thomas More was executed by beheading in 1535, after refusing to recognize King Henry VIII’s self-granted annulment from Catherine of Aragon, and his refusal to take an oath recognizing Henry as head of the Church of England. In a famous final statement, he said he died "the king's good servant and God's first."
Widely remembered as a man of tremendous integrity and heroic witness, More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, and Pius XI canonized him on May 19, 1935. His feast day is June 22, and he is the patron saint of adopted children, lawyers, civil servants, politicians, and difficult marriages.
Following his death, More's decapitated body was buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, in an unmarked grave. His head was put on a spike on London Bridge, after which it was to be thrown in to the River Thames. But his daughter, Margaret Roper, rescued it by bribing a guard, as recalled by historian E. E. Reynolds:
“The head would have been thrown into the river had not Margaret Roper, who had been watching carefully and waiting for the opportunity, bribed the executioner, whose office it was to remove the heads, and obtained possession of the sacred relic. There was no possibility of mistake, for she, with the help of others, had kept careful watch, and, moreover, there were signs so certain that anyone who had known him in life would have been able now to identify the head.”
Margaret then brought the relic down to her home in Canterbury, opposite St. Dunstan’s church. She requested that on her death, her father’s head be buried with her, in the same vault in the church. Since the Reformation, the church has belonged to the Church of England, and the relic remains interred. Only on very rare occasions has the vault been opened. The last time was in 1997 and local parishioners remember the vault having a “sweet aroma” and peaceful atmosphere. The relic, now quite heavily decayed, sits behind an iron grill.
Cardinal Burke spent just under an hour in the church, praying above the vault and visiting the small exhibit there. The church receives many pilgrims every year, particularly from the United States. The Roper chapel has three stained glass windows dedicated to the saint, two of which were donated with the help of Americans: author and Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, Alfred J. Blasco, and members of the church of St. Thomas More in Kansas City, M.O.
“Exceptionally Important” Witness
Speaking after his visit, Cardinal Burke underlined how “exceptionally important” St. Thomas More’s heroic witness is today in defense of marriage and the family.
“Basically, he died in defense of the truth about marriage, that it’s an indissoluble union and binds the marriage in lifelong fidelity to one another,” he said. “Sometimes it’s said ‘no, he died defending papal authority,’ but it was papal authority in the sense of the Pope’s obligation to defend the truth about marriage.”
“Thomas More, as a devout layman, understood that he, too, had a responsibility in all of this and exercised it to an heroic degree,” he added.
The American cardinal, who is patron of the Order of Malta, is himself battling to defend the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage in the face of widespread threats inside and outside the Church to weaken it.
“In the Church now, even as then, people argue that many people want this, and not many bishops are speaking up to correct this confused idea about the indissolubility of marriage, and the Church has to change,” he said.
But St. Thomas More is a “sign to us” that the “Truth never changes,” Cardinal Burke continued, and that it “doesn’t matter how many people are in favor of a lie, it doesn’t make it the Truth. That is a tremendous witness for us, and should give us courage to seek the Truth about marriage and defend it.”
He added that when it comes to “non-negotiable principles, you simply can’t negotiate about something that’s false. That’s a betrayal of the Truth,” and St. Thomas More “understood that.
“When they told him so many of the king’s counselors, bishops, abbots and so forth were all in favor of this accommodation of the Truth, he said: ‘You may have these people supporting what you are doing, but I have the whole Tradition of the Church, all of the ecumenical councils and the constant teaching of the Church to defend me and I prefer to stay with our Lord and his authority handed down in the Church.’”
The cardinal stressed that the Church’s teaching has been “very clearly handed down,” and that there is “something inherently contradictory” when doctrine is “not clear.”
“We’ve always thought that confusion is the work of the devil and so we teach the Truth with all clarity, understanding people’s difficulties in living according to the Truth, but never compromising the Truth because that’s the only way anyone will find happiness in this life and in the life to come.”
The cardinal’s emphasis on the relevance of More’s heroic witness today echoes a prediction made by G.K. Chesterton. Writing in 1929, he wrote:
“Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.”
Cardinal Burke said he was “deeply grateful” for the possibility to pray at the place of the head’s burial, and said he “sincerely” hopes that “somehow this relic could be more prominently displayed so that it could be a source of inspiration and also a grace for people to be able to see the relic, and to pray before it and venerate it.”
The cardinal left this prayer of St. Thomas More at the church:
“Grant us, O Lord,
the royalty of inward happiness
and the serenity which comes
of living close to You.
Do You daily
renew in us
the sense of Joy,
so that by The Spirit
we may bear about us
of a good courage.”