St John Ogilvie SJ, Priest and Martyr (Optional memorial; Scotland: Feast)

Commentaryon St John Ogilvie SJ, Priest and Martyr:

John Ogilvie, the son of a wealthy Scottish laird, was born in 1579 into a respected family near Keith in Banffshire, Scotland which was partly Calvinist and partly Catholic. He was sent to be educated in mainland Europe where he attended a number of Catholic colleges, under the Benedictines at Regensburg in Germany and with the Jesuits at Olomouc and Brno in the present day Czech Republic.

In a religiously divided Europe, he became interested in the debates between Catholics and Calvinists. Confused by the arguments of some Catholic scholars, he turned to Scripture.  He was particularly struck by two texts: “God wills all 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”.   Gradually he began to see that it was the Catholic Church which could accept all kinds of people and he was impressed by the Church’s many martyrs.  He decided to become a Catholic. In 1596, at the age of 17, he was received into the Church at Leuven, Belgium.

In 1608 he entered the Jesuits and was ordained a priest with them in Paris in 1610. It was then that he met two Jesuits who had just returned from Scotland after having been arrested and put in prison.  With the tightening of the Penal Laws, which forbade preaching or endorsing Catholicism, they saw little hope of missionary work there.  But their story got John thinking and over the next two and a half years he begged to be sent to the Scottish mission, especially to the few remaining Catholics in the Glasgow area.

With the blessing of his superiors, he entered Scotland in November 1613 variously disguised as a horse trader or as a soldier returning from wars in Europe.  But, unable to do any meaningful work among the small number of Catholics, he returned to Paris to speak with his superiors.  Rebuked for leaving his assignment, he was sent back to Scotland.  Now he got down to his mission, secretly celebrating Mass in Catholic homes and even making some converts.

However, his ministry was to last less than a year. In 1614, he was betrayed and arrested in Glasgow and taken to jail in Paisley.

His trial dragged on until he had been without food for 26 hours. He was put in prison and not allowed to 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 authority of the king in Church affairs. He underwent a second and a third trial but held firm. At his final trial, in a statement reminiscent of St Thomas More, he told 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.”

John was finally convicted of high treason, because he converted Protestants to the Catholic faith as well as denied the king’s spiritual jurisdiction by upholding the primacy of the Pope and condemning the oaths of supremacy and allegiance to the Crown.

On 10 March 1615, aged 36 years, John Ogilvie was paraded through the streets of Glasgow and hanged at Glasgow Cross. His last words were: “If there be here any hidden Catholics, let them pray for me but the prayers of heretics I will not have.”  After he was pushed from the ladder, he threw his concealed rosary beads out into the crowd. The tale is told that one of his enemies caught them and later became a devout Catholic.

Following his execution, Ogilvie’s followers were rounded up and put in jail. They suffered heavy fines but none received the death penalty.   As a martyr of the Counter-Reformation John Ogilvie was beatified in 1929 and canonised in 1976. He is the only post-Reformation saint from Scotland.



Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7; John 12:24-26

The Gospel reading for today is a very meaningful passage from John’s gospel.  It is an incident which takes place towards the end of Jesus’ public life when he is already in Jerusalem and shortly before the Last Supper.

Just before today’s reading opens we are told that some Greeks had come up to Jerusalem for the celebration of the coming Passover.  They were probably non-Jews who were sympathetic to Jewish beliefs.  They approached the apostle Philip and told him that they would like to see Jesus.  (Philip’s name is Greek, as is Andrew’s, and they may have been able to speak Greek.) Probably, since their arrival in the city, they had heard many stories about Jesus, about his teaching and his healing powers.  They wanted to see this man for themselves.

Philip then went to tell his fellow apostle, Andrew, and together they went to pass the request to Jesus.

It is at this point that our passage today opens.  It consists of the reply of Jesus to the request of the Greeks.  If it was passed on to them it must have sounded somewhat enigmatic as an answer.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain.  But, if it dies, it produces many grains.”   But, on reflection, the meaning is actually quite clear.   These men had asked to “see” Jesus.  Probably, their desire was literally to see, to look at this man about whom they had heard so much.  But to “see” involves much more than this.  To “see” Jesus means to have a deep understanding of who he is, an understanding of his mission.   And this means that one does not understand or “see” Jesus unless one realises that his coming suffering and death is an integral part of who he is.  The words of Jesus, of course, are as much directed at his disciples (including us) as they are to the enquiring Greeks.

Jesus goes on then to spell out the full meaning of his first sentence.  “Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Jesus clearly was ready to surrender his life in order to win a life that would never end.  And it is not only Jesus who must walk this way.  All his disciples (including us) must also be ready to do the same.  So he goes on, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant will also be.”

So to “see” Jesus cannot be confined to watching from a distance or from the outside.  It is only an “insider”, one who identifies totally with the dying to self and is ready to share it, who can really “see” and know Jesus.

In giving up his own life for the defence of his faith, John Ogilvie showed clearly that he had this spirit.


The First Reading is from the prophet Isaiah and is part of one of the songs of the ‘Suffering Servant’, which is applied to Jesus in his Passion.  “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting… He who vindicates me is near.”   The similarity with the sufferings of Jesus is clear but it also describes the kind of physical abuse to which John Ogilvie was subjected.

The Second Reading is from the Second Letter to the Corinthians.  Again it is a well-known passage where Paul describes God, the Father of Jesus, as the source of all comfort in our lives.  In fact, the word ‘comfort’ appears at least nine times in this relatively short passage.

‘Comfort’ is only one possible translation of the word paraklesis (paraklhsis).   This is the word from which ‘Paraclete’ also comes, a word which can be translated as ‘comforter’.  It is a word also used for a defence lawyer in a court of law.  So it does just not mean giving comfort, but also standing by a person and backing them up when they come under attack.  God is all these things to us and especially in times of difficulty.  It was this God who gave John Ogilvie the strength to maintain his faith under extreme pressure and to go with peace and confidence to his death.

And, if we have to undergo trials, we might hear these words of Paul coming also from Jesus and John Ogilvie, who all gave their lives for the Gospel: “Our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in the our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”





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