This is not my last hero—just the last one I’ll be writing about in any detail. He is St Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons.
I learned about More early on in childhood, reading lives of the saints, but my visual imagination was formed by the great movie and Paul Scofield’s incredible performance (along with many others, including Robert Shaw’s King Henry VIII and Orson Welles’ Cardinal Wolsey). The following year I was in a production of the play upon which the movie’s screenplay was based (adaption done by the playwright, Robert Bolt—who also wrote the screenplay for The Mission).
In college in a Church History seminar we read an old but classic biography by R W Chambers, and that really clinched my love of this great saint of conscience. It led me to read more of the “primary sources,” including More’s own writings and the first biography, by his son-in-law Will Roper. What I learned from all this was the amount of historical quotations that found their way into Bolt’s play.
Seminary gave me the opportunity to act in another production of the play, but by then I’d been teaching the play in 12th grade Theology class for close to ten years. And yes, I have the entire play virtually memorized! Since then I have found another wonderful biography, by Peter Ackroyd—very evocative especially of the London of More’s youth.
More is especially important to me because too often these days people will invoke “freedom of conscience” to do what they want to do (Newman has a devastating analysis of this in his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”). In St Thomas’ case, though, conscience was the need to remain faithful even when faced with loss of property, status, and life. His original sentence, people probably don’t realize, was to be hanged and cut down alive, castrated, disemboweled, and then finally beheaded and quartered. Only at the last minute did Henry VIII “commute” the sentence to simple beheading. He stood for conscience in ways the early Christian martyrs did—found guilty by an act of perjury, even as some of them were similarly betrayed to the Roman authorities. He was indeed “The King’s true servant, but God’s first.”
There are others I could write about (but won’t)—they would include names like St Ignatius of Antioch, St Augustine (with whom I have a real love/hate relationship), Pope St Gregory the Great, Dorothy Day, Blessed Charles de Foucauld (another one for whose canonization I would love to be in Rome), Marc Chagall, and yes—Ernie Banks! But I’ll spare you those, only to encourage you to check some of these names out. You might find a hero or two for yourself from this list.