Homily given at Keith, in honour of St John Ogilvie, by Dom Mark Savage OSB – 11/03/17
Of all the buildings in the Glasgow of John Ogilvie’s time only two remain, and he would almost certainly have seen them on the last day of his life. One was the Cathedral while the other was Provan’s Lordship on the other side of the High Street, opposite the Cathedral; it had once been a Canon’s house. With these two exceptions, the built environment is quite changed. In such a changed world does John Ogilvie still have something to say to us today?
Well, the buildings may have changed around Glasgow Cross where St John was tried and hung, but the underlying geography remains the same. The land still slopes up from the Clyde. From the Cross, the Trongate still leads west and the Gallowgate goes east. The Saltmarket runs down to the river and the High Street still climbs up to the Cathedral, getting steeper as you get older. Perhaps in the same way, like the geography of Glasgow, human nature remains the same, under the clothes and manners of today, as it was in the days of St John.
Today we seem to be experiencing a revolution of belief in what once seemed securely Christian lands. In St John’s day, it was the Reformation, and in days to come they will probably find a name for our own times. The Reformation came late to Scotland; indeed it was the last successful Reformation in Europe. It was Calvinist rather than Lutheran and learnt from the various reformations that had preceded it.
It was a rather legalistic Reformation with the correct forms carefully adhered to and perhaps all the more effective for that. There were the harsh laws and draconian penalties, but only John Ogilvie was to suffer death. More effective were the bureaucratic laws that made it hard to make a living and bring up a family.
We human beings can be quite law-abiding and a body of law being enforced can change the outlook of the people in a particular jurisdiction, at least in their outward behaviour. People may not agree but they will conform.
Apart from the law, there are ways of building up the power and status of those who benefit from the new state of affairs and of sidelining those who oppose it; the voice of the opponent is not heard, is misrepresented, or simply ignored.
Until fairly recently it was claimed that the Reformation in Scotland was almost unopposed, and in certain respects it may be true, but there was much popular opposition; but it was often disorganised and in the long term powerless. One of the dangers posed by men like John Ogilvie was that they might be the catalyst for organisation and power for those who previously had none.
The knowledge that their power was not so firmly founded in the country as they claimed may explain why the authorities were so taken up with John Ogilvie; why they tried to find his converts and associates and why they tried so hard to turn him from Catholicism. In a way John Ogilvie did not achieve a great deal in his work as a missionary. He worked hard, he reconciled many to the Faith, but this part of his work did not last. He had said Mass for a mere handful and many of them lost their property and suffered banishment. It was in his imprisonment, interrogations and tortures that John Ogilvie made his greatest contribution to the Church.
Of course, John Ogilvie was not charged with an offence against religion, but with treason, a violation by a subject, of allegiance to the sovereign or to the chief authority of the state. Parliament had passed a law making it treason to deny that the king had full spiritual power in his realm. The king had used this power to impose bishops on the Kirk. It might be said that the Presbyterian party in the Kirk also opposed this power and it was to lead to the National Covenant and eventually to the Bishops’ Wars and even the Civil War.
Despite the religious nature of the offence, the authorities insisted that John Ogilvie was convicted of treason. It seems that people will try not to proceed on a religious charge but rather on other grounds, such as treason, or perhaps nowadays on grounds of equality or patient care.
The real power of John Ogilvie was that he was united to Christ in his sufferings. The results of his pastoral ministry may have been negligible, but by his death in imitation of Christ he has yielded a rich harvest.
When he was considering becoming a Catholic, the text of 1 Timothy ch. 2 v. 4, which says that God wishes all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, was very important to John Ogilvie. In his trial his accusers were not enemies, but the very people he wished to bring to Christ. It is very easy to look at those who oppose us as foes and enemies, but Christ died for each one of them, as he died for us.
John Ogilvie on the scaffold prayed a short litany of the Saints, aware that those in heaven are still joined to those on earth. So now in our time we can talk to him and include him in our litany of Saints, so that we can join him where he is in heaven before God.
Our world may look very different from John Ogilvie’s, but the physical geography and the human and spiritual geography remain the same, so we can turn to him and ask: St John Ogilvie, pray for us.