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Saint John Ogilvie - Jesuit Saint

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our conference today is on, for a change, a saint from the British Isles, John Ogilvie. He was born in Scotland of the nobility in 1589 and by that time Scotland had pretty well been lost to the Catholic Church so his up-bringing was Presbyterian. His father, to give him a better education than he could get in Scotland, sent him to the continent for education. Specifically, he went to France, which as you know was the homeland of John Calvin – father figured, I couldn't do better than giving him a good Calvinist education in Calvin's own home country. Though to the father's disappointment, the boy in school – this would correspond to high school – became concerned about his Calvinist up bringing; he wasn't convinced that Calvinism was the right religion.

He had been able to speak a few other languages so he consulted with Italian and German Catholic scholars who told him that the Church had been one until the Protestant Reformation. For the future we might remember two texts of Scripture that finally led to Ogilvie's conversion. They were, first: God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. And second, Christ's invitation: Come to me all you who suffer and are laden and I will refresh you. The translation is from John Ogilvie's version of the Scriptures in his day. You will notice in both passages what caught his fancy and what led to his conversion was the word, all. 'God wills all men to be saved' and Christ's invitation, 'Come to me all who suffer.'

As we know, John Calvin introduced that severe brand of Protestantism into the reformation history which we now call 'absolute unconditional predestination.' It might be well for a moment to explain just what John Ogilvie had difficulties with and what led to his conversion. In John Calvin's theory, which later then became the foundation of world Protestantism – God wants certain people to reach Heaven and He quite frankly wants some people not to be saved. Those who are to be saved, receive the grace; those who will not to be saved just don't get the grace. It's that simple. In other words, God does not want everyone to be saved. That's the Calvinist teaching. Ogilvie was understandably uncomfortable with that incredibly inhuman, not to say Godless theory. In any case, he admired the unity that Christ wanted in His Church. So then, he continued his studies and finally became a Catholic at Lorraine in 1597. His father's plans therefore, were contradicted.

He never went back home until later on for obvious reasons. He decided that he would become a priest. For three years he went to various educational institutions in Europe, including the Scots college, but, lack of funds required the Jesuits – and by that time he was in a Jesuit college – to dismiss most of their students including Ogilvie – reminds me of my third year in college when I was on the verge of being put out of school for not paying my tuition. I just didn't have the money. In any case, they let me finish my college on credit. Then I had the nerve to apply to the Jesuits. I couldn't believe it. This man who owes us so much tuition – well, they accepted me but I've kept the letter from the Jesuit provincial. 'We accept you, however, you owe us some money. We will remit your debt on one condition, that you persevere in the Society of Jesus.' I don't want to admit, this was one of my reasons for persevering. But I've saved the letter. Well, Ogilvie was less fortunate; he was thrown out. Then he went further traveling for more studies. He went to Germany, studied with the Benedictines. Then he decided, maybe the Jesuits would take him. He went to Omus(?), a Jesuit college as a lay student. That was a ploy. Soon after he had applied for admission to the order, but, by that time the college closed because so many of the faculty had died in the plague.

So once more he left Germany and went to Austria – this is all part of his spirituality. He applied to the order and was accepted. For the next ten years he was in studies in Austria and Germany. He got orders from the Jesuit general to leave Austria and go to France and enter the French college and be ordained in France. Understandably, a Scot Presbyterian convert would do well in the land of John Calvin. After his ordination, he met up with two Jesuits who had managed to escape from Scotland after failing to convert anybody. They told him, 'Scotland is a lost country', because he was ambitious to go back. 'Don't go.' They were imprisoned, had been tortured, 'Look, we're telling you, forget it.' So he started writing to the Jesuit general, the same one who had sent him to France. "I want to go back to Scotland." 'No, our fathers in France must have told you that it's impossible to convert anybody in Scotland, forget it and besides you first consult your local superiors, don't write to me.' Well, obediently he must have consulted and cajoled his local superiors. He kept writing, we don't know how many letters for the next two and a half years. He wore down the general. So finally he said, "all right, all right, go."

So he proceeded to grow a beard and changed his name and learned something about horse breeding. He went to Scotland in disguise, alias John Watson, a dealer in horses. Nobility that his family knew, were afraid even to talk to him. They told him, "Look, we don't believe in this Presbyterianism, we're going through the motions, but, if you know what's good for you, if you know what's good for us, don't bother us." The only ones who received him among those who were still Catholic were the poor, the nobodies. (Good to hear, isn't it?) You might say they had nothing to lose. This is one of the longest biographies we'll be having, but, it is fascinating, needless to say I enjoy sharing this with you.

