I once asked a friend who is a direct descendant of a very famous person why she kept quiet about the matter. She gave me a straight look and muttered something about it being ‘rather a lot to live up to’. As we were drinking some very good champagne at the time (even in the Cambridge of the 1970s), and her distinguished forebear was, among other things, a fervent advocate of teetotalism, I saw her point. One wouldn’t want to be compared unfavourably or accused of not living up to his example. It is much the same for those with a saint in the family. It is a great honour, but often a challenging one. I was taught by a descendant of St Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret; joined a community founded, inter alia, by his great-great-grandaughter, Helen, later D. Gertrude More; and for many years lived in a house owned by the Eyston family, who are descended from the saint via Maria Teresa Metcalfe, who married Charles Eyston in 1814 (see here for genealogy). Sadly, I haven’t become holy by association; and when I think of all the Recusant families which found it convenient to conform during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I wonder whether we don’t try to flee the greatness of our ancestors. They were just too good for us.
Fisher and More challenge us today just as they challenged their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I summed it up in this way:
The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.
I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation, . . . but I am left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated.
I think today we could ask the prayers of SS John Fisher and Thomas More to help us confront the difficult questions we face and work them out with integrity and courage. As saints, we can claim them as our own; they are indeed part of our spiritual family. But they are not just ‘nice to have around’. We live in a very different world from that of the Tudors, thank goodness, but still a world in which the prevailing ideas of society may conflict with the teaching of the Church. They do so under the appearance of good. Our present equality legislation, for example, has led to some questionable outcomes which many find troubling. Each of us must decide according to conscience — that interior sense of right and wrong — but we must ensure that our conscience is properly informed. That can often mean hard work, and laying aside some good for that which is better. Fisher and More ultimately gave up their own lives for the sake of life eternal. One can’t help being humbled by such courage and faith. May we be blessed with the same in our own day.