Relic tour for fortnight highlights saints’ courage, religious liberty

Paintings of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher (CNS composite)

Paintings of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher (CNS composite)

By Kristi Anderson
Catholic News Service

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (CNS) — A nationwide tour of relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, two 16th-century martyrs who exemplified courage and conviction in the face of persecution, is part of the U.S. Catholic Church’s Fortnight for Freedom observance this year.

Both men were executed by King Henry VIII for their Catholic beliefs.

The “Strength of the Saints” relic tour will go to Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington. The tour is sponsored in part by the Knights of Columbus and organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops along with Jesuit-run Stonyhurst College in Clitheroe, England.

“Witnesses to Freedom” is the theme of this year’s June 21-July 4 fortnight observance.

The relics will travel with Jan Graffius, curator of collections at Stonyhurst, where they are kept.

“Relics are reminders of people we love,” Graffius told The Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud, one of the stops on the tour. “Parents keep baby shoes, locks of hair (and) birthday cards as reminders of those who are important to us. A physical object such as the More relic reminds us that he was a human being, and by viewing it, we find ourselves closer to him as a person.

“It is a prompt for reflection, examination and inquiry,” she said. “And, hopefully, that experience can bring us closer to Thomas More and John Fisher as human beings and encourage us to learn more about them.”

The June 26-28 Minnesota portion of the tour is being organized by the state’s Catholic conference. The relics tour was in Miami June 18-19 and in Baltimore June 21-22. The other tour dates and cities are: Pittsburgh, June 23-24; Philadelphia, June 25; Denver, June 28-29; Phoenix, June 30; Los Angeles, July 1-2; Washington, July 4.

In Minnesota, the first stop is June 26 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. The next day the relics stop in the Duluth and Crookston dioceses and then arrive at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. Bishop Donald J. Kettler will celebrate an evening Holy Hour to pray for religious freedom. On June 28 they go to the New Ulm and Winona dioceses.

The relics include a piece of bone from St. Thomas More enclosed in a 16th-century crystal-and-silver reliquary and St. John Fisher’s signet ring set with a cameo of Aristotle.

Graffius said St. Thomas More’s skull was rescued by his daughter, Margaret, from a spike on London Bridge. There are very few bone relics of the saint, and this one came to the college through descendants of Margaret, she said.

“The ring is important because it was a personal possession of John Fisher, and there are very few items belonging to him in existence,” Graffius said. “The cameo of Aristotle reminds us that Fisher was a great scholar and a humanist, and that the church has long depended on Aristotle’s explanation of physical appearances to help explain transubstantiation.”

Graffius, who works with schoolchildren, said the most powerful teaching aid is a real object they can experience firsthand.

“To be close to More and Fisher’s relics is to bring their world closer to us,” she said. “My experience is that most people are deeply moved when they see these relics and the many hundreds of others that we look after at Stonyhurst. It is a tangible reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors centuries ago.”

All people have a right to worship and practice their faith according to their consciences.

“That’s religious freedom,” said Barry Hudock, a publisher at Liturgical Press in Collegeville and the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey Toward Vatican II.”

“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution defends it, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights insists upon it and, more recently, the Catholic Church proclaims it,” he told The Visitor.

Over the past several years, the U.S. bishops have taken “an intense interest” in the issue of religious freedom, in part because of concern over the way the federal government, as part of the Affordable Care Act, mandated that most religious employers cover contraception in their health insurance plans even if they are morally opposed to such coverage.

“The bishops are right to be troubled, and everyone should be, because a government that can ignore conscience protections for one group can ignore it for others, too,” he said.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the state’s bishops, said U.S. bishops are “rallying American Catholics to reflect on the importance of religious liberty because this cherished right is under serious attack, both at home and abroad.”

“Domestically, government at all levels is trying to force organizations and individuals to violate their deep-seated convictions as a requirement for full participation in society,” Adkins said.

“Those who do not comply often find their vocation to public service thwarted by the state,” he said, “as we have seen with adoption agencies who have refused to place children in homes without a mother and father, small businesses owners who decline to participate in same-sex ‘wedding’ ceremonies, and religious institutions and orders who refuse to comply with the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.”

The government is “essentially telling people of faith that their religious beliefs are all right on Sundays if they’re kept in church, but aren’t welcome at work or in the public square,” Adkins said.

Concerns about religious liberty extend to other issues as well, Hudock said. For example, he said, “local and state governments try to interfere with the church’s ministry to migrants and refugees. And we have a presidential candidate calling for a complete ban on people entering the country based solely on religion.”

But all of that, he added, “pales in comparison to threats to religious freedom faced by people in other parts of the world.”

“Christians and others are not only prevented from practicing their faith, but in some cases are persecuted and killed because of it,” he said. “The atrocities committed against Christians in the Middle East are particularly appalling, and Christians suffer other assaults against their physical persons in countries like China and Pakistan.”

Added Adkins: “Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher are powerful intercessors, who are ready and willing to support the faithful now as we stand up for religious liberty. … Let’s hope that we’ll never face persecution for our faith, but pray that we’ll have the same resolve and trust in God to endure it if we must.”

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Anderson is a multimedia reporter at The Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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