John Ogilvie's noble Scottish family was partly Catholic and partly Presbyterian. His father raised him as a Calvinist, sending him to the continent to be educated. There John became interested in the popular debates going on between Catholic and Calvinist scholars. Confused by the arguments of Catholic scholars whom he sought out, he turned to Scripture. Two texts particularly struck him: "God wills all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth," and "Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you."
Slowly, John came to see that the Catholic Church could embrace all kinds of people. Among these, he noted, were many martyrs. He decided to become Catholic and was received into the Church at Louvain, Belgium, in 1596 at the age of 17.
John continued his studies, first with the Benedictines, then as a student at the Jesuit College at Olmutz. He joined the Jesuits and for the next 10 years underwent their rigorous intellectual and spiritual training. Ordained a priest in France in 1610, he met two Jesuits who had just returned from Scotland after suffering arrest and imprisonment. They saw little hope for any successful work there in view of the tightening of the penal laws. But a fire had been lit within John. For the next two and a half years he pleaded to be missioned there.
Sent by his superiors, he secretly entered Scotland posing as a horse trader or a soldier returning from the wars in Europe. Unable to do significant work among the relatively few Catholics in Scotland, John made his way back to Paris to consult his superiors. Rebuked for having left his assignment in Scotland, he was sent back. He warmed to the task before him and had some success in making converts and in secretly serving Scottish Catholics. But he was soon betrayed, arrested and brought before the court. His trial dragged on until he had been without food for 26 hours. He was imprisoned and deprived of sleep. For eight days and nights he was dragged around, prodded with sharp sticks, his hair pulled out. Still, he refused to reveal the names of Catholics or to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the king in spiritual affairs. He underwent a second and third trial but held firm. At his final trial he assured his judges: "In all that concerns the king, I will be slavishly obedient; if any attack his temporal power, I will shed my last drop of blood for him. But in the things of spiritual jurisdiction which a king unjustly seizes I cannot and must not obey."
Condemned to death as a traitor, he was faithful to the end, even when on the scaffold he was offered his freedom and a fine living if he would deny his faith. His courage in prison and in his martyrdom was reported throughout Scotland.
John Ogilvie was canonized in 1976, becoming the first Scottish saint since 1250.
Martyrs were one aspect of the Catholic faith which greatly intrigued young John Ogilvie. Although raised in Scotland as a Calvinist Protestant, while in school in France he studied.
Catholicism and was impressed by the many people who were willing to die for their faith. He listened to debates and questioned Catholic scholars, finally deciding to join the Church in 1596 when he was 17.
Three years later he joined the Jesuits and was ordained a priest in 1610. Determined to help persuade his Scottish countrymen to embrace the faith, Father John requested permission to go home to Scotland and begin work there, even though he knew it was dangerous. At the time, under the rule of King James I, Catholics were being persecuted and often imprisoned and tortured to reveal the names and whereabouts of other Catholics. He entered the country in disguise as a horse trader, and started to make some small connections with the Catholics he could find.
He became discouraged, however, at his lack of progress, and returned to Paris to ask his superiors for advice. Their advice was swift in coming: Go back! God’s work must be completed! So he obediently returned to Scotland and began his ministry again.
This time Ogilvie’s efforts were not in vain; he was able to set up a small network of conscientious Catholics and spread the faith underground. His victory, however, was short-lived, as less than a year later he was betrayed by an Anglican spy who had infiltrated his ministry. He was ultimately arrested, tried and condemned as a traitor, but not before being tortured for information which he refused to divulge. Ogilvie made this statement in his own defense: “Whether Christ or the King is rather to be obeyed, judge you.” He heroically stood his ground, and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1615. On the scaffold he was once again offered his freedom if he would defer to King James’ spiritual authority, but he refused, and died for his faith as had those men and women he so admired in his youth.
Saints and our lives
• It is said that on the scaffold St. John Ogilvie embraced and forgave his executioner, much like Christ. While forgiveness is an important part of our Christian faith, we are usually in awe of forgiveness such as this! Yet, we are all, in our own way, called to be as generous. Whether it’s letting go of a hurtful remark, an infidelity in friendship or love, some cutting gossip, etc., being forgiving frees us as well as the other person. It also helps us to look at the times in our lives that we have needed to be forgiven by others. We all “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and need to continually embrace mercy as a way of life.
• Jesus has asked us all to “take up our cross” and carry it with Him, and it is fair to say that St. John Ogilvie “carried his cross” as a martyr. Suffering is part and parcel of life, but offered up to God it takes on a supernatural quality. We may not see the fruits of our suffering now, and we may not understand it at all, but if we believe that “all things work for good to those who love the Lord” (Romans 8:28), then we can be assured that God accepts our offering as a gift which He transforms into good for building up His kingdom on earth. “To carry one’s Cross is something great ... It means facing up to life courageously, without weakness or meanness. It means that we turn into moral energy those difficulties which will never be lacking in our existence; it means understanding human sorrow; and finally, it means knowing really how to love.” (Pope Paul VI) The next time we face major problems, bothersome aches and pains or even minor inconveniences, let us try to remember that Christ’s suffering saved the world, and God can also use ours for His purposes.
• St. John Ogilvie was tortured with beatings and sleep deprivation until his jailors determined that he was within three hours of his death. Sadly, torture is still a reality in our world today, even though it has been proven that intimidation does not produce the truth during interrogations