At the community Mass this morning I again felt an overpowering desire to become a saint. It came suddenly, filling my soul with consolation. Surely God has an object in inspiring me so often with this desire, and has great graces for me if I will only cooperate with Him.
Reflecting on this inspiration afterwards, I saw more clearly that the chief thing God wants from me at present is an extraordinary and exquisite perfection in every little thing I do, even the odd Hail Marys of the day; that each day there must be some improvement in the fervour, the purity of intention, the exactness with which I do things, that in this will chiefly lie my sanctification as it sanctified St. John Berchmans. I see here a vast field for work and an endless service of mortification. To keep faithfully to this resolve will require heroism, so that day after day I may not flag in the fervour of my service of the good God.
I feel drawn still more to the life of “interior union.” To acquire this I must practise the following:
1 . Constant and profound recollection.
2. To keep my thoughts always, if possible, centred on Jesus in my heart.
3. To avoid worry or anxiety about future things.
4. To avoid useless conversation.
5. Great guard over my eyes, not reading or looking at useless things.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s programme for acquiring interior union seems radically counter-cultural to us today. How few of us live with recollection, keeping Jesus always in our hearts. How few of us avoid unnecessary worries about the future – numerous counseling and pharmaceutical businesses have thrived by helping modern man to cope with his incessant stress. How often we engage in useless conversations, or look greedily at all the sights around us, absorbed with curiosity, or worse…
Yet, despite the fact that Fr Doyle’s resolutions might seem harsh to us at first glance, they are in reality a recipe for interior peace and freedom. This is the lesson of the saints, and as anyone who knows anything about the saints will confirm, there is no such thing as a sad saint. Counter-intuitively, by going against ourselves, we acquire an interior liberty of spirit that no amount of “things” or experiences can ever give us.
As you know I am very anxious to see these retreats started in Ireland, for I believe they would do a world of good and be the means of checking the dreadful irreligious spirit which is beginning to creep in even here in holy Ireland, especially among our uneducated men. … I am very grateful to you all for your good prayers; you must ask St. Joseph to find a suitable house now, for I feel if a start were once made all would be well…
For some time back I have been studying the question of retreats for workmen. But last year when I saw in Belgium the wonderful good brought about by them and had an opportunity of seeing some of the houses where these retreats are given, I made up my mind to try to do something here in Ireland.
COMMENT: The two paragraphs below are excerpts from 2 different letters Fr Doyle wrote to his sister in June and July 1909. They concern his great passion for establishing retreats for workingmen. Fr Doyle was an innovative apostle, and was in many ways a pioneer in the Church. Not only did he recognise the universal call to holiness and thus the need for lay people to have the opportunity of making a residential retreat, he was specifically concerned that workingmen should have this opportunity. Fr Doyle was greatly concerned about the spiritual and temporal welfare of workers, and he was concerned about the impact of radical atheistic and materialistic philosophies on workers. He wouldn’t live long enough to see the misery these philosophies unleashed on the world – he died two months before the October revolution in Russia which would enslave so much of Europe and imperil the world for another 7 decades. But it was precisely the battle against the atheistic Left that was on his mind; in another letter to his sister on this topic in the autumn of 1909 he had this to say:
You may perhaps think I exaggerate when I say that if once these retreats are established they will do an amount of good which will surpass all expectations. It would seem to be the divinely appointed new remedy for a new evil, the falling away of the working classes from all religion and the spread of Socialism.
Fr Doyle worked hard to establish a retreat house – he travelled across Europe to learn how they had been established in other countries and he published a booklet entitled “Retreats for Workingmen: Why not in Ireland?” He managed to find donors but he still faced numerous hurdles. On one occasion a house that was perfect in every way was found and he was appointed director of the first retreat house for workers in Ireland. But alas, the house was burned down by suffragettes, and it was back to the drawing board.
Fr Doyle never truly gave up on the idea, despite the setbacks. At the end of 1914, 5 years after writing his pamphlet and a few months before he left for the war, he wrote the following in his diary:
I felt urged to promise our Blessed Lady to try and give up meat on Saturdays in her honour, if she in return will bring about the starting of the Workingmen’s Retreats this summer.
One of Fr Doyle’s inspirations in all of this was his friend and fellow seminarian, the English Jesuit Fr Charles Plater who established similar retreats in England. This is what Fr Plater had to say about Fr Doyle’s deedication to these retreats:
After he left Stonyhurst, and again still later when we were both priests, we corresponded much on the subject of workers’ retreats. His quick imagination pictured the immense good which might be effected by their introduction into Ireland. With his whole soul he threw himself into the work of promoting them. His letters are just himself — ardent, enthusiastic, full of piety and love of country. He would, I am convinced, gladly have given his life to see the retreats established in Ireland. He was acutely distressed because others could not see what he saw so plainly. He found it hard to be patient with those who urged expense as an insuperable obstacle, for he knew that once a start was made the money would come. The Island of Saints would not allow a School for Saints to suffer through lack of funds. “Why not in Ireland?” was the sub-title of his excellent pamphlet on Retreats for Workers, and his challenging question was really unanswerable.
