Fr Browne’s War

RTE has just aired an excellent documentary about the heroic Fr Frank Browne SJ. Fr Browne spent several months with Fr Doyle, and the two of them had great esteem for each other. 

You can read about Fr Browne’s military service here.

And Fr Doyle’s relationship with Fr Browne here.

The programme can be viewed at this site (it will be available for a few weeks). The entire programme is worth watching; Fr Doyle features on and off from 29 minutes 30 seconds until 35 minutes 20 seconds. 

RTE also showed this photograph of Fr Doyle standing right beside the Servant of God Fr John Sullivan (as far as I can make out it is Fr Sullivan). Fr Doyle looks quite young, and it may well have been taken around the time when the two men were ordained together in July 1907.

Fr Doyle and Sullivan 

Fr Browne and Fr Doyle held each other in mutual esteem

RTE television in Ireland is airing an important documentary this evening about Fr Frank Browne SJ.

This documentary is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it provides a more complete picture of Fr Browne’s life. He is of course justifiably well known for his photography. However, there was a lot more to Fr Browne than this, and tonight’s documentary will allow many people to learn of Fr Browne’s courage and love for others. 

Secondly, a documentary about Fr Browne’s war service will show us what a Christian is meant to be like. We are meant to love others and serve others, even when it is not pleasant to do so. In a context in which priests are sometimes held in low esteem because of the crimes of some, it is important to redress the balance by showing genuine, good examples of heroic love and service. It is amazing that men like Fr Fr Doyle, Fr Browne, as well as other priests, many of them Jesuits, volunteered to help the poor soldiers in this war. These priests deserve to be remembered for their generous service to others.

With this in mind, it might be opportune to highlight the high degree of respect that existed between Fr Doyle and Fr Browne, who worked together for several months in 1917.

 Fr Browne and Fr Doyle used to relieve each other at the front line while they were both with the 48th Infantry Brigade, and would hear each other’s confessions whenever they swapped over. Here is Fr Browne’s description of this arrangement:

During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days. I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away. He knew how I hated it — and I did not hate it half as much as he did. We used generally to confess each other before leaving. We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.

However, Fr Browne was appointed chaplain to the Irish Guards on August 2 1917, but due to a mix up his replacement never showed up. This meant that Fr Doyle had double the work with no rest and was the only chaplain to 4 Battalions from August 2 to his death on August 16, and that during some of the worst days of battle. Fr Doyle commented on this loss of Fr Browne’s company in these terms:

The Battalion went out to-day for three days’ rest, but I remained behind. Fr. Browne has gone back to the Irish Guards. He is a tremendous loss, not only to myself personally, but to the whole Brigade where he did magnificent work and made a host of friends. And so I was left alone.

Here is some of Fr Browne’s testimony about Fr Doyle, written on August 15 1917, just a day before Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: — ‘Little Fr. Doyle’ — they all call him that, more in affection than anything else — ‘deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery’. Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again.’

I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.

Fr Browne was also there for Fr Doyle’s last homily – Fr Browne said Mass and Fr Doyle preached at the Mass in late July 1917 in front of 2,500 Irish soldiers in the church at St. Omer in France. Here is Fr Browne’s account of Fr Doyle’s homily:

From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O’Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

When Fr Browne heard of Fr Doyle’s death, he wrote the following in a letter on August 20: 

All during these last months he was my greatest help, and to his saintly advice, and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything I felt and did. With him, as with others of us, his bravery was no mere physical show-off. He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise. And yet the last word said of him to me by the Adjutant of the Royal Irish Rifles in answer to my question, ‘I hope you are taking care of Fr. Doyle?’, was, ‘He is as fond of the shells as ever.’ His one idea was to do God’s work with the men, to make them saints. How he worked and how he prayed for this! Fine weather and foul he was always thinking of them and what he could do for them. In the cold winter he would not use the stove I bought for our dug-out. He scoffed at the idea as making it ‘stuffy’ – and that when the thermometer was fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, the coldest ever known in living memory here.

