Find your parish Donate

Homily from Mass in honour of St Oliver Plunkett

Mass in honour of St Oliver Plunkett, St. Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Sunday 4 July at 4pm


It’s a joy to be back in Drogheda! It’s a privilege to lead these annual celebrations honouring St. Oliver Plunkett here in St. Peter’s Church. One hundred years ago the relic of the saints head was translated here from the Siena Convent. That was June 29th 1921, 240 years after his gruesome death at Tyburn.

In the hundred years that have passed since, we have seen huge changes – economically, politically, socially – and none more so than the past year and a half as we cope with living alongside a virulent pandemic with its many variants and strains. Even today’s annual celebration honouring St. Oliver is hugely impacted. I welcome the many following the ceremony through the St. Peter’s church webcam.    

Going to see the head of St. Oliver” was an essential part of any visit to Drogheda. I spent fifteen very happy years across the water; I never missed this annual festivity honour St. Oliver.

Our scripture readings this afternoon taken from the fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time acutely remind us like in Oliver’s day, it’s often those closest to us who betray us, who sell us short, who disappoint us … and so in this year of centenaries let us bow our heads and pray for forgiveness …

Come glorious martyr, rise
Into the golden skies,
Beyond the sun!
Wide, wide the portals fling
And martyr hosts, O sing
To greet his entering
“Well hast thou done”.

Mark has Jesus coming to his home town in our gospel. For me today is very much a home coming! Every visitor who ever called to visit me in St. Mary’s over my fifteen years asked about seeing the head of St. Oliver here in St. Peters. My affection for this place, this holy ground is immense. And it goes deeper than that of the curiosity and interest of a visitor or the reverence and passion of a pilgrim.

My own journey of faith began here in St. Peter’s Church on June 12th 1963. I was just five days old. Baptised on the way home to Slane from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Bishop Jimmy Lennon baptised me. I often wondered was I delicate or something? Then I checked my sister was baptised at three days old! It was obviously custom and practice of the day.   

The word “surely” jumps out at me from our gospel passage. The dictionary defines it as something of absolute certainty, and heavy play is made of the emphasis it gives a statement in conversation. You’ll only find it once more in Marks gospel and that’s in that chilling encounter where the treachery of Judas is foretold as each of the disciples, including Judas in turn, asks Jesus: “Not I, surely?[1] There is sarcasm in his tone; there are undercurrents in his question; there were clear vibes in the air. It was pulling Jesus down to size: “this is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary[2]. And before you know it, the seed, breed and generation of Jesus is laid out in front of us.  

I think we still have a lot to learn about St. Oliver Plunkett, his seed, breed and generation. What we do realise is he met a very much demoralised Church and people. On his arrival to Armagh in 1669 he came upon a pattern of neglect right across the province. He found himself travelling extensively across six or seven dioceses doing huge backlogs of Confirmations for many adults. It is estimated he confirmed 10,000 in the first six weeks. These were penal times. By 1673 his own records show that he would have personally confirmed 48,655 candidates[3].

We are living through pandemic times. There will a huge sacramental backlog to catch up when this passes and it is deemed safe to celebrate. We are understandably disappointed that once again the church and her sacramental life is not deemed essential. Surely (to once again use Mark’s gospel language) our sacramental life is as essential as a concert in the Gleneagle or in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham? A dismissive remark at a press conference was enough to erase best laid plans for safe, socially distant sacramental celebrations in July. A huge amount of work has been done to date with sacramental classes; some of those young people are waiting since last year to celebrate.  

The restoration of the Church in Ireland was Oliver Plunkett’s greatest challenge. Many dioceses were then vacant. There was tension between secular and regular clergy. There were interreligious disputes between orders. The training of priests left a lot to be desired. And there was that tension around primacy between Dublin and Armagh. Desmond Forristal puts heavy emphasis on the fact that Oliver Plunkett was a Bishop who stayed with his people: “by word and example, he hammered home the principle that a Bishop’s place was with his people, that a bishopric was a service to be rendered rather than a benefice to be enjoyed, that it was sheer hypocrisy to exhort the private soldiers to stand if the captains fled[4]. Ultimately it would cost Plunkett his life. At his first Chrism Mass Pope Francis had a similar message for priests and bishops, suggesting they “needed to be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep[5].

My appointment that same year in 2013 as Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin brought me once again to cross the path of St. Oliver Plunkett. Our authoritative diocesan historian Comerford reminds us it was Plunkett who united the two dioceses of Kildare and of Leighlin in 1678. He held Bishop Forstall in the highest esteem and Comerford reminds us “more than once (Plunkett) recommended to the Holy See that he (Forstall) should receive also the administration of the Diocese of Leighlin[6]. On Forstall’s death Edward Wesley was appointed Bishop of Kildare and Administrator of Leighlin. It was curious then that the clergy of Leighlin who numbered just twelve petitioned the Holy See, that Leighlin might be given in administration to Bishop Phelan of Ossory, but it was felt Plunkett had sown the seed of amalgamation and he had the ear of the Holy See who were not for turning. It might be reasonably asked why was Plunkett so keen on amalgamation. Was it simply for very practical economic reasons? Kildare then was amongst the poorest dioceses in the country. Bishop Forstall would have to get a subvention from the Congregation in Rome or if he enjoyed the administration of Leighlin which had a similar income to Kildare, united they could keep a Bishop! Today I am the 22nd Bishop of the united diocese of Kildare & Leighlin and currently the Apostolic Administrator of Ossory. History has its own way of smiling at itself!

