Homily of Cardinal Seán Brady, Basilica of Saint Gotthard Lamspringe, Germany
The following homily will be preached today by Cardinal Seán Brady in the Basilica of Saint Gotthard Lamspringe to commemorate the life and ministry of Saint Oliver Plunkett, a patron saint of the Archdiocese of Armagh:
“In much of Europe we can speak of a ‘crisis in the vocation of parenting’. The fragmentation of traditional family bonds and the political and cultural under-valuing of stability and commitment in marriage all present unprecedented challenges to the family as the first agent of evangelisation … the witness of Saint Oliver calls us to a renewed appreciation of the need to support stable, committed marriage between a woman and a man as an essential part of the transformation and purification of our culture” – Cardinal Brady
It is a joy and a privilege that I join you here this weekend in this diocese of Hildesheim in this Year of Faith, at the invitation of Bishop Norbert.
I have come to take part in the annual celebrations in honour of my martyred predecessor, Saint Oliver Plunkett. It is to the glory and praise of the people of this diocese of Hildesheim and to the monks of Lamspringe in particular, that the mortal remains of Saint Oliver found, for 200 years, a resting place in the shrine in the Church of Saint Hadrian and Dionysius.
Of course it is also entirely in keeping with the outstanding spirit of hospitality for which the Benedictines themselves are renowned that Lamspringe had earlier offered their monastery in the 17th century to the exiled Benedictine monks from Yorkshire, England.
One of those monks was Dom Maurus Corker. When he tried to return to England he was promptly arrested, sent to prison and condemned to death for treason. A fellow prisoner at the same time in Newgate was Oliver Plunkett, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh. He too was accused of the treason of plotting an invasion of Ireland to overthrow the King. He was convicted, sentenced to death and executed at Tyburn on 1 July 1681, the last person to be executed for his faith in England. His remains were buried in a nearby churchyard.
But, that was not the end of the story. Dom Corker was not executed but eventually released from prison. He immediately set about exhuming the remains of Oliver Plunkett and transported them here to Lamspringe for burial in a shrine in the ancient Church of Saint Hadrian and Saint Dionysius – which was the Abbey Church at the time.
It is to the eternal glory of Dom, later Abbot Corker that he carried out this corporal work of mercy for his deceased friend. It is to the eternal glory of the community that they welcomed the move and that they built the beautiful shrine. It is to the glory of the citizens of Lamspringe that they welcomed and buried the remains of Archbishop Plunkett at a time when he was neither Blessed nor Saint.
So today, I want to thank God for Saint Benedict and the Benedictine Religious Congregation. I was delighted to visit yesterday the Marienrode Priory of Benedictine nuns and to meet the Prioress, Sister Maria Elizabeth and Sister Monica. It is good to know that the charisma of Saint Benedict continues.
I was very interested to learn that Saint Gotthard, Patron of this Basilica was also a member of the Benedictine Order.
So, as an Irishman and as the present Archbishop of Armagh, I am grateful to all of you for all you do to keep alive the memory and spirit of my fellow Irishman and heroic martyr for the faith, Saint Oliver Plunkett.
In doing so you are carrying out one of the pastoral recommendations of the Year of Faith. For, during this Year of Faith, the Church invites us to call to mind often the life and example of the saints, especially the martyrs, of our diocese and countries. We are encouraged to reflect often on the lives of the saints. Their lives are put before us as credible witnesses to the possibility of faith. The .lives of the saints tells us that, yes, faith is possible in the world in which we live, despite the challenges of our times.
Today we call to mind the life and the spirit of Saint Oliver Plunkett. We continue a cherished tradition of almost 350 years in this diocese. We set before the Church in Ireland and the Church in Hildesheim someone for whom Jesus had opened the door of faith wide enough to allow him to enter into a life of communion with the Blessed Trinity. We have in Saint Oliver Plunkett someone who had personally encountered Christ – a Christ who filled his heart with love and drove him out and on to evangelise.
So, what can we learn from the life and faith of Saint Oliver Plunkett?
First, there is Oliver, the man of unshakable faith formed by his encounter with Christ. In the encounter with Christ the role of the family and of Christian education have a unique and invaluable place. This was the experience of Saint Oliver. For the first twenty two years of his life the importance and potential of what we might describe as the ordinary means of evangelisation, namely, the Christian family parish and school, revealed their worth. We can never set aside the importance of these primary means of bringing the young to the knowledge and love of Christ.