And how he loathed it all, the life and everything it implied! And yet nobody suspected it. God’s Will was his law. And to all who remonstrated, ‘Must I not be about the Lord’s business?’ was his laughing answer in act and deed and not merely in word. May he rest in peace — it seems superfluous to pray for him.

I am told by some Jesuits (but have no documentary evidence of this), that Fr Browne retained his high esteem for Fr Doyle right to the end of his days, often telling stories about him. 

Heroic individuals like Fr Browne, Fr Doyle, and so many others, deserve our respect. 

 

Guest post: Fr Doyle and Fr Frank Browne

In advance of this evening’s programme on Irish television about Fr Frank Browne’s heroic service in the First World War, I have invited Carole Hope to contribute a guest post on Fr Doyle and Fr Browne’s relationship. Carole is a military historian who has written a new biography of Fr Doyle entitled Worshipper and Worshipped. This excellent book is the definitive guide to Fr Doyle’s military career, and can be bought here

Worshipper and Worshipped

Here is Carole’s post:

Fr Frank Browne was a Jesuit priest who served as a military chaplain during World War One and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar (i.e. second MC).  He was a colleague and friend of Fr Willie Doyle for nearly eight months between December 1916 and August 1917, when they both had spiritual charge of battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Fr Frank Browne is well known for his Titanic connection and unique collection of photographs he took before disembarking at Cobh.  The documentary tonight seeks to redress the balance between the fame of a few days compared to three years during which time he also photographed his surroundings on the Western Front.  The name Fr Frank Browne is fairly well known within the WW1 interest community, but invariably it is associated with his service with the Irish Guards.  His service with Royal Dublin Fusiliers, alongside Fr Doyle, is often overlooked, yet he was awarded his first Military Cross for actions with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Whilst researching my book, Worshipper and Worshipped, about Fr Willie Doyle, I looked at the War Office files for both priests held at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London.  Fr Frank Browne signed a contract for duty as temporary Chaplain to the Forces on 17th February 1916 and was appointed for duty with the Irish Guards.  Seven months later, in September, he was struck in the lower face by a piece of shell casing, which was surgically removed but he endured post-operative problems of an abscess, difficulties in opening his mouth and could only take soft foodstuffs.  His personal file notes that the wound was very severe.  His period of convalescence lasted until the middle of December 1916, when he reported for further duty and embarked at Folkestone on 19th, finding himself attached to Fr Willie Doyle’s 48th Infantry Brigade in the Messines area of Belgium south of Ypres.

Like any large organisation an army is made up of many components, of which an Infantry Brigade is one and likewise an Infantry Brigade consisted (at that time) of four smaller units i.e. battalions.  Fr Doyle already had spiritual charge of two of the battalions of 48th Infantry Brigade, whilst Fr Browne arrived to take charge of the other two.  Fr Browne’s first meeting with Fr Doyle was in a trench dug-out, when he came up with his battalions, 2nd and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who were relieving Fr Doyle’s 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 7th Royal Irish Rifles. 

The four battalions were rotated between front line trenches facing No-Man’s-Land, support trenches further back and then for periods of rest and training back further still away from the guns, where the men lived in hutted encampments and the chaplains had billets in the convent at Locre.  Fr Browne and Fr Doyle and their flock also spent two periods of time in the peaceful region of Pas de Calais, for specialist training manoeuvres, and it is during the second period that they conducted a special service for some 2,000 Royal Dublin Fusiliers in St Omer Cathedral on 15th July 1917.  This in itself is indicative of the closeness and effectiveness of their working relationship.

Between 23rd December 1916 and early August 1917 Fr Browne and Fr Doyle formed a close friendship as well as working relationship, which is clearly evident from personal letters written by both priests.  The Remembering Fr Doyle Blog has quoted from them many times, but the following quote from Fr Browne bears repeating and sums up both their personal relationship and their dedication to duty:

“During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days.  I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away.  He knew how I hated it – and I did not hate it half as much as he did.  We used generally to confess to each other before leaving.  We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.”

