“My hope is that when people feel their faith is being tested or growing weak, they will visit Saint Oliver’s shrine here in the Cathedral and find strength and healing. I want people to come here to experience God’s love and closeness when life is getting them down, and they are losing hope – whether it be in their relationships or in their chosen vocation. I invite people to visit Saint Oliver’s shrine when they are afraid of what lies ahead for them, or when they are concerned about the direction which their family members are taking in life. May all who come here look up at the statue of Saint Oliver and gain serenity, courage, wisdom and hope for themselves and for others. Remember, on the day of Saint Oliver’s canonisation, Pope Paul VI said: ‘The message of Oliver Plunkett offers a hope that is greater than the present life; it shows a love that is stronger than death’” – Archbishop Eamon Martin
Last November, during a Mass to remember persecuted Christians, I announced my hope for a shrine here in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, to our former Archbishop, Saint Oliver Plunkett, to help us remember in prayer all those who are persecuted for their faith.
Saint Oliver was appointed Archbishop of Armagh on this day, 350 years ago – 9th July 1669. For many years the people of Drogheda and the surrounding areas in Louth and Meath have faithfully kept his memory alive; Saint Peter’s Church in Drogheda will continue to be the National Shrine to Saint Oliver Plunkett, where his relics are venerated. But in this significant year I think it is appropriate that we acknowledge Saint Oliver in a special way here in our Cathedral, and, through him, honour all the martyrs of “yesterday, today and tomorrow”.
We commissioned the Dublin-born artist, Dony MacManus, to prepare the bronze sculpture which will be unveiled, blessed and dedicated this evening at the end of Mass.
I asked Dony if he could inspire both devotion and admiration for the courage and serenity shown by Saint Oliver in face of such an horrific execution. Secondly, I wished that his work would speak into the reality of Christian persecution today; but, most importantly, I asked Dony if he could help us to see, in this sculpture of Saint Oliver, the face of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who humbly gave His life for us on the Cross.
I am grateful to Dony for bringing all his God-given talents to this task, and also for the prayerful way in which he has approached his work. I also thank the many people from all over Ireland and beyond who have made this commission possible by their prayers and financial support.
In the days, months and years to come, countless visitors to the Cathedral will have an opportunity to share in the fruits of Dony’s efforts. This sculpture is much more than a work of art. I trust that it will draw us to prayer for our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering for their faith; and I hope in that way that we will all feel called to witness more strongly in our daily lives to Jesus Christ, who loved us ‘even unto death’.
The life and death of Saint Oliver reveals to us the face of Christ. At his canonisation on 12 October 1975, Pope Paul VI – now Saint Paul VI – said that, “the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, is reflected and manifested in this new Saint”. He said Saint Oliver is “for the entire world, an authentic and outstanding example of the love of Christ … He laid down his life out of love, and thereby freely associated himself in an intimate manner with the sufferings of Christ. Indeed, his dying words were: ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Lord Jesus, receive my soul.’”
Historians tell us that Archbishop Oliver was a devoted shepherd, attentive to the sanctification of his clergy and enthusiastic for the education and Christian instruction of young people. His message was one of peace and reconciliation. Pope Paul VI described him as a “vigilant preacher of the Catholic faith” and a “champion of pastoral charity”.
Four years later, Pope Saint John Paul II who, as Cardinal of Cracow, had been to Oliver’s canonisation, came to Drogheda and venerated the new saint’s relics.
There he said: Saint Oliver “was the defender of the oppressed and the advocate of justice, but he would never condone violence. For men of violence, his word was the word of the Apostle Peter: “Never pay back one wrong with another” (1 Pt 3 :9). As a martyr for the faith he sealed, by his death, the same message of reconciliation that he had preached during his life. In his heart there was no rancour, for his strength was the love of Jesus, the love of the Good Shepherd who gives His life for his flock. His dying words were words of forgiveness for all his enemies”.
And this is so true. At the gallows in Tyburn, London, in 1681, Oliver began his final message by rejecting the fraudulent charges and false testimony that had been brought against him. But then, his words turned to forgiveness. Archbishop Oliver said:
“I do heartily forgive them, and also the judges, who by denying me sufficient time to bring my records and witnesses from Ireland did expose my life to evident danger. I do also forgive all those who had a hand in bringing me from Ireland to be tried here, where it is morally impossible for me to have a fair trial. I do finally forgive all who did concur directly or indirectly to take away my life; and I ask forgiveness of all those whom I ever offended by thought, word or deed”.
Dear brothers and sisters, it is clear that Archbishop Oliver, by his life and his death, had become “conformed to the likeness of Christ” (Romans 8:29). He was the true shepherd, described by the prophet Ezekiel in this evening’s First Reading, who keeps his flock in view, rescues them from the mists and the darkness, gathering them, looking for the lost, bringing back the stray, bandaging the wounded, making the weak strong.
He was also the ‘servant of God’ described by Saint Paul in the Second Reading who shows “great fortitude in times of suffering”. We know Archbishop Oliver had to flee for his life and hide away many times – he experienced great dangers, hunger and imprisonment – but he was patient in all his trials, “prepared for honour or disgrace”.
