By Bishop James Conley
“We cannot go to heaven,” St. Thomas More once wrote, “in feather-beds.”
He meant that the way to salvation is not comfortable, and it does not abide laziness. He meant that to be followers of Jesus Christ—to be his disciples, and to be saints—we are called to act in this world for the Kingdom of God, and for the salvation of souls. He meant that serving God requires sacrifice, self-denial, and an acceptance that the Catholic faith is an all-encompassing way of life, that we cannot compartmentalize our religion, that we have to be all in—all the time.
St. Thomas More knew from experience the kind of sacrifice the Christian life demands. He was a lawyer, an adviser to the King, and eventually, the Lord High Chancellor of England, overseeing English courts, presiding over the House of Lords, and providing aid and counsel to King Henry VIII.
From his position of influence, More served the Church by opposing the Protestant Reformation. He developed apologetic and theological responses to Lutheran claims, fighting heresy, and defending the Church in England. He used his considerable mind, his rhetorical gifts, and his political skill for the sake of the salvation of souls, and the glory of God.
Ultimately, though, great sacrifice was required of him. In 1532, More resigned as chancellor, when his boss began to advance the idea that the king could be “Supreme Head” of the Church in England. He gave up the prestige of his position—the power and the influence that allowed him to do great good—because his integrity required him to.
Two years later, he was asked to take an oath affirming supremacy of the King over the Church in England to affirm the validity of the King’s invalid marriage. He would not repudiate the authority of the Church, or the truth of the Gospel.
In July 1535, he was found guilty of treason, and beheaded.
His feast, along with that of his fellow martyr, St. John Fisher, is June 22.
That day begins Religious Freedom Week for Catholics in the United States.
Through the intercession of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, Catholics are asked to pray, during Religious Freedom Week, that the integrity of religious believers will be respected, and that people of faith will be free to live according to their beliefs.
But Religious Freedom Week asks for more than that from Catholics. The theme of the week is “Serving Others in God’s Love.” Religious Freedom Week is intended to be a reminder that our freedom is not only the absence of coercion, it is the freedom for something: the freedom to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Religious Freedom Week is a reminder that real freedom is not just license to do what we wish, it is the ability to do what we ought—to love God, and to love our neighbor. Religious Freedom Week is a call to make the sacrifices that discipleship requires.
Our country needs the loving charity of Christians. The unborn need love. Children in foster care or situations of crisis need love. Opioid addicts, and alcoholics, and drug abusers, need love. Immigrants incarcerated, and their children in detention centers, need love. The lonely, the poor, and the marginalized, need love. Persecuted Christians and other religious believers need love.
Religious freedom is important because it allows us to do what the Lord is asking of us. But it is only valuable if we use it—if we use the freedom we have for the sake of the Gospel. If we get up from our “feather beds,” put aside our comforts, and give ourselves to the service of Christ and the service of others.
As we use the religious freedom that he was denied, and as we thank God for it, may St. Thomas More pray for us.