The next time someone claims that the 16th-century English Church was backward and superstitious, tell them about this ring

Washington DC

Martin Scorsese’s newly released film about Jesuit missionaries in Japan, Silence, joins other films on the courageous Jesuit missions: Black Robe, about New France, and perhaps the greatest priest film of all time, The Mission, about the Jesuits in South America. The latter was released 30 years ago, and the masterful screenplay was written by Robert Bolt, who 20 years earlier adapted his own stage play for the film A Man for All Seasons.

Thirty years after The Mission and 50 years after A Man for All Seasons, the genius of Robert Bolt – who also wrote the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago – is clearly enduring. The Bolt religious films would make good viewing over the Christmas holidays.

Bolt’s play and film were much on my mind upon visiting the St John Paul II National Shrine here in Washington, which is hosting until next March a special exhibition entitled God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of St Thomas More. The exhibition is an Anglo-American collaboration, jointly sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.

The exhibition makes available for the first time in America part of the magnificent collection at Stonyhurst, which shows the vibrancy of Catholic life in England before Henry VIII. That Charles Carroll (the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence) and John Carroll (first Catholic bishop in the United States) both studied at Stonyhurst makes this collaboration all the more suitable.

The collection is not limited to items from the life of Thomas More, though there are plenty of those, including a rather richly embroidered sleeping cap – an indication of his wealth – and relics of his hair shirt, proving that a love for comfort did not drive him.

Most impressive are the richly appointed vestments, books of hours and vessels, all of which are not only objects of piety but impressive works of art. Several are shown defaced and disfigured after Henry’s break with Rome, revealing not just a violent ecclesial rupture, but also cultural barbarism of a severe sort. Henry ordered that the name of St Thomas Becket be scratched out of every book in his realm, even those privately held.

My favourite item in the exhibition is an extraordinary ring that belonged to St John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester and court bishop who alone in the episcopate refused to bend to Henry. He was imprisoned in the Tower with Thomas More, and executed on June 22, 1535; Thomas More would follow on July 6.

Fisher’s ring is a cameo of Aristotle in a gold setting. Yes, Aristotle. I did a double take. It didn’t strike me as impious, but somewhat profane at first glance. Fisher, though – a great man of learning and chancellor at Cambridge – fully saw the heritage of Greek philosophy, mediated through Augustine and Aquinas, as belonging to an authentic Christian humanism. Next time someone accuses the English Church of the early 16th century of being backward and superstitious, awaiting enlightenment under Henry, remind him that the greatest bishop of the time wore Aristotle around his finger.

The exhibition builds toward More’s final days after Fisher’s execution and provides a surprise to all of us who learned about More through Robert Bolt – as I did, both on film and in the 2008 Frank Langella revival on Broadway. His final words, the exhibition stresses, were not what Bolt gave us. More said, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” The more familiar Bolt has “but” instead of “and”, putting a clear juxtaposition between More’s fidelity to God and the demands of his sovereign.

From the safety of the 20th century – by which time even the Anglicans recognised Thomas More as a saint – hardening the conflict between God and Caesar was understandable. Yet More went to his death concerned about his family and his (small) group of allies. If he posited a hard incompatibility between serving God and the king, a vindictive Henry might visit punishment on others. And there was the deeper point of public theology: it should be possible to serve both God and the king, as More himself had done until Henry made it impossible.

Bolt’s artistic liberty does not diminish the value of his screenplays – The Mission takes many historical liberties – but its correction in this exhibit is an important point on the 50th anniversary of the film.

The exhibition then moves to current battles for religious liberty in America and around the world. It concludes with a quotation from Chesterton, written in 1929: “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.”

That time is now.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine