Lent is a grand time to confront evil, both that evil which stains our souls, and the evil external to us. Throughout the history of the Church there have been saints who risked all to bravely confront the popular evils of their time. This Lent on each Sunday we will be looking at some of those saints. We began with Saint Athanasius. Go here to read about him. Next we looked at Saint John Fisher. Go here to read about him. Today we turn to Saint Oliver Plunkett.
Oliver Plunkett first saw the light of day on November 1, 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland, a scion of an Irish-Norman family. Educated by his cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of Saint Mary’s in Dublin and a future bishop, Oliver decided at a young age that he wished to become a priest, and in 1647 he went to study for the priesthood in Rome at the Irish College. Ordained in 1654, he acted as the representative of the Irish bishops in Rome.
While performing duties as a Professor of Theology at the College of Propaganda Fide, he never ceased speaking out on behalf of the suffering Church in Ireland, enduring massacre and suppression under the brutal Cromwellian Conquest. On November 30, 1669 he was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh.
In Ireland he went at his duties with a will, traveling up and down the country confirming Catholics, the sacrament often being administered in huge open air masses. He joyously shared the sufferings of his persecuted flock, often living on a little oat bread as he brought Christ to his people. He attacked drunkenness as being a prime curse of the priesthood in Ireland and championed education for the youth of the Emerald Isle.
A renewed period of persecution struck Ireland in 1673, with the churches being closed, and the schools disbanded. The Jesuit college at Drogheda that Plunkett had established was leveled. With a price on his head, he refused to go into exile and traveled in disguise. The Archbishop carried on with his duties, undeterred that his episcopal palace was usually a simple peasant’s hut.
In England anti-Catholicism was kept at a boiling pitch. It was a popular flail that adversaries of the Merry Monarch, King Charles II, who was suspected of being a secret Catholic, wielded against him. They found a useful tool in Titus Oates, a man who lied fluently. Oates had been ordained an Anglican clergyman, and later, after an alleged conversion, attempted to become a Catholic priest. Wherever he went he engaged in crimes including forgery, perjury and buggery, and both Anglicans and Catholics who had contact him ultimately agreed that Oates was a complete villain.
After being expelled from the Catholic seminary at Saint Omer, Oates returned to England in 1678. For reasons of financial gain, he claimed that he had converted to Catholicism to learn of the nefarious schemes of Catholics in England and began producing a long and convuluted series of fables implicating Catholics in England in what became known to history as the “Popish Plot”. Charles II, who had severe moral failings but who was no one’s fool, personally interviewed Oates, caught him out in several lies, and ordered his arrest. It was to no avail. Seized upon by Protestant enemies of the King, Oates lies quickly inflamed anti-Catholic hysteria in England, and over three years 15 men would pay with their lives as a result of completely fabricated allegations by Oates. The last victim of this shameful episode was Archbishop Plunkett.
On completely perjured testimony the Archbishop was arrested and thrown into jail in Dublin on December 6, 1679. He was accused of plotting rebellion against the English crown. Realizing that no jury would ever convict him in Ireland, the authorities brought him to England and imprisoned him in Newgate Prison in London. The first grand jury convened against him refused to return a true bill of indictment. Eventually he was brought to trial, and in direct defiance of English law allowed no counsel. The alleged offenses for which he was tried were beyond the applicable statute of limitations He defended himself with skill, pointing out that the men who accused him were convicted criminals and perjurers. To no avail. Chief Justice Francis Pemberton who presided over this Kangaroo Court was determined to see him dead. Accurately Lord Brougham in his magisterial Lives of the Chief Justices of England said that this trial was a disgrace to Pemberton and to England.
In this atmosphere the verdict of the English jury, all Protestant, was a foregone conclusion. Chief Justice Pemberton in a statement from the bench said there was no greater crime in the world than propagating the Catholic faith, thus giving away the true reason why the Archbishop was being judicially murdered. After the gleeful Pemberton pronounced sentence of death, Plunkett responded loudly and joyously with two words: Deo Gratias!
On July 1, 1681 the Archbishop was taken to Tyburn for execution. Observers report that he was calm and serene, as if was merely going for a stroll. From the scaffold, he gave a speech in his defense and forgave those who were responsible for his death. He impressed the vast crowds that came to witness his death with his eloquence and raw courage. He was then hanged, drawn and quartered, the traditional barbarous penalty for treason to the English crown.
He was the last person executed for the Faith in England. With his death the tide of public opinion turned against Oates. Men Oates accused began to be acquitted by judges and juries, as hysteria subsided and Oates’ lies were no longer taken as gospel by fools; and the knaves who had backed Oates began to back away from him.
On May 23, 1920 the Archbishop was beatified by Pope Benedict XV and he was canonized on October 12, 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
While he was in prison in Tyburn, Saint Oliver wrote in one of his letters that what he was suffering was a “flea bite” compared to the sufferings of Christ. He was not afraid to suffer as Christ suffered while He was on Earth, and now he lives forever in everlasting bliss with Christ. May we have the courage to accept the suffering and the faith to gain the bliss.