Cardinal's homily for Red Mass


5 October 2007

Homily given by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor at the annual Red Mass for the legal profession in Westminster Cathedral


Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ – dear Members of the Legal Profession,

There are two people I want to commend for your reflection and, indeed, imitation today. The first is someone who was a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn who was seriously considering becoming a priest, but was not sure the celibate life was for him, so he eventually decided he would rather be a first-class husband than a second-class priest. He met a young woman from New Hall in Essex whom he liked, but for some obscure reason married her sister! They had three daughters and a son but, tragically, after 6 years his wife died. During the time they were married, he became financial secretary of Lincoln’s Inn, and later under-sheriff of London. After some time in the diplomatic service when he travelled extensively in Europe, he became Lord Chancellor, but after only three years he had to resign because of a series of disagreements with the King. Three years later he was executed. No doubt you have already realised that the King was Henry VIII and the barrister was Saint Thomas More.

More was canonised in 1935, 400 years after his death, and in his homily during the Mass of canonisation the Holy Father said this about him: “a strong and courageous spirit…, when he saw that the doctrines of the Church were gravely endangered, he knew how to despise resolutely the flattery of human respect, how to resist, in accordance with his duty, the supreme head of the State when there was question of things commanded by God and the Church, and how to renounce with dignity the high office with which he was invested”.

God forbid that anyone in our time, in our country, should have to choose between life and death in order to give witness to his or her faith in Jesus Christ and in his Church. But there is every chance that some of you will already have had to face real dilemmas when aspects of the law of the land do not quite dovetail with the ethical principles that are derived from the Gospel. Being a martyr today may well mean, firstly, having the wisdom to recognise when choices have to be made between sticking to the values of the legal system and witnessing to the values of the Kingdom of heaven and, secondly, having the courage to live with the consequences of being “the King’s good servant, but God’s first”, as Saint Thomas More said on the scaffold, with that very English irony and humour that never deserted him.

You and I need role models in our lives: role models for our careers, but also for our lives as Christians. More faced difficult choices and you may well see parallels with the contemporary situation in Britain. The question of the King’s divorce challenged two important principles in Catholic teaching – the indissolubility of marriage and the authority of the Church in such matters. Some say More was cruel in the way he carried out the laws against heretics, but in reality he did his utmost to avoid the laws’ most extreme demands. We do not punish religious heresies today, but there are new orthodoxies that put other values in question. How do convinced Christians decide between competing values? I have no simple answer, but I want to remind you of some of the things that have been said about Saint Thomas More over the centuries, because they put a human face on your task. I hope some of you may find aspects of this remarkable man that could be part of the way you carry out your tasks.

The other is someone called Therese Martin who entered Carmel when only 15. She followed the rule until she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Her life was undistinguished but she pioneered a way of living the Christian life – the little way – described in her autobiography The Story of a Soul. The extraordinary effect of that book – its popularity – in all European countries and the many miracles due to her intercession led to her canonisation in 1925. She was, of course, Therese of Lisieux – whose feast day is today. Her little way is fidelity in small things, trust and complete surrender to God. Therese had wanted to go on the missions but her health made it impossible, so she offered up her day by day prayer, suffering the little things, small acts of charity and self-sacrifice – her apostolate of the love of God in Jesus Christ. She offered it up for the mission of the Church. She is a saint for our day.

You, dear and distinguished members of the legal profession – have your public life of the practice of the law. So I commit you to the intercession of your Patron, Thomas More. More, as Jonathan Swift said “was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced. And as Robert Whittington said, “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. He is a man of many excellent virtues; I know not his fellow. For where is the man (in whom is so many goodly virtues) of that gentleness, lowliness and affability, and as time requires, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes and sometimes of steadfast gravity – a man for all seasons”.

But I also commend the little way of St. Therese of Lisieux. It is difficult today to bear witness to Christ without an interior spiritual life, of day by day prayer, self-sacrifice, reading of the Word of God – If anyone loves me he will keep my word and my father will love him and we shall come to him and make our home with him. The little way of St. Therese is for all of us – wanting to be holy but so conscious of our frailty. St. Thomas More – St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.

Photographs available on request

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