The St. John Ogilvie Prayer Book: Interview with Joseph Johnson

Last year I published an article here on Catholic Exchange entitled ‘Irish Christianity Needs an Intervention’. There I noted that Ireland’s Catholic heritage was quickly being erased in favor of a revived paganism, wrapped in New Age Gaia worship and packaged as ‘Celtic spirituality’:

Irish Christianity needs an intervention to prevent it from becoming nothing more than a subset of New Age pantheism. What is needed is a new initiative from Irish Catholic studies that does full justice to the brilliance of Catholic Ireland (rather than treating it as a regrettable bracket between ancient Gaelic paganism and contemporary secularism).

I recently had the privilege of making my own contribution to this intervention when I was given the opportunity to publish a new prayer book called The St. John Ogilvie Prayer Book (Cruachan Hill Press, 2023). dedicated to the Celtic tradition of the Church. Today I interview the man responsible for compiling the rich array of prayers and devotions found in the St. John Ogilvie prayer bookDr. Joseph Johnson, director of Christian formation in the Diocese of Charleston.

Dr. Johnson, what first interested you in the Gaelic tradition of the Church?

I was always drawn to Celtic things. Rumors on my mother’s side identified her ethnicity as “Scots-Irish,” like 90% of people in the southern part of the United States. Of course, the marker Scots-Irish is a misunderstood descriptor. These were dispossessed Scots who were moved to Northern Ireland by the English and eventually emigrated to the US.

Before returning to Rome in 2013, I was a member of a small ethnic Scottish Presbyterian group that came to the U.S. from Scotland in the late 1700s. I knew the history of so-called ‘Second Reformation’ Scotland well. As a former Presbyterian minister, I was very fond of the liturgy and the church year (which John Calvin would have frowned upon). Our service was very structured (which I later discovered was very similar to Paul VI’s Mass). The service was a mix of Calvin’s Geneva liturgy and John Knox’s Book of the Common Order.

When I reunited with Holy Mother Church in 2013, I longed for a liturgical expression with Celtic sensibilities. As a serious Christian, I didn’t care for light and frothy; I wanted to involve the tradition, but all I could find were prayer books that reflected a heavy Anglo-European feel. When I searched the internet for something Celtic it was always very mystical, almost Wiccan.

I have noticed this ‘New Age’ orientation of much of what is branded as Celtic spirituality. Is this the reason you thought something like that? The St. John Ogilvie Prayer Book was needed?

Precisely. As mentioned, there is a lack of authentic Catholic spirituality that seems somewhat Celtic. Frustrated with the prospects, I decided to edit my own prayer book and that began an incredible journey in 2020. The St. John Ogilvie Prayer Book aims to fill that gap and provides a resource for Catholics who want a prayer book that is firmly Orthodox, but also recognisably Celtic.

Can you explain what’s in it? The St. John Ogilvie Prayer Book?

First, let’s talk about the calendar. The book uses the Old Gaelic calendar, which contradicts the claim of modern neo-pagans that the Gaelic calendar is uniquely pagan: the Gaelic calendar is not a religious calendar but a seasonal calendar. It also contradicts the claim that its use or emphasis is not authentically Catholic or idolatrous.

It also contains a daily office. I felt it was important that the office reflected the hours of the traditional breviary, a collection of “necessary” or “daily” prayers (part of the Catholic routine), as well as a calendar that not only stated but also emphasized the general Roman calendar on Celtic saints (virtually forgotten victims of what the East calls ‘Latinization’). Furthermore, I wanted to emphasize the Celtic seasons that were adopted by the Neo-Pagans, whose ‘calendar’ is a modern, fictional combination of the Celtic bonfire festivals and the Anglo-Saxon mythology of the solstice equinox. I wanted to take back the authentic Celtic heritage that was baptized by missionaries to Scotland. In the words of Chesterton:

I am very glad that our fashionable fiction seems to be full of a return to paganism, for it may possibly be the first step towards a return to Christianity. Neo-pagans have sometimes forgotten, when they wanted to do everything the ancient pagans did, that the last thing the ancient pagans did was be baptized. (London Times, 1926)

There are many traditional prayers and hymns of various saints, often appearing in English, Latin and Scottish Gaelic. The Seasons and Days section includes customs such as the blessings of the Epiphany, blessings at bonfires, toasts for cèilidhs with friends and family; prayers of mourning for the dead and dying; baptism and confirmation, a Scottish Lenten ritual for use at weddings, traditional Christmas and Easter prayers and traditions.

In addition, each season or celebration is historically given a thorough treatment to show how the Catholic Church integrated and Christianized local customs.

There is also a section dedicated to catechesis to confirm important elements of Catholic doctrine and dogmatic statements. The later section contains devotions to Our Lord, such as the Adoration and Blessing of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations of the Cross, Divine Mercy, the First Friday, and the Oriental Prayer Rope. There are prayers to the Holy Spirit and devotions to Our Lady, such as the Miraculous Medal, the Brown Scapular, the Rosary (in English and Latin), etc.

This is incredibly comprehensive. Where did you find the source material for this?

In my search for pre-Reformation Celtic Catholic sources I discovered the Irish Stowe and Bobbio Missals and the Scottish Book of deer And Book by Kells. Most amazing was the discovery of the poems, prayers and blessings from the six-part volume Carmina Gadelica, the late 19th-century collection compiled by Alexander Campbell. The earlier liturgies were thoroughly Romanized in the Middle Ages and later continued as folk spirituality in the Hebrides among Catholic Scots even after the Reformation. This book is intended to preserve these traditions.

Why did you decide to name the book after St. John Ogilvie?

St. John Ogilvie (died 1615) was the last Scottish Catholic martyr, a Jesuit who was hanged for serving the Catholics of Glasgow. He was the last face of Scottish Catholicism. I wanted to reconnect with that as a way to revitalize Celtic Catholicism. In my opinion it is a way to counter the rampant rise of Celtic neo-paganism.

Do you have a favorite prayer, saint or blessing from the Gaelic tradition?

There are many Gaelic and Celtic saints that I learned about along the way, but the short life of St. John Ogilvie himself, Scotland’s last martyr after the Reformation, made an impression on me. In a final act of piety, as he was about to be hanged, he threw his rosary into the crowd and it was collected by a Calvinist nobleman, Baron John ab Eckersdorff, who eventually became a faithful Catholic. As a former Presbyterian minister, I think this is simply wonderful.

Why do you think Gaelic spirituality continues to interest people?

As Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien noted, the decline of Christianity in the West has been accompanied by a revival of paganism. Neo-pagans, mystics, Gnostics and New-Agers of our time are much more open to the belief in the supernatural that the West lost through the Enlightenment. The Celtic and Gaelic tradition is laced with spiritual and supernatural images and mythology, which attract people. It speaks to the spirit that modern man no longer believed in 200 years ago. Celtic and Gaelic spirituality engages the soul deep within with the interaction of sun, moon, stars, seasons, angels, demons, saints and the Holy Trinity. In my opinion, our post-Christian era is ripe for evangelism because neo-pagans are already open to spiritual realities. In the words of St. Anselm in the Proslogion, “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam.” (“I do not try to understand so that I can believe, but rather I believe so that I can understand”).

The St. John Ogilvie Prayer Book is published by Cruachan Hill Press (Paperback, 355 pages, $26.00).

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