(Vatican Radio) A campaign to immortalise Scotland’s only post-Reformation Catholic martyr is growing, more than forty years after he was canonised by Pope Paul VI.
Saint John Ogilvie was born in 1579 to a family of Scottish nobility. He was raised a Calvinist, but converted to Catholicism at Louvain in 1596. After receiving an education at several Catholic institutions, he joined the Society of Jesus. He was ordained in 1610 in Paris and requested that he be sent back to Scotland, by this time marked by a hostility to the Catholic Faith. He was betrayed by someone posing as a Catholic and was imprisoned for treason.
The Jesuit priest was tortured by his captors in an attempt to find out the names of other Catholics in the area. They deprived him of sleep and pushed needles under his fingernails. When he refused to betray his people, he was sentenced to death. He was hanged at Glasgow Cross on 10th March 1615. The date is remembered every year as the saint’s feast day.
He was beatified as a martyr of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation by Pope Pius XI in 1929. He became the only post-Reformation Scottish saint when he was canonised in 1976 by Blessed Paul VI, after a Glasgow dockworker had been miraculously healed of a stomach tumour.
More than 400 years after his martyrdom, an online campaign was launched on his feast day to mark the place where St John paid the ultimate sacrifice. The Order of the Knights of St Columba, a Catholic fraternal organisation in the UK, is supporting the campaign. Speaking about it, the Supreme Knight Charlie McCluskey said, “Let’s make this happen.” He suggested that a statue should be erected in an alcove at Glasgow Cross. “We have made tentative enquires to the council. We need to move onto the next stage. If there’s public support we’d be happy to take a lead on this.”
The Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, used his homily on the feast day this year to tell people to “make more” of the Scottish saints. He spoke about the current hostility experienced by Christians of the western world. “There are more subtle forms of restricting religious freedom, when it gets into the realm of limiting your freedom to say in public places what you believe and what you hold most dear in your heart and in your conscience,” adding, “That’s one reason why we continue to need the example, inspiration and intercession of Saint John Ogilvie.”
The martyr’s legacy reached beyond the borders of Scotland, too. One year after his death, the Rector of the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, which had been founded in 1600 as an institution for Catholic education, read his account of John Ogilvie’s execution. This was the catalyst that motivated the transformation of the College into a seminary. Inspired by what they had heard, the students took the Mission Oath, swearing to return to Scotland as priests.
In his address to the community of the Pontifical Scots College in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of this transformation into a seminary, Pope Francis said that the transformation was “born of a martyr’s blood.” He spoke about John Ogilvie’s impact on the College:
"The martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvie, which was meant to silence the Catholic faith, instead was an impetus for its promotion and for defending the Church’s freedom to remain in communion with the See of Peter. The “yes” proclaimed by the sixteen men four hundred years ago was eloquent not simply for their good intentions, but rather because they persevered, and prepared themselves in every way, returning to Scotland to face the hardships that awaited them, even if it meant becoming martyrs themselves. Theirs was a life which sought the joys and peace that Christ alone could offer. Looking out at you today, I can see that, through the grace of God, the martyrdom of Saint John and the courage of those sixteen men has borne fruit in your beloved homeland. Saint John’s Feast is celebrated around Scotland and the world on 10th March. There is a notable celebration at the Pontifical Scots College on or around this date every year. Given the history the College has with the Society of Jesus, the community uses this Feast every year to invite professors to the College to give thanks for their work."