Fr Browne was transferred back to the Irish Guards early in August 1917, just prior to the start of another offensive during the Battle of Third Ypres.  The Irish Guards were going out of the line, having been part of the first attack of 31st July, whilst the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were to attack on 16th August.  There was no one to replace Fr Browne and he was so concerned about the foul conditions in which the Royal Dublin Fusiliers had to work in, and the fact that Fr Doyle had to cover all four battalions, that he managed to get back to Ypres to visit on 15th August 1917.  He shared the vast outpouring of grief at the news of Fr Doyle’s death on 16th August, which is recorded in several of his letters.

Fr Browne saw out the war with the Irish Guards, being wounded at least one more time, as well as being awarded another Military Cross.  I doubt if he forged a closer relationship with any other colleague than Fr Doyle.

Thoughts for July 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

"When one has put in a long day of hard work...the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant".

“When one has put in a long day of hard work…the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant”.

From the last letter of Fr Doyle to his father describing the events of July 30, 1917, 97 years ago today:

For the past week we have been moving steadily up to the Front once more to face the hardships and horrors of another big push, which report says is to be the biggest effort since the War began. The blood-stained Ypres battle field is to be the centre of the fight, with our left wing running down to the Belgian coast from which it is hoped to drive the enemy and, perhaps, force him by a turning movement to fall back very far.

The preparations are on a colossal scale, the mass of men and guns enormous. Success is certain our Generals tell us, but I cannot help wondering what are the plans of the Great Leader, and what the result will be when He has issued His orders. This much is certain: the fight will be a desperate one, for our foe is not only brave, but clever and cunning, as we have learned to our cost.

Mass in the open this morning under a drizzling rain was a trying if edifying experience. Colonel, officers and men knelt on the wet grass with the water trickling off them, while a happy if somewhat damp chaplain moved from rank to rank giving every man Holy Communion. Poor fellows: with all their faults God must love them dearly for their simple faith and love of their religion, and for the confident way in which they turn to Him for help in the hour of trial.

One of my converts, received into the Church last night, made his First Holy Communion this morning under circumstances he will not easily forget. I see in the paper that 13,000 soldiers and officers have become Catholics since the War began, but I should say this number is much below the mark. Ireland’s missionaries, the light-hearted lads who shoulder a rifle and swing along the muddy roads, have taught many a man more religion, by their silent example, than he ever dreamed of before.

Many a time one’s heart grows sick to think how few will ever see home and country again, for their pluck and daring have marked them down for the positions which only the Celtic dash can take: a post of honour, no doubt, but it means slaughter as well.

We moved off at 10 p.m., a welcome hour in one way, as it means marching in the cool of the night instead of sweating under a blazing sun. Still when one has put in a long day of hard work, and legs and body are pretty well tired out already, the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant.

Perhaps we can all learn today from the ability of the Irish soldiers to be missionaries just by their example. In a world that thinks it knows it all and no longer wants to listen to the Church, it is our example of cheerfulness and charity that will win souls. It was true of the early Christians and it remains true for us today.

Thoughts for July 29 from Fr Willie Doyle

On August 12 1917 Fr Doyle sent his last letter home to his father. It was a long account of his involvement in the early stages of the Battle of Passchendaele. 5 days later he was hit by a German shell while rescuing a wounded soldier and was killed instantly.

His account of the battle commences on July 30 and we shall follow his account in his own words each day until the 12th (except of course for those few days on which he didn’t write).

But before we relive his experiences, it might be worthwhile to reproduce a short “parable” which he wrote out for his father in this very same letter. It is noteworthy that he took the time to write this long letter, and the time to retell this parable, with such cheerfulness and good humour in the midst of the hardship and work he had to endure. He could have taken his rest. He could have looked after himself. His father would surely understand if he wasn’t able to write long letters home. But no, he was still concerned for his father all those miles away at home. This simple act in itself is indicative of his virtue.

