July 11th is the feastday of this great saint. it is not in the Traditional Mass hand Missal, but you will find it in the Supplement for Australia and New Zealand. This year the date was on Sunday – 7th Sunday after Pentecost. The priest’s homily really hit home . You will understand after reading his life story. (Irish Saints are often celebrated in Australia, I guess because the Faith in Australia was handed down to us by convict priests, who endured much hardship in doing so. The Catholic Faith was forbidden.)
Basically, St Oliver Plunkett was born in Ireland in 1625. At the time, Ireland was under intense persecution. There had been no bishop for decades; priests were generally uneducated and had to say Mass in houses and wherever they could. He always wanted to be a priest, but at the time, it was too dangerous to travel. Up to 12,000 people had been killed in the uprisings and atrocities in Ulster at this time.
Finally, he and a group of future seminarians, set off for Rome in 1647. To do this, he had to go to England, where Catholics were also hunted. It, it was strictly forbidden for young men to travel to the continent to enter seminaries.(At the moment, we are in another lock-down, much worse than ever before – Churches are closed – there is only on-line streaming. Some of us are aware of at least 3 parishes which are ignoring the rules and Mass is continuing. Police are everywhere checking, and we are forbidden to go beyond out local area and less than 10 km from home. The Saint is an example to us.))
The perilous journey included being followed by 2 warships. After praying for deliverance, a storm came and fixed that problem. After that they were abducted by robbers and left penniless. Eventually he got to Rome, but he was a pauper student. The Irish College in Rome could not accept him straight away. He was a gifted student and eventually became Professor of Theology and later Professor of Apologetics or Controversies. After many years, when the problems in Ireland had eased a bit after Cromwell’s death, Rome appointed new bishops. He was chosen to be the Bishop of Armagh. Pope Clement IX stated that Oliver was the ideal candidate and he so declared his appointment.
His journey entailed going to London, where he passed himself off as a tourist. He also stayed for some time incognito in the Royal Palace under the protection of the confessor to Queen Catherine, who was a Catholic.But this was also dangerous, because there were agents looking for him. He remained there, unnoticed right under their noses.
He ended up staying for the entire winter because of the harsh weather conditions. During this time he met a priest who was previously an army officer. Oliver, subsequently adopted the disguise as Captain Browne, with wig, sword and pistols.
He finally arrived in Ireland in 1670. The viceroy was on the lookout for him, so he continued in disguise. The laws on the statute books were strongly anti-Catholic and it very often depended on the Viceroy or a local official or dignitary as to how strictly they were enforced. However, when a new Viceroy was installed, things became a little easier. In time, he became well liked and respected even by Protestant clergy. He managed to build Catholic schools, and travelled around doing Confirmations (as there had not been a bishop for over 40 years).
St. Oliver was a diplomat, who astutely steered clear of politics, but he kept on good terms with many leading citizens, including the President of Ulster, who allowed him the use of his courtyard in Armagh for confirmation ceremonies and another who allowed him a public church with bells on estates, which were exempt from the jurisdiction of the royal ministers.
He worked hard in transforming the bad habits of many of the clergy, who were mostly uneducated, and had not had any authority in place to guide them. He ordained 100 priests, who knew how perilous it was to be a priest at the time.
In the end, it was rogue clergy who betrayed him. He was sent to England for trial (as in Ireland, the courts held him in good standing and many times allowed him to get off). In England, he was denied a defence counsel, but he disputed the right of the court to try him in England and he also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses.
He pleaded not guilty; he asked for more time to produce his defence witnesses, but this was denied him. He was sentenced to hang, and to be drawn and quartered.
His reply to the sentence was ‘Deo Gratias”
Oliver’s trial, conviction and martyrdom in July 1681, was such an outrageous episode that it greatly discredited those who brought it about and the credibility of the plot and of its advocates collapsed completely thereafter. Lord Shaftesbury the principal promoter of the plot was arrested and imprisoned on the following day and another conpirator was arrested soon afterwards on a charge of perjury.
There is much in St Oliver Plunkett’e life that we should take note of. The persecution of all Catholics; the law which was anti-Catholic; priests who said Masses everywhere except in a church; the faithful who supported him; his disguises enabling him to do God’s work without being noticed; his hard work ethic; his dedication to study, Charity and Good Works; his many sufferings and his joy. Despite all, there were many blessings from God and he was grateful to God. The people and priests who were able to visit him, hear his confession, and the way in which he received the things he needed to say Mass whilst locked away for months before his trial; his acceptance of the verdict; his forgiveness of his enemies…. He is indeed a saint for our times.
St Oliver Plunkett, pray for us and
pray for our priests and clergy.
Read more about his life adventures and sufferings at: