Homily of Fr Mark English at Mass in honour of St. Oliver Plunkett,
Loughcrew, Sunday 26 June 2016
In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy it is wonderful for us to gather here in Loughcrew for this annual celebration and to contemplate the example of one, who like the ‘Good Shepherd,’ ultimately laid down his life for the flock that belongs to God the Father. Archbishop Oliver Plunkett gave his life as he strove to be merciful like the Father and in the face of much hostility, willing accepted his appointment to be chief shepherd of the Church here in Ireland. No doubt as he made his pilgrimage home in 1669, receiving his Episcopal ordination and the bishop’s crosier along the way, he must have prayed this psalm (The Lord is my Shepherd) and the words which stand out; “You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes. My head you have anointed with oil; my cup is overflowing.”
Last October I began ministry in Kingcourt where the Parish Church has a beautiful stained glass window honouring St. Oliver. I hadn’t anticipated back then that I would be delivering the homily here on this annual honouring of him! But last October also marked the 40th anniversary of the canonisation of our beloved Saint. That same week of the twelfth of October in 1975, when many of you gathered in Rome, I was attempting to blow out my first birthday candle! However, along with the Irish contingent in St. Peter’s Square at the time, there was a group from Poland with their archbishop Cardinal Wojtyla, who on managing to get visas out of the Communist to visit Rome, were made guest of the Irish and given tickets so as to attend the canonisation and encounter Blessed Pope Paul VI.
Next month, it is a group of young people with Bishop Michael from our diocese, who will be guests in Poland, along with millions more young people from around the globe gathered to encounter Pope Francis. We will be hosted in Krakow, the city, the home of Cardinal Wojtyla, now St. Pope John Paul II, whom many of you can recall saying when amongst us in 1979 ‘young people of Ireland, I love you’!!!!
Like the young Oliver Plunkett, our group are travelling by land and sea. By coincidence we will be staying over night in Ghent where St. Oliver was ordained bishop in the local Cathedral in 1669. In recent days as we make final preparations for our participation in the World Youth Day pilgrimage I can see St. Oliver very favourably watching over us, because on our return journey by a different way, we will stay in Louvain where Oliver himself visited the Irish Franciscan community while preparing for his Episcopal ordination!
St. Oliver’s youth was moulded by this local environment, its people, its beauty; God’s creation, God’s love! Yet the prevailing laws imposed meant a difficult environment wherein to profess the Catholic faith. So much had to go on ‘under ground’; just as it had to for the young Pope John Paul and his friends, during World War II and later under communist rule. Think about the passing on of the faith during the Penal times here: the clandestine celebration of the Mass; the sending, almost smuggling away of young men to study for the priesthood; …an emigration of sorts…not knowing what lay ahead, would there ever be a return! Oliver became a refugee of his time…..yet Rome of course was a home from home with regard the faith.
So many young Irish, many contemporaries of our own pilgrims preparing for World Youth Day, know the anxiety of emigration….the leaving, the uncertainty. Many of course have faced here in the Ireland of recent times an economic persecution….yet do they look to God? In new and unfamiliar countries the Irish pub, the GAA club, provide a kind of home from home, a familiar place to gather, but so too the Church can provide a sense of home from home, when you think of the Berkeley tragedy a year ago, the St. Patrick’s Day Masses, other occasions where even those not as fervent in the faith, touch base if you like, with the familiarity of home! There is a stark cultural change though with the professing of the faith and a slow forgetting of the persecution the Catholic youth of Oliver Plunkett’s time endured so as preserve and pass on the gift of faith to the generations after them.
Think of the young Oliver, imagine his youth, imagine his discerning of that inner call, that vocation, to ‘shepherd’ the Lord’s flock and to keep them safe from the ‘wolf’! I wonder as he leafed his Bible was he ever struck by the words of St. Peter in the second reading; “No one can hurt you if you are determined to do only what is right; if you do have to suffer for being good, you will count it a blessing. There is no need to be afraid or to worry about them. Simply reverence the Lord God in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have.”
In the Year 2005 the youth of the Catholic Church gathered with Pope Emeritus Benedict for World Youth Day in Cologne. That occasion afforded the youth travelling from our Diocese with Bishop Michael to spend what is called Days in the Diocese in the Parish of Lamspringe, where the body of St. Oliver was kept safe for centuries until it could be brought again to Downside Abbey.
I was back in Lamspringe with the late Mgr John Hanly and a small group from Drogheda for the celebrations to mark the 90th anniversary of St. Oliver’s beatification in 2010. On the journey out I didn’t feel at all well, yet once in Lamspringe I did my best to partake in the various events organised for the special occasion. The high point was the commemorative Mass with the local bishop. I can assure you though, it was tough going trying to pay full attention to Mgr. Hanly’s four page homily, interspersed with another priest translating into German!! When called upon to assist with carrying the large and heavy casket containing St. Oliver’s relics I struggled to hold on. Yet, touching this precious reliquary unbeknownst to me, St. Oliver was, I’m convinced, touching and strengthening me for what lay ahead in the following days, when it was discovered that I’d a miss-diagnosed appendicitis which lead to a prolonged time of hospitalisation and illness. Thanks to the intercession of St. Oliver I came through it all! The Bishop was glad too for this minor miracle!
The Saints aren’t just men and women of ages past. They are with us still, accompanying us; interceding for us; as we in our generation, our time bear witness to the faith as they so heroically did while alive. So much has changed in this land of ours. This particular centennial year of the Easter Rising has given us much to reflect back upon but also much to ponder as to the future. Every year gathering here in memory of St. Oliver we take a fresh look at his example and contribution, but in doing so we must think about what lies ahead, for our Church, our nation, our local community but as importantly for my family and myself. How Lord can I make your name more known? How can I share your love and mercy for your people as St. Oliver so generously did on his return to his homeland, not only in Armagh but around the whole country?
Those of us familiar with Loughcrew, the knowledge we have of St. Oliver and his legacy cannot but remember in a special way this afternoon the late Mgr. Hanly. Much of this event, much of what we have recorded about Oliver Plunkett, we have thanks to the labour of love given by Mgr. John! Like St. Oliver he grew up in this parish and left to study and later work as a priest in Rome; eventually returning to give his all for the sharing of the Gospel among the people of our diocese and those parishes in particular to which he was appointed ‘shepherd’ over the years. We pray his soul is filled with the joy of God’s eternal love and mercy in Heaven as he dwells in the company of the saints and martyrs and all the faithful departed. No doubt Mgr John is looking out of a window in God the Father’s house as he keeps an eye on us today!
As we must leave from here to continue our pilgrimage in life, these young people need our prayers and encouragement as they face not only the journey to join with Pope Francis in Krakow but the bigger journey of what paths to take in life and how to keep alive a burning passion for Christ, his people and his Church as St. Oliver once did.
At the scaffold at Tyburn St. Oliver concluded his last public discourse with the following words which we might use ourselves before God, as we strive in this Jubilee Year of Mercy to be Merciful like the Father in all our endeavours along the great pilgrimage of life from birth to death….
‘I would if I were able to clear myself of high crimes committed against the Divine Majesty’s commandments, often transgressed by me, for which, I am sorry from the bottom of my heart; and if I should or could live a thousand years, I have a firm resolution, and a strong purpose, by your grace, My God, never to offend you; I beseech your Divine Majesty, by the merits of Christ, and by the intercession of his Blessed Mother, and all the holy Angles and Saints, to forgive me my sins, and to grant my soul eternal rest. Miserere mei Deus…..’ Amen.