Relics of Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher draw crowds in Minnesota

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Bovin, Catholic Spirit

By Maria Wiering

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) —
Hundreds of Catholics crowded into the Cathedral of St. Paul to venerate the
relics of two English saints who are known as icons of religious liberty
because of the circumstances of their martyrdom.

Relics of St. Thomas More and
St. John Fisher, whose lives spanned the 15th and 16th centuries, were viewed
at the cathedral June 26 as part of a national tour coinciding with the
Fortnight for Freedom.

A prayer service was part of the
event and included eucharistic adoration, a Gospel reading and presentations on
the martyrs from John Boyle, professor of theology and Catholic studies at the
University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and Jan Graffius, curator at Stonyhurst
College in England, which holds the relics.

The faithful waited up to an
hour to process up the cathedral’s center aisle to the Communion rail, where
the relics were displayed in two simple glass boxes. People briefly kneeled and
prayed before the relics; many touched the reliquaries or pressed rosaries,
medals or other holy objects against them.

Boyle’s presentation did not
focus on the saints’ stance on religious freedom as much as “how they did
it” — how their daily practices fostered a life of deep faith and the
formation, confidence and courage they needed to face martyrdom.

“They did not set out to be
martyrs, but when the time came, they were ready,” he said.

Generally better known today
than his contemporary St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More daily spent early
morning hours in a library and chapel in prayer and study — time he
prioritized despite his responsibilities as a husband, father, lawyer and the
first layman to serve as chancellor of England. He also regularly attended Mass
and confessed his sins.

St. John Fisher also was known
for a deep love of the Catholic Church, despite the failings of its clergy that
played a role in the Protestant Reformation, which was underway during his

Both men began serving King
Henry VIII early in their vocations. St. John Fisher taught the young Henry as
a boy; St. Thomas More was adviser and friend to the king and his first wife,
Catherine of Aragon. Contemporaries described both men as good, virtuous and

“Goodness, virtue and holiness:
This is the secret to the lives and martyrdom of these two saints,” Boyle
said. “They worked hard at knowing and loving their sweet savior, Jesus

Prayer, study and discipline
helped them discern what was right, and how to act rightly, he said.

After the king divorced
Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533 without an annulment from the pope, he
severed ties with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. He
demanded England’s bishops sign a document acknowledging him as head of the
church. Only one — Bishop John Fisher — did not.

Later, King Henry required all
men who held office in England to recognize his marriage to Boleyn by signing
the Act of Succession, which confirmed that his children with Boleyn were
legitimate heirs to the throne. Again Bishop Fisher abstained, as did Thomas
More, who had since resigned his position as chancellor.

Both men studied the king’s
divorce with great care, Boyle said, and deliberated over their responses.

“They understood with
remarkable clarity what was at stake at that time, which was an attack on the
church,” he said.

St. Thomas More and St. John
Fisher were imprisoned for treason in the Tower of London for months. They were
beheaded 14 days apart in 1535; Bishop Fisher was 65, Thomas More was 57.

The relics on tour are a
personal ring with a cameo of the philosopher Aristotle that St. John Fisher
wore throughout his life, and a tooth and jawbone of St. Thomas More that his
daughter, Margaret, saved from his severed head, which she received after it
had been exposed on London Bridge.

The relics were passed down in
the More family before being received into the care of Stonyhurst College’s
relic collection, England’s largest. The Jesuit school in Lancashire formed in
1593 and, from its founding, aimed to preserve Catholic manuscripts, relics and
other holy objects at risk of loss or destruction during the English

Catherine Hartman, 79, and Helen
Quast, 86, who are both parishioners of St. Bonaventure Church in Bloomington,
said they learned of St. Thomas More as Catholic school students and welcomed
the opportunity to venerate his relics.

“It’s nice to come to any
kind of veneration,” Quast told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the
Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“It was wonderful,”
Hartman added. “It just gives you a feeling of awe.”

Sarah Kunkel, 38, a
self-described history buff, brought her son, Thomas, 9, to venerate the
relics. St. Thomas More was one of the saints for whom her son is named, she

“I wanted him to see
this,” said Kunkel, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in New
Brighton. “It’s such a strong character, a strong intellectual standing up
to King Henry VIII at that time. I’ve always been inspired by that.”

George Younes, 38, a parishioner
of St. Maron Church in Minneapolis, brought three of his four young children to
venerate the relics. He said religious liberty issues — such as the Little
Sisters of the Poor’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services mandating contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act
and political attacks on marriage and family — have piqued his recent interest
in St. Thomas More.

The martyrs’ examples challenged
him “to look at all controversial issues in the light of Christ’s church
and be prepared to accept the consequences to our own lives by following the
decrees of his church,” he said, “whether that means we are
ostracized, we are criticized or even if we lose our own life; it is better
than losing our soul.”

In St. Cloud June 27, Jean and
Joe Schmitz were among hundreds who gathered at St. Mary’s Cathedral to
venerate the two saints’ relics.

“These English martyrs are
reminders for us to really be thankful for our religious freedom. It’s not to
be taken lightly,” Jean Schmitz told The Visitor, the diocesan newspaper.
“These two saints also stand for those Christians right now who are being
martyred around the world.”

She said she is a longtime fan
of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher.

Prior to the veneration, over
100 people attended a showing of the 1966 classic film about St. Thomas More,
“A Man for All Seasons.” Hundreds more attended the Holy Hour with eucharistic
adoration led by St. Cloud Bishop Donald J. Kettler, evening prayer with
Scripture and song and a brief presentation on the relics by Graffius, the

“These relics remind us that
faith is a gift,” Graffius said. “It is a gift that comes with a price tag, and
we will all at some point in our life be asked to pay for our faith. It may be
through persecution. It may be through ridicule. It may be through emotional or
financial penalty. You may be asked, as Thomas and John were, to pay the final
and ultimate sacrifice of defending your faith.”

In his remarks, Bishop Kettler
said that, as Catholics and Americans, faith and liberty are gifts and “to be
Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other.”

“Our Catholic faith calls us to
work together for the common good of all, all who live in this land. We are
stewards of the gifts of faith and liberty. These gifts are not just for
ourselves but for all people and in fact, for all nations,” he said.

He added that religious liberty
is not only about the freedom to go to Mass on Sunday.

“It is about whether we can make
freely a contribution to the common good of all, to immigrants and refugees, to
protect those yet to be born and for those approaching the end of life, to help
to provide for all family unity, education, health care, food and housing,” he

Following the six stops in
Minnesota, the relics were in Denver and Phoenix, to be followed by Los Angeles
and Washington. The relic tour already stopped in Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh
and Philadelphia.

The “Strength of the
Saints” tour is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as
part of the Fortnight for Freedom, two weeks of prayer, education and advocacy
for the cause of religious freedom in the United States June 21-July 4. The
Knights of Columbus is a co-sponsor.

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Wiering is editor of The
Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Contributing
to this story was Kristi Anderson, a multimedia reporter at The Visitor,
newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

– – –

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