There is only one possible memorial to Fr. William Doyle, and that is a house of retreats for workers in Ireland, That he would have asked for; indeed, we may be sure that he does ask for it. Those to whom his life of smiles and tears and his glorious death have been an inspiration will surely help him to get it.
Such a house was eventually opened in Rathfarnham in 1921, less than four years after Fr Doyle’s death.
It is appropriate to reflect on this passion of Fr Doyle’s life today, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. This feast was instituted by Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1955 in an effort to emphasise the importance of work and to counteract the communist propaganda associated with May Day. This specific threat may have receded somewhat in recent years, but the very same atheistic philosophies still threaten religious faith in a variety of different ways.
St Joseph is an excellent patron for all of us who work. He can teach us to do our work well, not just counting down the hours of the working day, but instead turning our work into a fitting sacrifice to give glory to God.
We shall conclude today with the prayer of Pope St Pius X to St Joseph the Worker:
O Glorious St Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labour, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honour to employ and to develop by labor the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully, and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty to work above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, food not done, and vain complacency in success, so baneful to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate thee, O Patriarch St Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen
I said my rosary with arms extended. At the third mystery the pain was so great that I felt I could not possibly continue; but at each Ave (Hail Mary) I prayed for strength and was able to finish it. This has given me great consolation by showing the many hard things I could do with the help of prayer.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle was greatly devoted to the rosary. It is interesting to read accounts of how the rosary consoled worried soldiers who were facing probable death. He regularly arranged the public recitation of the rosary for the troops, and I have read private accounts of how he would personally say the rosary with soldiers suffering from particularly severe fear, sometimes giving them his own rosary beads as a gift. I have received emails from families who have treasured the rosaries that were given by Fr Doyle to their ancestors who fought in World War 1.
Here is a particularly touching account of a scene he witnessed just a few weeks before his death in the summer of 1917:
There were many little touching incidents during these days; one especially I shall not easily forget. When the men had left the field after the evening devotions, I noticed a group of three young boys, brothers I think, still kneeling saying another rosary. They knew it was probably their last meeting on earth and they seemed to cling to one another for mutual comfort and strength, and instinctively turned to the Blessed Mother to help them in their hour of need. There they knelt as if they were alone and unobserved, their hands clasped and faces turned towards heaven, with such a look of beseeching earnestness that the Mother of Mercy surely must have heard their prayer: ‘Holy Mary pray for us now — at the hour of our death. Amen.’
Today is the feast of Pope St Pius V. He was a zealous Dominican friar and reformer at a tough time in the life of the Church. He was the Pope who encouraged the formation of the “Holy League” to defend Europe from the Ottoman Empire – this resulted in the Battle of Lepanto in which the forces of Christendom were successful. It was a major turning point in European history.
St Pius V is known as the Pope of the Rosary because he encouraged Catholics to pray the rosary for the success of the Holy League. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary now falls on October 7, the date of the Battle of Lepanto, and it was originally instituted by St Pius V as the feast of Our Lady of Victories.
St Pius V lived at a very difficult time in the life of the Church, and had to make many difficult decisions. Let us pray to him today for Pope Francis who faces his own challenges at this difficult time. Let us also remember the importance of the rosary in our own lives as we prepare to commence the month of May, traditionally dedicated to Mary.
What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes?
Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Catherine of Siena. Catherine is one of the greatest saints in the Church – she was a phenomenon in her own time and is a Doctor of the Church and one of the patron saints of Europe. She is also surely one of the great women of history.
St Catherine crammed so much into her short life. She was a tireless worker for the poor, an advisor to popes, a diplomat and peacemaker and a profound mystic. Her impact on those she met on her travels was such that the Dominicans had to appoint priests to accompany her in order to hear the numerous Confessions on the part of those who converted upon meeting her. The Church was in a state of crisis in Catherine’s day, and it could be said that Catherine saved the Church from many of the dangers it faced. And she did all of this as a young, uneducated, sick laywoman who died at 33 years of age. When crises threaten the Church, God empowers saints who are equal to the task of the reform needed, and He does so with such humanly weak instruments that we are left with no doubt that it is God at work.
There are two points that we might usefully ponder today. The first relates to Fr Doyle’s quote above. Holiness involves faithfulness to duty and is not dependent on great penances or indeed on mystical phenomena or the great achievements we find in the lives of some saints like Catherine. In fact, St Catherine teaches us a wonderful way of performing our duties well. She was somewhat mistreated by her parents as a teenager – she wanted to live in solitude and prayer but her parents would not allow this. She was forced to work in the house and serve them, even though she didn’t want to do so. In order to overcome her dislike of this task, when serving them at table she would imagine that her father was Jesus, that her mother was Mary and that her brothers were the Apostles. This helped to inspire in her the charity that she did not naturally feel at that time.
The second relates to Catherine’s great love of the Pope. She defended the papacy against anti-popes, and she worked to ensure that the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon. Let us therefore support and pray for Pope Francis today.
