Homily for the National Pilgrimage in Honour of St John Ogilvie


‘I remember the deeds of the Lord, / I remember your wonders of old, / I muse on all your works / and ponder your mighty deeds.’

Brothers and sisters, this is what we’re doing today. We’re not a people who forget. We are a people with a memory. We want to remember. We are educated to this by the Mass, the holy Eucharist: ‘do this in memory of me.’ That’s the heart of our Christian life. And today within this Eucharist we are remembering a saint, John Ogilvie. He was born here in 1579 and died for his faith in Glasgow in 1615, 400 years ago.

‘I remember the deeds of the Lord, I remember your wonders of old.’

Our remembering is not of the old controversies as such, those wars of religion, verbal and political and military, which tore Western Europe apart at that time, ‘Christian killing Christian in a narrow dusty room’ as a poet put it. Thank God, we’re no longer there. Thank God, as at St Aloysius in Glasgow earlier this year, we can remember John Ogilvie in the company of sympathetic fellow-Christians of other traditions. No, our focus is the man himself: his courage, his clarity, his human vibrancy. Our focus is his chivalrous love of Christ, his dedication to Scotland and its soul, and to the Catholic community there. It’s the cause for which he died, which is still doctrinally valid: the spiritual jurisdiction of the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. It’s the implication of that, then and now: religious freedom and its legitimate social expression. ‘I remember the deeds of the Lord.’ In the end, it’s the openness of the human being to God that we’re remembering today: how no social pressure, no culture, no political system can lay total claim to us, just as the Anglo-Scottish polity of his day, for all its allurements, couldn’t expropriate John. He accepted the legitimate authority of the state, of the king, but not its encroachments on faith and conscience. There is always more to us. We are free. We are great. We are immense. We are made by God and for God and God is forever drawing us to himself (cf. CCC 27).

‘Through shadows, from the drift of history,

‘Out of torn Europe in an evil time,

‘Alone, and not alone, you carried home

‘Your hidden name, your secret heraldry.’

So begins the sonnet of Professor Peter Davidson in honour of St John, written for this year.


Let’s just briefly follow John carrying home his hidden name, his secret heraldry, alone, and not alone.

He did it beginning here, born into a divided family, a divided country and a divided continent. Elizabeth and Mary, John Knox and Ignatius Loyola, Reformation and Counter-Reformation. John was born on the Protestant side. Many of us here will remember growing up in a Europe divided by an Iron Curtain, divided East and West, Communist and Capitalist, and how that shaped us. Imagine growing up in Israel or Gaza now. The divisions of his time shaped John too. At age of 13, in 1592, he was sent abroad by his father to further his education. He would remain on the Continent for 21 years. There he would feel the full blast of Europe’s storms. And there, in response, he’d take the three decisions that would shape his life from within.

The first, at the age of 17, was to enter the Catholic Church. He read and consulted a great deal around the controversy. The result was confusion and anguish. He began to despair of the truth. So he drew back from the arguments and put himself in the hands of God. And it was then two Scripture texts came to his aid:

‘God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:3-4).

‘Come to me, all you who labour and are over-burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:28).

And he found his mind clearing and his will untangled. He began to see the signs – to put it in Vatican II terms – that the ‘one Church of Christ…constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.’ He became a catechumen of one of the finest biblical scholars of the time, Cornelius van Steen. This man would never forget him and years later, after Ogilvie’s martyrdom, would speak of him in his commentary on Isaiah ch.50. That’s why we had the 1st reading that we did. So John became Catholic, ‘alone and not alone’.

The second decision, taken three years later, was to join the Society of Jesus. This was to go with what was newest and most vibrant in the Church of his time. It was to join the Foreign Legion or the Guards. It was to engage in disciplined spiritual adventure, to become a soldier of Christ and spiritualize the chivalry of his time. There would be some 10 years of study and preparation, in Bohemia, Austria and France. There was the formative experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. All this issued in religious vows and in 1610, ordination as a priest. John was about 30. He must have been like a coiled spring, or like Andy Murray ball in one hand, racket in the other, tensed to serve. But it wasn’t just a game. He was superbly prepared, equipped for the spiritual battle of his time. This would transpire later, in the cut and thrust of his trial, and the way he met the sufferings of his imprisonment. I wonder if we are as well prepared. I wonder if we are as clear as we could be about being between, not two versions of Christianity, but two readings of humanity, two understandings of what it means to be human, one closed to the divine, the other open. I wonder if we, as clergy and laity, bishops and religious, are doing under grace all we could to help each other be clear-headed, whole-hearted disciples of Christ of the kind Pope Francis envisages, engaged, passionate, tender and merciful, full of the joy of the Gospel and care for our common home. There’s something needing done here.

