When John Henry Newman was made a saint four years ago, he was the first British saint canonized since 1976, the year Scottish martyr St. John Ogilvie was canonized.
Ogilvie and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton have much in common. They are both related to Scottish nobility; they both discovered their faith in Europe; they were both early members of new religious congregations; and they both died young — Mother Seton at age 46, Ogilvie at age 35.
Ogilvie’s life ended on March 10, 1615 after living through harrowing torture and an era of enormous change.
A Calvinist in King James’ Scotland
John Ogilvie was the son of the Calvinist Scottish laird of Drum-na-Keith in Banffshire and the Lady Agnes Elphinstone, who died when he was 3. His father, a baron and follower of John Calvin while the reformer was still alive, then married the Lady Douglas of Lochleven.
The family lived in the Scotland of King James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England), the Protestant son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. During Ogilvie’s life the Church suffered the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Parliament building. The thwarting of the plot, which had been organized by a group of Catholics, became the basis for the centuries-long Nov. 5 celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, often marked by anti-Catholic displays.
John Ogilvie’s life also coincided with the flowering of English literature in William Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Johnson and Francis Bacon — and the King James Version of the Bible, published a few years before Ogilvie’s death.
His birth mother, Agnes Elphinstone, was from a Scottish family that still held on to the faith. Her two brothers were Jesuits, joining the order St. Ignatius of Loyola founded 40 years before John was born. But though he had two uncles in a Catholic order known for education, his father handled his education and sent him to a Lutheran school in Germany when he was 13.
Ironically, being sent from Scotland to a Lutheran school in Germany may have helped his Catholic faith. German Catholics in many regions had the freedom Catholics lacked in Scotland and John was fascinated by the debates between Catholics and Calvinists.
Two Scripture verses in particular are said to have turned him against the Calvinist belief that strict, rigorous discipline showed who was included in the small number of elect of God: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) and “Our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
Back to Scotland — Twice
St. John joined the Jesuits and after he was ordained a priest was sent to his homeland to serve the underground Church there. Catholics were in hiding from the persecution stoked by Presbyterian church founder John Knox and other zealous Calvinists who were bent on erasing the remnants of the Church of Rome from their land.
Often disguised as a horse dealer named John Watson, Ogilvie entered private homes and said Mass. At one point, he tried to quit the work and return to his Paris seminary, but he was sent back. Soon Adam Boyd, a Calvinist pretending to be a Catholic, outed Ogilvie and he was captured.
At his trial, he refused to pledge allegiance to King James in spiritual matters. He told the judge, “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.”
During his captivity he endured nine nights and eight days of torture, in which he was kept awake and repeatedly asked to divulge the names of other Catholics. If he fell asleep his captors would prick him with pins or knives or drag him by his hair. He feared he lost his sanity, and feared he would give up the name.
He never did, though. Convicted of treason, he was paraded through the streets to be hanged at Glasgow Cross. A rebel to the end, he prayed, “If there be any hidden Catholics here, let them pray for me, but the prayers of heretics I will not have.”
As he was killed, the story goes, he hurled his rosary into the crowd and the man who caught it was a lifelong enemy who then became a lifelong Catholic.
A Land Blessed By Saints
John Ogilvie was beatified in 1929 with other martyrs of the Counter-Reformation. St. Paul VI canonized him in 1976 after a working-class devotee was miraculously cured of cancer through Ogilvie’s intercession.
St. Paul VI, who a year earlier had canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, called Ogilvie “a son of the land blessed by the history of other saints dear to the Church, like St. Columba and St. Margaret.”
St. Elizabeth Ann was well aware of her own Scottish connections through her late husband’s family. She adopted the motto “Hazard yet forward,” which comes from the Seton Clan and expresses roughly the same sentiment as, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” She also kept in touch with the old country, including the Lady Isabella Cayley, the sister to her father-in-law.
Like Ogilvie’s parents, the Setons were lesser Scottish Nobility, and as a Protestant convert herself, Elizabeth would have loved that St. John Ogilvie came from a Calvinist and Lutheran background, and switched his allegiance to the Catholics during his education.
She spoke with delight of receiving a Dutch student of hers who personally chose the Sisters over Protestant options, saying “…Luther is Luther and Calvin is Calvin and Knox is Knox, Mammy, but I wants the church of the Apostles begun by them.”
Elizabeth herself faced the same choice when she entered the Catholic Church. She speaks of the train of concerned Protestants who tried to win her over, including Betsy the Quaker, “Mrs. T” the Anabaptist, and Mary the Methodist. One woman from the Church of Scotland invited her to hear a popular Scotch Presbyterian preacher of the day, saying, “Oh do, dear soul, come and hear our John Mason and I am sure you will join us.” She did neither.
Today, St. John Ogilvie is seen as a Scottish St. Thomas More, a model for religious freedom.
In the past five years, Catholics have pursued efforts to put a permanent memorial in Ogilvie’s honor at the site of his execution.
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow said St. John Ogilvie was even more important at a time when Catholics face “more subtle forms of restricting religious freedom,” which today are “limiting your freedom to say in public places what you believe and what you hold most dear in your heart and in your conscience.”
Pope Francis agreed, telling Scottish seminarians in 2016 that Ogilvie’s sacrifice “has borne fruit in your beloved homeland. We too are living in a time of martyrdom, and in the midst of a culture so often hostile to the Gospel. I urge you to have that same selfless spirit as your predecessors did. Love Jesus above all things!”
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
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