I’ve been reading a lot lately about John Joseph Hughes, the first archbishop of New York. Hughes was born in County Tyrone, Ireland in 1797, which is to say: two centuries after the turmoil of the Tudor period in England, which bitterly affected Ireland and during which Great Britain had gone from being officially Catholic to officially Protestant then back to Catholic and once again to Protestant – all in the space of half a decade.
Many years after he came to New York, Hughes could still quip that for the first five days of his life he’d had the same legal status as any citizen in the British Empire; in other words, until he was baptized a Catholic. He and his family fled to America in 1817, just ahead of the true reform of England’s interdicts against Irish Catholics.
It’s often assumed that the torture (and even beheading) – frequent (and ghastly) features of the sixteenth century – had diminished by the seventeenth, and in the sheer number of such extreme incidents of the persecution of Catholics that may be true. But it would be a very long time indeed before Catholics could be safe in their persons and secure in their property, in either England or Ireland.
It’s said that the last Catholic martyr died in England in 1681, although persecutions would continue in Ireland for a long time after that.
And who was that martyr? It was Oilibhéar Pluincéid, better known as Oliver Plunkett, whose feast day we celebrate in July, and his story is yet another fortuitous remembrance and meditation during these last days of America’s Fortnight for Freedom.
Plunkett had lived a kind of charmed life as a young priest, having been educated at the Irish College in Rome and having lived two more sunny decades in the warmth of the Eternal City, where he was well known to popes as an agent for Irish bishops.
At the age of forty-nine, Plunkett was tapped by Clement X to return home (for the first time since he’d left as a teenager) as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.
There seemed then a lull in the oppression of Irish Catholics (thanks largely to the tolerance of Britain’s King Charles II, a Catholic convert), and Archbishop Plunkett was able to build schools, seek reforms of Ireland’s priesthood (especially with regard to the prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse), and to founded the Jesuit College of Drogheda, which in 1671 enrolled 190 students, a fifth of whom were Protestant.
But forbearance of Catholics only seemed to be improving during the Restoration period. In England there arose rumors of a Popish Plot, accompanied by mounting anti-Catholic hysteria, and such liberality as had been spreading in England and Ireland was quashed by the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, which barred Catholics from public service and demanded the same sort of loyalty oath as King Henry VIII had used as a pretext for murdering Sir Thomas More.
St. Oliver Plunkett (Pontifical Irish College)
Plunkett’s Jesuit College was razed, and he was arrested on charges of plotting to foment an Irish rebellion (aided by a French invasion).
The indictment was a total falsehood. Everyone knew the archbishop had been arrested because he refused to renounce his faith, and fearing that Irish anger might lead to insurrection, the English authorities spirited Plunkett away to London, where he was tried at Westminster Hall, the same venue where More had been prosecuted in 1535.
Just as More and Cardinal John Fisher had done, Plunkett forgave his executioner at Tyburn Hill. “I do forgive,” he told the leering crowd come to watch, “all who had a hand directly or indirectly in my death and in my innocent blood.”
Exactly as More and Fisher were, Archbishop Plunkett was executed not for anything he had done but for what he refused to do: choose Caesar over God.
But whereas the sentences of More and Fisher had been “commuted” to just beheading (Henry VIII had thought himself the soul of compassion for doing so) Oliver Plunkett was “hung, drawn, and quartered”: spread-eagled painfully on a wooden cart, pulled to Tyburn, hanged until he was nearly dead, taken down and his testicles cut off, his intestines removed, before his head was severed and his body hacked into four sections. Five, if we count his head.
His remains then began a far-flung journey that today finds his relics in England, Germany, the United States, Australia, France, and, of course, Ireland, where his head rests in a glass case at St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda.
Oliver Plunkett was canonized on October 12, 1975 by Paul VI, who called the saint “an authentic and outstanding example of the love of Christ.”
We praise God-Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who gave the glorious gift of supernatural faith to Oliver Plunkett – a faith so strong that it filled him with the fortitude and courage necessary to face martyrdom with serenity, with joy, and with forgiveness.
The religion of Christ, founded on the mystery of the Cross, cannot be destroyed by any sort of cruelty; persecutions do not weaken, they strengthen the Church. The field of the Lord is ever ripening with new harvests, while the grains shaken loose by the tempest take root and are multiplied.
And not long ago, the always-thoughtful Cardinal Francis George of Chicago shocked many when he remarked: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
This is why cardinals and archbishops wear red.