St. Oliver's Time in Rome (1647 - 1669)
Chased by pirates and abducted by robbers, a penniless St. Oliver, finally arrived in Rome in May 1647 after a three-month action-packed journey from Ireland. A young man of twenty-one years of age it is believed he travelled with four other students for the priesthood, one of whom was John Brenan, who would remain a lifelong confidant and friend. They undertook the journey under the protection of Fr. Peter Scarampi, who had completed his duties as the Pope's envoy to the Confederation of Kilkenny. On the journey they completed a pilgrimage to Assisi as a promised thanksgiving for their escape from the pirates at sea. As they entered Assisi, the home of St. Francis, the symbolism of their poverty must then have seemed rather appropriate to them. Indeed, St. Oliver was destined to suffer from a serious shortage of money throughout his later apostolate as the Archbishop of Armagh. Fr. Scarampi an Oratorian priest and a holy and charitable man was destined to leave an indelible mark for good on Oliver.
The month of May is surely one of the best months to appreciate the city of Rome with its lush foliage and colourful blossoms, all in full bloom. Oliver and his fellow students must have been highly impressed with all that they saw. The Renaissance had been adopted with some enthusiasm in Rome for almost three hundred years and the eternal city's fine churches, gardens and fountains would have contrasted greatly with what the young students had been used to back home.
The Irish College could not accept Oliver straight away so it was the good Fr. Scarampi who came to the rescue and arranged funds and accommodation for the pauper student. Upon entering the college he undertook the customary oath to return to Ireland after ordination. During his time at the college he walked each day across the buried and yet undiscovered Roman Forum for lectures to the Jesuit Collegio Romano. The rector of the Irish College wrote that Oliver ranked among the foremost in talent, diligence and progress. It is also recorded that Oliver was everywhere and at all times a model of gentleness, integrity and piety. Within a year of his arrival, Oliver would have met a cousin, Sir Nicholas Plunkett, who accompanied Bishop Nicholas French of Ferns on a visit to Rome, representing the Confederation of Kilkenny. Knighted by the Pope Innocent X on that visit, Sir Nicholas was the leading Catholic lawyer in Ireland at the time and he played a prominent part in the Confederation of Kilkenny. Barely a year afterwards, the disastrous Cromwellian conquest of Ireland began and over the next few years the news seeping out of Ireland was exceedingly grave. The land of Ireland literally changed hands, including the estate of Oliver's family, which had been confiscated at Loughcrew. The Irish Church was forced underground, with numerous martyrs, many of whom are still unknown to us. It is on record that Oliver spent many long periods of prayer about this time and he later wrote about the devout practice in Rome of visiting the Seven Churches including the catacomb. Obviously he regularly undertook this pilgrimage himself, undoubtedly praying for the intentions of his greatly troubled homeland.
In the Basilica of St. John Lateran, St. Oliver received tonsure and minor orders on 4th March 1651 and sub-diaconate on 20th December 1653. In the chapel of Propaganda College he was ordained a deacon on the 26th December of that year and six days later, on the 1st January 1654, he was ordained a priest in the same chapel by Bishop MacGeoghegan OFM of Clonmacnois, a refugee bishop from Ireland. Priests were still-hunted in Ireland at the time, so Fr. Oliver was naturally released from his promise to return home after ordination. For the next three years he undertook higher studies at the renowned Sapienza University and obtained a doctorate in law and he also earned a doctorate in theology. During this time he lived as a chaplain with the Oratorians at S. Gerolamo della Caritā, a house of great charity founded by St. Philip Neri who had lived there less than a century before. No doubt Fr. Oliver's accommodation and position was arranged by his friend and mentor, the Oratorian, Fr. Scarampi. Around this time a plague struck Italy and Fr. Scarampi who had courageously volunteered to assist the victims, died as a result on the Island of St. Bartholomew in 1656. This was a terrible loss to Oliver who regarded his mentor and benefactor as a father figure and indeed without his great example and help, Oliver would certainly not have achieved all that he did. He wrote that he was afflicted with an unspeakable sadness, some of his relatives had been put to death or sent into exile, he was deprived of his father and friends; the whole Irish people were living in extreme misery and Fr. Scarampi had died.
In November 1657, having obviously earned a good reputation from his studies, Fr. Oliver was appointed a lecturer in theology at Propaganda College. Fr. John Brenan his student friend of old was also appointed to the staff of Propaganda at this time. Later Fr. Oliver was promoted as professor of controversies or apologetics and over his twelve years at the college, he helped to improve standards a great deal. Propaganda College was an impressive establishment located in the same building as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and as such the whole complex was a hub of activity. For the rest of his life, Oliver held Propaganda College in the highest esteem, later writing from Ireland: "Propaganda in a word all Rome, is a great book. How many nations and their customs are observed, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, French, Turks, Ethiopians, Africans, Americans all rub shoulders and one learns with what prudence such widely divergent affairs referring to such opposing interests and countries are handled. One treats with cardinals and prelates of great wisdom, of consummate experience in the spiritual and temporal affairs of so many monarchs and princes. It is impossible that a person of even mediocre intelligence would not profit very much both in the fields of learning and experience, and indeed for the purpose of training a missionary, there is not another college in the world more suitable than the Propaganda."
