… We’re remembering tonight St John Ogilvie, born in Drum-na-Keith in 1579, died at Glasgow Cross on 10 March, 1615, 400 years ago this year. A Jesuit, a priest and a martyr. Beatified in 1929, canonised in 1976.
We’re not remembering him to re-ignite old controversies, nor to deepen the divide between Catholics and Protestants which has so marked the history of Scotland. Thank God, Christians no longer kill each other over doctrinal differences, and many bridges have been thrown over them.
Rather we’re remembering a man of integrity, passion and total commitment; someone of great spirit, feistiness incarnate. Someone who rings true, all the way through. A lover of his country. A Catholic willing to live and die for his faith. Above all, a lover of the Lord.
I’d like to read his life through the lens of the word of God, of three sayings of the Lord he loved: two which he personally noted, one which the liturgy attributes him.
‘Come to me, all you who labour and are over-burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:28).
John was born in this diocese, near Keith, in 1579; born into a family that was already (largely) of the Reformed religion. As a teenager he was sent to the Continent to study. There he felt the full force of the religious controversies of his day. In simple terms, who was right? The Catholics or the Protestants? Where was the truth? Where was the will of God? Where was home? He later described what he went through: ‘His soul became sick with anxiety and interior doubts, for he could not tell the true religion…The more he thought the more confused the issue became.’ He resolved to put himself into the hands of God. And it was then that the text above him came home to him. He was reassured. It was possible to find an answer to these questions. It was possible to find ‘rest’. The mists in his mind cleared. He saw that, beyond all the weaknesses and limitations of her members, the Church of Christ did continue to exist in this world, and did so in the Catholic Church gathered round the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him. He felt freed to profess her faith and enter her communion. He did so in 1596 at the age of 17. From that he would never waver.
‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few’ (Mt 9:37).
Ogilvie quoted this missionary saying of Jesus in a letter to a Jesuit superior after returning to Scotland in 1613. By now he was not only a Catholic, but since 1599 a Jesuit, and since 1610 (aged 31) a priest. He had found his own place and mission within the communion of the Church.
He was a man of great apostolic zeal. But it was focussed on Scotland. There were still many Catholics there, despite the outlawing of their religion, but priests were few. John wanted to support the Catholics, reconcile them to the Church if they had strayed, visit them in their homes and in prison, say Mass, preach the word of God and hear confessions. As he put it, he wanted to ‘unteach heresy and save souls’. And so, disguised as an ex-soldier turned horse-trader, he landed at Keith in November 1613 and set about his dangerous work.
‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few’. John Ogilvie was a radiant instance of what Pope Francis wants us all to be, according to our different possibilities, viz. ‘missionary disciples’. How much Scotland needs Christ! How much the Church here needs priests! One of the days of the novena which has come our way in preparation for his feast is dedicated to praying for vocations. Pray for our 4 seminarians too!
We know what happened. After just a year, he was betrayed and arrested. There began for him five months of imprisonment, occasional torture, and five separate interrogations. He showed great loyalty to the Catholics he had ministered to, never betraying their identities. He showed great spirit, quick-wittedness and humour during his various examinations. He died for upholding the role of the Successor of Peter, the Pope, within the communion of the Church. He died because he refused to accept the authority of the King in matters of faith and conscience. He was not a traitor. He died for religious freedom.
This leads to the third Gospel word:
‘Unless a wheat grain falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest’ (Jn 12:24).
We just heard that in the Gospel.
John Ogilvie was only 36 when he died, on 10 March 1610. What a waste! What a tragedy that Christian rulers should have thought it a duty to kill doctrinal dissenters! And yet, from another perspective, there was no waste here. There was rather a grain falling into the ground and dying in service of a harvest. John lives now filled with the glory of God and a friend to us through his prayer.
‘Unless a wheat grain falls…’
There’s the story of John at the scaffold throwing his rosary into the crowd. It hit the chest of a young Hungarian nobleman, John de Eckersdorff, who happened to be visiting Glasgow. The impression of that event remained and in time he became a Catholic. ii) A 13-year old boy who saw the Jesuit hang that day, James Heygate, later became a Benedictine monk at the Schottenkloster in Wuerzburg, Bavaria. Other associates of John took the same path and that monastery experienced a renaissance. iii) In the year 1600, the Scots College in Rome had been founded. It began simply as a school for Catholic Scots. But the news of John Ogilvie’s martyrdom made such an impact on the students and Jesuit rector there, James Anderson, that the College clarified its purposes. On the first anniversary of John’s martyrdom, 10 March 1616, every student took an oath to study for the priesthood and be ready to return, if required, to Scotland. In other words, it was thanks to John’s martyrdom that the Scots College became what it remains today: a seminary for Scotland.
‘But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest’. In some sense, we are all part of that harvest. The Catholic Church in Scotland, to put it vividly, was sentenced to death in the years after the Reformation. And yet she lives! And we live. Surely the prayer of John Ogilvie has something to do with that. May we be both part of that harvest, and like him harvesters in our turn. Scotland needs Christ!
Notes of Homily preached at St Laurence’s, Dingwall
27 February 2015