Mission and Ministering : In the footsteps of St John Ogilvie

Father Mark Cassidy, Spiritual Director of the Scots College, Rome delivered the homily at the College celebration of St John Ogilvie.

I remember being taken to see a play in the mid 1970s called ‘The Jesuit’: It was written by a Scots author called Donald Campbell and, as I remember it, presented the last episodes in the Life of John Ogilvie, particularly his Examinations and Trial. The play had been completed in 1973, but it took another couple of years before the author eventually found a director as keen on the play and its subject as he was. As it was due to open, it was announced that Pope Paul VI would canonise John Ogilvie in October 1976. It must have been one of the greatest theatrical publicity coups of the century! That free publicity did no harm to the play’s commercial success in Scotland. It was never as successful outside Scotland…the author had decided to underline the difference in class and status of the different characters by having Ogilvie, the Episcopalian Archbishop Spottiswoode, the Gentlemen of the Court and the Nobles all speaking in plain Scots English and everyone else, gaolers, guards and townspeople speaking in what was described at the time as the Scots of the Edinburgh football terraces. Apparently even on tour in Ireland, our Irish cousins had difficulty understanding some of the dialogue. Thank goodness no-one nowadays would have the same difficulty with Scottish accents.

As I recall, the play used accounts of the Examinations and Trial of John Ogilvie which came variously from government sources, from the writings of the saint smuggled out of prison and from the reports of other eyewitnesses: all these combine to give us a fascinating insight into this man. In many ways the description written by Isaiah would sum up the character of the man and his attitude to his imprisonment, torture and examinations:

The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults.

So, too, I set my face like flint;

I know I shall not be shamed. My vindicator is here at hand.

Does anyone start proceedings against me? Then let us go to court together.

Who thinks he has a case against me? Let him approach me.

The Lord is coming to my help, who will dare to condemn me? 

But the beginning of the reading too helps us to understand the character of this man:

I made no resistance, neither did I turn away.

I offered  my back to those who struck me,

My cheeks to those who tore at my beard.

He did not offer violence in return for the violence done to him and would certainly debate and argue but would not descend into insulting his adversaries and opponents.

In those examinations, John Ogilvie comes across as sharp witted: he could eloquently defend the position of the Church with regard to the faith, as we might expect of the well-trained Jesuit, but could also show the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the arguments of his adversaries. At times he seemed to know their arguments better than they did. He knew the law well enough to be able to use it to defend himself: when asked for a confession as to what he had done – administering the sacraments, celebrating Mass encouraging the faithful and the lapsed to practice their faith – he pointed out that it was up to his accusers to bring  evidence that he might admit or deny but that he had no need to offer up the evidence to condemn. He certainly turned arguments back on those who accused him, but he also used humour to turn the mood of some who were violently opposed to him into something more peaceable. Many of those who had shown such violence towards him came to (grudgingly) respect and admire him. He used everything, his learning, his abilities and his character to try to persuade people as to the rightness of his cause.


St John was also clear in what he was defending: not just the faith in general but the right of the Church to proclaim that same faith. He would submit to the power of the King in all things except where spiritual authority was the question. I think this is perfectly summed up in the final scene of his life. We are told that as he is brought out to the scaffold to die for treason, an emissary from Archbishop Spottiswoode walks with him. He makes it known to John Ogilvie that if he renounces his faith, The Archbishop will give him his daughter in marriage and the best parish in the diocese as a dowry. Ogilvie asks him to repeat this offer to the crowd as his witnesses, which the emissary does. Ogilvie then points out that he has been sentenced for treason and even if he renounces the faith he will still be guilty of treason and have to live in shame. He is assured that treason is not in question and that he will not be tried again for that crime, if he renounces his faith. St John is then able to declare himself even more willing to die for he is now assured that it is for faith alone that he dies.

For faith alone: Where did John Ogilvie get this strength, this determination, this ability? He left Scotland, a country where Catholics were persecuted and the faith proscribed. He came across to a Europe win which the great religious debates were raging still.  He listened to these debates and eventually found himself influenced by the Catholic side of the debate. It says that he was influenced by the arguments of unity, antiquity and unbroken succession, but he became convinced by the arguments because he said that he “found sincere and perfect virtue shown in every rank and class”: men and women who lived this faith in virtue and holiness who “who defended and still defend the faith and unnumbered hosts of holy martyrs who had died in its defence”. After his conversion and his acceptance into the Society of Jesus, he lived in the same house where Edmund Campion had lived, and the story of that martyr’s life and death had an enormous influence on his own understanding of his mission and what he saw as his destiny. Others would say that they saw in him a real thirst for mission and a thirst for martyrdom if that was what his mission should bring.

The mission: In his own words he said that he returned to Scotland simply to minister to souls in need. And that he would preserve his life, if he may, only if he were not obliged to lose God in so doing. Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. I will preserve my life at all costs, if I am not obliged to lose God in so doing.

For those of us who are here for a while to study and be formed and those of us who are to serve here and in our own way be re-formed and undergo our continuing formation, John Ogilvie should truly stand as our patron, our example and as an icon to us. His life and his formation stand as an inspiration to us. Here was a man who was completely engaged in the debates of his day, not simply the religious debates but those of society in general. He knew the arguments of the law and sciences; he read widely what his opponents were saying so that he might counter their arguments. He developed a deep spiritual life which helped him to value God above all, even his own life. All this was focused on one end – all this for mission – to minister to souls in need.

In this place we allow ourselves to be prepared and formed for ministry. We are asked to learn our philosophy and theology in such a way that we can present the faith in a way that will appeal to our people, so that people might be influenced by our arguments. But they will only be convinced by the lives of virtue and holiness that they see. And so we give ourselves to the formation of our prayer and spiritual lives. We don’t just engage with the religious debates of our day: we cannot allow ourselves to become so inward looking that we ignore the debates that rage in our own society. We need to be experts not just in humanity, but also knowledgeable of the humanities, all those areas of life which influence the thinking of the men and women of today. Like John Ogilvie, we need to be versed in the arguments of science, law and culture proposed by others as the complete answer to life, so that we can counter them, showing their inconsistencies and inadequacies so that we might offer a real alternative to the men and women of our day – an alternative vision, an alternative life, a real vision, a real life: the life of Christ, the life of the Gospel, the life of faith.

St. John Ogilvie - Coat of ArmsAll of our education and formation will then serve our one objective – we will use all our knowledge and understanding to do as St John Ogilvie did: to administer the sacraments, celebrate Mass, encourage the faithful and the lapsed to practice their faith: Proclaiming and defending that same faith in spite of all opposition and defending even our right to do so.

To go on mission and to minister to all souls in every need.

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