Saint John Ogilvie and the Cross of Christ

Born in 1579 into a noble Scottish family of mixed Presbyterian and Catholic heritage, Saint John Ogilvie was sent to France at a young age by his father, so that he might receive contact with the best of French Calvinist teaching. Whilst in France however, the young John also came into contact with a robust Catholicism that was quickly being eliminated from his native Scotland and that had been honed in the post-Reformation controversies of mainland Europe. Observing the arguments on both sides, he became convinced of the Catholic cause, and returned to the faith of his fathers at the ScotsCollege of Louvain University, Belgium, in 1593.

After attending several Catholic educational institutions, he then joined the Jesuits in 1597 (making vows in 1601), and was ordained in 1610. Not long after this, the Earl of Angus, a prominent Scots Catholic, asked the Jesuit superiors to send for priests to support existing Catholics there, but only to send those who were strong enough to bear the task, as it was very dangerous to be a Catholic in Scotland at the time. John heard about the sufferings of Catholics in his home country, and pleaded continually to be allowed to go back and do missionary work there. He was finally allowed to return in 1613, and worked underground in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, avoiding the ‘priest-hunters’ carrying out the policies of the crown.

In 1615, he was captured, due to information provided by a fake convert, and was imprisoned, tortured and interrogated for the names of any fellow Catholics – he bravely stood up to this torture (which included being starved of sleep for eight days and nine nights), whilst insisting on his allegiance to the crown in temporal matters, and no names were given over to the authorities. When it was apparent that he would not give in, Saint John Ogilvie was convicted of high treason and taken to Glasgow Cross (known today as Gallowgate), where he was hung and disembowelled.

Before his execution, he called out to the crowd ‘If there be here any hidden Catholics, let them pray for me but the prayers of heretics I will not have’ and threw his rosary beads out to them. There is a long-standing story that one of those seeking his persecution caught the beads and subsequently became a devout Catholic himself – how true this is (and whilst it may be a pious elaboration, there is no necessary reason it should be taken as such) we do not know, but it stands at the very least as a compelling commentary on the life of this brave, devout man, in whom a love for Christ was placed above all earthly things, and also the power of martyrdom to inspire faith in others.

The feast day of Saint John Ogilvie (who is the only post-Reformation Scottish saint, and was canonised in 1976) was about a month ago – the 10th of March. However, I have delayed this post until today, because today is exactly one week before Good Friday, and in martyrs such as Saint John we can see how the faith, hope and love inspired and enabled by the Cross of Christ is made manifest in the lives of those who follow Him. On Good Friday, we will remember the great sacrifice of love made for us by Our Lord; and in remembering people like Saint John Ogilvie we are given a glimpse into what a difference that great sacrifice has made and continues to make.

When considering the terrible tortures undergone by the martyrs, one can appreciate in a particularly powerful way how strong the grace of God is, and how, in a truly concrete fashion, His love is more powerful than death. It is seldom that anyone will withstand such persecution even for a fraction of the time endured by people like Saint John Ogilvie, and it is only a faith formed and strengthened by a love beyond all earthly understanding that could sustain a person during such trials. Therefore, when we look to the Cross of Christ in a week’s time, let us consider how great is the love that is shown to us there, and how great is the power of that love to change hearts. Let us also consider the response to God’s love shown in the lives of the saints (c.f.; Galatians 2:20), and ask ourselves how far we have opened our own hearts to that love.


4 thoughts on “Saint John Ogilvie and the Cross of Christ

  1. Thank you so much for this VERY moving article that made my eyes fill with tears!
    What witness of Faith and Hope our glorious martyrs have given us! And how great was their love for Christ and His Holy Church!

    Actually I knew little about St. John Ogilvie except that he was a Scottish martyr of the Reformation, though I have given some cross references to him in articles in the past… so I am grateful to you Michael for filling in the gaps for us of his life story and glorious martyrdom. I had never heard that story of his rosary before!

    St. John Ogilvie: Pray for us, and give us some of the courage and fortitude that you have shown the world, in standing firm in the Faith to the bitter end!

    • Thank you for your comments Kathleen – it is a very moving story isn’t it, and it is testament to the witness of the martyrs that their example still has the power to move us, who are living under different circumstances. I think it is because of that fundamental connection with the Cross that their stories have this power – they are people who truly took up their crosses and followed Our Lord, and thus are irrevocably linked to Calvary itself.

      At Saint Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow, there is a painting of Saint John Ogilvie behind the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, and though the style is not to everyone’s taste (I’m still not 100% sure what I think of it), I think it does act as a powerful reminder of that essential connection between the sacrifice of the martyrs and the Sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented in the Mass.

      Also, I’m glad to be able to fill in the gaps re the back story here – I wish there was even more information on him, but I haven’t been able to find any as yet!

  2. Yes Michael, the martyrs “connection of the Cross.. etc.” is indeed the reason their stories move us so deeply. Is not the very triumph and spread of the Church in the first century due to the blood of its glorious martyrs that sowed the first seeds?

    I doubt whether there is much more information available anywhere about St. John Ogilvie than what you have given us above, and perhaps we are lucky that even this much has survived those cruel Penal Times.

    I googled St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow (somewhere I have never been before) to see the painting you mention. I see it is quite a new one by a painter named Peter Howson. This person has a photo of it on her blog:
    The Cathedral is very impressive, isn’t it, and has been recently refurbished.

    • Absolutely – I think it was Tertullian that said that about the blood of the martyrs being the seeds of the Church, and he was spot on; if it weren’t for those who were so in love with Christ that they were willing to die for Him, we may not have a Church today. This for me is more proof of just how central the Cross is to the Faith – take it out (as many in the West have tried to do) and you are left with an abstraction that challenges noone and changes no lives.

      Re Peter Howson, he is quite an interesting character – he had suffered from some sort of mental illness for a long time (possibly brought on by his time as official war artist during the war in Bosnia) and tried to use drugs and alcohol to get rid of the problems. In 2000, after undergoing treatment, he experienced a conversion to Christianity (though I’m not sure what denomination he is part of) and has since stayed clean. His work post-conversion has included a lot of religious themes, such as the St. John Ogilvie painting, which (like a lot of his work) I found difficult to get used to the style of at first, but also haunting and compelling. I would certainly recommend ‘googling’ some of his other paintings. There are some available on his website too if you are interested:

      St. Andrew’s Cathedral is impressive yes, but there are a few other churches in Glasgow which I prefer (in terms of the style). The Cathedral is almost a bit too spare for my liking – not unattractive certainly, but I like churches with a bit more ‘warmth’ to them (if you know what I mean).

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