In Fr Doyle’s own words:

Help comes to one in strange ways, and the remembrance of a quaint old story has lightened for me the weight of a heavy pair of boots over many a mile of muddy road. The story may interest you:

In the good old days of yore a holy hermit built him a cell in a spot a few miles from the well, so that he might have a little act of penance to offer to Almighty God each day by tramping across the hot sand and back again with his pitcher. All went gaily for a while, and if the holy man did lose many a drop of honest sweat he knew he was piling up sacks of treasure in Heaven, and his heart was light. But oh ! – that little but which spoils so many things – but though the spirit was willing, the sun was very warm, the sand most provokingly hot, the pitcher the devil and all of a weight, and the road seemingly longer each day. It is a bit too much of a good joke, thought the man of God, to tramp these miles day in and day out, with my old bones, clanking like a traction engine. Why not move the cell to the edge of the water, save time (and much bad language probably) and have cool water in abundance, and a dry hair shirt on my back?

Away home he faced for the last time with his brimming water jar, kicking the sand about in sheer delight, for the morrow would see him on the trek, and an end to his weary trudging, when suddenly he heard a voice, an angel’s voice he knew it to be, counting slowly One, two, three, four. The hermit stopped in wonder and so did the voice, but at the next steps he took the counting began again, Five, six, seven. Falling on his knees the old man prayed that he might know the meaning of this wonder. ‘I am the angel of God, came the answer, counting up each step which long ago you offered up to my Lord and Master, so that not a single one may lose its reward. Don’t be so foolish as to throw away the immense merit you are gaining, by moving your cell to the water’s edge, for know that in the eyes of the heavenly court nothing is small which is done or borne for the love of God.’

That very night down came the hermit’s hut, and before morning broke he had built it again five miles further from the well. For all I know he is merrily tramping still back wards and forwards across the burning sand, very hot and tired no doubt, but happy in the thought that the recording angel is busy counting each step.

I do not think I need point the moral. But I hope and pray that my own good angel is strong at arithmetic, and won’t get mixed when he starts his long tot.

Alfred O’Rahilly comments on the story in the following fashion:

To understand this little parable is to understand much of Fr. Doyle’s life, his desire to emulate his angel guardian’s arithmetic as well as his inveterate habit of adding to, instead of subtracting from, the hard things of life.

28 July: The anniversary of Fr Doyle’s ordination

28 July 1907, Miltown Park, Dublin. Fr Doyle is marked with an X.

28 July 1907, Miltown Park, Dublin. Fr Doyle is marked with an X.

My loving Jesus, on this the morning of my Ordination to the priesthood, I wish to place in Your Sacred Heart, in gratitude for all that You have done for me, the resolution from this day forward to go straight to holiness. My earnest wish and firm resolve is to strive with might and main to become a saint.

COMMENT: These words were written 107 years ago today, on July 28, 1907, on the morning of Fr Doyle’s ordination to the priesthood in Miltown Park, County Dublin.

Fr Doyle loved being a priest. He gives us some hint of his esteem for the priesthood in letters that he wrote to his sister.

This one was sent to his sister a few weeks before the event:

As you may imagine, all my thoughts at present are centred on the Great Day, July 28th. The various events of the year have helped keep it before my mind, learning to say Mass, the Divine Office etc; but now that such a short time remains, I find it hard to realise that I shall be a priest so very soon. Were it not for all the good prayers, especially yours, sister mine, which are being offered up daily for me, I should almost feel in despair, because these long years of waiting (nearly 17 now) have only brought home to me how unworthy I am of such an honour and such a dignity.

On the day of his ordination he wrote the following lines to this same sister:

I know that you will be glad to receive a few lines from the hands which a few hours ago have been consecrated with the holy oil. Thank God a thousand thousand times, I can say at long last, I am a priest, even though I be so unworthy of all that holy name implies. How can I tell you all that my heart feels at this moment? It is full to overflowing with joy and peace and gratitude to the good God for all that He has done for me, and with heartfelt thankfulness to the dear old Missionary for all her prayers. . . . I say my first Mass to-morrow at nine at Hampton for the dear Parents, the second (also at nine) at Terenure will be for you. . . . Thank you for all you have done for me; but above all thank the dear Sacred Heart for this crowning grace imparted to your little brother who loves you so dearly.

