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Fr Billy Swan

St Oliver Plunkett was martyred in London on 1st July 1681, the last Catholic martyr to be put to death in England. Later that century, Oliver was canonised a saint of the Church by Pope Paul VI on 12th October 1975, the last Irish person to be canonised (In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI canonised Blessed Charles of Mount Argus who had strong links to Ireland but was Dutch in nationality). I believe there are features of his fruitful ministry that can inspire us today when the normal structures, ways of doing things and possibilities have changed due to the coronavirus pandemic. First, a little more about Oliver.

He was born in Old Castle Co. Meath in 1625. From a young age, he sensed a vocation to the priesthood and in 1647, he was sent for studies to the Irish College in Rome. These were tough times to be a Catholic in Ireland as the penal laws were in full force and training for the priesthood was prohibited. These laws were violently enforced by Cromwell who arrived in Ireland in August 1649 with 10,000 men. Oliver excelled at his studies and in 1654, he was ordained priest. Not being able to return to Ireland, Oliver became a professor of theology at the Propaganda Fide College and committed himself to the needy of Rome outside teaching hours.

In his native land, the Church was struggling under persecution and the severity of the penal laws. In 1669, the situation was so bad that only one bishop remained in Ireland, the others were in exile out of fear for their lives. The Church lacked leadership and was divided. When the Archbishop of Armagh died, Oliver was chosen to succeed him. Despite the dangers that awaited him, Oliver knew his time had come to return home. Because he couldn’t be ordained bishop in Ireland, the ceremony took place in Ghent in Belgium as Oliver made his way North-West towards Ireland. Finally, in 1870, Oliver reached his native land.

Once he came back, he did not waste time in setting out to encourage, lead and organise the Church that needed his leadership so badly. He travelled in disguise, travelled on horseback and carried out many of his pastoral duties under cover, but effectively. He ordained priests, organised Church synods, founded seminaries, baptised and confirmed up to 40,000 people. When asked about the risks he undertook to lead the Church, he replied: ‘When a sailor has a fair wind, he sets sail’. He also said: ‘I would rather die of hunger and cold than abandon our flocks’.

By the 1670’s, Catholic persecution was getting worse. Around that time, a man named Titus Oates alleged that there was a ‘Popish Plot’ afoot to murder King Charles II. The allegation gathered pace and hundreds of innocent Catholics were arrested. Eventually on 6th Dec. 1679, Oliver was also arrested. He was imprisoned in Dublin Castle for six weeks but because of the number of people who knew Oliver and spoke favorably of him, his enemies knew they could not convict him in Ireland. So instead, they moved his trial to London in order to secure his condemnation. At his trial he was allowed no defense. He was found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and on 1st July he suffered the barbaric death of being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, London. Before he died, he wrote: ‘I have considered that Christ by his fears and passion merited for me to be free of fear’. After his death, his relics went to different places. His head is still visible in Drogheda, Co. Louth and his body is at Downside Abbey in England. More relics can be venerated in the chapel at the Irish College in Rome.

On the day he was canonised in 1975, Pope Paul VI said of him: “Through the action of the Holy Spirit, may the whole Church experience his insights and his wisdom and with him be able to hear the challenge that comes from Peter: ‘Put your trust in nothing but the grace that will be given you when the grace of Jesus Christ is revealed’” (1 Pet. 3: 13).

And so we might ask ourselves: ‘What are the insights and challenges that Oliver’s witness presents and how can we hear them?’ I believe that Oliver’s faith in God, dedication, love and service to people despite the chaos and danger that surrounded him, is particularly challenging and inspiring to the whole Church today, especially to priests and bishops. Oliver had to think of creative ways to minister to his flock within the severe restrictions that were imposed on him. Had the penal laws not been in place, Oliver might have spent far more time behind his desk or being dined by nobility and treated with honour. Instead he choose to meet the danger with pastoral zeal and love for the Church that he cared for and organised at grassroots level. This took him to places of danger and circumstances of uncertainty. Yet he wasn’t afraid. His institutional status was at service his mission. After the example of Peter and Paul, he knew it wasn’t up to him to decide how his mission would end. His only concern was to be faithful to that mission despite the consequences.

And so we ask Oliver to pray for us, that we as Christians today might be inspired to work creatively and imaginatively within the current restrictions, all for the good of the Church, for the love Christ and the glory of God. To borrow the metaphor from St Oliver, the wind hasn’t stopped blowing, it has just changed direction. Let us set sail with boldness, with the wind of the Spirit in our sails.


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