Never reproach he made,
Like to his Lord betrayed
By his own kind.
Sharing his Master’s blame,
Gladly he bore the shame,
While the false charge they frame,
“Guilty” they find.

The head of St. Oliver rests here in St. Peter’s Church since June 29th, 1921, having being presented into the care of the Dominican nuns at Siena in 1737 when Sr. Catherine Plunkett, a relative of Oliver, was prioress. The remainder of the martyrs body had rested in Lamspringe before being transferred to Downside Abbey. The rib of St. Oliver is still preserved in the Siena Convent here and it’s that relic that normally is borne in procession through the town this day.

The heavy oak door of the Newgate cell came to St. Peter’s seventy years ago, presented by the Mayor of Wrexham. As a young lad I was as much intrigued by this bulky padlocked prison door as I was by the relic of the head. Maybe I found the head squeamish and a little unsettling, but this padlocked oak door, I never saw a padlock, before or since, as large as the one over there. It causes me to think of those locked in today. Not just prisoners on their journey towards rehabilitation into society, but more keenly those living in domestic abuse situations, those trafficked into our country under a false pretence, those languishing in direct provision, those turned back at borders or ports because their documentation is incomplete.  

Returning to Mark’s text: “And they would not accept him”[7]. Six devastating words. Six words that are too familiar today. There are too many people for whom the padlock is a very sad reality. There may not always be a lock on the door but they experience coercive control, isolation and emotional abuse. In a report published last week[8] Ireland has ranked as one of the weakest EU countries alongside Romania and Belarus when it comes to meeting the minimum standards on combatting human trafficking. And this is for the second year running. Those who deal with the victims of domestic abuse suggest that this is the silent pandemic we are all blind to. “And they would not accept him”[9] for Oliver Plunkett it was the gallows in Tyburn about three kilometers from Newgate prison, for others it’s masked as healthcare where life in its earliest months is disposed of because its inconvenient or just simply not wanted. There are many padlocks, and not all of them are so blatantly obvious to the eye. 

Hail then, great Martyr, hail,
In death you did prevail
Winning renown!
Blow the full trumpets, blow,
Wider the portals throw,
Martyr triumphant go
Where waits your crown.

The upcoming international synod and the recently announced synodal path of the Irish Church in the coming years all seem so new and novel to our way of being Church. And yet it is very much the language of Pope Francis. But it was also the modus operandi of St. Oliver Plunkett. The late Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich reminds us “Plunkett was only three months in Ireland when he succeeded in bringing the bishops of the country together[10]. This was the first of several gatherings in Plunkett’s lifetime that all the time looked to the rejuvenation of the Church and of our faith despite the persecutions of the time. For Oliver the synod was very much corrective, addressing and regulating abuses and disputes of the time. Today its walking together, it’s being open to listening to one another, its accepting that listening involves more than simply hearing.

Here in Drogheda Oliver established a number of schools, one being a Jesuit school. Catholic education was a critical priority for him. In Mark’s text the people astonished at the learnedness of Jesus asked: “Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him …?[11] While the schools had varying levels of success, they didn’t last long. In one of his letters from Drogheda dated 26 April 1671 he spoke of these Jesuit schools “where they train up to 150 boys and twenty-five priests[12] Catholic education remains critical today. At a time when divestment is under consideration, remaining schools must be unapologetically Catholic. Parents who wish for a Catholic education for their children must be accommodated.

This pandemic is teaching us that we must find new ways of engaging with our pastoral practice. While the pandemic has hugely hampered the celebration of sacraments, perhaps our synodal pathway may reflect on the preparation programmes we use for sacraments. Programmes that have for too long over relied on our school structure. Parishes report that the smaller scaled down ceremonies, including baptisms and marriages are more engaging for the individuals involved and for the celebrant. Many have said to me it would be a tragedy to return to the older models and rituals. Let us see, but let us embark on our synodal journey, aware that education is critical, good schools are critical and formation is critical. Saint Oliver Plunkett, who died a gruesome death on the gallows at Tyburn and whose head is revered here for the past one years would very much share our passion.

Come glorious martyr, rise
Into the golden skies,
Beyond the sun!
Wide, wide the portals fling
And martyr hosts, O sing
To greet his entering
“Well hast thou done”.

[1] Mark 14:19

[2] Mark 6:3

[3] Donnelly, Frank: ‘Until the Storm Passes – St. Oliver Plunkett’, 1993, pg. 4.

[4] O’Fiaich, Tomas & Forristal, Desmond: ‘Oliver Plunkett: his life and letters’, Our Sunday Visitor, Indiana, 1975, pg. 257.

[5] Pope Francis, Chrism Homily, 28 March 2013.

[6] Comerford, Michael: ‘Dioceses of Kildare & Leighlin’ Volume 1, 1883, pg. 68.

[7] Mk.6:3

[8]Trafficking in Persons Report 2021’, US Department of State.

[9] Mk.6:3

[10] O’Fiaich, Tomas, ‘Oliver Plunkett Ireland’s New Saint’, Veritas, 1975, pg. 48.

[11] Mk.6:2

[12] Hanly, John: ‘The Letters of Saint Oliver Plunkett: 1625-1681’, Dolmen Press, 1979, Letter #79, pg. 186.