Fr Doyle’s last ever entry in his diary was made on the 10th anniversary of his ordination (and 3 weeks prior to his death) on 28 July 1917:

I have again offered myself to Jesus as His Victim to do with me absolutely as He pleases. I will try to take all that happens, no matter from whom it comes, as sent to me by Jesus and will bear suffering, heat, cold, etc., with joy as part of my immolation, in reparation for the sins of priests. From this day I shall try bravely to bear all little pains in this spirit. A strong urging to this.

For Fr Doyle, his vocation was inseparable from his call to do penance for the sins of priests. How increasingly relevant Fr Doyle’s example is for us now in Ireland…

Fr Doyle was not the only remarkable Irish Jesuit ordained on July 28, 1907. His friend, the Servant of God Fr John Sullivan was also ordained at the same time. Fr Sullivan’s cause for beatification is proceeding and is currently with the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

Fr John Sullivan SJ

Fr John Sullivan SJ

World War 1 anniversary programming on Irish television

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, there are many television and radio programmes scheduled to commemorate the event.

A full list of relevant programmes on Irish television and radio can be found here:  http://www.rte.ie/worldwar1/schedule/

Two programmes in particular look very relevant for Fr Doyle. On Monday July 28th there is a documentary about the 4 Irish regiments that took part in the war. And on Wednesday July 30th there is a documentary about the famous Jesuit military chaplain Fr Frank Browne. Fr Browne and Fr Doyle were close companions, and Fr Browne was a great admirer of Fr Doyle’s. Both programmes air at 19.00 on RTE 1. Fr Doyle should really be mentioned in one or other of the programmes. I suspect that they will also be available online afterwards, and I will post links to allow international visitors to watch the programmes on the internet.

Thoughts for July 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

Blessed Titus Brandsma

Blessed Titus Brandsma

I assure you that you have my entire sympathy as well as my prayers in the trial you are going through. There are few things more painful than to long to know the Will of God and not be able to see it, though it may be quite clear to others. From all that has passed between us I have no doubt that you have a religious vocation. Look at it in this way. Our Lord makes known His willingness to receive anyone into religion by giving them the necessary qualifications and the wish to do this work there. If I have these qualifications – “aptitude,” it is called – and this wish, all I need is the will to take the step. What you have to do is to pray for strength to be brave. Then go ahead, trust in the Sacred Heart, and you will never regret it.

COMMENT: If there is anybody reading this who is contemplating a religious vocation I recommend reading the section of the site on Fr Doyle’s writings where there are two excellent pamphlets on the subject.

As for the rest of us, his point for today remains relevant. There are always extra steps that God is asking of us. Perhaps they are not as dramatic as entering a convent or becoming a priest. Perhaps it will mean getting involved in a charity or engaging in political campaigning for just causes. Maybe it will even involve joining one of the many movements within the Church that can help deepen our commitment to Christ. The lesson remains that we need the will, and the grace, to follow that path. If we follow God’s will, no matter what it is, with complete commitment and trust, then it is true that we will not regret it.

Today is also the feast of Blessed Titus Brandsma, a great Carmelite martyr of the Second World War. Blessed Titus remained faithful to his vocation to the end, opposing the Nazis even if it meant imprisonment and death. It was this faithfulness to his Carmelite vocation that encouraged him to live an ordered life of prayer and activity in the concentration camp at Dachau, spreading cheerfulness and encouragement to others in their sufferings. In many ways his ability to bring joy and to serve others in the midst of his own misery resembles the activities of Fr Doyle in the trenches.

Blessed Titus was eventually killed as a result of Nazi medical experiments in July 1942. A short biography can be found here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/TITUSLIF.HTM

Fr Doyle mentioned on BBC Radio 4

Fr Sean Coyle, a long time reader of this site (and blogger at www.bangortobobbio.blogspot.com) has sent a message to inform us that Fr Doyle was mentioned by Bishop Richard Moth, the Bishop of the British Forces, in a recent piece on BBC Radio 4.

The programme is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b049xhfd. The clip featuring Bishop Moth runs from 08:15 to 13:00 and the mention of Fr Doyle is at 11:46. 