The Christian family in particular is confronted by many challenges today. Looking to the example of Saint Oliver we are reminded of the importance of supporting stable and life giving relationships in marriage. They are a key part of the New Evangelisation, as well as an indispensable contribution to the common good. I would also go further and say that in much of Europe we can speak of a ‘crisis in the vocation of parenting’. The fragmentation of traditional family bonds and the political and cultural under-valuing of stability and commitment in marriage all present unprecedented challenges to the family as the first agent of evangelisation. While these particular challenges did not exist in his time, the witness of Saint Oliver calls us to a renewed appreciation of the need to support stable, committed marriage between a woman and a man as an essential part of the transformation and purification of our culture.
Oliver was introduced to the person and love of Jesus Christ by his family, the local Church and his Catholic education. He developed a passion and zeal for the things of God. These inspired him to become first a committed student and then a dedicated and gifted teacher of the faith. This marked the second stage of his life, where he spent twenty two years as a student and then as a teacher of future priests in Rome. He was ordained in the Chapel of the building housing Propaganda Fidei in Rome, a symbol of the mission of the Church to the world. His desire to return to his native land and people in the midst of their religious persecution was an indication of the missionary zeal that flowed from a heart formed in the content and practice of the faith.
It is in his commitment to presenting the full truth about Christ and about his Church that we most see the man of missionary zeal in Saint Oliver. We see it especially in his zeal for:
Preaching and teaching the faith in Ireland, in spite of the constant threat of persecution and death.
- Celebrating the sacraments, especially of Confirmation and Sacred Orders but also
- Eucharist and Marriage; and
- We see it in his renewal of priestly formation and discipline in the celebration of the Liturgy.
In all of this the object of Saint Oliver’s missionary zeal was the authentic renewal of the faith in Ireland at a time when poor formation of the clergy and faithful under persecution had left its mark. Ensuring a worthy and informed celebration of the Sacraments, and the Liturgy, was a key source of renewal of faith.
His spare time was devoted to works of charity – especially to the care of the poor and sick in a nearby hospital. When he paid his last visit there before returning to Ireland, the Polish Chaplain said to him: “My Lord, you are now going to shed your blood for the Catholic faith”. Oliver replied: “I am unworthy of such a favour, but help me with your prayers that this desire of mine may be fulfilled.”
I am happy to be accompanied here on this pilgrimage by Mr Tommy Burns. Tommy lives in Drogheda where the National Shrine of Saint Oliver is located. Tommy is Chairman of Saint Oliver Plunkett for Peace and Reconciliation, which is a crusade to promote prayer to Saint Oliver in these words:
Glorious Martyr, Saint Oliver,
who willingly gave your life for your faith,
help us also to be strong in faith.
Saint Oliver was himself a man of serenity and peace, a peace no doubt borne of his patient suffering. One of the most treasured relics in the Church of Saint Peter’s in Drogheda, where the head of Saint Oliver is venerated by thousands of pilgrims to this day, is the door of the prison cell where he spent the last days before his martyrdom at Tyburn. It is a solemn reminder to us that the door of faith often opens us to the door of suffering and that suffering too is part of the journey into our understanding of the depth of the love of God for us personally and for the world.
Here is a saying of Saint Oliver’s: “This is the time for doing good. We must follow the example of sailors at sea. When the wind is favourable, they unfurl their canvas and skim swiftly across the ocean under full sail”.
There is an obvious allusion here to the Holy Spirit as the breath of God and to the current challenge before the Barque of Peter, the Church. In the modern world it is a time for doing good. Pope Francis reminds us of the importance of authentic witnesses to the reality and transforming power of Christ’s love in the ordinary, everyday moments and encounters of life. In this we will be well served by looking to the life and example of Saint Oliver Plunkett.
I thank you, on behalf of the Christian people of Ireland, for keeping his memory and his example alive here in and I thank you for the refuge and care you have shown for his mortal remains, brought to you.
I end with the concluding two verses of the Saint Oliver Plunkett for Peace and Reconciliation daily prayer for peace.
May we be loyal like you to the see of Peter.
By your intercession and example
may all hatred and bitterness
be banished from the hearts of Irish men and women.
May the peace of Christ reign in our hearts,
as it did in your heart,
Even at the moment of your death.
Pray for us and for Ireland.
- Cardinal Seán Brady is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland
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