The Sadness of Christ is the last and unfinished work of St Thomas More. He had written many works, mainly fighting the new heresies that were rampant and were causing huge damage within Catholic Europe. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London between April 17, 1534 to July 6, 1535, the day he was taken to the block and executed for high treason. And what was his treason? Refusing to accept Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church.
It would seem ironic that St Thomas More died for supporting the Papacy because the bishops of his day did little to oppose the various heresies, notably the spread of Protestantism, and also because the reigning Pope at the time badly handled the pressing issue of the day, notably Henry VIII’s wish to divorce his lawful wife. Henry VIII’s wish was met with silence and acquiescence by the English bishops – most were only too compliant and signed the Oath of Supremacy – with the result that within a few years English Catholics, while continuing with their devotions and Mass attendance, were in fact in schism and cut themselves off from the Roman Catholic Church.
All but one English bishop and much of the clergy in Henry VIII’s reign took the Oath and thereby cut themselves off from the Roman Catholic Church. The only faithful bishop, St John Fisher, had this to say moments before his execution: “I am come here to die for Christ’s Catholic Church.”
St John Fisher and St Thomas More both understood that liking or not liking a Pope was not the issue; rather, recognizing the Pope as the supreme Pontiff– whether good or bad – is a Catholic teaching which can never be dispensed with.
The English Catholics were faced with two options: Face martyrdom or hide behind blind ignorance and fear. The first was lamentable but Catholic; the second was understandable but unCatholic.
And the executions were to continue for nearly 150 years.
St Thomas More spent the last 15 months of his life in the Tower in quiet recollection preparing for death and writing spiritual works. The Sadness of Christ was unfinished because all writing material was taken from him and he was executed within a few days.
St Thomas More understood fallen human nature and he knew history. He therefore had a good grasp of the seriousness of his own situation and of that of England, and, no doubt, of that of Europe. When writing The Sadness of Christ he was warning that the sadness which Christ experienced in the garden of Gethsemani was going to be played out yet again: While the apostles sleep, evil wins.
St Thomas More did not mince words. He called the high-priests who conspired to kill Christ “bishops”. He compared the bishops of his day to the apostles who fell asleep during Christ’s passion in the garden. He writes: “…this similitude of apostles thus sleeping may aptly be applied unto those bishops which lie carelessly and sleep full sound, while virtue and true religion are like to run to ruin… like a sort of swine wallowing in the mire, lie fast sluggish in the dead sleep of their mischievous blind affections, as men all drowned and drunken with the pleasant must of the devil, the flesh, and the world” (p 56).
While the apostles – bishops – were asleep, the power of darkness and its minions unleashed their power. St Thomas More used the words of Christ to speak to his “own countrymen and bishops” who gave in and co-operated with “the power of darkness”:
“In darkness be ye, while ye ascribe my death to your own strength, and in darkness shall be your president Pilate too, as long as he shall proudly boast that he hath authority either to quit me or crucify me, who albeit mine own countrymen and bishops shall deliver me into his hands, should have no power for all that upon me, were it not given him from my Father above. And for that cause the more is their offence that shall betake me unto him. But this is your hour and the short power of darkness. And he that walketh in darkness wotteth not whither he goeth” (p 103 – 104).
And so, while the bishops slept, the Faith in England was slowly extinguished. And blind ignorance was no excuse:
“So do ye neither see nor know what ye do. Therefore will I pray myself for ye that you may have pardon for that you work against me. Yet pardon shall ye not all attain, nor blind ignorance will not excuse you all neither, since you are the very cause of your ignorance yourselves. Ye put away the light yourselves, ye first pluck out both your own eyes yourselves, and after that other men’s too, so that the blind leadeth the blind, till ye both fall into the pit” (p 104).
The Sadness of Christ was meant to be a wake-up call for St Thomas More’s generation. Alas, only a happy few responded.
The sadness of Christ in Gethsemani is meant to be a wake-up call for every generation.
Today’s bishops are sleeping!
Will we respond?
Or will the sadness of Christ continue?
Work cited: The Sadness of Christ, Thomas More, 2008, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 124 pages