Fr Joseph Carola, SJ recently preached the following homily at a Mass to mark the Feast of St John Ogilvie at the Pontifical Scots College. We are indebted to Fr Carola for providing such an inspiring reflection on the priesthood.
A. M. D. G.
THE PASSION OF SAINT JOHN OGILVIE
Suffering with Christ so that others may be consoled
First Reading: Isaiah 50:5-9
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Gospel: John 12:24-26
Born around the year 1579 at Drum-na-Keith in the Scottish county of Banffshire, Saint John Ogilvie grew up in a Calvinist home.* In 1592, when John was thirteen years old, his parents sent him to the European Continent for studies. Over the next four years, questions of faith increasingly tormented the young lad. As Father Ogilvie explained years later during his trial before the Lords of the Privy Council, “his soul had become sick with anxiety and interior doubts concerning this matter for he could not tell which, amongst the great varieties of religious bodies he saw in Europe, was the true one, and he resolved at least to leave the matter to God” (ELEANOR MCDOWELL, John Ogilvie: A Jesuit in Disguise (1579-1615), pp. 16-17). During those years, the good Lord opened young John’s ear to hear His word. For his part, John offered no resistance neither did he turn away. Rather he remained docile to the Lord and persevered in his religious quest—convinced that his Vindicator was near at hand (cf. Isaiah 50:5, 8).
By 1596, that quest led John Ogilvie to the Scots College at Douai in northern France where he was received into the Catholic Church. Two years later, he transferred to the Jesuit college at Olomouc in Moravia. On 5 November 1599, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Brno where the English Jesuit martyr, Saint Edmund Campion, had once lived. On 26 December 1601, the feast of the proto-martyr Saint Stephen, the twenty-two-year-old Scot pronounced his first vows in the Society of Jesus. Kneeling before His Eucharistic Lord, he beseeched the Divine Majesty: “I suppliantly beg your immense Goodness and Clemency, through the blood of Jesus Christ, to deign to receive this holocaust in an odor of sweetness; and that just as you gave me the grace to desire and offer this, so you will also bestow abundant grace to fulfill it (SAINT IGNATIUS LOYOLA, Constitutions of the Society of Jesus §540). Nine years later, toward the end of 1610, John was ordained priest at Paris. For three years, Father Ogilvie labored on the Continent all the while longing to serve in his native land. Given the dangers that such Scottish service entailed, his superiors delayed in granting his request. But, finally, in 1614, John received the mission that he had long desired. Some twenty-two years after his departure, that young Calvinist lad returned to Scotland as a Jesuit priest. Clothed in secular garb in order to avoid arrest, he landed at Leith harbor in November of 1613. For the next eleven months, under the alias John Watson, he traded horses by day. But, by night, Father Ogilvie ministered clandestinely to persecuted Catholics as he reconciled others to their ancient, ancestral faith.
On 4 October 1614, the priest John Ogilvie, an alter Christus, met his Judas. He began his day by celebrating Holy Mass in his private lodgings. Little did he know that it would be his last. As he left that clandestine cenacle, he headed unknowingly towards his Gethsemane as he made his way to Glasgow’s Market Square. He went there to meet a certain Adam Boyd whom, along with four others, he was to have received into the Catholic Church. But, as Father Ogilvie entered the square, Boyd betrayed him into the hands of the Protestant Archbishop John Spottiswoode’s men who amidst an increasingly hostile crowd dragged the Jesuit to the Lord Provost’s house. There, the Archbishop, a sixteenth-century Caiaphas, struck Father Ogilvie across the face and decried: “You are bold to say your Masses in a reformed city.” To which the Jesuit fearlessly replied, “You act like a hangman and not a bishop in striking me.” The Archbishop’s cohort reacted violently. “They rained blows on me,” the Saint later reported from his prison cell, “they tore my hair and my beard, and they scratched my face with their nails” (MCDOWELL, p. 29). How aptly the Prophet Isaiah’s words apply to Christ’s priest: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my checks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:66).
Over the next five months in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, the civil and ecclesiastical authorities tortured and interrogated the Jesuit whose sweet self-sacrifice God had so graciously deign to receive. His crime? The celebration of Holy Mass and the reconciliation of Christians to the Catholic Church—sacred rites that the State had deemed treasonable acts. From London, the Protestant King James, son of a Catholic Queen, took personal interest in the case of the Protestant-born Catholic priest. Herod again interrogated Christ. The King carefully composed a series of questions concerning spiritual jurisdiction in the realm. They admitted of only two possible answers which for the Scottish Jesuit meant either apostasy or the gallows. Responding boldly to the King’s inquiry, he acknowledged the pope’s spiritual primacy. His words sealed his fate. For nothing more, then, remained to be done than to proceed to trial. On 10 March 1615, a jury quickly found Father John Ogilvie of the Society of Jesus guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to be hung and quartered that very afternoon. Having journeyed from the Cenacle of his last Mass to the Gethsemane of his betrayal, he now ascended the Calvary of his passion and death. Mounting the gallows, he tossed his rosary into the crowd, invoked the saints and commended his soul to God, echoing his Lord who from the Cross had prayed: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46) Having placed the noose around Father Ogilvie’s neck, the executioner pushed him to his death. But, pitying the dying man who gasped for air, the hangman grabbed his legs and pulled down on them firmly in order to hasten his end. Recognizing the injustice of that innocent man’s death, the crowd, that had gathered around the gallows, began to weep. Seized by fear on account of those tears, the authorities refrained from quartering his corpse. Like the legionaries who did not break Our Crucified Lord’s legs, they did not desecrate the martyr’s dead body. Rather, they buried it whole in an unmarked grave.
