Homily in honour of St John Ogilvie

St John Ogilvie was a son of this diocese of Aberdeen and born within the bounds of this parish of Keith, and it is always good to honour him. He was so ‘tempered and true’. How can we not admire a man like this? He was indeed a ‘sword of supple steel’ in the hand of the Lord; a burning torch, John the Baptist-like; suffering atrociously at the hands of his captors, but retaining his spirit and mind and argumentative feistiness unconquered to the end.

It seems to me, too, that he is a man of continuing significance. And a name for that significance is freedom. John Ogilvie was a free man, free at many levels, free in his mind, free in his heart, free in spirit. And he died for freedom. He was perhaps the freest man in Scotland in 1615. And it’s his freedom, I suggest, that is worth celebrating, and worth aspiring to. And when in three years’ time we reach the 4th centenary of his martyrdom, this significance will not be less.

Do you remember the phrase, ‘This is a free country’? It was something of a throw-away line in discussion, a given, ending argument. It meant that in Britain we enjoyed – and had fought for – freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of belief. The other day an English lawyer pointed out that the phrase seems to have faded away. I was struck by this. He seems to me right. We don’t hear it nowadays. Is it because we sense deep down that this freedom is being eroded?

Be that as it may, I’d like just to keep St John Ogilvie in view and say some things about freedom – even if only in a sketchy, preliminary way.

Why was St John Ogilvie sentenced to death on 10 March 1615? Not because he was a priest, not because he had celebrated Mass or converted Protestants, but for high treason. He was sentenced to death because he refused to consent to a 17th c. form of totalitarianism.

In the Middle Ages, Western Europe had seen itself as a kind of Christian commonwealth. Then, as the Middle Ages waned, there arose the centralised nation state. With it, there sometimes came a separation from Catholic unity, as in this island both north and south of the border. Often too it entailed a claim on the part of rulers, princes, monarchs to a total, spiritual and temporal, jurisdiction over their subjects, including therefore their consciences and beliefs.

In the Anglo-Scottish context of the early 17th c., it was precisely this that St John resisted. His ‘treason’ was to deny the spiritual jurisdiction of the king, James VI and I. And he denied this because he believed in and upheld the spiritual primacy of the Pope. And from this belief he drew his freedom. In his mind, the King, the State, was going beyond its natural competence, and usurping an authority which belonged elsewhere – with the Pope and the Church. There are two things here, then: the refusal of a totalitarianism, and the grounds of that refusal.

To take the first. Every society tends to be exclusive and illiberal. This is true, paradoxically, even of our liberal, democratic, multicultural society. Every society naturally tends to cohere around a collection of beliefs and values. Every society requires or entails a moral consensus. Every society through its legislature, judiciary and executive, through its education system and the media (to the degree it has these things) will then tend to convey and impose, even coercively, this consensus. This is not of itself something evil, but it is a reality. And it is a reality today, in our own society.

To my mind, it’s too facile to say that our society was, up to the 1950s and 1960s, broadly based on a Christian moral consensus, and is now based on no morality at all. That is something humanly impossible. It’s true that our society can give an impression of moral illiteracy, not to say chaos. But even such a society has, in fact, the ingredients of a moral consensus. What is happening, surely, is that our society is shifting its bases more and more to another morality than the broadly Judaeo-Christian one that hitherto underpinned it. This morality is by no means wholly consistent or ‘finished’. But it is real. Nor is it simply misguided or un-Christian. Would that things were so simple! But undoubtedly – and here’s the great irony of a tolerant society – it tends to be intolerant and exclusive, and be it covertly or overtly, to make a total claim upon its members, individually and collectively.

This is clear, for example, in the contemporary demand for the recognition of same-sex marriage. This is not driven by any real practical need. Its engine is a moral philosophy: a certain view of the human person and sexuality and the ethical and social imperatives that seem to flow from that. Just as John Ogilvie could not uncritically swallow the Stuart view of royal power, so neither can we this philosophy. But my immediate point is simply this: that such a view, such a new consensus, will naturally tend not to tolerate dissent. It will be like King James, who followed the Ogilvie case closely, and was clear that he could not accept this Jesuit’s dissent. It will demand at least a metaphorical ‘Oath of Allegiance’, just as St John’s judges wanted him to subscribe to a literal one. Every society tends to want the whole of us.

‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’ (1 Jn 5:21). ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1). Issues come and go. The flash-points vary. What remains true through all the vicissitudes is society’s tendency to demand everything of those who belong to it, and, conversely, that among the many freedoms Christ always offers his people is the freedom from the idolatry of society, of any dominant philosophy, any ruling consensus. No society can ever have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Every society, at some point, will want to impose a lie. And it is then that the witnesses to freedom must step forth, cost them what it may.

And so to the second point: where can we find this freedom,? ‘The truth will set you free’, says the Lord (Jn 8:32). And again, ‘My word is truth’. For St John it was Jesus’ word to Peter at Caesarea Philippi that gave him his freedom: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:19). The authority to determine the content of the faith and govern the Church did not belong to any king, but to the successors of St. Peter. In and beyond the particular issue, what gave John Ogilvie his inner, intellectual freedom from the totalitarianism of his day was his allegiance to the Word of God conveyed in the Tradition and Scripture of the Church. And so it will be for us.

There is a very practical corollary here. If we wish to maintain and develop our freedom, if we’re to be all Christ calls us to be, if we are to be really useful to the society in which we live, we will do well to know Scripture, the Gospels, the Creed, the great doctrines of the Church, the teachings of the recent Popes, better than we do. This is no time for mental laziness. We will do well to study, read and pray. This will strengthen us. It will clear our minds. It will enable us to see, judge and act as thoughtful Christians. It will make us free. This is why,  to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, that the Holy Father has called for a Year of Faith, beginning in October this year. One of its emphases is on the knowledge of the faith. He has said to young people that they need to know their faith better than their parents. How else retain our freedom among the new crypto-totalitarianisms in which we live? For it is the truth that makes us free.

‘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’ (Jn 12:24). It yields a rich harvest. These words apply to John Ogilvie. In the communion of saints, St John is still fruitful. And we will be his harvest if we allow God’s word, found in the faith the Church and the Popes transmit, to set us free, to make us children of God and not the slaves of fashion – because this is the choice before us.

St. John Ogilvie, pray for us!

St Thomas, Keith
10 March 2012


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
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