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Thomas More Power to 'em

November 18, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL | William Lobdell is the religion reportor-editor for The Times' Orange County edition. His column runs Saturday. His e-mail address is

Lawyer's Prayer

Give me the grace, Good Lord,

to set the world at naught;

to set my mind fast upon thee

and not to hang upon the blast of men's mouths;

to be content to be solitary;

not to long for worldly company

but utterly to cast off the world

and rid my mind of the business thereof.

--St. Thomas More

What do you call 20 attorneys who keep silent for an entire weekend?

Nice try, but "a good start" and "bliss" don't count. This isn't a lawyer joke.

What you'd call the tight-lipped counselors is this: members of the burgeoning St. Thomas More Society, a loosely knit group of Orange County legal professionals who meet monthly to deepen their Catholic faith.

Last weekend, the lawyers and judges went on a silent retreat to the Marywood Center in Orange, where they heard a series of talks by local priests, prayed, read and sometimes just zoned out.

"Sometimes the opportunity to just do nothing is a purging experience," said Dave Belz, a Laguna Niguel personal injury attorney and co-founder of the society.

The organization was founded in 1995 by six attorneys who were trying to figure out how to better practice their faith amid their legal battles and long hours at the office.

"We really needed to do something that created a community among Catholic lawyers," co-founder Anne Lanphar said. "If we got to know each other, we could support each other."

The organization now has more than 900 people on its mailing list, publishes a 12-page monthly newsletter (plus its own Web site: and attracts more than 50 lawyers and judges to its monthly meetings.

The informal lunch meetings, open to the public, feature both personal testimonies and educational speakers. For November, the society board members brought in University of Dallas professor Gerard Wegemer, who wrote "A Portrait in Courage: The Life of St. Thomas More." Past speakers included the head of the C.S. Lewis Foundation and a panel of five judges who talked about how the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola changed their lives.

The society is named after Thomas More, a 16th century Catholic lawyer and writer (author of "Utopia") who became chancellor of England and chief advisor to King Henry VIII. But when faced with choosing between his faith and his ambitions, More chose his Catholicism, though it cost him his life. He was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to switch his religious allegiance from the pope to the king.

His last words: "I die the king's good servant and God's first."

"He was a great lawyer," said Belz, pointing out that an independent panel of English scholars recently named him Britain's attorney of the millennium. "But he also had this incredible insight into the spiritual. He was a man for all seasons."

The society's ideals are based on the life of More, the patron saint of lawyers and judges. The founders wanted to create an organization where Catholic attorneys and judges could encourage each other, educate themselves and "promote and foster high ethical principles in the legal profession."

"How he lived his life," Lanphar said, "is pretty awesome that it rang across 500 years."

An attorney's faith can be easily shaken or even forgotten when it goes head-to-head with the adversarial nature of the job, the chase of the money and the length of the workday.

And legal wins, money and long hours often add up to an empty feeling.

"You get to a point in your practice where your focus is so one-sided on the material and on success that you start to realize that it just isn't enough," Belz said. "You start to reexamine the spiritual side."

Attorneys who join the society include practicing Catholics who want to strengthen their faith, returning Catholics, and non-Catholics who simply want to know more.

Next month's newsletter includes an essay by Superior Court Judge Mary Fingal Erickson, who returned to her Catholic roots after spending nearly three decades as a Protestant.

She writes movingly: "I feel as if I have fallen in love in a new and deeper way with our Lord, who gives himself to us in the Eucharist. I am ever grateful for my Protestant journey, which ignited my love for the Bible and Christian fellowship. . . . I long for the day when all Christians will be united around the table of the Lord."

The society has no dues, mandatory requirements or even long-term goals.

"We don't have an agenda nor a strategic plan," Belz said. "The organization is not driven by a bunch of individuals. It's been driven by inspiration from the Holy Spirit."

The organization's success has attracted the attention of lawyers throughout the country, including those in Los Angeles, Iowa and Pennsylvania wanting to form their own St. Thomas More Society.

But don't ask the founders if they feel proud of what they've accomplished.

"Thomas warned lawyers and nonlawyers to be very, very cautious and careful of pride," Belz said. "Thomas felt that pride was one of the biggest problems for lawyers and judges. When they became prideful, they had a tendency to focus on their own needs. The lawyer's true purpose is to be a servant to the client."

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