What ever else was true of Ogilvie he was never lacking, let's call it, daring. He figured, 'all right, I can't seem to do much in Scotland, I'll go to England.' He went to London, got in touch with King James I. He figured, I'll start at the top. The Jesuits in disguise in England said, "Look, in England we don't do it this way. You go back to Paris and get directions from superiors, this free-lancing, we've got enough troubles without you, get directions." So he went back to France to Paris, for directions. First of all, he was reprimanded. The biographers say he was strongly rebuked by his official French superiors for having gone to Scotland in the first place. He got permission to go. They told him, "when we let you go to Scotland, we didn't give you permission to come back." 'Well, the Jesuit superiors in England told me to go back.' "Well, we're telling you, go back to Scotland." So he went back to Scotland and he went to the Metropolitan See of Attenborough and then and again his ministry, very short, very (?) and ended on the gallows.

He would organize more groups of Catholics, always disguised. He specialized in visiting the Catholics who were imprisoned for their faith. Those in prison, he would encourage, the others he would minister with the Sacraments. We're told that he made a few, but very few converts. It might be well to mention here just in passing that Presbyterianism was introduced into Scotland through the murder of the Cardinal Archbishop, primate of Scotland.

He found a friendly widow by the name of, her name was written down, because of her role in sheltering priests, Marian Walker, a widow who later on paid for her life because she allowed priests to stay at her house, offer Mass, hear confessions, administer the Sacraments and hide these priests in various unlikely places. She died in prison as a martyr.

He was betrayed by an apostate archbishop who pretended to be interested in Ogilvie who by this time had become, we might say over-bold. He actually believed the apostate archbishop when a messenger came to him that the archbishop would like to talk with him about matters of concern to his soul. Well, the archbishop didn't want to be converted, he wanted to take John Ogilvie red handed. Ogilvie walked into the trap. The first statement that the archbishop made to John Ogilvie has been recorded by Ogilvie's biographers. The archbishop told him, "you are over-bold to say Mass in a reformed city" (the city being Glasgow). Because the, that's a definite article, the focus of Calvinist Protestantism was to get rid of the Mass. Or as Calvin said: every Catholic priest should be hanged on the nearest tree for claiming that he can somehow add to Christ's merit on Calvary by offering Mass. Now that's a lie. The Church doesn't teach that the Mass adds to Christ's merits; what she teaches is that Christ's merits are communicated through the Mass and only because of Calvary does the Mass have any meaning. In any case that was the opening greeting from the apostate archbishop.

He underwent two trials. By this time Ogilvie would have been only a short time in Scotland, that is as a Catholic, had become very well known and consequently in most cases the first generation of apostates usually of positions of great influence and power as a bribe for their apostasy, were afraid that this man had better be dealt with carefully lest he runs a rebellion against the crown. So at first they began to try him for disobeying the king’s orders about offering Mass. It was a capital crime to offer Mass in Scotland. So they kept interrogating him, "have you said Mass in the king’s domain?" 'Of course I have, is that a crime?' They said, "yes, it is." 'Prove it.' The poor apostates, they couldn't prove it, how do you prove that offering Mass is a crime? So they dropped that charge, that was useless. So they pressed him on why he came to Scotland. I repeat, Ogilvie was a model of outspokenness. 'I came to unteach heresy and to save souls'. Needless to say, they didn't like that. All the while he was tortured, beaten, among other things the nails from his fingers pulled out by pliers. They tried both threats and bribery and both, of course, were seriously meant because so many of those who were trying him were themselves men who had been richly rewarded by the crown for apostasy. And he had visited enough Catholics in prison to know that the threats were not in vain. He was especially tortured to identify those who had sheltered him or who had befriended him, but all was in vain. Because of his by then notoriety, King James, himself, sent him five questions to answer because he kept appealing to the crown. These five questions, he said are loaded questions and Ogilvie kept repeating, 'As far as civil obedience goes, the king does not have a more obedient subject in his realms, but in matters of the spirit, King James has no jurisdiction.' Finally, as a last resort, they offered him one of the finest livings, as the expression goes, in Scotland – property, financial security for the rest of his days. 'No.' So he was hanged. John Ogilvie is one of the latest Jesuit saints to be canonized.

