Homily of Archbishop Eamon Martin for Mass celebrating the annual festival of Saint Oliver Plunkett

02 Jul 2017

“Pope Francis reminds us that we are called to proclaim the Gospel in a world of sin and injustice, and the best way for us to do that is to be humble and poor like Jesus … in Ireland, Catholics and Christians are entering a time when we will need the gift of courage to stay faithful to the teachings of the Gospel.  We are living in the midst of a more aggressively secular culture which insists at times on conformity and compromise with the thinking of the day, and which tends to ridicule and reject any recourse to the concept of timeless or absolute truths” – Archbishop Martin


The feast day of Saint Oliver Plunkett was celebrated yesterday on 1 July.  The annual festival of Saint Oliver Plunkett takes place today at the Holy Family Church, Ballsgrove, Drogheda, Diocese of Meath at 3.00pm processing to Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, the Memorial Church of Saint Oliver Plunkett in the Archdiocese of Armagh, for Mass at 4.00pm.  Archbishop Eamon Martin will be the chief celebrant and will preach the homily (see below).  Music will be provided by Saint Peter’s Male Voice Choir directed by Mr Edward Holly.  Concelebrating the Mass will be Monsignor James Carroll PP and other clergy, and in attendance will be members of the Knights of Columbanus, representatives of faith groups, pilgrims from around the country, members of the local Saint Oliver Plunkett’s scout troop and Saint Oliver Group for Peace and Reconciliation.  The 2017 procession, culminating in the concelebrated Festival Mass in Saint Peter’s,will commemorate the 97th anniversary of the beatification of Saint Oliver Plunkett by Pope Benedict XV on 23 May 1920, as well as the 42nd anniversary of his canonisation as a martyred saint by Blessed Pope Paul VI on 12 October 1975.  One of the features of today will be the colourful ‘Procession of the Relics’ of Saint Oliver Plunkett.  The festival is a hands-across-the-Boyne celebration of faith which embraces both dioceses, Meath and Armagh. 

Homily of Archbishop Eamon Martin

Two years ago this weekend I returned from Rome having received the pallium from Pope Francis to mark my appointment as Archbishop of Armagh.  The pallium is a simple white woollen stole decorated with crosses and edged in black so that when it drapes over the shoulders it invokes the image of a lamb being carried fondly by its shepherd.  It is a symbol of the pastoral care which we, as bishops, are called to give in imitation of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for His sheep.

I couldn’t help noticing in my room at the Irish College in Rome during those days, a rather striking painting of my predecessor Saint Oliver Plunkett, kneeling at the gallows just before his martyrdom.  His pallium lies discarded on the ground where his executioners have flung it; in its place his head and shoulders are draped with the hangman’s noose.

The stories of Saint Oliver Plunkett, and many other heroic people of faith in the Penal times, remind us of the courage and sacrifices of our ancestors.  I thank God for the freedom to believe and worship that we enjoy in Ireland today, and I pray that freedom shall never again be undermined or taken for granted in this country.

I say that strongly today, being conscious that the persecution of Christians remains widespread and often unreported in many parts of the world.  You may recall that just over a month ago, 28 Coptic Christians were killed in Egypt, and this followed from the deaths of 45 others who were murdered at worship on Palm Sunday last.

It is shocking to think that in 2017 thousands of Christians are still being displaced or expelled, tortured, discriminated and murdered simply because they are Christian.  This is happening in many countries of the world – from Iraq and Syria, to Libya and Nigeria , North Korea and Vietnam, in Pakistan, Indonesia and parts of China and India.  Research reveals that the vast majority of religious discrimination in the world today is against Christian believers, and much of this is due to the political manipulation and distortion of Islam and other faiths.

Sadly, many Catholics and other Christians in Ireland and other parts of the Western world, remain unaware or ignorant of the horrors and extent of persecution that our sisters and brothers in Christ have to suffer. 

How can we mark this day, honouring and commemorating Saint Oliver Plunkett, without opening our eyes and ears to the brutality of what is happening around the world today?  As sons and daughters of the Archdiocese of Armagh, as admirers of the courage of our great patron Saint Oliver Plunkett, surely we all have an obligation to be informed, raise awareness, and act in solidarity with our fellow Christians?  I recommend for your study and reflection Persecuted and Forgotten? – the global analysis of the oppression of Christians compiled by the organisation ‘Aid to the Church in Need’, which is readily available online.

