A Wild-West Priest Meets the Tooth of a Saint
Last week, I waited in line alongside hundreds of people at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, hoping to catch a glimpse inside a glass case that held a locket that held a jawbone that held a tooth that once helped speak St. Thomas More’s last recorded words: “God’s first.” As I gazed at the crowd, which spanned all cultures, ages, and economic backgrounds, I smiled when I thought about how my great hero, St. Thomas, had brought us all together.
Things must have been grim on July 6, 1535 when Thomas went willingly to his martyrdom, fully aware that his head was to be displayed on London Bridge, not for veneration but to be mocked and rot and fall away (along with his legacy). I smiled when I thought of the surprises God could have revealed to Thomas the very moment the blade sent his soul heavenward.
As assured as he was in God’s faithfulness, the earthly Thomas would have never imagined that nearly five hundred years after his death a fragment of his skull would be “on tour” in a yet-to-be-discovered city across the planet. To make the situation wilder, his relic visited Los Angeles on the first feast day of St. Junipero Serra, the great missionary priest and founding father of California, so the church celebrated by positioning one of Serra's vestments next to Thomas’ tooth! Both of these relics were placed aside the altar and venerated after mass. It was as if the Wild-West Franciscan priest was welcoming his brother, the English Renaissance social philosopher, to the Lord’s Supper in 2016 and a veritable cross-section of the globe was present for the event.
Tooth lockets and vintage vestments aside, a real treasure of the Church is her gathering power. It’s our catholicity that forms the Mystical Body of Christ, the transcendent reality on vivid display in this unlikely union of saints, whose lives on earth were spread far across space and time. Specifically, Thomas More and Junipero Serra were born 235 years apart and spent the majority of their lives on different continents. They also varied greatly in their spiritual callings. Thomas assumed a Petrine leadership role as a statesman, whereas Serra became the epitome of the Pauline missionary. However, it was their Johannine adoration for our Lord that drew them together: both men are revered for their piety, devotion to prayer, and intense asceticism.
It is their love and devotion for Christ that allows their biographies to read so differently and still tell the same story. That is to say, they tell the tale of a saint. As Kierkegaard reminds us, a saint is someone whose life is about one thing. Bishop Robert Barron clarifies, saying this “[does] not mean the saint lives a monotonous existence, but rather all of the elements that constitute the saint’s being are gathered around, focused upon, the Lord alone.”
For instance, one of the major elements of Thomas More’s life was his position as Lord High Chancellor to the King of England, a title that bore his national allegiance, his cultural influence, and his family’s means for provision. His role as a statesmen was so closely linked to his persona that, in fact, he didn’t just say the words “God’s first” before he went to the executioner. Those are the last two words of a longer statement. The full statement was, “I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first.” Despite his duty to the King, following God’s will was what his life was about.
I don’t know St. Junipero Serra’s last words, but I do know that a summary of his priesthood would bear the same motto. At great risk, both of these men put aside every personal comfort and relentlessly pursued God’s call in their lives until their dying breaths. Junipero was buried under the floorboards of a mission he built; Thomas was killed for defending the Church.
Today, we humble decendents of their great tradition are left to answer the call of sainthood. Whatever our age, vocation, or location, let’s reorient our lives toward that same singular focus. Through the intercession of all the saints from across the ages, may our daily interactions, major decisions, and very lives end with the priority of Christ.
Image taken from the program of the exhibition of St. Thomas More's relics at The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.