St John Ogilvie and extremism

Published on 08 Mar 2019

Apart from Brexit, the biggest story in the newspapers over the last month has been the question: should Shamima Begum be allowed back into the U.K.? Possessed of radical ideas, she left Britain as a teenager; eventually ending up as part of an extremist religious organisation. Now an adult, she wants to come back — but gives little sign of having renounced her radical views. Nearly all commentators agree that, unchecked, she could influence others to follow those dangerous beliefs. The government has already stripped her of her citizenship; but, if that fails in the courts, some have suggested charging her with treason.

Except for the first sentence, almost everything in the previous paragraph could be applied, from a certain point of view, to a young Scottish Jesuit priest in Paris seeking to return to Scotland in 1612: John Ogilvie.

Of course, I do not believe that a valid comparison can be drawn between someone who cooperated formally with an evil regime and a martyr of the Faith. However, in a ‘post-truth’ world, would everyone agree? If religion itself is often identified with superstition at best and extremism at worst, is there a role for the kind of witness St John Ogilvie SJ gave with his life?

In seeking a contemporary relevance for Ogilvie, one cannot simply turn to his status as Scotland’s only post-Reformation saint. At St Aloysius College where I am chaplain, nearly every student was born after 9/11 — the political event that defined the lives of Generation Y-ers like myself. Would not someone like Bl Chiara Badano or St Oscar Romero be more suited to their concerns and those of our time? Nor is it adequate simply to hold up St John Ogilvie as a marker of cultural-religious identity. The saints are intended to be powerful role-models and intercessors — persons that Catholics are called to be in personal communion with. No, it would have to be in the life of Ogilvie himself that we would need to look.

As an illustration, consider how Ogilvie came to become a Catholic. Despite being the son of a Calvinist landowner, he ended up studying on the Continent with Catholics (and Protestants). Even at the young age of twelve, it seems, he had decided to give himself the task of experiencing the diverse beliefs, practices and worship that made up the Christian faith; to do this, he had to leave his native Scotland for Europe. Underlying this was the quest for Truth. The young John was fortunate in that his stepmother, Mary Douglas, was supportive of his quest.

Last year, the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment adopted the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) as the paradigm for the Church’s mission to the young. The life, and especially the conversion, of St John Ogilvie offers a concrete illustration of this process. The young need to be encouraged to seek the truth. Those who accompany them need to be encouraged to allow the young to make this quest their own, trusting in the Spirit, and not offer pre-packaged answers.

Other aspects of Ogilvie’s life can also speak to the world today: as a Jesuit, his religious life was a constant exercise in discernment (for instance, in his being chosen for the Scottish mission). Apart from his grace and courage at his trial, the account of Ogilvie’s martyrdom also raises questions, still relevant today, about the freedom of conscience.

Above all, St John Ogilvie’s life is a lived response to self-examination proposed by St Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises, questions which formed the foundation of Ogilvie’s life as a Jesuit and which remain perennial: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?”

The national shrine of St John Ogilvie (pictured) is in St Aloysius Jesuit Church in Glasgow.

Kensy Joseph SJ

This blog post first appeared in Flourish - the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Glasgow.