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“It is people of conscience who shape the world” – Nuncio

By Sarah Mac Donald - 08 July, 2013

The Apostolic Nuncio has paid tribute to Ireland’s “long and radiant history of men and women of conscience” who preferred to suffer rather than deny what their conscience tells them is right.

In his homily for the feast day of martyred Irish Archbishop of Armagh, St Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop Charles Brown told the congregation at St Peter’s Church in Drogheda that it is people of conscience who shape the world.

Recalling the words of Blessed John Paul II at Drogheda in 1979 on the inviolability of human life and the importance of conscience, Archbishop Brown highlighted the Irish Constitution’s “explicit guarantee” of the freedom of conscience for every citizen.


Referring to the vigil being kept for Nelson Mandela, he paid tribute to the South African leader’s battle to have the dignity and equality of all recognised under the law. The Nuncio likened his stance on a matter of principle to those who have taken a stand on abortion.

“Principles are indeed important,” he said. “If we abandon the principle which teaches that innocent human life is inviolable … 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?” he asked.

The Archbishop warned, “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.”

He underlined that 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”, the Archbishop said.

For the first time the procession of the relics of St Oliver departed from the Diocese of Meath and made its way across the River Boyne before it reached St Peter’s which lies within the Archdiocese of Armagh.

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Bishop Michael Smith of Meath accompanied the procession and later concelebrated mass with Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Brown. The relics were accompanied by the Knights of Columbanus and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre as well as members of other Orders and local Catholic organisations.

The 2013 procession commemorated the 93rd anniversary of the beatification of St Oliver by Pope Benedict XV on 23 May 1920, and the 38th anniversary of his canonisation by Pope Paul VI on 12 October 1975.

In his homily, Archbishop Brown recalled how St Oliver Plunkett “preached a message of pardon and peace” and said he was “the defender of the oppressed” and an “advocate of justice” who never condoned violence.

Recalling Blessed John Paul II’s homily in Drogheda, where the late pontiff warned that the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ must be binding on the conscience of humanity if tragedy and sorrow are to be avoided, Dr Brown said, “In a single phrase … Blessed John Paul II summed up the most basic requirement of what we must aspire to as human beings living in society.”

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Another important element in John Paul II’s address in Drogheda was his discussion of “the conscience of humanity.”

Noting that conscience is not infallible, the Nuncio said that 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).”

“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,” he said and added that St Oliver was 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,” Archbishops Brown said.

 By Sarah Mac Donald

Extract from Archbishop Charles Brown’s homily on St Oliver Plunkett and Bl John Paul II:

“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.”

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