Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Fortnight for Freedom: St. Oliver Plunkett

St. Oliver Plunkett was the last Catholic priest executed at Tyburn Tree (on July 1, 1681); he was the last victim of the Popish Plot's anti-Catholic hysteria to be executed--but he was not a Jesuit, nor an English missionary priest. St. Oliver Plunkett was the Archbishop of Armagh, the Primate of Catholics in Ireland. He was the ultimate bogey-man to the Anglicans of England, for he was the embodiment of Catholic resistance to English rule in Ireland and all the English attempts, from Elizabeth I's reign, to bring Catholic Ireland under Anglican rule. He was tried twice on charges of conspiracy against Charles II--once in Ireland where he was acquitted and again in England where he was found guilty. He could not be found guilty for being a priest in England under the old Elizabethan statute since he had been brought to England by authorities, and there was no real proof of any conspiracy with the French to overthrow Charles II, but he was still found guilty:

On the day of the trial, Oliver who was again not allowed any defence counsel, disputed the right of the court to try him in England and he also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses. The Lord Chief Justice replied: "Look you Mr. Plunkett, do not waste your time by talking about these things…The bottom of your treason, which is treason of the highest order, was the setting up of your false religion and there is nothing more displeasing to God than it". The jury retired to consider the charge of high treason and returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict. Archbishop Oliver, knowing the horrible punishment for treason, was to be hung, drawn and quartered and realising that he was to be martyred for his faith, simply replied to the court: "Deo Gratias" or God be thanked. The Lord Chief Justice pronounced sentence: "You shall be drawn through the City of London to Tyburn, there you shall be hanged by the neck but cut down before you are dead, your bowels shall be taken out and burnt before your face, your head shall be cut off and your body be divided into four quarters." Oliver addressed the court and said that he could easily have gained his freedom, as he had already been offered it, if he would confess his guilt and condemn others, adding that he would rather die ten thousand deaths than wrongfully take a farthing of any man's goods, one day of his freedom or a minute of his life.

On the 1st July 1681, he was dragged on a sledge from Newgate prison, before a noisy crowd, a distance of three kilometers to Tyburn. The keeper of Newgate when asked how the prisoner was, replied that he had slept soundly and that he was as unconcerned as if he was going to a wedding. From the three cornered gallows at Tyburn, Archbishop Oliver in a prepared speech, refuted his accusers point by point and forgave all of them, including the judges, and those who had given evidence against him at the trial: "I beg of my Saviour to grant them true repentance, I do forgive them with all my heart."

Oliver's theme of reconciliation continued, by his asking forgiveness of all those whom he had ever offended by thought, word or deed. He prayed: "I beseech your Divine Majesty by the merits of Christ and the intercession of his Blessed Mother and all the holy angels and saints to forgive me my sins and to grant my soul eternal rest."

Kneeling he recited an act of contrition, the Miserere psalm and he repeated before his death, the prayer of Jesus on the cross: "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit". St. Oliver worked tirelessly as Archbishop for ten years, paying the ultimate price of martyrdom without seeing the fruits of his labours, and his crowning glory was the manner of his death, humble, heroic and holy. Several priests were close by and they blessed and absolved him at the point of his death. He may have been already dead when he was taken down and the further mutilation began. A fire had been prepared to consume his remains, his head was thrown into it, but it was quickly recovered and scorch marks may still be discerned on the left cheek. His demeanour and his speech from the scaffold were well received and it was patently obvious to many that he was innocent, as the plot had already shown signs of crumbling.

Charles II knew that Archbishop Plunkett was being framed but he did nothing because it was not politically expedient to protect a Catholic priest from injustice. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Earl of Essex, Arthur Capell, recognized the injustice of Plunkett's trial, conviction, and execution and Charles excoriated him: "his blood be on your head - you could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not". Oliver Plunkett was beatified by Pope Benedict XV and Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1975.

When Pope Paul VI canonized the martyr, he began his remarks in Gaelic:
Dia's muire Dhíbh, a chlann Phádraig! Céad mile fáilte rómhaibh! Tá Naomh nua againn inniu: Comharba Phádraig, Olibhéar Naofa Ploinéad. (God and Mary be with you, family of Saint Patrick! A hundred thousand welcomes! We have a new Saint today: the successor of Saint Patrick, Saint Oliver Plunkett). Today, Venerable Brothers and dear sons and daughters, the Church celebrates the highest expression of love-the supreme measure of Christian and pastoral charity. Today, the Church rejoices with a great joy, because the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, is reflected and manifested in a new Saint. And this new Saint is Oliver Plunkett, Bishop and Martyr-Oliver Plunkett, successor of Saint Patrick in the See of Armagh-Oliver Plunkett , glory of Ireland and Saint, today and for ever, of the Church of God, Oliver Plunkett is for all-for the entire world-an authentic and outstanding example of the love of Christ. And on our part we bow down today to venerate his sacred relics, just as on former occasions we have personally knelt in prayer and admiration at this shrine in Drogheda.
There are many resources on the life and times of St. Oliver Plunkett available here.

God our Father, you filled St. Oliver with your Spirit of fortitude, enabling him to feed your flock with his word and lay down his life for his sheep. Help us by his prayers to keep the faith he taught, and to follow the way of reconciliation, which he showed by his example. Grant this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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