I am always happy to learn of other mentions of Fr Doyle in the media, so if readers ever encounter any references to Fr Doyle, I would be grateful to know about them

Thoughts for July 26 from Fr Willie Doyle

During a visit our Lord seemed to urge me not to wait till the end of the war, but to begin my life of reparation at once, in some things at least. I have begun to keep a book of acts done with this intention. He asked me for these sacrifices, (1) To rise at night in reparation for priests who lie in bed instead of saying Mass. (2) At all costs to make the 50,000 aspirations. (3) To give up illustrated papers. (4) To kiss floor of churches (5) Breviary always kneeling. (6) Mass with intense devotion. The Blessed Cure d’ Ars used to kneel without support while saying the Office. Could not I?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle noted these resolutions in his diary on July 26, 1916, 98 years ago today.

As is often the case, Fr Doyle’s resolutions probably seem rather daunting to us. This is a reflection of the difference between his religious culture a century ago and our religious culture today. It is also a reflection of the fact that he had already progressed very far in the spiritual life. Just as professional athletes amaze us with their physical prowess, so too the saints – and those renowned for their sanctity – also amaze us with their generosity and detachment.

There are perhaps two closely related points to take from Fr Doyle’s resolutions from 98 years ago, and thankfully they don’t necessarily mean having to kiss floors or interrupting our sleep at night!

The first point is that Fr Doyle was generous with God. He made specific, challenging resolutions. We do not have to match Fr Doyle’s resolutions – for most of us that would be imprudent and impossible. But we still need to be generous with God in whatever He asks. God will not ask us for more than we are capable of giving, and He is never outdone in His generosity. What is generous for one would not be for another; God meets us where we are at (but He does wish us to stay there, but rather to grow from that point). He has given us everything we have, and He will give us even more in response to our own generosity to Him.

The second point is that we should look for sanctity now. Fr Doyle felt he was not to wait for the end of the war, but to make extra reparation in the present moment, even though the circumstances were not ideal. The reality is that the circumstances are never really ideal! We are called to seek God today, in the midst of its specific challenges and problems. Few of us are facing the adverse conditions that Fr Doyle faced 98 years ago. It did not stop him from following God, and serving others, with generosity.

St John Vianney - the Cure of Ars

St John Vianney – the Cure of Ars

Thoughts for the Feast of St James (July 25) from Fr Willie Doyle

St James

St James

You ask how to pray well. The answer is, Pray often, in season and out of season, against yourself, in spite of yourself. There is no other way. What a man of prayer St. James, the Apostle must have been since his knees became like those of a camel! When shall we religious realize the power for good that prayer, constant, unflagging prayer, puts into our hands Did it ever strike you that when our Lord pointed out the ”fields white for the harvest”, He did not urge His Apostle to go and reap it, but to pray?

COMMENT: One thing really jumps out from Fr Doyle’s comment today – “there is no other way” for us than to pray. This doesn’t mean that we don’t work, or use our human talents, but that there is no other way for us to be successful in using these gifts than to pray and beg for God’s grace.

The reference Fr Doyle makes to St James is of note as today is his feast day, and it is an especially important day in Spain, so greetings to the Spanish visitors to the site.

St James’ knees are reputed to have become as hard as camel’s from his many hours of kneeling in prayer. Whether they did in fact become calloused in this way is of course not hugely important, what matters is the example of this great Apostle in relying on God’s grace in prayer for his work.

Today also marks the date of Fr Doyle’s second last letter home from the Front before his death just a few weeks later. In this letter he tells his father:

We shall have desperate fighting soon but I have not the least fear, on the contrary a great joy in the thought that I shall be able to make a real offering of my life to God, even if He does not think that poor life worth taking.

Over the coming couple of weeks, as we approach the date on which God accepted the offering of Fr Doyle’s life, we will recount details of that “desperate fighting” and remember Fr Doyle’s steadfastness and dedication to duty under fire.

Thoughts for July 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

Do not give up prayer on any account, no matter how dry or rotten you feel; every moment, especially before Him in the Tabernacle, is a certain, positive gain; the effect will be there though you may not feel it.

