Saintly matters Annual More Award recipient honored by the Catholic Guild

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers and judges, has been described as a brilliant statesman, a witty writer, and a martyr. But in his youth, one of his un-saintly endeavors included writing bawdry poetry.

Now, almost five centuries after his death, the Catholic Lawyers Guild of the Diocese of Lansing honors one of its own each year with an award that is named after More and best exemplifies how the honoree has modeled his life on the teachings and examples set by the revered saint. Warts and all.

"We're not looking for perfection by any means," said Thomas E. Brennan Jr., current president of the Guild, "but to ability to overcome whatever challenges you might have to become the best you can be."

Brennan, 58, of East Lansing, himself an attorney and former district court judge, likened More, and the Guild's long list of award recipients, as models in the Saul/St. Paul vein. As Saul, he persecuted early Christians. Later, after a spiritual resurrection, he became one himself, was renamed Paul, and was beheaded for his deep beliefs and working in Christianity.

"St. Paul, and St. Thomas More, are beautiful examples for all of us," Brennan said. "Because we're not called for perfection. All of us have our failings and drawbacks at different times in our life, but we have to maintain the level of ethics and morals that are expected of us, or that we should expect of ourselves."

Brennan said Sts. Paul and More were able to overcome those personal failings, and both died holding true to their convictions. In More's case, while Lord Chancellor of England, he was executed in 1535 on orders of King Henry VIII after refusing to support the King in his break with the church. And while the Guild does not advocate martyrdom, it does try to foster spiritual growth and fellowship among Catholic lawyers, judges and law students, enhance appreciation for and observance of high ethical standards in the legal profession and encourage members to pay attention to justice, mercy, and faith.

The Guild was organized in 1985 and takes part in the Red Mass, part of the event that bestows the St. Thomas More Award on a worthy individual. Red Mass tradition dates back centuries ago as a ceremony to open a judicial year of a major Christian tribunal, and earned the color designation from the red vestments worn by ministers. The tradition was inaugurated in 1928 in America, and carries on now in many cities, according to the Guild's website.

The Catholic Lawyers Guild of the Diocese of Lansing took up the practice in the mid-1980s after a long drought and is an invite to colleagues of all faiths in the legal profession to pray for guidance, strength and recommitment to uphold the highest principles of the profession. It is held in honor of the Holy Spirit and opens the work of the courts in their new term.

The Guild recently celebrated the 25th Red Mass in Lansing at St. Mary Cathedral, with Bishop Earl Boyea as the celebrant, and named Lansing attorney Patrick R. Van Tiflin the recipient of the St. Thomas More Award. Van Tiflin, who could not be reached for comment, is a partner in the tax appeals department of the Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn firm.

"I think Pat embodies the kind of lawyer that we as a Guild wish to honor who exemplifies the attributes and characteristics St. Thomas More," Brennan said. "We are extremely proud to highlight his professional accomplishments and honor his deep Catholic faith."

The first St. Thomas More Award handed out here was to Gov. G. Mennen Williams in 1986, the only non-Catholic, Brennan said. Over the years, winners have included Michigan Supreme Court Justices Michael Cavanagh and Thomas E. Brennan Sr., and United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Judge James L. Ryan.

Following in a long line of influential recipients included other judges, attorneys, a state representative, and prominent religious figures including bishops, priests and nuns.

"You don't have to be an attorney to receive the award," Brennan said. "It's been a nice mix of lawyers and clergy, and is given to the person who the exemplifies the qualities and attributes we see in St. More. We like to seek out Catholic lawyers who have lived their lives and their faith in a way that makes us all proud."

A committee of board members and former recipients get together to select and discuss possible nominees for the award. Brennan sees it more as a lifetime achievement reserved for elder statesmen of the profession.

"I've been involved with the Guild for as long as I can remember," Brennan said. His father, the second winner of the More Award, founded the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1972 and later resigned from the state Supreme Court to become a Cooley dean and then its president.

Brennan said his father was instrumental in instilling in him the qualities to be a good lawyer, and a good Catholic. Brennan was an Ingham County District Court Judge for 24 years before retiring in 2004. He was instrumental in starting the Drug Court there, and now is in private practice, facilitates mediation and teaches at MSU and Lansing Community College.

"Drug court was the best thing I ever did as judge," he said.

Brennan said the Guild also sponsors annual retreats for lawyers, and sponsors speakers at a spring luncheon. It has about 300 members, but Brennan said he'd like to see it grow to include lawyers and judges in other areas of the Lansing Diocese.

"I'd like to see it on a grander scale, and foster a bit of expansion," Brennan said. "It's much too provincial, we're much 'too Lansing,' and we need to get the word out that the Guild represents an area that includes Jackson, Washtenaw, Livingston and Genesee counties.

"We're trying to nurture local fellowship among lawyers and law school students within the entire area," Brennan said.

Membership is open to all attorneys, not just the Catholics, he said, and membership is a reasonable $15 per year.

In an effort to reach a wider audience, Brennan said the Guild is working with the State Bar of Michigan to procure special purpose recognition as an affiliate. He believes if the Guild is able to secure that, it would help membership and increase its visibility.

Still, Brennan said the first 25 years of the Guild have been successful, and he hopes the next 25 years, or 50 years and beyond hold more of the same.

According to a biography on the Guild's website, More was famous for his quote as being "the King's good servant, but God's first." He also helped bring piety, order and justice to civic life. He was known as a brilliant, pragmatic and shrewd attorney, and also favored education for his daughters, as well as for his son.

More loved Greek literature, philosophy, math and music, yet had a sense of humor. And he expressed in a prayer before his execution that he and Henry VIII would meet in heaven.

But you don't have to go that far. Brennan just wants to meet you in Lansing.

Information on the Guild can be obtained by contacting Sr. Joan Meerschaert at (517) 484-5332, or by e-mailing jmeerschaert@dioceseoflansing.org.

Published: Thu, Dec 30, 2010

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