Oliver was appointed as a consulter in the Congregation of the Index with a responsibility to review books, a part-time and a very trusted position. He was also appointed as a part time agent in Rome for several of the Irish bishops, fulfilling this role right up until his departure from the city. His correspondence kept him well informed of the plight of the Irish and he was kept busy in this role with several controversies in the Irish Church. These including such issues as the Remonstrance and its promoter, Fr. Peter Walsh and the trickery of Fr. James Taaffe. Over the twenty-two years which Oliver had spent in Rome, he had become Roman, indeed in his voluminous mail later from Ireland, although fluent in at least four languages, he felt most comfortable when corresponding in Italian.
The Archbishopric of Armagh became vacant upon the death in Saumur, France, of Dr. Edmund O'Reilly who had spent his last few years in exile. It was then almost a decade after the restoration of King Charles II and Rome at last thought it safe to appoint a few new bishops who could actually be sent to work on the Irish mission. On 9th of July 1669, at a meeting which took place in Rome to discuss the merits of the various candidates for the position of Archbishop of Armagh, Pope Clement IX intervened: "But why delay in discussing the merits of others, whilst we have here in Rome, a native of that island, whose merits are known to us all, and whose labours in this city have already added so many wreaths to the peerless glory of the 'Island of Saints'. Let Dr. Oliver Plunkett become the Archbishop of Armagh." It was decided that Oliver should be ordained Archbishop of Armagh in a quiet ceremony in Ghent, Belgium, on his way home to Ireland lest a more public ceremony in Rome might antagonise the government back home and lead to the further persecution of Catholics.
As a student in the Irish College many years earlier, Oliver's annual two weeks summer holidays were spent in the college vineyard on the slopes of Castel Gandolfo about twenty-five kilometres south east of Rome. He must have had very happy memories of those working holidays, because when working as a professor in Propaganda College, he acquired a small garden vineyard close to the one owned by the Irish college, overlooking the beautiful lake Albano. This he now left to the Irish College along with some books and pictures, in appreciation for the education he had received there. The pictures must not have been used by the college at that time however, as twelve years later and barely a week before his martyrdom, St. Oliver wrote a long and poignant letter to his former secretary and relative, Fr. Michael Plunkett in Rome, leaving the pictures to the Irish College and expressing his sorrow that they had not been framed. Many of the books, which he presented to the college library were scattered by the French during their invasion of Rome in 1798, however at least one of those books is still easily identified by his signature.
The garden vineyard, which he gave to the Irish College, was probably attached to their existing vineyard as a small extension. The time he spent in his vineyard must have been a joyful and a prayerful time for him and he would certainly have reflected on the scores upon scores of references to vines and vineyards in the Holy Bible, doubtless Dr. Oliver was familiar with them all. Having the freedom of the house and library which was on the property of the Irish College vineyard nearby, meant that this whole experience, must have been a most edifying one for him, so that when he wrote about the delights of Rome some years later, the vineyard must surely have been on his mind as one of those delights. One can well imagine the care and love with which he must have tended on those vines at Albano, and no doubt a little of the fruit of those vines was made into wine, for the sacred mysteries of some of his Masses.
When the young Oliver arrived in Rome, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica had been completed only fifty years earlier and work was still ongoing on the basilica of St. Peter's itself. During his time in Rome he witnessed many such improvements, including the building and completion of the colonnades of St. Peter's square. Similarly, Bernini's famous fountain of the four rivers, the Piazza Navona, another 'must see' for the tourists of today. He was there during the celebrated entry to Rome of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had renounced her throne, become a catholic and lived out the rest of her life in Rome. He was also in Rome when the 'Chair of St. Peter' was solemnly installed in the famous shrine by Bernini, at the back of St. Peter's Basilica and exactly eight years later, on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter in 1674, he would recall that event while on the run from the authorities and almost overcome by snow, during a snow blizzard in Ulster. He wrote: "God be praised that he gives us the grace to suffer for the Chair of St. Peter and on the feast dedicated to the Chair founded upon the Rock, which will, I hope in the long run break the tempestuous waves".
In his spare time, Oliver continued to distinguish himself in works of charity and he kept up his visits to the Santo Spirito hospital, adjacent to the Vatican. It is recorded that when he went to say his farewells at the hospital, Fr. Mieskow the superior wished Oliver well, along with the prophetic words: "My Lord you are going to shed your blood for the Catholic faith". Oliver left Rome during the first week of September 1669, travelling via, Bologna, Innsbruck, Munich and Mainz from where he travelled by boat down the Rhine into Cologne and further on into Holland; then on to Brussels on his way to receive his episcopal ordination in Ghent.