My saint for May is three of my favourite things: he’s a Jesuit, a martyr, and a Scotsman. I think you’re going to like this guy!
St John Ogilvie: Calvinist to Catholic Convert
St John Ogilvie (b. 1579) was the son of a wealthy Scottish laird and raised as a Calvinist Presbyterian. During his youth, however, he was sent to study abroad in France. There, he experienced the passionate (and often violent) debates between Catholics and Calvinists — and it had quite the opposite intention that his family intended. He began questioning his Presbyterian upbringing and started wondering whether the Catholic Church might not be true.
The decisive moment for St John Ogilvie was grappling with two verses of Scripture:
God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
For St John Ogilvie, the key word in these sacred words was that small but powerful word: all. God wills the salvation of all and invites all to come to Him to receive salvation, rest and every heavenly blessing. This was dramatically different from the Calvinist theology that God only willed the salvation of some and only gives the grace to respond to Him to some. St John Ogilvie discovered that the Gospel of Jesus isn’t just good news for some, it’s good news for all.
In 1596, John Ogilvie became a Catholic at the age of seventeen. From there, he discerned a vocation to the Jesuits, and after several setbacks, entered the booming missionary Society of Jesus. Through his formation, he studied across Europe in his formation, from France, Germany, modern-day Belgium and Austria.
His heart’s desire, however, was always to return to Scotland, to proclaim the Gospel of God’s call of repentance to all and to minister to the hidden Catholic communities there. Finally, after many letters and much badgering, his superiors granted his request.
St John Ogilvie’s Mission and Martyrdom
Within a year of his arrival in Glasgow, however, St John was betrayed to the authorities. It was probably inevitable because St John Ogilvie had none of that renowned Jesuit subtlety. He was an outspoken and blunt Scotsman. If he had a daughter, their conversations would have probably gone like this…
When the Protestant authorities asked him when he came to Scotland, he replied, “I came to unteach heresy and to save souls”. When they accused him of treason to King James VI, he replied,
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.
This, needless to say, did not go down too well.
He was imprisoned and tortured but refused to give up the names of his fellow Catholics. He didn’t fear death. Indeed, asked if he was afraid to die, he responded,
I fear death as much as you do your dinner.
On 10th March, 1615, he was hung and drawn in Glasgow. St John Ogilvie was stubbornly outspoken to the end. From the gallows, he declared,
If there be here any hidden Catholics, let them pray for me but the prayers of heretics I will not have.
As he swung from the gallows, his rosary fell out of his pocket and was caught by one of the men who’d come to jeer and rejoice at the execution of this “criminal”. Miraculously, the man went on to become a devout Catholic.
For centuries, the Catholics of Scotland nurtured a devotion to the Jesuit priest who died for them. In 1976, almost five hundred years after his birth, he was canonised by Pope Paul VI. He is the only post-Reformation Scottish saint and the very Scotsman to be canonised since 1250.
St John Ogilvie’s Witness for our Times
St John Ogilvie is not a politically correct saint. For example, his scorn for the prayers of his Protestant brothers and sisters doesn’t sit well with me. And that’s okay. Saints don’t live textbook perfect lives. Saints are perfected creatures set alight with the glory of God and that perfecting is a process for all of us! But that’s who St John was. He had no patience for platitudes. He knew that God loved all people and desired all people to be united to His Son in one Church. He knew that Calvinism denied that beautiful truth and he wanted no part of it.
One message we can learn from his life is one that resounds through Scripture: be strong and courageous!
St John Ogilvie could have taken the easy way through life. He had everything going for him — but he gave it all up to become a Catholic priest, hated and hunted. He could have stayed safe on the continent but he wanted to return to his homeland. Everyone told him Scotland was lost. Knox’s Reformation was too strong and too successful. There was nothing good to be salvaged from that staunchly Calvinist country.
But St John didn’t care. These were his people and he was damned well not going to give up on them!
Today, it’s often tempting to despair at our culture at large. It seems so resolutely post-Christian, if not anti-Christian. We have our own struggles with the over-reaching demands of governments which see our fidelity to the Heavenly Kingdom as an act of subversion. Why, they cry, won’t we just fall in line and keep our “private opinions” to ourselves?
Why? Because Christ is King. Not me. Not you. Not anyone else.
So take heart! We will have trouble in this world and being a Christian is no Get Out of Suffering Free card. But in the midst of all the suffering, we need to remember that our Lord Jesus has overcome the world. He is victorious, seated at the right hand of the Father and has received all power and authority.
In the world you have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world! (John 16:33)
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Co 16:15)
Have courage. Be strong and do not give up. Christ has overcome the world!
St John Ogilvie, priest and martyr, pray for us!