COMMENT: We live in a very sentimental world. So much of the modern psyche is driven by feelings and by emotion. It is so pervasive that we can end up using feelings as the yardstick of our actions, and this can be a hard habit to break. This is especially true in prayer.

God often provides consolations to beginners in the spiritual life precisely in order to reward and attract them to the life of the spirit. But sooner or later they will be taken away, either because of our own unfaithfulness and lack of attention, or because God wants to see if we really love Him, or if we are mere mercenaries who desire feelings in their own right.

There can always be a temptation to abandon acts of piety in the face of this dryness and lack of feeling. This, of course, is precisely the wrong thing to do. Often it is precisely when we are dry and when we find prayer distasteful that we can gain most from it.

Fr Doyle himself struggled with this temptation, and he occasionally tied himself to his pre dieu in order to overcome the temptation to abandon prayer when he experienced aridity.

We perhaps can learn today from St Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church:

But if, after all this, you are still unrelieved, do not be disturbed at your dryness, however great it be, but continue striving after a devout attitude in God’s Sight. What numbers of courtiers appear a hundred times at court without any hope of a word from their king, but merely to pay their homage and be seen of him. Just so, my daughter, we ought to enter upon mental prayer purely to fulfil our duty and testify our loyalty. If it pleases God’s Divine Majesty to speak to us, and discourse in our hearts by His Holy Inspirations and inward consolations, it is doubtless a great honour, and very sweet to our soul; but if He does not vouchsafe such favours, but makes as though He saw us not,–as though we were not in His Presence,–nevertheless we must not quit it, but on the contrary we must remain calmly and devoutly before Him, and He is certain to accept our patient waiting, and give heed to our assiduity and perseverance; so that another time He will impart to us His consolations, and let us taste all the sweetness of holy meditation. But even were it not so, let us, my child, be satisfied with the privilege of being in His Presence and seen of Him.

St Francis de Sales

Thoughts for July 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances. But, my dear child, if you let a whole fortnight go by without any self-inflicted pain, can you honestly look Jesus in the face and say, “I am like to Him”?

COMMENT: Self-inflicted pain?? It sounds so…medieval, so exaggerated! It’s 2014, surely we’ve grown out of this by this stage?

Except we haven’t. We see more self-inflicted pain in this age than in any other.  What of all the diets and self-imposed fasts people take on in order to look better? How many young women can be seen undergoing the self-imposed pain of wearing dangerously high heels to look taller, or who suffer the self-imposed pain of coldness as they wear scanty clothing in winter in order to attract attention? What about the self-imposed pain of body piercings or tattoos? Or how about the pain and discipline of work people impose on themselves to get a promotion to the next rung of the corporate ladder, or to pass an exam or to write a thesis or a book? Consider all those people who jump out of bed to jog at the crack of dawn, no matter what the weather is like. And all those who faithfully push themselves at the gym several times a week or who undergo rigorous training to play in sporting competitions. I have friends who take part in Ironman competitions. These involve a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile cycle followed by a full marathon (26.2 miles) one after the other, without a break. That is surely more punishing than any form of corporal mortification…

But for some reason, people flinch at the mention of self-imposed pain in the spiritual life. It is perhaps this aspect of Fr Doyle’s life that presents the biggest stumbling block for some people. The very idea of penance is shocking and strange to many today.

But we need to recall that penance is an absolutely indispensible part of a serious Christian life. It will be impossible to find the life of any saint who did not practice it, and impossible to find any classic book on the spiritual life that does not advocate it. As St Thomas More said: “We cannot go to Heaven in feather beds”. Pope Benedict also called our attention to the importance of penance in his excellent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, who are living through a time of crisis. In this letter he specifically mentioned the importance of penance in the reform of the Church in Ireland.

But this doesn’t mean that we need to wear hairshirts (like Thomas More himself) or scourge our flesh (like St Pope John Paul II did with his leather belt). There other small penances that we can perform that are possibly even more difficult for some people than the momentary physical pain of corporal penance but that will still be very helpful.