Pope Francis has often spoken about the ongoing persecution of people today because of their faith.  Last Wednesday at his General Audience (28 June 2017) in Rome, Pope Francis offered the example of the martyrs as inspiration for Christians who face open hostility and violence in their daily lives.  He reminded us that we are called to proclaim the Gospel in a world of sin and injustice, and the best way for us to do that is to be humble and poor like Jesus – not attached to riches and power, and not falling into the temptation to vengeance and violence ourselves.  We win over the world by the power of love and charity. 

“The only strength of the Christians is the Gospel,” Pope Francis said.  “In times of hardship, one must believe that Jesus stands before us and he does not cease to accompany his disciples.  Christians must always be found on the “other side” of the world, the one chosen by God: not persecutors, but persecuted; not arrogant, but gentle; not liars, but subjected to the truth; not impostors, but honest.”

In reflecting on the many Christians today who witness by their lives rather than give up on their beliefs, I find myself asking: “Why?”  Why would someone give their life for their faith?  Clearly it is because they believe that this life on earth is not the sum total of everything.  They place their hope, as Saint Oliver Plunkett did, on another life, eternal life with God in the happiness of heaven.

They gain inspiration from the words of today’s second reading: “We believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him: Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more (Romans 6)”; and, from the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me.  Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10).”

That same hope and commitment helped Irish people to hold fast to their faith during decades of persecution in this country – people like Saint Oliver Plunkett, the blessed Irish martyrs and countless other unsung Irish women and men.

Standing up for your faith, being a witness for what you believe in, is not the stuff of ancient history or another world.  It is a living reality for Christians across the world today.  Even in Ireland, Catholics and Christians are entering a time when we will need the gift of courage to stay faithful to the teachings of the Gospel.  We are living in the midst of a more aggressively secular culture which insists at times on conformity and compromise with the thinking of the day, and which tends to ridicule and reject any recourse to the concept of timeless or absolute truths.

Pope Francis has spoken about another type of persecution, what he termed the “velvet-gloved” persecutions that are “cloaked in politeness”: the ones that marginalise you, take your job away if you fail to adapt to laws that “go against God the Creator.”

There are some who would seek to expel people of faith from public discourse and debate, or caricature our Church as being “unmodern”, “authoritarian”, “hypocritical”, “bigoted”, “closed” to progress and personal rights and autonomy. 

In this context it is important that, in love and in truth, we are not afraid to witness to our Christian faith in public, and especially these days to speak courageously on issues like the sacredness and dignity of all human life from the first moment of conception until the movement of natural death, or the uniqueness of love and marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of children as fruit of that love, about the need for a fair distribution of the worlds goods, on the importance of respecting the environment and caring for the Earth, our common home.

We should not be surprised if, like Jesus Himself, we are despised at times, even in our own country. 

As Pope Francis said last Wednesday:

“we now look to the example of the martyrs.  Their hope gave them the strength even to die for their faith in Christ.  The Lord himself warned his followers that, in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, they would encounter opposition and hostility in this world of sin and injustice …  By imitating the example of his own self-sacrifice and love, we demonstrate our faith and hope in him and we become his witnesses before the world.  In this sense, every Christian is a ‘martyr’, a witness to the sure hope that faith inspires.  The martyrs who even today lay down their lives for the faith do so out of love.  By their example and intercession, may we become ever more convincing witnesses, above all in the events of our daily lives, to our undying hope in the promises of Christ (General Audience 28 June 2017).”


Notes for Editors

  • Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.  Monsignor James Carroll VF, Parish Priest of Drogheda, Co Louth, Archdiocese of Armagh, is custodian of the Shrine of Saint Oliver Plunkett.  Today’s national celebrations in Drogheda have been organised by the Knights of Saint Columbanus.
  • Each year, thousands of pilgrims visit Saint Oliver Plunkett’s shrine in Saint Peter’s Church to venerate his relics and to learn about the saint’s extraordinary life and ministry.  Pilgrims pray for the sick and troubled, for family and friends.  They fittingly turn to Saint Oliver, who was martyred for his faith in a time of political, religious and social turmoil, to pray for his intercession concerning conflict areas at home and abroad.  Celebrations of the life of Saint Oliver also take place this weekend at his birthplace in front of the old ruined Church at Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co Meath.  Saint Oliver, a former Primate of All Ireland, was ordained Archbishop of Armagh in Ghent, Belgium, 1669 and was martyred in Tyburn, England, in 1681.  Along with Saints Patrick and Malachy, Saint Oliver is a patron saint of the Archdiocese of Armagh.

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