Friday, July 08, 2022

The Votive Mass of St. Thomas More

Portrait of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527
Lost in Translation #76

In the 1969 General Calendar, the celebration of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More is an optional memorial on June 22, whereas in England and Wales it has the rank of a feast. Neither appeared on the universal calendar prior to that date, but in England and Wales their combined feast was celebrated on July 9 after they were both canonized in 1935. (Yes, it took four hundred years for these heroic men to be raised to the altar). I suspect that the reason for the choice of July 9 was practical. St. John Fisher was martyred on June 22, 1535, but in the 1935 General Calendar late June was rather full: June 22 was the feast of St Paulinus of Nola, and the first available feria day was not until June 27. St Thomas More, on other hand, was martyred on July 6, 1535, the Octave of Saints Peter and Paul. (More himself considered it an honor to die on the same day as St Peter, to whose See he had remained loyal at all costs). Because July 7 is the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius and July 8 that of St Elizabeth of Portugal, the first “free day” after July 6 was July 9.

In addition to a July 9 Mass for Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, which can be celebrated in the dioceses of England and Wales, there is a Votive Mass of St. Thomas More. Although it does not appear in the 1962 Roman Missal, it has been celebrated before outside of England without raising too many eyebrows (see here). Moreover, its propers are an excellent example of how the traditional liturgy tailors its petitions and lessons to the “genius” of a particular saint.[1]
The Introit is:
In Thy strength, O Lord, the just man shall joy: and in Thy salvation he shall rejoice exceedingly: Thou hast given him his heart’s desire. Ps. 20, 4 For Thou hast prevented him with blessings of sweetness: Thou hast set on his head a crown of precious stones.
These verses (Ps. 20, 1-4) are used as the generic Introit for a Martyr who is not a Pontiff, but the verse about coming before the martyr (the meaning of “preventing him”) with the blessings of sweetness holds special meaning in reference to the gentle St. Thomas More, and it anticipates a key theme of the Collect, which is:
Deus, qui beáto Thomæ Mártyri inter sǽculi illécebras et cárceris mortisque dolóres hílari fortíque ánimo crucem tuam amplecti tribuisti: concéde, quǽsumus, ejus intercessióne et exemplo, ut pro fide et justitia alácriter decertantes, ad æterna gaudia læti perveníre mereámur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who didst empower blessed Thomas Thy Martyr, amidst the allurements of the world and the pains of prison and death, to embrace Thy cross with a merry and courageous spirit: grant, we beseech, that by his intercession and example we may be quick to fight for faith and justice, and so, filled with cheer, deserve to attain eternal joys.
It is an excellent description of the witty and playful Saint. Erasmus famously called Thomas More a “man for all seasons” because he was the kind of man you wanted and could depend on in any circumstance or situation. He was a joy to be around. And his generous heart was quick to forgive, as he did when his judges condemned him to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. (Henry VIII had the sentence reduced to a beheading the night before his execution). Rather than express outrage at the unjust verdict and recoil at the gruesome way he thought he was to die, More prayed that they would all meet “merrily together” one day in heaven. The adjective hilaris, which I have translated as “merry”, is the perfect word to describe More. It is the only time that it appears in the traditional liturgy.[2]
The choice of II Maccabees 6, 18-28 for the Epistle is also distinctive: the only other time it appears in the traditional liturgy is the combined feast of Fisher and More. The passage tells the story of an old and pious scribe named Eleazar who was told by the Hellenistic occupiers of Israel to eat swine’s flesh or be executed. Eleazar chose a “most glorious death” over a “hateful life,” but his friends, moved by a “wicked pity,” suggested a clever way out: he could eat something that only looked like pork and thereby not violate the Law of Moses. Without delay Eleazar replied that it was not becoming for a man his age to dissemble, and that he would be giving bad example to the youth. “And having spoken thus, he was forthwith carried to execution.”
The Martyrdom of Eleazar the Scribe, by Gustave Doré; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
The reading is perfect for the two martyrs but especially for More. His most famous work, Utopia, is proof that he could be a master of dissembling when he wanted to. The ironic fantasy fiction is written in such a way that the bitter truth about political life is cleverly hidden by “honeyed” absurdities. (See his Letter to Peter Giles). And after his resignation from the Chancellorship of England, More could have remained quiet, but he continued to write veiled critiques of Henry VIII’s decision to marry Anne Boleyn and declare himself Head of the Church of England. It is possible that a shrewd lawyer like More could have found a loophole in the Oath of Supremacy, but instead of using a casuistic approach, he followed the path of Eleazar, even though he was not an old man but at the height of his skills.
The Gospel reading, Matthew 10, 34-42, is equally appropriate, for among other things it contains the verses: “And a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Thomas More truly and sincerely loved his country’s father, the King, but he did not love Henry more than God.
The Secret is:
Hoc sacrificium redemptiónis nostræ, quǽsumus, omnípotens Deus, clementer réspice: et intercedente beáto Thoma Mártyre tuo, pro hac familia tua placátus assúme. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Look mercifully, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, on this sacrifice of our redemption: and by the intercession of blessed Thomas, Thy Martyr, graciously accept it on behalf of this Thy household. Through our Lord.
The prayer uses language that is common in Secrets: “Graciously accept,” for example, appears thirty-one times in the Secrets of the 1962 Roman Missal either as benignus assume or, as here, placatus assume. Nor is it unusual to refer to the Church as God’s household or family (familia), but in the over hundred times that the word appears in the Roman orations, it is in the Collect or the Postcommunion rather than the Secret.
The Postcommunion is:
Sint tibi, omnípotens Deus, grata nostræ servitútis obsequia: ut hæc sancta quæ súmpsimus, intercedente beáto Thoma Mártyre tuo, nobis ad capessenda pérpetis vitæ prǽmia profícere sentiámus. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O Almighty God, may the homage of our service be pleasing unto Thee, with the result that, by the intercession of blessed Thomas, Thy Martyr, we may feel these holy things which we have received bring about a snatching up of the rewards of perpetual life. Through our Lord.
Again, the language is and is not familiar. Petitions to feel the effects of the Eucharist (sentiamus) are common in Postcommunion Prayers, but the construction of this prayer is unusually elaborate, as is the use of the verb capesso (snatch up, seize eagerly), which is nowhere to be found in the 1962 Missal. I wonder--and this would take a much more extensive study to confirm--if the diction is an implicit homage to the Renaissance humanist Latin in which More excelled.
In 1929, G.K. Chesterton wrote that “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.” As we approach the centenary of GK’s prophecy, let us pray that an increased use of the well-crafted Votive Mass of Thomas More will duly reflect the Saint’s ever-growing importance in the world today.

[1] For instance, the new Missal takes all the propers of the feast from the Common of Martyrs, with the sole exception of the Collect. And the Collect, aside from mentioning Fisher and More by name, could easily be used for any martyr since it has nothing distinctive about their lives. The new Collect is: "O God, who in martyrdom have brought true faith to its highest expression, graciously grant that, strengthened through the intercession of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, we may confirm by the witness of our life the faith we profess with our lips. Through our Lord."
[2] It appears once in the 2002 Missale Romanum, in the Oratio super Oblata for St. Philip Neri on May 26. The 2011 English edition translates the word as "cheerfully."

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