One of the saints of this diocese is John Ogilvie, born in Keith in 1580 and martyred in Glasgow in 1615. He lived at a time of ferocious controversy between Catholics and Protestants. It came to war in some places; it came to arguments everywhere. They were often very learned arguments, with quotations from Scripture and early Christian writers, arguments about where real Christianity and the real Church were to be found. It was like a boxing match, where nobody quite managed to land the knockout blow. Young John Ogilvie had been brought up a Protestant, but he went to continental, Catholic Europe for his education. And he became engaged in these controversies. He began to feel the force of the Catholic position, but then on the other hand… And so it went round and round, in his teenage, and very intelligent, head. “He was sick with anxiety and interior doubts, says one account, for he could not tell the true religion among the great numbers that proposed themselves for his acceptance. The more he thought the more confused did the issue become.” He had come to a point of mental exhaustion. And then two Scriptural passages came to his mind: “God our Saviour desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4), and the great line from today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labour and overburdened, and I will give you rest.” In the light of this, he handed himself over to Christ. And then the storm began to clear. He saw good reasons for becoming Catholic – he would list seven of them – but he heard something else beyond. He heard the invitation of Christ calling him. “Come to me.” And at 16, this young man appeared at the doors of the Scots College at Louvain, and asked to be received into what we nowadays call “full communion with the Catholic Church.” He would live a pugnacious, dangerous, dramatic life, full of arguments, and he’d end some 19 years later hung in Glasgow for loyalty to the Pope. But he had found rest, and he carried that rest with him all his life.
Centuries before, the Christian writer Origen had said: “When Jesus says, ‘Come to me all you who labour, and I will give you rest’, he is calling everyone to the Church.” The Messiah who brings peace has, through the Incarnation, ridden into all our Jerusalems on the donkey of our humanity. Only the Father knows the Son, only the Son knows the Father, and the “mere children” the Son reveals him to. Standing in the city square he issues his three-fold invitation: “Come to me…shoulder my yoke (the Beatitudes) and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart”. Immediately, historically, he’s speaking to his fellow-Jews burdened by their law. Risen from the dead, he’s speaking to all of us carrying the burden of our human weakness. He’s Wisdom crying out in the streets. “Surely the humility of these words must astound [us]”, says St Chrysostom.
And these words work themselves out in history, in life after life, like St John Ogilvie’s.
As a young man, St Augustine fell in love with the ideal of Wisdom, and he pursued it with ardour. He found much high wisdom in the philosophy that flowed from the great Plato. It was inspirational. It offered eternal truths. But somehow he couldn’t get there, he couldn’t reach this wisdom, and commune with God. He was too weak. “I was at a standstill” (Confessions 7, XX). Then he began to read St Paul, and to see that Wisdom had actually come to us, that in the Incarnation God had ridden in among the donkeys and brought himself among us. He met the humility of God: the Incarnation, the Cross, the Presence – and when he looked back at the books of the Platonists he could see what was lacking. “We don’t hear there any voice calling, ‘Come to me all you who labour’” (7, XXI). But now he did. He heard Christ saying, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.” And a little later, in the famous scene in the garden, he heard the voice of child the other side of the wall singing again and again, “Take and read, take and read.” He opened the letters of St Paul he had beside him and came to the words that freed him from his sexual struggles. “A light of utter confidence shone in my whole heart and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.” He became “completely calm” (8, XX). He had heard the voice the Platonists hadn’t. And though his subsequent life would be full of struggles and difficulties, that peace never left him. “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”
Yes, the words are verified again and again. When the bishops of Scotland met with the Pope in 2018, I was struck by his peacefulness. The negativity that any Pope receives was at a peak at the time, but his focus was entirely on us. He was relaxed, humorous, peaceful. In every Christian life, there are moments when Christ says specifically, individually, “Come to me.” He calls us to new circumstances, new responsibilities. Yesterday, I celebrated a wedding. Tomorrow, we’ll keep the second anniversary of the ordinations of Frs Emmet and Rafal and Deacon Doug Duncan. These are moments Christ speaks. At the papal conclave in 2013, Cardinal Bergoglio was called to be Pope by his fellow-Cardinals. “Come to me”. He accepted the burden, and has said, “Since then I have always had peace”. “In his will is our peace”, says Dante. “Come to me, and I will give you rest, even in the middle of life’s burdens.” Verified again.
The truth of the Gospel, the truth of Christ’s promises, lives on. Does it reverberate in me? Can I say, yes, he has given me rest?
John Henry Newman – now canonised – became a Catholic in the middle of his life. It meant losing almost everything. Catholics in Britain were a despised minority and the Church seemed a thing of the past. In a way not unlike that of John Ogilvie and Augustine he went through a painful passage of searching and studying, fasting and prayer, till humble in heart he could kneel before an Italian priest, make his confession over two days and enter into full communion. When shortly, he left to embark on a new life – once again not to be trouble-free – he left, in his own words “having found rest.”
Throughout lockdown, it has still been possible to be a believer, a Christian, a member of the Church. Nothing prevents Christ’s word being true, except our refusal to follow them. And now we start to hear that “Come to me” in its Eucharistic sense.
“Come…shoulder my yoke…learn from me.” “Come to me…and I will give you rest.”
(Live-streamed Mass, St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)