A LETTER FROM FR JOHN OGILVIE SJ
On 9 March 2015 an ecumenical vespers was held at St Aloysius church in Glasgow, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie SJ.
My name is Fr John Ogilvie. I understand that you will be preaching this evening as part of the celebrations of my 400 years. I’m sorry not to be there – well, I’m not actually… I’m in a far better place. And the weather is much better.
I hear that you are the Provincial of the British Jesuits. As a Scot in those days, having left Leith, I found myself entering the Jesuits in what you would now called the Czech Republic – ‘Bohemia’, as it then was. I came to London just once, but it was only a short visit. There was great persecution in England in those days and, as I was being trained, I met many brave English and Welsh Jesuit priests and brothers on the continent awaiting their mission. Impressive men; but like me, many of them didn’t live to old age.
As I look back I have been reflecting and, for what it is worth, I offer you a few thoughts for your homily tonight.
Firstly I am delighted that so many people and ministers of so many Christian denominations can come together for such an occasion. At the end of my trial, after I had been condemned to death, I made a point of going to shake the hands of all the judges: this was not some stunt – I sincerely meant it. Certainly some annoyed me greatly by their petty mindedness, and some were so caught-up in their own issues they couldn’t see beyond the skin of their own noses, but despite our formidable differences, I quite liked a lot of them and held them all as beloved children of the living God. It fills my heart with great joy that companionship is possible in your day…
Secondly, I would hope that in your homily you do not dwell on the past and please do not focus on me. I have a name and you know some things about me and my life – perhaps not as much as you think, as actually not one of you is certain of the year in which I was born! – but through the 2000 years of the history of the Church, I am just a single raindrop in a Glaswegian thunderstorm. Thousands, perhaps millions of human beings have died violently in Christ’s name over two millennia. Many of these people have never been named; for some, their story of martyrdom is forgotten by history and known only to the heart of God. They are the heroes of the Church.
In your own time there has been an unprecedented upsurge of persecution of Christians across the world. According to one secular Human Rights group based in Germany, 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in your world today are directed at Christians. Statistically speaking, that makes Christians by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet.
Notice I don’t say ‘Catholics’ because now the struggle has changed: if truth be told, the complex discussions about the differences in Christian theology which brought about my death are a luxury which is irrelevant for many people of your day. Look around you, Father Provincial: in Africa, in Asia, the Middle East, parts of Europe and central America, just to stand in the Shadow of the Cross automatically marks you out for torture and death. Faith and belief are distilled to the very basics; Presbyterians, Methodists, Salvation Army Pentecostalists, Baptists, Anglicans, Orthodox and others stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Catholics in announcing their faith not with any complex declaration of creed, but merely by indicating that Christ, the Son of God came down upon this earth for the salvation of humankind, and they have styled their life on that belief. It is important to emphasise what unites Christians rather than focussing on what divides.
Finally, perhaps it would be important to tell the people tonight about what it means to be a martyr. This is especially true when the word itself might be used to describe a man or woman who wraps himself or herself in explosives and devastates a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque. A Christian can never be someone who brings destruction on others in the name of Christ. A Christian martyr is someone who acts as a witness – a person who gives up their life, that others might live…
There is so much fear and uncertainty and greed in people’s daily lives that it is so tempting to lash out at other people – to inflict fear on others, to use physical violence or the deadly weapon of a gossipy tongue to drag them down. It can give a moment of pleasure, but ultimately it is a futile action. The cycle of vendetta and recrimination which you can see spiralling-down through families and nations through the centuries, draws the life-blood from all that is human.
In my own small way, I tried to do as Jesus did. I did not trade insult for insult. Instead I looked at Jesus before his persecutors and took him as my example; he absorbed their hatred, he absorbed their anger, he absorbed their misunderstanding and somehow – shockingly – he stopped it dead in its tracks.
Every act of human kindness, every fragment of LOVE contributes to this redemption of the world, whether it is a hand of friendship or a bitten-tongue holding back an insult. No act of witness goes to waste.
So, work for the time when people might come to you and ask you to show them a martyr, a faithful witness to the faith; work for that time when you no longer need to point to my painting or shrine – but you can point to yourself and the congregation that surrounds you.
Your devoted Jesuit Brother in Christ,
Firstborn son of Walter Ogilvie of Drum-na-Keith.
A Happy Feast Day to one and all!
But, hang on…That’s not REMOTELY the letter that St John Ogilvie would be writing, were he to communicate with us today. He would begin, no question about it, by lamenting the fact that the Mass for which he had sacrificed his life’s blood was no longer in “ordinary” use, but dubbed “extraordinary”, with those who love it, as he had loved it, treated like village idiots, even at the highest level in the Church. That’s one topic which St John Ogilvie would certainly include in his letter today – can you think of any others?
As well as spending some time discussing “that letter”, however, we are also invited to post our favourite prayers, poems and hymns in honour of the Saint, and – in the interest of enjoying some Good Clean Fun – we may post jokes and comical stories, as well. Just go easy on the mean Scots jokes… Athanasius tends to take those personally. He once wrote a letter to an English newspaper where he said: “If you print any more jokes about mean Scotsmen I shall stop borrowing your paper.” And he took to the streets a few weeks ago there, with an empty glass in each hand when the weather forecaster said there would be a nip in the air…
Happy Feast of St John Ogilvie!