A Reflection on St Oliver Plunkett

A reflection on St. Oliver Plunkett to mark his Feast on July 1st.

“We must act as the mariners at sea, who when the wind is favourable, unfurl all their sail and sweep the ocean with greater velocity”. So writes St.Oliver in one of his many letters. Between the storms, he holds national and provincial synods; he confirms in four years nearly 50,000 people; ordains priests under the canopy of the open sky in the woodlands; sets up schools and brings life to dioceses that have not seen a bishop in forty, or even a hundred years.

St. Oliver Plunkett teaches us what service means. Ireland’s problems and the challenges facing the Church today may often seem intractable. Why not avoid the fray and live one’s life in peace? Oliver chose to act, to leave his professor’s chair and enter the “severe novitiate” of “woods and caverns”.

“Imprudent”, “a meddler”: the charges have been made. But to uphold the primacy of Armagh, (which involved the practical questions of appeals), to judge (only upon pressure from Rome) between Dominicans and Franciscans in their dispute over questing, or to tackle (when urged by the leading ecclesiastics of Armagh) the thorny problem of the Tories, were actions of a man who sought to bring peace to his distracted country.

Oliver: a man of action with the attitude of the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the peacemakers…. Blessed are you when they insult you…and utter every kind of slander against you on my account…”

St. Oliver really cared for people, especially the poor who suffered, the children uneducated, the people without sacraments, to whom he “ministered in the woods and mountains, heedless of wind and rain”.

St. Oliver put people first.

He was steadfast. “I will remain with my own, nor will I abandon them till I be dragged to the sea-shore”. “If I were a man that had no care of my conscience, or heaven, or hell, I might have saved my life; for I was offered it by diverse people here (in London), so I would confess but my own guilt and accuse others”. 

Does the easy way ever tempt us from our duty?

His desire to live at peace with his Protestant neighbours was real. “He is so esteemed by the Protestants that even the Protestant nobility vie with each other in receiving him as their guest and enjoying his society; whence it happens for his sake they do not harm our clergy”.

(Desmond Forristal,1975, Oliver Plunkett in his own words. Veritas).

He never became embittered. When Archbishop Talbot and he were both in prison, it was Oliver who found a way to bring the last Sacraments to his opponent, “both one and the other touchy and of a hot disposition”. And on the scaffold: 

“So do I pray for those who spill my blood, saying as St. Stephen did, O Lord, lay not this sin to them”.

A special grace gave him no fear of death at the end. Peace and the presence of the Holy Spirit were with him. On his last night, he slept soundly, was awakened, offered Mass and “went to the sledge as unconcerned as if he had been going to a wedding”.

Listen to Oliver on his last day:

“I beseech my Saviour to give all Catholic people of faith, perseverance in prayer and good works, and grant me the grace to be tomorrow where I may pray for them, not ‘as at a confused reflection in a mirror, but face to face’. God’s will be done”.

Sources: (Msgr. John Hanly, 1979. The Letters of Saint Oliver Plunkett. 1625-1681, Dolmen Press)

May we, like St. Oliver Plunkett, hear God’s Word with our ears, listen with our hearts, but embody with the total self in witnessing to God’s merciful love.

Fr John Cullen, PP Kiltoom