Homily for the feast of St John Ogilvie

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

St John Ogilvie was flame. He was flint. He was a grain of wheat. He was a great deal in a short time.

He was flame. He lived a brief, intense, passionate life. He was dead at 35. His adulthood can be read as a trail of clear decisions: to become a Catholic, to become a Jesuit, to return to Scotland, all lived out to the full. He was a flame in the sense, too, that during his brief time of priestly ministry in Scotland between returning disguised as a horse-dealer in 1613 and being martyred as a traitor in 1615 he brought light and warmth to a locked-down Catholic people, unable to worship in public and in danger if they did so privately.

He was flint. He “set his face like flint”, following the mysterious Servant in Isaiah. He was most palpably flint during the six months between his arrest and his death, the months of imprisonment, torture and frequent interrogation. His courage was remarkable. The Collect calls him an “invincible defender of the Catholic faith”. It’s for this he’s especially remembered. We have this reading from Isaiah for a reason, I suspect.  Almost 20 years before, as a teenager, he had been received into the Church at Louvain by one of the greatest Catholic Scripture scholars of the time, the Flemish Jesuit, Cornelius van den Steen. Years later Fr Cornelius would be writing a commentary on the passages in Isaiah that speak of the flint-faced, rock-like, unwavering Suffering Servant, and would recall his former pupil. “Such also was Ogilvy, he writes, a martyr in Scotland, at one time my catechumen at Louvain”. Like Christ and so many disciples, he lived out this very Scripture.

But John was more than flame and flint. He was not just dauntingly impressive, ready to die for what we would now call religious freedom. He was that life-giving thing, a grain of wheat. He was seed. He fell into the earth and died and has been quietly fruitful ever since. In the language of Social Media, he qualifies as an “influencer”. The Church in Scotland was struggling then, entering a long winter, and it struggles now. That quickened John then and I have a hunch it quickens him now. There’s such a thing as winter barley. It benefits, they say, from “a period of exposure to cool temperatures to initiate flowering”. When, on the day he died in 1615, in a gesture, he threw his rosary into the crowd, he was in a sense throwing his prayer into the future. It was a seed-sowing exercise. The rosary struck the chest of a young Hungarian aristocrat, who happened to be in the crowd, Jan d’Eckersdorff. In the years to come, he’d attribute his Catholic conversion to that moment.

And does this sower still sow? Here’s a tale. In Czechia (the Czech Republic), there died last week (4th March) of Covid, at the age of almost 80, a remarkable Czech Jesuit, Frantisek Lizna. I am offering this Mass for the repose of his soul, and I am thinking especially of his sister, Maria, who lives in Buckie. Fr Frantisek was born in Moravia in 1941 of a strongly Catholic, strongly anti-communist family. He would be tried and imprisoned by the Communists five times. He would also have to do his two-year military service in a punishment Corps. In an interlude of partial freedom, he managed to become a Jesuit and was ordained in 1974, but the State withdrew his priest’s licence the day he was to celebrate his first Mass in his home village. He was a quiet man. He was not the standard political dissident. He just wanted people to be free to practise their faith. He wanted the deaths to stop and the death penalty abolished. He wrote such realistic spiritual letters from prison and they spread so widely that the authorities forbade him to write. On one occasion being led from court to jail he lifted his handcuffed hands to bless the young people who were there in support. They burst into an Easter song, “Christ the Victor has risen, rejoice.” After the Velvet Revolution and the return of freedom to central and Eastern Europe, Fr Frantisek exercised his priesthood especially on behalf of prisoners, the Roma and the homeless. He walked the length of Europe east to west, and north to south, to inscribe the Cross, as it were, on the continent. He worked for the moral regeneration of his country after the ravages of communism. He did visit here. But here’s the link. Centuries before, John Ogilvie had done part of his formation in the now Czech towns of Brno and Olmutz. It was in 1976 he was canonised, at the heart of the difficult years. Fr Frantisek and St John were both Jesuits too, of course. Thus, I suspect, Fr Frantisek came to know of St John and in prison, I have been told, felt his spiritual support. He read his life and translated it from English to Czech. A year or so ago I invited him to come to Keith to celebrate the annual Mass in honour of his fellow- Jesuit, but he was already too frail. “Unless the grain…” We forget, the saints are alive, and their fallen grain bears fruit. Two champions of religious freedom connect across the centuries. I find this extraordinary, extraordinary that today, St John Ogilvie’s day, we should be celebrating Mass for the repose of the soul of a contemporary confessor of the faith and champion of freedom, befriended by John.

I’m left in awe of how the providence of God plays out through the Communion of Saints. I think of Pope Francis’ recent journey to Iraq – the courage of it, how he honoured the many victims of religious and racial hatred and appealed to our common humanity and the beatitudes of Jesus. The same dynamics at work. The rich complexity of life. Let’s put aside the virus of discouragement and flex the sinews that bind us. We’re sustained more than we realise.  Let’s look to Easter, to Christ on the Cross and enter the great harvest of his sacrifice.

In memory of Fr Frantisek Lizna, s.j.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 10 March 2021


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