08/14/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Celebrating the 500-Year-Old Activist Queen Catherine Parr

England's historic Sudeley Castle is observing the quincentenary of Queen Catherine Parr (1512-2012) this year. The highlight of the six-month celebration at Sudeley, which was once Parr's home, is the Sept. 9 reenactment of her 1548 funeral -- the first Royal Protestant funeral in England.

By commemorating her birth through her death, it is a celebration of an entire, fascinating life.

Catherine Parr is more than the straight-laced, sixth queen of Henry VIII's court, who many will remember was played by Joely Richardson in the final season of Showtime's "The Tudors." The Queen was a subtle and brave, though somewhat-closeted, reformer and activist, with a mind for transforming the Church of England and for making religion accessible to the people.

Parr's efforts came at a time when the Mass and the Bible were in Latin. Millions worshipped with very little knowledge of what the church actually supported. Priests even repeated the mass without understanding the Latin they spoke. It came when the church in Rome was being challenged by Protestants (like Martin Luther) from the outside (often due to excommunication), and reformers from within the church (like Erasmus of Rotterdam).

The Queen helped to make Christianity a religion for the people, writing public prayers in English and having the works of Erasmus all translated (also into English). She pushed Henry's giant ego to bring changes to the church, even, according to one biased account of the day, nearly risking his wrath and potentially ending her life on the same sad note as his previous queens.

She was one of only a dozen women to publish in a century's time. Her first book, "Prayers or Meditations," was a re-working of Thomas à Kempis's "Imitation of Christ," which she edited for public consumption. As Janel Mueller points out, "Parr's subtle yet thorough redaction excises the monastic framework of the original work," making it "equally accessible to pious laity of both genders." She provided a "vernacular manual for private devotion to circulate along with the English translation of the Litany, a mainstay of public devotion."

Theologians of her day were often troubled by what could happen when the Bible was suddenly available for anyone, regardless of status. Parr was not.

That work was followed up by her "Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner" (1547), written during a time when some of Henry's advisors were eager for him to re-submit the church to the Pope's authority. In it she translates verses from the Bible into English and challenges the Church's problems. The work was so clearly Protestant that it had to wait for publication until after Henry's death.

Lamentation is unmistakably clear on how she understood the Church of England; she pulls no punches. In it she calls King Henry England's "Moses," who delivered the country "out of the captivity and bondage of Pharaoh," the latter being the Pope, for whom her sharp words demonstrate little appreciation.

According to her, the Pope was "a persecutor of the gospel and grace, a setter forth of all superstition and counterfeit holiness, bringing many souls to hell with his alchemy and counterfeit money, deceiving the poor souls under the pretence of holiness..." She believed his "damnation" would be greater "because he deceiveth and robbeth under Christ's mantle."

Her words were far from the more ecumenical tone of today's inter-faith dialogue. They were, however, words that represented the feelings of many Protestants in her day.

My interest in Parr came several years ago as a Ph.D. student when I was reading her books, eventually writing my book, "Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen" (P&R 2009). The Queen was initially an historical curiosity (as that is my field), but I admit, I gravitate toward underdogs, those challengers to the status-quo, whether they are Queen Parr, Martin Luther King Jr., or Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

I can't say I admire everyone that protests something or every counter-cultural idea; Westboro Baptist Church, for example may speak to power, but they promote a different form of oppression and the world would obviously be better off without their hate. However, I do appreciate those who are, from within their own historical contexts, their social positions, and specific worldviews, are trying to bring honesty to the world, even if they, their methods, and ideas aren't always perfect. They remind the world that abusers will always be challenged. Someone will always question those in power for the benefit of others. It just may take time.

Parr is that kind of figure.

In a time dominated by men, where women are the currency of political negotiation, she showed a woman could be strong. When individuals were asked to believe a religion in a language that they could not understand, she translated it for them.

It is exciting to see that her life continues to be recognized, whether through the now complete Showtime original series, a growing volume of books (both nonfiction and historical fiction) or through very active Facebook pages. And I hope that the world continues to produce more figures like her, whether it is a group of American nuns drawing a line in the sand with the Pope or skeptic in exile, Sanal Edamaruku, exposing a staged miracle in India.

These individuals remind me, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, that "my life is my message."