We shall conclude today with some quotes from Catherine on diverse subjects.
On finding God in the midst of a busy life:
Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.
Faithfulness to duty:
Let all do the work which God has given them, and not bury their talent, for that is also a sin deserving severe punishment. It is necessary to work always and everywhere for all God’s creatures.
To Pope Gregory XI, who was weak and indecisive:
You can do what he (Pope Gregory the Great) did, for he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as he was. The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbour, and courage.
To a cardinal, on the need for courage:
A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. How dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see not understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a man loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason for this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance or being and vanish like the wind.
To her spiritual director Blessed Raymond of Capua, on courage:
(I long) to see you grow out of your childhood and become a grown man…For an infant who lives on milk is not able to fight on the battlefield; he only wants to play with other children. So a man who is wrapped in love for himself only wishes to taste the milk of spiritual and temporal consolation; like a child he wants to be with others of its kind. But when he becomes a grown man he leaves behind this sensitive self love…He has become strong, he is firm, serious and thoughtful, he hastens to the battlefield and his only wish is to fight for the truth.
To those who think the Church’s day has come to an end:
If you reply that it looks as though the Church must surrender, for it is impossible for it to save itself and its children, I say to you that it is not so. The outward appearance deceives, but look at the inward, and you will find that it possesses a power that its enemies can never possess.
To us all:
If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.
We continue today with an excerpt from the original letter detailing some of the work Fr Doyle had to undertake towards the end of April, 1916. After these stressful days were ended, Fr Doyle was given a few days rest, and he was able to remove and change his clothes for the first time in over two weeks! Such was his exhaustion from serving the soldiers that he slept for 13 hours straight on his first night of rest!
On paper every man with a helmet was as safe as I was from gas poisoning. But now it is evident many of the men despised the ‘old German gas,’ some did not bother putting on their helmets, others had torn theirs, and others like myself had thrown them aside or lost them. From early morning till late at night I worked my way from trench to trench single handed the first day, with three regiments to look after, and could get no help. Many men died before I could reach them; others seemed just to live till I anointed them, and were gone before I passed back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony: the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe; while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.
I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leant down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.
Fr Doyle sent the letter below to his father one year after the gas attack of April 1916 (see yesterday’s post). In this letter, he reveals more details of what had happened on April 26-28 1916. It seems to have been an even closer scrape with death than he had let on in the original letter, and he seems to have held off telling his father about it in case it caused undue worry for him.
I have never told you the whole story of that memorable April morning or the repetition of it the following day, or how when I was lying on the stretcher going to ‘peg out,’ as the doctor believed, God gave me back my strength and energy in a way which was nothing short of a miracle, to help many a poor fellow to die in peace and perhaps to open the gates of heaven to not a few.
I had come through the three attacks without ill results, though having been unexpectedly caught by the last one, as I was anointing a dying man and did not see the poisonous fumes coming, I had swallowed some of the gas before I could get my helmet on. It was nothing very serious, but left me rather weak and washy. There was little time to think of that, for wounded and dying were lying all along the trenches, and I was the only priest on that section at the time.
The fumes had quite blown away, but a good deal of the gas, being of a heavy nature, had sunk down to the bottom of the trench and gathered under the duck-boards or wooden flooring. It was impossible to do one’s work with the gas helmet on, and so as I knelt down to absolve or anoint man after man for the greater part of that day, I had to inhale the chlorine fumes till I had nearly enough gas in my poor inside to inflate a German sausage balloon.
I did not then know that when a man is gassed his only chance (and a poor one at that) is to lie perfectly still to give the heart a chance of fighting its foe. In happy ignorance of my real state, I covered mile after mile of those trenches until at last in the evening, when the work was done, I was able to rejoin my battalion in a village close to the Line.
It was only then I began to realise that I felt ‘rotten bad’ as schoolboys say. I remember the doctor, who was a great friend of mine, feeling my pulse and shaking his head as he put me lying in a corner of the shattered house, and then he sat beside me for hours with a kindness I can never forget. He told me afterwards he was sure I was a ‘gone coon’ but at the moment I did not care much. Then I fell asleep only to be rudely awakened at four next morning by the crash of guns and the dreaded bugle call ‘gas alarm, gas alarm.’ The Germans had launched a second attack, fiercer than the first. It did not take long to make up my mind what to do — who would hesitate at such a moment, when the Reaper Death was busy? — and before I reached the trenches I had anointed a number of poor fellows who had struggled back after being gassed and had fallen dying by the roadside.’
The harvest that day was a big one, for there had been bloody fighting all along the Front. Many a man died happy in the thought that the priest’s hand had been raised in absolution over his head and the Holy Oils’ anointing had given pardon to those senses which he had used to offend the Almighty. It was a long, hard day, a day of heart rending sights, with the consolation of good work done in spite of the deadly fumes, and I reached my billet wet and muddy, pretty nearly worn out, but perfectly well, with not the slightest ill effect from what I had gone through, nor have I felt any since. Surely God has been good to me. That was not the first of His many favours, nor has it been the last.