February 24, 2017 — A new exhibit featuring artifacts of St. Thomas More has opened at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. “God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More” runs through March 31 and includes a number of artifacts from a Jesuit school in England.
“I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first,” is what St. Thomas More reportedly said before being beheaded in 1535, for refusing to take an oath recognizing that King Henry VIII had supremacy over the Church of England.
Sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Christian Heritage Centre at the Jesuits’ Stonyhurst College in England, the exhibit includes more than 60 artifacts. Most are from the Stonyhurst College Collections, one of the world’s most extensive collections of items related to the history of Catholicism in English-speaking countries.
More served as England’s Lord Chancellor, the second-in-command to the king, from 1529-32. He resigned from the post after refusing to support Henry VIII’s attempts to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, whom the monarch divorced and exiled before marrying Anne Boleyn.
A relic of St. Thomas More's tooth and jaw bone is seen through in a glass case at the St. John Paul II National Shrine. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
More was canonized in 1935, and in 2000, St. John Paul II made him the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. The pontiff said More’s life and martyrdom offered a testimony that “spans the centuries” and “speaks to people everywhere of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience.”
Relics of the saint — a piece of his jawbone and one of his teeth — and a 1624 copy of More’s most famous book, “Utopia,” are some of the artifacts on display. Many of the objects in the exhibit were given to Stonyhurst College for safekeeping by descendants of family members and friends of the martyr.
A display depicting the 1535 execution of St. Thomas More by Henry VIII is seen at the St. John Paul II National Shrine. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The number of artifacts remaining in existence is remarkable, said Jan Graffius, the curator of collections at Stonyhurst. King Henry VIII had More imprisoned in the Tower of London for more than a year before his execution, and subsequent monarchs made Roman Catholicism virtually illegal and had all traces of Catholicism wiped out. “These things bring us very close to the human beings at the center of this story,” Graffius said. “It connects us to a time when people of the past were facing the same problems we are.”
Patrick Kelly, the St. John Paul II National Shrine executive director, said that St. Thomas More’s example “remains thoroughly modern.”
“He is an eloquent example of courageous Christian discipleship, and it is our hope that this exhibit will inspire others to imitate his virtues and his extraordinary fidelity to God and to a well-formed conscience,” Kelly said.
God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More, is on display through March 31, 2017, at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine (3900 Harewood Road, N.E., Washington, D.C.). The shrine is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to jp2shrine.org. [Sources: Catholic News Service, Crux]