Most Rev. Gerard Clifford, Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh
to commemorate the ordination of Oliver Plunkett as Archbishop of Armagh
Today we reach the highlight of our journey, the goal of our pilgrimage. Today seventy people have come from Ireland, from the Archdiocese of Armagh, to remember that some 339 years ago on the First Sunday of Advent, one of the great Archbishops of Armagh, St. Oliver Plunkett, was ordained here by the Bishop of Ghent. Today we will unveil a plaque here in the Cathedral to commemorate that event.
We come on the first day of the new liturgical year, the first Sunday of Advent. . The message in our liturgy is to ‘Stay awake’. The first Sunday of Advent has two clear messages for all of us. It calls us to prepare spiritually for Christ’s coming at Christmas. It also has a more immediate message. It calls us to think seriously about the great issues of life, about the meaning of life, about our relationship with God, the role of faith in our own lives and the duty to hand on that faith to the next generation.
All of those issues engaged St. Oliver Plunkett in his ministry and work as Archbishop of Armagh.
Oliver Plunkett was born in County Meath, in the midlands in Ireland in the year 1625 (363 years ago). Catholics at the time were being persecuted for their faith. Many were evicted from their homes and forbidden to attend Mass. At the time there was only one active Bishop in Ireland. Priests were hunted down and persecuted. Many fled to the Continent of Europe. Oliver Plunkett had to go to Rome to study for the priesthood because there were no Colleges or institutions of learning at home. Oliver was ordained priest in Rome and remained in Rome as a professor of Theology at the Propaganda College for twelve years. Because the persecution of Catholics was at a high point in Ireland Oliver Plunkett could not be ordained Archbishop in Ireland but was ordained here in Ghent by Bishop Eugene D’Allamont on 1st December, 1669. During the persecutions in Ireland the Bishops of Flanders had been more than generous in giving help to exiled Irish churchmen.
Archbishop Plunkett returned to Ireland and began a ministry of reform and renewal of clergy and laity for the next decade. For a short time the Catholic religion was tolerated. At stages attitudes to the practice of the faith were even lenient so much so that in his first years as Archbishop of Armagh Oliver Plunkett was able to administer Confirmations. He ordained priests and even set up a school in Drogheda for the education of young men. It was a period of reform but all that changed in the Protestant backlash that followed. Oliver himself became a victim of the new period of repression and persecution. False charges were made against him. During the reforms he made many enemies not least among the clergy and it was one of the renegade priests whom he had censured who gave evidence against him in his trial. Oliver was brought to England and was charged with treason. He was executed in London in 1681. In 1920 he was declared a martyr for the faith and was canonised on 12th October, 1975.
Oliver Plunkett was also a man of peace. At the time he returned to Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh there were on-going battles between those who had been evicted from their lands and the representatives of the British establishment who were responsible for the evictions. Oliver was a key figure in arranging a permanent peace. Today he is regarded as the patron of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Today people continue to pray that the peace process which came about after some 40 years of struggle and rebellion in Northern Ireland will prove effective in delivering a permanent peace and justice in Northern Ireland. In recent times we have seen the beginnings of that peace. We are also aware at this time that it is still a fragile peace. We have seen that process falter in recent times but once again is on course hopefully to bring a lasting peace and justice to Northern Ireland. Today we still need determined leadership and we need prayer.
Oliver Plunkett’s ministry was one of renewal of faith and commitment among the Catholic community. More than anything else Oliver Plunkett brought hope to a suffering and dejected people. The words of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard in our reading says;
“Lord, you are our Father,
We are the clay, you the potter
We are all the work of your hand”.
That is our dignity as God’s creatures. That is the context in which we live as followers of Jesus Christ. This season of Advent is a time for all of us to reflect on that. It is a time to reflect on priorities. It is a time of hope. The message of the Gospel is as urgent as it was two thousand years ago. “Stay awake because you do not know when the master of the house is coming”. That’s the message Oliver Plunkett preached. It is a message for every one of use at this time. I hope it is a message that every one of us will take to heart.
+ Gerard Clifford.
30th November, 2008.