And so the third decision: to beg his superiors for permission to go to Scotland. This was to risk the valley of death. Eventually, permission came. He disembarked at Leith in November 1613, 34 years old, disguised as an ex-soldier turned horse dealer with the alias of John Watson. He sought out Catholics in homes and prisons, would say Mass for them, hear confessions, catechise, reconcile people to the Church. All this had to be done clandestinely, in the north first in the area where we are, and then more dangerously in the south. It seems inevitable now that after less than a year he should be betrayed and arrested in Glasgow. The rest is history, of the grim kind. Five months of frequent interrogation, fierce debate and occasional torture. The case filled the headlines of the day. James VI, all the way from London, followed it closely, intervened with pointed questions. The dark, sad story is lit by John’s heroism, feistiness and humour. He was not a fanatic. To an angry woman in the crowd who shrieked at him and called him ugly, he gave an answering smile and shouted back, ‘Christ’s blessing on your bonny face’. She melted at that. To a boorish sheriff-depute who said, ‘If I were king, you would be boiled in wax’, he replied, ‘No doubt if God had wanted you to be king, he’d have given you better brains’, then raised his glass to the man and offered to drink his health. In the end, the legal verdict was treason. John’s view was different, ‘I am sent to my death for religion alone.’ He died for the faith. As he stumbled up the hangman’s long ladder, he prayed the litany of the saints, alone and not alone. So he carried home his ‘hidden name’, his ‘secret heraldry’.

‘My broken Captain, glorious in your loss,

‘Beaten in triumph, killed in victory;

‘Your love could force the great ones of your day

‘To go in fear of your humility.’

This life has been called ‘a valley of soul-making.’ Martyrs are harrowing reminders of that.


How much meaning, how much inspiration this man and his story can deliver!

The fullness and passion faith can give our lives. The fire the love of Christ can set alight in our hearts. The cost of discipleship. Think what it’s costing so many Middle Eastern Christians at the moment. The sense of the communion of the universal Church. Gratitude for the good ecumenical relations we enjoy and determination to live an exchange of friendship and support with our fellow Christians. Gratitude for the religious freedom we and others enjoy. Willingness to bring to all discussions about the well-being of our society that wide and deep vision of humanity our faith should form in us. Vigilance that no prevailing philosophy or any law erode our freedom or marginalize, criminalise or silence us. Like John, for all our well-known limitations and weaknesses, we have something we want to share, the consolation we, poor things, have received from God.

It’s strange how all three readings are built on contrasts: insults and trust in Isaiah, affliction and consolation in Paul, the dying grain and the rich harvest in the Gospel. This is always the pattern of Christian experience. It’s that of Christ, crucified and risen. It’s that of the Eucharist, sacrifice and communion, bread in the wilderness. It’s that of our Catholic community here and now. Weak and strong, marginal and meaningful, alone but not alone. It was the pattern of John the martyr. ‘Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains alone.’ Alone but not alone, for ‘if it dies it yields a rich harvest.’

From his martyrdom onwards, John has been a source of small, significant resurrections. Let me end with a few swift examples.

In the crowd at Glasgow Cross on 10 March 1615, there was a 13 year old boy, James Heygate. He saw what happened and it changed his life. He became a Benedictine monk. Strangely enough, other young men inspired by the memory of John did so too. They converged on the Scottish monastery at Wuerzburg. And thanks to them that monastery revived and became part of the Church’s renewal in southern Germany.

In Rome in 1615 a Scots priest, Patrick Anderson, was running what was then just a school for Scots Catholic boys abroad. The story of John moved him. He gathered testimonies and wrote it up. Exactly a year to the day of the martyrdom, all 15 students at the school made a promise to go forward to the priesthood and return to work in Scotland, if their superiors allowed it. And so the Scots College became what it still is today,  a seminary. And it’s for that seminary and the students it forms for ministry in Scotland today’s Offertory Collection will be.

In 1967, a Glasgow labourer in the parish of Bl. John Ogilvie, Easterhouse, John Fagan, was dying at home of stomach cancer. His wife Mary lay beside him, expecting he would die that night. There was a medal of Bl John Ogilvie pinned to his pyjamas and there was a great deal of prayer going on in the parish. Suddenly, in the morning she heard her husband say, ‘Mary, I’m hungry. I feel so different.’ She boiled him an egg. He hadn’t eaten properly for ages. The doctor was astonished. The cancer had gone. After 9 years of investigation, it was concluded there was no natural explanation of the change in Jack’s condition. This was the miracle that paved the way for John’s canonization in 1976. There is with us today a lady with a similar story of an unexpected cure through the intercession of St John Ogilvie, now and in Australia.

‘If it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’ Small resurrections, real enough.

May there be some today, may there be some this year! The devotion in our hearts is already one of them. Who knows how indebted our Catholic and Christian life is to the example and prayer of John Ogilvie of Drumnakeith!

‘The favours of the Lord are not all past, his kindnesses are not exhausted; every morning they are renewed; great is his faithfulness’ (Lam 3:22-23). And so, we are alive!

St John Ogilvie, pray for us!


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