Homily of His Excellency Archbishop Charles J Brown – Apostolic Nuncio in Ireland at Mass for Saint Oliver Plunkett – Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda
- If we abandon the principle which teaches that innocent human life is inviolable, which is to say, that is it is sacred and must be protected by law … and begin to allow for the deliberate and direct destruction of human life, what basis will we have to object when the situation shifts further and other categories of vulnerable human beings are under threat?
- The Constitution explicitly states that freedom of conscience is guaranteed to every citizen (cf. 44.2.1). Ireland is a nation with a long and radiant history of men and women of conscience, who have preferred to suffer rather than deny what their conscience tells them is right.
“The only thing that I can boast about is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14)
On 1 July, 1681, a man from County Meath was brought to his place of execution at Tyburn in the City of London. He had been sentenced to death on manifestly false charges, in a climate of intense anti-Catholicism in which it had been impossible for him to receive a fair trial. He was a man of truth and courage, of conviction and conscience. He died forgiving his executioners. In one way, the death of this man was not remarkable; indeed, in the place where was put to death, Catholics had been executed – simply because they were Catholics – for more than a century before that July day in 1681. But he was remarkable in many ways. His name you all know well: Oliver Plunkett. He was the Archbishop of Armagh, a tireless and courageous Shepherd. A fearless leader of the Catholic Church during a long period of persecution. He was remarkable also because he was the last in the line – the final Catholic martyr of Tyburn.
In 1979, some three hundred years after Saint Oliver Plunkett’s martyrdom, another holy Bishop, this one, the Bishop of Rome, Blessed John Paul II, came here to Drogheda in times which, while very unlike those of Saint Oliver Plunkett, were nonetheless extremely difficult. Celebrating Mass in Killineer on 29 September before something like a quarter million people, Pope John Paul II described himself as “a pilgrim of faith” and spoke his desire to discover and experience the ancient origins of the Catholic faith in Ireland. He prayed that “the light of Christ, the light of faith [would] continue always to shine out from Ireland. May no darkness ever be able to extinguish it.” And Pope John Paul II spoke about the martyred Archbishop we honour today, describing Oliver Plunkett as “an outstanding example of the love of Christ” for all human beings.
As a Bishop, Oliver Plunkett “preached a message of pardon and peace. He was indeed the defender of the oppressed and the advocate of justice, but he would never condone violence. For men of violence, his word was the word of the Apostle Peter: ‘Never pay back one wrong with another’ (1 Pt 3:9). As a Martyr for the faith, he sealed by his death the same message of reconciliation that he had preached during his life. In his heart there was no rancour, for his strength was the love of Jesus, the love of the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his flock. His dying words were words of forgiveness for all his enemies” (Pope John Paul II, Homily, 29 September 1979).
Speaking to the people there that day (and I wonder how many of you who are listening to me now were among them), Pope John Paul II deplored the hatred and violence which were destroying the lives of innocent people at that time. And he did so by an explicit appeal to a principle, a principle which is the foundation and guarantee of a society that is truly human. Blessed John Paul II said that day here in Drogheda, and I quote: “The command ‘Thou shalt not kill’, must be binding on the conscience of humanity” if tragedy and sorrow are to be avoided. In a single phrase that day in Drogheda, Blessed John Paul II summed up the most basic requirement of what we must aspire to as human beings living in society.
Principles are indeed important. They are the “first things” from which all else follows. If we abandon the principle which teaches that innocent human life is inviolable, which is to say, that is it is sacred and must be protected by law, if we relinquish that principle, and begin to allow for the deliberate and direct destruction of human life, what basis will we have to object when the situation shifts further and other categories of vulnerable human beings are under threat? We will have none or very little, because we will have sacrificed the foundation, the basis, the principle: every human life is to be respected, because it is of inestimable value. This recognition is at the origin of every human society and community. It is not per se a religious truth; it is a human truth.
As Pope John Paul II taught in another context: “Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded” (Evangelium vitae, 2). Human life at every stage of its development, from conception to natural death is sacred and deserving of protection under our laws; the right to life is the most basic of all rights. It is the foundation of all the others.
But there was a second very important element in John Paul II’s words in Drogheda in 1979. He spoke of the importance of conscience, “the conscience of humanity”. The Catholic Church teaches clearly that “a human being must always obey the certain judgement of his conscience” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1790), a conscience that is informed and enlightened by the truth (cf. CCC, 1785). Conscience is not infallible. But the teaching of the Catholic Church is very clear; a person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience’…” (CCC, 1782). Brothers and sisters, the history of humanity is illuminated by the example of those persons who have chosen to suffer the consequences of acting according to the basic truths of human life, as discerned by their conscience.
In these present days, the whole world is keeping vigil at gates of the hospital in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela is being treated. Why? Because the entire world recognizes that here is a man who paid the price for affirming what all of us know in our consciences, but which the political order of his day had tried to deny: the dignity of a human person and his or her equality under the law do not depend upon the colour of his or her skin. A principle. A simple point. Something completely obvious to you and me, but Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years of his life on this earth in prison because of this truth and because his conscience would not allow him to accept its denial. All he ever wanted was that his nation would be “a living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be” (Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, 1993).
Here in Ireland, the Constitution explicitly states that freedom of conscience is guaranteed to every citizen (cf. 44.2.1). Ireland is a nation with a long and radiant history of men and women of conscience, who have preferred to suffer rather than deny what their conscience tells them is right.
That history continues in our present moment. It is persons of conscience who shape the world; it is they who will triumph in the final analysis. Yes, they may seem for a time to be, as Jesus says in the Gospel today, like “lambs among wolves”, but let us never forget that the way of Lamb is the way of victory, because it is the way of truth. At the very end, “the Lamb will conquer and the Woman clothed with the sun…” But even before that definitive end, human history is marked by those women and men who have the courage to be true to what we as human beings know in our hearts is right. We instinctively recognize such people and we admire them.
We gather here today in Drogheda to remember such a figure. Oliver Plunkett may have been the last in the line of the Catholic martyrs at Tyburn, but he was certainly not the last in the line of courageous Irish women and men who have chosen to follow their consciences in the face of pressure and opposition. Saint Oliver Plunkett is revered and remembered as a patron of peace and reconciliation: peace that is the fruit of truth and reconciliation that is the fruit of Christian love. His boast, his only boast was in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. May his memory be eternal!
Saint Oliver Plunkett, pray for us!
Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland, pray for us!
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