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Perspective: It's the More the merrier as far as the Pope and saints go.

Byline: Chris Upton

It's said by those who count up these sort of things that the present pope has created more saints than all of his predecessors put together. In addition to these appointments, John-Paul II is also looking round for a new batch of patron saints as well, to reflect the changing nature of life in the new millennium.

In June, the search began for a patron saint of the Internet, with Isidore of Seville, the medieval encyclopaedist, as the current favourite. Instead of 'Ask Jeeves' we may have a search engine called 'Ask Isidore'. E-mails in Latin and gothic font, please.

On November 5, an Englishman got in on the act. Thomas More was nominated by the pope as 'a model and intercessor for all those who consider their political commitment as a choice for life'. In short, a patron saint of politicians. Most people's acquaintance with More begins and ends with Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, so I'd better whip through the great man's life.

Born in London in 1478, Thomas More followed the tried and trusted road of political highfliers. He went to Oxford and then to the Inns of Court to train as a lawyer and moved from there to the House of Commons.

Thomas Wolsey introduced him to court and when Wolsey fell from grace in 1529, More (with some reluctance) replaced his old mentor as Chancellor of England, the highest political office in the land. But it was Thomas's misfortune to be a fervent Catholic just at the moment that the King of England was about to make such a commitment difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

Unable to accept Henry VIII as supreme head of the English Church, More first resigned the chancellorship and then went to prison. In July 1535, with More still sticking to his principles, Henry had him executed, the ex-chancellor's status allowing him the relative luxury of the executioner's axe, rather than something more unpleasant involving basic anatomy. It was in 1935, on the 400th anniversary of his death, that Thomas was canonised. No doubt his steadfast belief that the pope was the one and only head of the church helped his case in the Vatican.

Clearly St Thomas More's status as a model for politicians is somewhat selective. It does not involve the injunction to get oneself executed when the going gets tough, nor (I suppose) to his habit of scourging himself in private.

Many politicians act as though they are wearing a hair shirt, but only Thomas actually did so, along with his namesake, the old Archbishop of Canterbury, who also faced up to the wrath of a King Henry.

No, it is rather the belief that the best politician sticks to his principles, whatever slings and arrows are aimed in his or her direction.

Who takes to a position of responsibility quietly and modestly and never lets ambition get in the way of his conscience. But then, Thomas More never had to worry about getting himself elected.

What it's easy to forget is that the man who died for his conscience was not so delicate about the conscience of others. I am, he wrote in his own epitaph, relentless towards thieves, murderers and heretics. With the Commons overwhelmingly against him, More pursued those who stepped out of line with a very unsaintly ruthlessness.

In 1530, the man who in his youth had written a witty and wise satire on contemporary politics drew up a list of banned books, sending them and their authors to the bonfire whenever he could get hold of them.

In 1531 and 1532 eight men, a motley crew of leather sellers, book dealers and common lawyers, went to the stake for their Protestant beliefs and St Thomas even had a set of stocks in his own house at Chelsea to secure heretics before their trial.

So the modern politician can select which aspect of this complex and curious character he wishes to claim as a model: the wearer of hair shirts, the owner of private stocks (but not shares), the conscientious objector, the upholder of law and order or the merciless pursuer of dissidents and rebels. Enough, I'm sure, for most holders of high office to choose from.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 15, 2000
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