My hope is that when people feel their faith is being tested or growing weak, they will visit Saint Oliver’s shrine here in the Cathedral and find strength and healing. I want people to come here to experience God’s love and closeness when life is getting them down, and they are losing hope – whether it be in their relationships or in their chosen vocation. I invite people to visit Saint Oliver’s shrine when they are afraid of what lies ahead for them, or when they are concerned about the direction which their family members are taking in life. May all who come here look up at the statue of Saint Oliver and gain serenity, courage, wisdom and hope for themselves and for others. Remember, on the day of Saint Oliver’s canonisation, Pope Paul VI said: “The message of Oliver Plunkett offers a hope that is greater than the present life; it shows a love that is stronger than death”.
Saint Oliver experienced that hope and ‘greater love’ by imitating Jesus our Saviour, who willingly gave his life on the hill of Calvary for the forgiveness of sins. All over the world today, people are living their lives inspired by that same hope and ‘greater love’ that only Christ can bring. In some parts of the world, our brothers and sisters in Christ are finding strength to endure suffering, or even death, for their faith – the news in recent months from Sri Lanka and Burkina Faso reminds us that persecution and martyrdom are not something from the past, but are a cruel reality today for many of our fellow Christians, of all traditions and denominations.
Jesus said to His disciples: “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me before you”. It is said Christians nowadays are not only being persecuted because of ‘hatred of the faith’ (odium Fidei), but also because of ‘hatred of love’ (odium amoris) – because they are standing up in the name of Christ for peace, reconciliation and justice and in defence of the poor. Christians are being punished for witnessing to human rights and dignity; they are condemned in some places for reaching out to the exploited, to refugees and migrants, to travellers and to those on the margins of society; they are being insulted and ridiculed for speaking up for the lives of the most vulnerable and innocent, including the lives of unborn children.
My prayer tonight is that we will never forget Saint Oliver Plunkett, and all of the ‘martyrs of yesterday, today and tomorrow’, and that we will hear more strongly in our own hearts the personal call to holiness and to witness that is given to every Christian. I hope that this new shrine to Saint Oliver in the Cathedral will help inspire all of us to accept our own daily crosses and sacrifices, and encourage us to be stronger in our faith, firmer in our hope and more active in our charity. In that way, like Saint Oliver Plunkett, we too shall be transformed more fully, day-by-day, into the likeness of Christ.
Saint Oliver Plunkett pray for us. Amen.
· Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore and Primate of All Ireland.
· Background: Last November on ‘Red Wednesday’, in the context of commemorating those who have been persecuted in the name of Christianity, Archbishop Eamon signalled his intention to honour martyrs of the past, present and tomorrow by erecting a statue of Saint Oliver Plunkett in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. In December 2018, Archbishop Eamon travelled to Iraq, and met with Archbishop Bashar Warda in Erbil, to hear and see at first hand the devastation that has been wrought upon Christians in that region. Archbishop Eamon recently wrote to the Church in Sri Lanka, and Burkina Faso in Africa, offering his prayerful solidarity to the local Churches following the murder of Christians during worship earlier this year.
· Archbishop Eamon commissioned the statue of Saint Oliver Plunkett which he will unveil after Mass. It has been cast in bronze by Dublin-sculptor Dony MacManus (www.donymacmanus.com). The seven-foot high statue depicts Saint Oliver at the moment of his martyrdom. The saint is cast in Ecce Homo pose (ie ‘Behold the man’, as in the Crucifixion of Jesus). Saint Oliver stands, wearing his pectoral cross, with his hands bound behind his back gently clasping the martyr’s palm, which trails down to the archbishop’s pallium, making it clear that Saint Oliver’s martyrdom is connected with his episcopacy. The sculptor has carefully captured the reality that Saint Oliver offered himself into martyrdom for the faith and this is shown in the facial features, depicting a man of courage and holiness, of flesh and blood.
Speaking to the editor of Intercom, Father Chris Hayden, during the casting of the statue of the martyred Saint Oliver Plunkett, the sculptor said, “Art is essentially the overflow of the interior life of the artist. I have to develop a relationship with the saint as a subject, to the extent that it overflows into the work, and that overflow is what should touch the audience. I don’t expect people to pray in front of the image if I haven’t prayed in front of it. In order for liturgical or sacred art to feed a congregation, it has to come from deep prayer, just as a homily can affect a congregation only to the extent that it comes from the prayer of the priest. In each case, of course, the Holy Spirit plays a key part.” The aim of the statue-design of Saint Oliver “is to break the heart of those who see the work, so that they are affected in a deeply emotional way,” Mr MacManus said. For the full interview please see www.intercommagazine.ie.
· Saint Oliver Plunkett (1 November 1625 – 1 July 1681) was the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Each year celebrations commemorating Saint Oliver take place at his birthplace in front of the ruins of the old church at Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co Meath; at his shrine in Drogheda, Co Louth, and at other places associated with him throughout Ireland and the world. Having studied at the Irish College in Rome, and worked at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, in 1669 he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by Pope Clement IX. Archbishop Oliver Plunkett maintained his duties in Ireland in the face of persecution and was arrested and tried for treason in London. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681. He became the last Catholic martyr to die in England. Oliver Plunkett was beatified in 1920 and canonised by Saint Pope Paul VI in 1975 – the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years.
Each year thousands of pilgrims visit the national shrine of Saint Oliver in Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, to venerate his relics and learn about the saint’s extraordinary life and ministry. Pilgrims pray for the sick and troubled, for family and friends. They fittingly turn to Saint Oliver – martyred for the faith at a time of political, religious and social turmoil – to pray for his intercession to protect the faith and to bring peace to areas of conflict at home and abroad. Along with Saints Patrick, Brigid and Malachy, Saint Oliver Plunkett is a patron saint of the Archdiocese of Armagh.