Now something about his spirituality. I thought it was worth going through all of this. Notice, he lived a very short life. Born in 1589 – did I give you the date of his birth? My memory tells me 1617. Isn't that something, is that possible. Did I say 1589, make it 1627. I'll confirm the date tomorrow. His spirituality, I think centers on his loyalty to the Pope. It was that finally, for which he was condemned. It was also his devotion to the sacrifice of the Mass which brought on, as we know, his betrayal and finally, his condemnation. We have quite a bit of his writings, especially his spiritual journal (?) in which what attracted him to the Catholic Church was the unity through obedience to the Pope and the Mass as a continuation of Calvary. Ogilvie's courage was of a high caliber. There was something distinctive about his courage unlike what we've already seen with say Andrew Bobola, or the North America Martyrs. Although that he was dealing with people who were first generation apostates to the Catholic faith, he recognized the need, if possible, to convince his fellow countrymen that they were wrong and the Catholic faith was the true one and consequently we might call his, intellectual courage. In other words, he did not hesitate to say and to tell his opponents where they were wrong and the Catholic Church is right. Also his courage showed itself in not hesitating to face the leaders of those who had lost their faith. And in this, Ogilvie knew his country's history only too well. It was the betrayal of the Church by his country's ecclesiastical leaders that deprived the faithful of their faith and it would be an apostate archbishop who would betray John Ogilvie. In other words, Ogilvie recognized the need for trying to bring back those who had been leaders in the apostasy to now become, because it was so close to the time when Scotland had lost it's faith, hoping against hope that the same ones who had led the people out of the Church would now lead the people back into the Church, which makes sense, so that his courage was to face those who were the leaders of the people and in this, this may be a not too familiar commentary on the New Testament; you watch the early months of Christ's public ministry, the Savior went about preaching to all in (?) and at first there was some likelihood of the leaders of the Jewish people accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Once the Scribes and Pharisees as in today's Gospel, remember the language that Christ used. He used against no sinner anywhere in the Gospel, the seven famous 'woes', "Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, woe to you Scribes and Pharisees" seven times in a row. They were the leaders. In Yahweh's original plan for the Jewish people, the Jews were to have the Messiah born of their flesh, born of a Jewish mother, but then the Jewish people were to have accepted the Messiah when He came and through their leaders have converted the rest of the world. And Christ did His best to follow through on the Prophets, but the leaders turned Christ down. The leaders were the ones, remember on Good Friday who went around telling the people to demand Christ's crucifixion. Now this, I stress this because it is so sadly relevant today. That was John Ogilvie's courage in facing up to the leaders who he knew had first betrayed their people and now he was hoping and praying they would be converted themselves and bring the faith back to the nation. Well, like his Master, Ogilvie failed. That, by the way, because I have read enough of Ogilvie to be able to say this, is one of the reasons why he was so recently canonized.

Again, John Ogilvie's spirituality. You might call, for want of a better word, an educated spirituality. Others of his confreres were well educated too, but the Scottish people have a reputation for being intellectually a very sharp and shrewd people, although they knew he needed to approach his people on their level. There is then such a thing as simple piety and what we might call learned piety; both are needed. And in today's world I would coin a new word – we need sophisticated piety, because so much of the hostilities to the Church comes dressed in the most sophisticated language.

Finally, Ogilvie typifies what can be over-looked when we reflect the Creed, in the Creed when we say, 'suffered under Pontius Pilate.' In other words, Ogilvie typifies the perennial struggle of the Church with the state. It was a civil official who condemned Christ and it is the state over the centuries, which in Augustine's language, has become the arm of the enemies of God that gave the Church her first martyrs for 300 years and has been placing such a heavy burden on those who wish to remain faithful to Christ. The conflict of Church and state is the final feature of John Ogilvie's spirituality as a martyr.

Let us ask St. John Ogilvie to obtain, especially for the leaders in the Church today, something of the courage he had to be willing to proclaim the true faith even at the price of their blood. St. John Ogilvie, pray for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The correct dates on the life of this saint are, he was born in 1579. In 1596, at the age of seventeen he became a Catholic and he died in 1615 at the age of thirty-six.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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