St. Oliver Plunkett: Faithful Archbishop in Murderous Times

News: World News
by Martina Moyski  •  •  June 29, 2023   

Procession honoring Irish prelate's 'love in the face of persecution, faithfulness in the face of suffering'

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DROGHEDA, Ireland ( - A great annual procession honoring Ireland's most recently declared saint will grace the medieval city of Drogheda, 50 miles outside Dublin, on Sunday, July 2.

St. Oliver Plunkett

The celebration honors the life and legacy of St. Oliver Plunkett, an Irish bishop-martyr for the Catholic faith, during the 17th century, a time of great persecution for the Church. The Knights of St. Columbanus, a fraternal organization dedicated to helping the needy, organize the event and expect it to attract large numbers of people from across the country.

Participants will walk three kilometers from Holy Family Church to St. Peter's Church, the National Shrine of St. Oliver. Bishop Thomas Deenihan of the diocese of Meath will offer Holy Mass at St. Peter's.

One of the Knights of St. Columbanus, who will be marching in the event, tells Church Militant that St. Oliver's procession bears spiritual as well as corporeal significance, given the first-class relics of the Irish saint that are a big part of the event. "We bring his hip ... through the streets to St. Peter's Church, where his head is already on display," he said. "The presence of his relics is a reminder that God has always been at work in Irish history and continues to be so today and into the future."

St. Oliver's procession in 2022

The knight of the fraternal organization also said that the life of St. Oliver, although not as famous as that of St. Patrick, "is more relevant today than it has ever been." He explained:

Today, in secular Ireland, his life and death have taken on a new meaning, with Catholics increasingly finding themselves an ostracized minority within wider society. Oliver Plunkett represents fortitude in the face of misfortune, love in the face of persecution and faithfulness to Christ in the face of suffering. In recent decades, his capacity for forgiveness and efforts towards inclusion have made him a figure of reconciliation in an island where Christians have been divided in conflict against one another.

Oliver Plunkett was born into a Catholic family in County Meath in 1625 in an Ireland under siege by Protestant England. At the time, Catholics were persecuted for their Faith and forbidden from attending Holy Mass. Schools and churches were dismantled, and priests were hunted down and murdered. 

At this dangerous time, Oliver left Ireland for Rome, where he studied for the priesthood at the Irish College. He was ordained in 1654, a year after another Oliver, British Commander Oliver Cromwell, invaded Ireland and outlawed Catholicism.

The presence of his relics is a reminder that God has always been at work. 

It was impossible for St. Oliver to return to Ireland for many years. During his hiatus, he was appointed archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, eventually setting foot back in Ireland again in 1670.

St. Oliver Plunkett first-class relic

During the last decade of his life, he was on fire with the Faith. He tackled drunkenness among the clergy, writing, "Let us remove this defect from an Irish priest, and he will be a saint." 

Despite religious clashes, he managed to establish an effectively run Jesuit College in Drogheda, the first-ever integrated school for Protestants and Catholics. He tended to the needy in body and soul.

A contemporary of Oliver, who often accompanied him on his travels in Ireland, had this to say about the saint:

From the very outset, he was most zealous in the exercise of the sacred ministry. Within three months, he had administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to about 10,000 of the faithful, some of them being sixty years old, and, writing to Rome in December 1673, he was able to announce that "during the past four years", he had confirmed no fewer than 48,655 people. To bring this sacrament within the reach of the suffering faithful, he had to undergo the severest hardships, often with no other food than a little oaten bread; he had to seek out their abodes on the mountains and in the woods, and as a rule, it was under the broad canopy of heaven that the Sacrament was administered, both flock and pastor being exposed to the wind and rain. He made extraordinary efforts to bring the blessings of education within the reach of the Catholic youth. ... He held frequent ordinations, celebrated two Provincial Synods, and was untiring in rooting out abuses and promoting piety.

It is not surprising Oliver ran afoul of anti-Catholic forces who disapproved of his promotion of Catholicism and of his bridge-building with Protestants. But despite the price they placed on his head, he refused to leave his flock unattended.

St. Oliver Plunkett's hanging

He was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle in 1679, but his trial was moved to London, allegedly because witnesses perjuring against him would not be recognized there. After deliberating for 15 minutes, a jury found him guilty of treason "for promoting the Roman faith."

In 1681 he was hanged in a public square, then drawn and quartered. In his speech on the scaffold, his words of pardon were recorded as, "I do forgive all who had a hand directly or indirectly in my death and in my innocent blood." His dying words were: "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Lord Jesus, receive my soul."

The remains of his body were torched by angry Protestants. His severed head was recovered from the fire by friends, and like Oliver in life, it traveled across Europe from Germany to Italy and finally to Ireland, where it is now enshrined in St. Peter's Church.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI canonized Plunkett, whom he called the "successor of St. Patrick." The pope, who had visited the shrine of St. Oliver when he was still a cardinal, said at the canonization,

And after the example of the King of Martyrs, there was no rancor in his heart. Moreover, he sealed by his death the same message and ministry of reconciliation that he had preached and performed during his life. In his pastoral activities, his exhortation had been one of pardon and peace. With men of violence, he was indeed the advocate of justice and the friend of the oppressed, but he would not compromise with truth or condone violence; he would not substitute another gospel for the Gospel of peace.

And his witness is alive today in the Church, as he insists with the Apostle Peter: "Never pay back one wrong with another" (1 Petr. 3, 9). O what a model of reconciliation — a sure guide for our day! Oliver Plunkett had understood with Saint Paul that "it was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5, 18). From Jesus Himself, he had learned to pray for his persecutors (Cfr. Mt. 5, 44), and with Jesus, he could say, "Father, forgive them" (Lk. 23, 31).

Oliver was the first Irish person to be canonized since Laurence O'Toole, archbishop of Dublin, was made a saint in 1225, making him the first Irish saint in almost 700 years. He is the patron of peace and reconciliation.

People inside and outside of Ireland are invited to attend the procession in Drogheda. It is a procession not to be taken for granted, for many reasons, including that it was illegal until 1926 for a Roman Catholic priest in the United Kingdom to lead a religious procession in public.

The procession begins at 3 p.m. local time at Holy Family Parish, with Holy Mass offered at St. Peter's Parish Church at 4 p.m. For more information, email

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