John McCain in his book entitled “Character is Destiny” tells us that Sir Thomas More surrendered everything for the truth as he saw it, and shamed a king with the courage of his conscience. Thomas was a brilliant student. He loved learning, and would for the rest of his life prefer the less prestigious but more satisfying rewards of a scholar to the riches and power of the king’s court. He was part of a movement called humanism, whose followers were faithful to the Church but hoped to encourage a better understanding of the Gospels and their more honest application to the workings of society. They studied the great Greek and Roman philosophers, whose views on morality and just societies they believed complemented their Christian principles. They were passionate in pursuit of the truth as revealed by God, and by discovery through study and scholarly debate and discussion. They thought the world could be made gentler with Christian love and greater learning—love and learning that served not only the nobility of court and Church, but all mankind. Thomas was a devout Christian, and for a time lived in a monastery with the intention of entering the priesthood. The monastic life was one of isolation and self-denial. And though he took his religious devotion seriously, he loved the comforts of family life, and the rewards of learning and earthly pleasures as well: music and art, reading and writing, friendship and conversation and jests. He loved his city, London, then the greatest capital of Northern Europe. He loved life. So he left the cloister for a wife and family, and returned to the worldly affairs of men. His love of learning and truth was second only to his love of God, and he encouraged his children, for the sake of their happiness, to seek truth through learning as well as scripture. He cultivated friendships, and exchanged letters with some of the greatest minds in Europe, including with the Dutch priest and famous humanist philosopher Erasmus, who became More’s greatest admirer outside his family, and whose description of More became the title by which he is still remembered to this day: “a man for all seasons.” His scholarly reputation and skill as a scrupulously honest lawyer first gained the attention of the king’s most powerful counselor, the lord chancellor of England, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. An ambitious and shrewd politician, Wolsey recognized the younger man’s talents, and pressed him into the king’s service. Serving first as a diplomat, then in a series of increasingly powerful offices at court, knighted, and given lands and wealth, More became a favorite of Wolsey’s and Henry’s. And while he might have preferred the life of a philosopher, husband, and father to the rigors of public life, he no doubt took pride in the king’s confidence and favor. When Wolsey’s downfall came that would lead in time to Thomas’s death, Henry made his friend, Thomas, Lord Chancellor. It was the highest office at court, and Thomas More was the first layman to hold it. His appointment was greeted favorably by the court and public alike, for Thomas was known by one and all as an honest man, who would conscientiously discharge the duties of his office. As it turned out, he was too honest for his king. Thomas More waged an intellectual and judicial war against the followers of Luther that was at times surprisingly aggressive and even cruel for such a reasonable and just man. In the beginning, he had the king’s full support in his persecution and prosecution of “heretics.” More defended the Church out of religious principle, and because he and the king feared the uncontrollable social disorder that a permanent split among the faithful would surely cause. But his hatred, if it could be called that in such a mild man, was for the heresy and not the heretics. Death was the judgment for heretics in the courts that Thomas More governed, but he went to great lengths to encourage the accused to recant their views and escape their sentence. In fact, in the many cases he prosecuted, all the accused except for four poor souls, who went to their deaths rather than recant, escaped the headman’s ax. More was diligent in his duty, but a much more powerful threat than Luther’s protests had encouraged was growing to the Catholic Church in England. Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, had failed to produce a surviving male heir. Henry was determined to have a new wife who could give him a healthy son. Other kings and nobles had received from the pope annulments of their marriage. But the most powerful king in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was Catherine’s nephew, and he had great influence with Pope Clement VII. He persuaded Clement not to grant an annulment that would remove the crown from his aunt’s head. Once Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a scheming courtier, he would no longer accept papal opposition to his desire to remarry. In this dangerous and growing conflict, Thomas More became a central figure, and he would struggle with all his intellect, lawyer’s skills, and courage to obey his king without forsaking his church. It would prove impossible. Initially More dutifully served the king’s wishes, arguing in Parliament that there were grounds to consider the marriage to Catherine unlawful. But when the king declared himself, and not the pope, to be the supreme head of the Church in England, More offered the king his resignation. Henry refused it, and promised his friend that he would never be forced to take any action that his conscience would not permit. But the king’s assurance was hollow, and soon both he and More realized that the king’s desires and More’s conscience could not be reconciled. More again asked the king to accept his resignation, and this time, Henry agreed. For many months, he was careful not to speak against the king’s wishes, in public or in private. But he declined to attend the king’s wedding to Anne Boleyn. When Parliament passed a law requiring the king’s subjects to sign an oath recognizing Anne as queen, and any children she might bear Henry as legitimate heirs to the throne, he refused to sign it because it denied the pope’s authority over the Church in England. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there until his trial fifteen months later. The jury, which included Anne Boleyn’s father, brother, and uncle, found him guilty and sentenced him to be hanged, and drawn and quartered. Then More spoke his conscience, and said he could not in his own heart accept the king as head of the English Church. The death to which he was first sentenced would have been a far slower and more painful death than he was made to suffer in the end. Henry, mercifully, permitted his old friend and counselor to die by beheading. On the day of his execution, he had some difficulty climbing the scaffold steps. He thanked the guard who helped him, but joked that he should be allowed to “shift for myself” when he came back down. He recited a prayer of repentance. The hooded executioner, as was the custom, begged the condemned man’s forgiveness. More gave him a coin, kissed him, and thanked him for giving him a “greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me.” And then the man who had all his life loved to jest, made one last joke. As he knelt to place his head upon the block, he asked for a moment to arrange his long beard so that it wouldn’t be severed by the ax, observing that as far as he knew his beard had not offended the king. In his last address, spoken moments earlier, he had asked the crowd of witnesses to pray for his soul and for the king, for he died “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” One swift stroke and the king’s will was done. The life on earth of honest Thomas More was ended. His glory had just begun.
Today is known as Gaudete Sunday. The term Gaudete refers to the first word of the Entrance Antiphon, "Rejoice". Rose vestments are worn to emphasize our joy that Christmas is near, and we also light the rose candle on our Advent wreath.