Holy Witnesses: Why John Fisher and Thomas More Are Saints
John Fisher and Thomas More
Keeping Their Souls While Losing Their Heads
Robert J. Conrad, Jr.
TAN Books, 2021
180 pages; $24.95
St. Thomas More shares a feast with St. John Fisher on the date of the cardinal-bishop’s death on June 22 (in 1535). Yet, probably because, as author Robert Conrad Jr. says, Fisher’s virtues aren’t celebrated in an award-winning movie like A Man for All Seasons, he has been somewhat eclipsed by More. In John Fisher and Thomas More: Keeping Their Souls While Losing Their Heads, Conrad attempts to redress this injustice in a very personal way, exploring both Fisher’s and More’s responses to Henry VIII’s usurpation of ecclesial authority in England. Throughout the book, Gardner holds both men up as models for us to follow in courage, fidelity, integrity, piety, Christian joy, perseverance and other virtues. Instead of offering a chronological dual biography, he presents a series of 12 vignettes in both men’s lives to demonstrate their practice of these virtues, culminating in their martyrdoms.
In keeping with his effort to highlight St. John Fisher as well St. Thomas More, Conrad begins his series of anecdotes in Chapter 1 on “Conscience” with Bishop John Fisher’s forthright refusal to be coerced into agreeing with the rest of the English bishops in support of Henry VIII’s actions. Conrad highlights the courage of Fisher, not taking the easy way out when the archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, declared the unanimous agreement of the bishops with Henry VIII at the Legatine Court in 1529: Bishop Fisher denies he signed the document, he denies his signature on the document is authentic, and he denies that he agrees with the document. Neither Warham’s embarrassment nor Henry VIII’s impatience dissuade him. As Conrad concludes, Fisher “spoke with strength to power nonetheless” (p. 16).
As Conrad presents examples of these martyrs’ virtuous lives, he explains how they’ve inspired him as an attorney, judge, father, husband and practicing Catholic. He appreciates More’s concern with taking an oath because Conrad knows how important oaths are in matters of justice: A witness at trial swears an oath to tell the truth during his testimony. Perjury is a serious offense, yet many urged Thomas More to take the Oath of Succession or Oath of Supremacy just to escape the Tower or the scaffold, to forswear himself, to “cross his fingers,” violating his well-formed conscience. Conrad knows that More could not do that because he shares More’s respect for the law. As he says, “these words, these commitments, undergird the integrity of our society and our very system of justice” (p. 26).
Even if all a reader knows about Thomas More is based on A Man for All Seasons, one expects Conrad to comment on More in a chapter titled “Family” (and he does). But Conrad also provides details about Fisher’s family, especially his brother Robert, who provided him material comfort while he was imprisoned in the Tower, and his step-sister Elizabeth White, whom he provided spiritual guidance, writing The Ways to Perfect Religion and A Spiritual Consolation for her inspiration as a Dominican nun, whose priory would be suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539. God only knows how much these works and her step-brother’s martyrdom inspired her as she endured the disruption of her religious vocation. These insights into St. John Fisher’s family bring forth a relatively unknown aspect of the holy bishop’s life.
The book is not without its errors, however: Conrad misquotes Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ascribing Thomas Babington Macaulay’s praise of More to Newman (p. 32), and I don’t think that after Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, a miniseries based on the first two books, and all the reviews and controversy about her depictions of More and Cromwell, we can say with Conrad that “today [Cromwell] is forgotten” (p. 37).
Conrad undercuts his own argument about Richard Rich, who betrayed both Fisher and More, by stating, “He is not heard from again” and then quoting Christopher Hollis’ résumé of Rich’s continuing service to Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, thus demonstrating that we indeed do hear from him again — and again — as Rich accommodated his convictions to the religious changes of each reign (pp. 38-39).
Far outweighing these errors, however, are the insights Conrad offers into the lives, works and thoughts of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More. One tender example in the chapter on “Family”: More’s daughter Margaret wrote a prayer she and her father could say while they were separated by his imprisonment in the Tower. Conrad comments that this prayer — found on page 68 — would have consoled More “in his deepest agony” because it demonstrated to him, “She got it! ... His daughter had listened and learned ...” as he had always hoped she would.
O Lord, give us grace of your tender pity so firmly to rest our love in you with little regard of this world, and so flee sin and to embrace virtue, that we may say with St. Paul, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” and again, “I wish to be discharged and to be with Christ.” Send me O Lord, the grace, wretch that I am far, far, farthest of all other from such point of perfection, to amend my life, and continually to have an eye to mine end, without grudge of death, which to them that die in God is the gate of wealthy life to which God of his infinite mercy bring us all. Amen. | (p. 68)
The book is gorgeously supplied with color portraits and illustrations. The appendix includes a novena of prayers to both saints with appropriate themes, prayers by More and Fisher, and a creative presentation of their achievements in résumé form.
Sts. John and Thomas, pray for us!