AUGUST 9, 2004




In His Light

by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

Pilgrimage to Ireland

St. Oliver Plunkett –
reminder of the fidelity that Christ expects

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

For my vacation this year I was able to spend two weeks traveling through Ireland – my first time in that beautiful island-nation. I made this visit as both a tourist and a pilgrim, since I took time not only to enjoy the natural beauty of the scenery, but also to pray at some of the important sites associated with the growth of the Church in Ireland, many of which, to be sure, are connected with St. Patrick himself.

In my column this week I want to tell you about my time at a sacred spot that dates from much later in Irish Christian history: the parish church of St. Peter, in the town of Drogheda, County Louth, about 30 miles due north of Dublin. I want to share this experience with you because it was probably the most powerful of my whole trip.

In a chapel on the right side of this beautiful Neo-Gothic church are the relics of St. Oliver Plunkett, who was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland from 1669 until his execution in London on July 11, 1681 (July 1 according to the old calendar).

“Relics,” “execution,” “saint” — these words give the unmistakable signals that Archbishop Plunkett was a martyr. And it was, I am sure, that fact that I was standing next to the physical remains of a bishop who laid down his life for Christ that left me so deeply moved.

For about 15 years after his ordination in 1654, Oliver Plunkett exercised his priestly ministry in Rome. However, in 1669, God, in his Providence, set his life in a radically new direction. Pope Clement IX named Father Plunkett archbishop of Armagh, the diocese that had been St. Patrick’s own, and sent him back to Ireland to lead in the work of restoring the life of the Church there.

After decades of persecution carried out according to the Penal Laws which forbade the public celebration of the Mass and closed their schools, the Catholic people and their clergy were in dire straits. Once again, as even during Christ’s earthly life, God’s people “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34); this time in his pity the Lord sent them St. Oliver to be their shepherd in his place.

The historians report that the new archbishop threw himself into his duties with great energy. As I considered this, I could easily imagine that it would not have been easy for St. Oliver to know even where to begin, his diocese had been so long neglected.

The chronicles from the time tell us that he made it his particular care to bring the celebration of the sacraments into all parts of the country, to put new life back into his priests, to restore the schools and to work for reconciliation.

In about the fourth year of St. Oliver’s ministry there was a renewal of the persecution, and the relative freedom he had enjoyed to carry on his ministry came to an end. Instead of obeying the decree that would have banished him and all the other bishops from Ireland, St. Oliver chose to remain with his flock and serve them from hiding.

Eventually he was arrested on Dec. 6, 1679, and after a long period of imprisonment, first in Dublin and then in London, where he was unjustly convicted of treason, he was executed by being “hanged, drawn and quartered.”

How St. Oliver’s head along with some of his bones were preserved from destruction and eventually deposited in the chapel of the Drogheda church makes for interesting reading, but that is not what I want to take time with here. Rather, I want to tell you about the impact praying in the presence of these relics had on me.

Kneeling in front of these remnants of the broken body of St. Oliver, I was powerfully reminded of the sort of fidelity which Christ expects of his bishops and priests, the sort of fidelity which Christ expects of me, weak as I am: that a good shepherd must always be willing “to lay down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10:11) or else he is just a hireling.

And so, in the chapel of St. Oliver I prayed for courage, the courage of the priestly Heart of Jesus himself, the same courage that sustained St. Oliver through all the trials of his ministry until at last he come to his execution, that darkest hour when this courage shone all the brighter.

I asked God to give this courage not only to me but to all my brother priests in the Diocese of Oakland, for we all know the temptation of softening the Gospel call to perfection, lest we run afoul of the powers of the age. God took me to Ireland so that I could offer a prayer for our ministry in the East Bay.

Now that I am home I continue to offer this same prayer. Having told you about it, I ask that you join me in that very prayer.



Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.