I might be risking the sin of pride by saying this, but we Jesuits have some pretty cool saints. One of the great unmerited blessings of this vocation is to be able to think of men like Francis Xavier, Peter Claver, and—today—Robert Bellarmine as elder brothers. And among those saints, I’ve always gotten a special thrill from the martyrs of the British Isles.
If, like me, you were avoiding homework yesterday by poring over transcripts of the papal visit to Scotland on Whispers in the Loggia (yes, I am a really big dork), you might have noticed that the Pope mentioned one of those Jesuits, St. John Ogilvie, as an example for the Scottish clergy.
John Ogilvie (1579-1615), was raised a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen. This meant he had to leave Britain to study on the Continent, first in Belgium and then in Germany and what is today the Czech Republic. There he studied in a Jesuit college and joined the Austrian province of the Society of Jesus.
He went through the usual lengthy formation process, was ordained in 1610, and wanted immediately to return to Scotland. His superiors thought Scotland too dangerous at first (and they were proven right), but he was finally able to sneak into his homeland in 1613 disguised as a horse dealer.
He exercised just eleven months of ministry, saying Mass clandestinely in Glasgow and Edinburgh until he was betrayed by a man named Adam Boyd, one of five converts whom he had received into the Church the day before his arrest.
He was dragged before the Protestant archbishop of Glasgow who, along with his guards, beat him, though without inducing him to renounce the faith. The archbishop told him, “You are overbold to say your Masses in a reformed city” to which the saint replied, “You act like a hangman and not a bishop.”
Fr. Ogilvie was arrested in October 1614 and tortured until Christmas Eve. For more than a week he was deprived of sleep, but the saint refused to renounce his faith or divulge the names of other Catholics living in Scotland. When his torturers let up, he managed to write the story of his imprisonment and smuggle it out to his Jesuit superior.
Early the next year, Fr. Ogilvie was questioned again and answered his interrogators boldly that the Pope and not the king was supreme in religious matters. This answer led to his death sentence, and John Ogilvie, after kneeling in prayer and commended his soul to God, was hanged. He did not die immediately, but his executioner, in a gesture of mercy, grasped his legs and tugged them downward to end his life more quickly. He was buried among criminals.
John Ogilvie is an interesting saint for the Pope to hold up as an example to the Scottish clergy. Most of his short life was spent training for mere months of ministry. And yet, as the witness of martyrs testifies again and again, what seems failure in the world’s eyes can be, in God’s hands, the foundation of the heavenly kingdom. The Pope’s first speech in the United Kingdom, his gracious address to the Queen, made mention of the intolerant secularism which is growing in influence in Britain, Europe, and the United States, and perhaps the recognition of these strong forces set against the Church in our day is the reason the Pope singled out St. John Ogilvie as an example. Ours, too, are times that call for John Ogilvie’s courage and fidelity.