‘Witnesses to Freedom’: Thomas More, John Fisher Relics Tour for Fortnight for Freedom
Saints who defended freedom are included in annual event honoring religious liberty.
Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the print piece.
WASHINGTON — The relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher are coming from England as part of a tour to coincide with this year’s “Fortnight for Freedom,” which begins on June 21 — the vigil of the feast of these martyrs.
Why these particular two saints? Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore thought it would be a good way for people to encounter these two great saints through their relics, explained Aaron Weldon, the religious-liberty program specialist who is coordinating this tour for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is sponsoring the event together with the Knights of Columbus.
“People here would have a chance to experience and appreciate the strength and the witness of these two martyrs,” Weldon said. “We would also have a chance to think about what it means for us today and reflect on that in regards to religious freedom.”
Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher fit precisely into this fifth-annual event’s theme: “Witnesses to Freedom.” For their refusal to assent to King Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother, and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, as well as their refusal to sign the Oath of Supremacy accepting Henry as head of the Church of England, both were martyred in 1535; they were beheaded nine days apart.
In his apostolic letter proclaiming St. Thomas More the patron of statesmen and politicians, St. John Paul II wrote, “What enlightened his conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.” St. John Fisher also fits that mold (see related story on page B5).
When both men were canonized in 1935, Pius XI said of John Fisher in his homily, “It was because of his courageous determination to defend the sacred bond of Christian marriage — a bond indissoluble for all, even for those who wear the royal diadem — and to vindicate the primacy with which the Roman pontiffs are invested by divine command.”
And of Thomas More, Pius XI observed that, “when he saw that the doctrines of the Church were gravely endangered, he knew how to despise resolutely the flattery of human respect, how to resist, in accordance with his duty, the supreme head of the state when there was question of things commanded by God and the Church, and how to renounce with dignity the high office with which he was invested.”
The faithful can ponder such witness when More and Fisher’s relics arrive from Stonyhurst College in England for what is titled the “Strength of the Saints” tour. It begins June 18 in the Archdiocese of Miami and ends in the Archdiocese of Washington on July 5. There will be nine stops from coast to coast (see information at end of story).
The Minnesota Catholic Conference is going all out to make sure the relics travel to each of the state’s six dioceses over three days.
Jason Adkins, the executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and a lawyer, thinks it’s “a great idea because St. Thomas More has become such a popular saint in the Catholic world.” He noted how the saint came to the attention of millions of Americans through the awarding-winning play and movie A Man for All Seasons.
“He’s often invoked as a model of witness against states that overextend authority and extend jurisdiction over which they have no authority,” said Adkins, noting St. Thomas More’s stand against Henry VIII’s usurpation of the Pope’s role, in which Henry named himself supreme head of the Church of England. “At the same time, [Cardinal] John Fisher was also a faithful son of the Church.”
Indeed, St. John Fisher openly opposed Henry’s divorce from Catherine; he became the only bishop in England to refuse to take the oath recognizing Henry’s authority over church matters.
Adkins finds this relic tour perfectly timed because “we face difficult challenges in the Church today,” he said.
He pointed out the difficult times the Church has been dealing with in Minnesota, particularly the filing for bankruptcy in 2015, the sex scandals and the demoralizing effect the ruling on same-sex “marriage” has had.
“Minnesota is on the front end of these political dynamics,” he noted. The relics will help people put this challenge into a historical perspective by remembering challenges the Church has also had to face in the past and the responses given to those challenges, he said.
“The people here in the archdiocese need the strength of the saints,” he said. This “Strength of the Saints” relics tour “brings Thomas More as a model of witness and an intercessor for grace for the people in our diocese.”
Example of Martyrs
“Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat? Sadly, it is,” wrote the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty in “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom statement.
The statement highlights that religious freedom “is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile.”
The bishops further highlight George Washington’s own words that “the establishment of civil and religious liberty was the motive that induced me to the field of battle,” and they point out Pope Benedict XVI’s words in his January 2012 address to the bishops of the United States.
Benedict told them: “Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”
And this year’s relics tour dovetails with the Fortnight for Freedom, because, as the U.S. bishops note in their statement, the liturgical calendar “celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power,” beginning with Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More and followed by St. John the Baptist and Sts. Peter and Paul, all within the fortnight’s first nine days.
“He’s so relevant in everything we do,” said Tom Olp, referring to St. Thomas More. Olp is a lawyer with the nonprofit Thomas More Society in Chicago.
More is a perfect symbol for these times, Olp said. “He had his limits on how much he would accept. He did not allow those limits to be wiped away by public opinion, and even by his family. He stood up, went to the mat and was executed for his beliefs.”
As did Fisher:
Pius XI, in his canonization homily, described Fisher on his way to the scaffold as raising prayers in supplication for himself, for his people and for his king. “Thus did he give another clear proof that the Catholic religion does not weaken, but increases, the love of one’s country.”
MORE INFO (Note: The Philadelphia date has been updated since this story went to press.)
What: Tour of Relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher
June 18-19: Archdiocese of Miami
June 21: Archdiocese of Baltimore
June 23: Diocese of Pittsburgh
June 25: Archdiocese of Philadelphia
June 26-27: Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul
June 28-29: Archdiocese of Denver
June 30: Diocese of Phoenix
July 1-3: Archdiocese of Los Angeles
July 4-5: Archdiocese of Washington
- June 12-25, 2016