St John Fisher and St Thomas More gave their lives rather than betray their Catholic faith. They were martyred for their belief that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, and therefore no secular or royal power on earth can replace the universal authority given by God to the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, over that Church and all its members.
King Henry VIII tried to claim for himself supreme authority over the Catholic Church in England, because of his dispute with the Pope who was refusing to allow him to divorce and remarry. The Act of Parliament which declared the King to be head of the Church included a requirement for all clergy and holders of public office to take an oath acknowledging the King’s supremacy over the Church. John Fisher and Thomas More refused to take that oath. More said he was the King’s good servant, but God’s first.
Today in this country, being a faithful Catholic means adhering to a set of beliefs and a way of life which have little meaning in the eyes of most other people. We Catholics believe that Christ Jesus is the Son of God, and there is no other Name that can save us. We believe that there is hell to avoid and heaven to gain. We believe that divine worship, prayer, good works, justice – Gospel justice – are far more necessary than most of the things which the world counts as valuable.
Should we then opt out of the secular world? For the majority of Catholics that is neither possible nor desirable. In a post-Christian country we have a more difficult task. God calls us not to opt out but to opt in. He calls us to engage with an increasingly pagan society, not to condemn it, for it condemns itself, but to convert it to the knowledge and love of Christ. We win others to Christ only by peaceful means; by living that Truth which we preach, and by playing an appropriate part in serving the common good.
St John Fisher and St Thomas More knew how much it mattered to remain Catholic whatever the consequences. Their example helps us to remember that being a good Catholic need not mean sectarianism or party-spirit. But it does mean facing the fact of being different in many ways from much of the rest of modern society. It often means having to swim against the tide, as we make our way to heaven.