On that Lenten day in 1615, a single grain of wheat, Scotland’s sole canonized Catholic Reformation martyr, fell from the gallows towards the ground, dangled and died. His death has yielded an abundant harvest for the Catholic Church in Scotland. Those fruits are immediately present to us in this chapel where Scottish priests and seminarians gather daily to celebrate Holy Mass without fear. Thanks to the Master of the harvest, twenty-first-century Scottish teenagers, along with other older Scots, continue to come to the Continent in order to study for the priesthood. They pursue propaedeutic studies at the Royal Scots College in Salamanca. Afterwards, they come to Rome in order to study philosophy and theology under the tutelage of the Dominican Friars and the Jesuit Fathers. Throughout their years of priestly formation, they learn in the words of today’s Gospel to hate their life in this world in order to keep it for eternal life—that is, they strive, with the help of God’s grace, to set aside all selfishness in order to grow in selflessness. They die to themselves in order that they may live for Christ and, indeed, that Christ may live in them to the point that they can say with Saint Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Herein lies the inescapable martyrdom of seminary formation. By this, I do not mean to imply that seminary formators are executioners—even if, at times, to the seminarian it may seem so! Nor do I mean to imply that a seminarian’s confreres constitute a hostile crowd. The point rather is this: that it is the Lord Himself who tests and purifies our sacerdotal vocation in a crucible of suffering as He conforms us daily more and more to His crucified self. Such dying to self—to our own idiosyncrasies, self-centeredness and sin—is never an easy matter. But, for the man called to be an alter Christus caput and to serve in persona Christi capitis, it is essential. For, in his sacerdotal life and ministry, the priest must never proclaim himself, but only and always Christ. In the Eucharist, he gives not himself, but Christ alone to the holy faithful. In the confessional, it is not he, but Christ ministering through him who forgives the contrite penitent’s sins. The spiritual death to self, that seminary formation entails, rightly prepares the way to such utterly transparent sacramental ministry.
In his selfless service of the Lord under the banner of His Cross, Saint John Ogilvie followed Jesus to Calvary. At the gallows, he served Him most faithfully. In Saint John’s final testimony, his priestly conformity to Christ crucified shone forth. He was poor with Christ poor, insulted with Christ insulted, and thought a fool with Christ thought utterly foolish (cf. SAINT IGNATIUS LOYOLA, Spiritual Exercises §167). His witness inspires our own humble discipleship. May we, like him, embrace poverty, insults and disdain not for their own sake, but rather for the sake of the poor, insulted and disdained Lord whom we intimately love and serve. For such companionship in suffering alone reveals the true mettle of our friendship with Jesus. In a special way, it unites us with Christ who continues to suffer in the suffering members of His Body the Church.
In imitation of Christ who gave His life so that we might inherit eternal life, the priest lays down his own life so that others may live. He suffers so that those who suffer need suffer no more. As Saint Paul assures the Corinthians, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, … comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3 – 4). With such consolation does the Father honor those who serve His Son. He consoles them in their afflictions so that they, in turn, may bring consolation and salvation to those whom they lovingly serve. It is perhaps most especially in the confessional that the young priest first recognizes the immense good of the personal, purgative suffering that he endured during his formation. For it is there that he uniquely witnesses Christ’s sacramental grace working through his own sacerdotal ministry in order to liberate the oppressed and to bring peace to the tormented. At such moments, with profound humility, he confesses to himself: “I would gladly suffer again all that I have suffered for the sake of this one confession.”
Saint John Ogilvie himself gladly suffered all that he suffered in order to bring the joy of the Sacraments to his fellow countrymen. He sacrificed all in order to be able to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for his beloved brethren. In his unfailing witness to the truth, he offered his life so that others might live, and in doing so he himself inherited eternal life. May God give you, the Catholic seminarians of Scotland, the grace in our own day both to desire and to do the same. May the good Lord give you the grace of final perseverance in your holy vocation so that, like Saint John, you may serve Him faithfully until your dying breath.
FATHER JOSEPH CAROLA, S.J.
The Pontifical Scots College, Rome
9 March 2019
The Anticipated Feast of Saint John Ogilvie, SJ
* For biographical information, cf. E. McDOWELL, John Ogilvie: A Jesuit in Disguise (1579-1615), (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2015); JOSEPH N. TYLENDA, SJ, Jesuit Saints & Martyrs (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1998), pp. 347-349.