Here is a link to an excellent pamphlet discussing Christian mortification by the saintly Belgian Cardinal Mercier..

http://www.catholicpamphlets.net/pamphlets/The%20Purpose%20of%20Christian%20Mortification.pdf

Fr Doyle was rather severe with himself physically (although, one might add, no more severe than the most popular saints, and also always with the approval of his confessor) but he was always gentle with others, moderating and even restricting their use of physical penances. Here is some advice he gave to another correspondent:

I want you to give up all corporal penance and to take for your particular examen “self-denial in little things”. Make ten acts for each examen, and the more trivial they are the better.

His advice here is especially relevant to the modern age. This self-denial in little things makes our will stronger and probably makes us easier to live with. It can be very simple, such as cleaning up after ourselves, getting out of bed (or going to bed!) on time, not saying a sharp or impatient word etc etc. Each day presents numerous opportunities for following this path.

For Fr Doyle these little things included not complaining to others when he had a headache or even giving up butter on this bread.

In doing these little things we are merely following the command of Jesus that we take up our cross daily and follow Him.

Thoughts for July 22 (St Mary Magdalene) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Mary Magdalen meditating on the crucifix

Jesus allowed her to wash His feet but knew well what those eyes had looked on. He allowed her lips to kiss His feet knowing what sinful words had fallen from them. He did not shrink from the touch of hands which had served Satan so long. He even welcomed the love of a heart so long filled with unholy desires. Mary, penitent as she is, could not fully know the depth of her guilt, she had forgotten many sins; but Jesus saw all. . . .

In those few moments Mary had learnt a precious lesson: that peace, contentment, holiness are to be found at the feet of Jesus and there alone, that the delights of contemplation far outweighs the empty joys which the world offers.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was of great significance in the early Church. There is some confusion as to her exact identity; until recent decades she was typically identified with the sinful adulteress or prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair. Other scripture scholars suggests that she was not this individual.

It ultimately matters little. What we do know is that Jesus cast seven devils from her (Luke Chapter 8), and that she followed Him closely and loved Him dearly; that she stayed by the foot of the cross while many others (including almost all of the Apostles) abandoned Him. She prepared His sacred body for the tomb, and after the Sabbath, even before dawn, she rushed to the tomb to anoint the body. Jesus rewarded her love – she was the second person He appeared to after His resurrection (tradition tells us that He surely appeared first to His mother Mary, even though this is not described in the Gospels). Jesus had a special mission for Mary Magdalene – He told her to go and tell His Apostles about His resurrection! Here is a woman who had been possessed by seven devils (and who may or may not have been a prostitute) and Jesus gave her the job of telling His specially chosen ones about His resurrection!

There is a profound message here. Jesus loves all of us, and everyone is given a special task, irrespective of our past sins, irrespective of whether we are male or female, irrespective of our position in the hierarchy of the Church and irrespective of whether we are ordained or not. The converted St Mary Magdalene, the model of penitents, was given a special mission to announce the resurrection to others. Significantly, she didn’t need to be ordained to do this…

Thoughts for July 21 (St Lawrence of Brindisi) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Lawrence of Brindisi

“I will give thee hidden treasures.” Isaiah 45. 3. Jesus has treasures which He hides from those who love Him not and do not seek Him. To His favoured ones, His faithful servants, He opens wide the storehouse where they lie and pours His graces forth unmeasured. He is a hidden God. He dwells not with the proud and haughty. He lingers not amid the tumult of the world.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle didn’t write these sentences about St Lawrence of Brindisi, but they are entirely apt for this feast. I’m not aware that Fr Doyle ever wrote about St Lawrence, but I imagine that he had some affection for him, for St Lawrence was himself a military chaplain.

St Lawrence was a remarkable man with a stunning list of achievements. He was a first rate scholar with a command of numerous European and Biblical languages. He was a super-star preacher for who was surrounded by crowds eager to hear him preach (and snip off a piece of his beard or clothing as relics!). He was an advisor to Popes and was sent on delicate diplomatic missions on behalf of the papacy. He was an advisor to royalty throughout Europe. He was an inspirational military chaplain, largely responsible for military victories at a critical juncture in the history of Europe. He held, at one time or another, every office in the Capuchin order, including that of vicar-general (overall superior) and was the founder of several monasteries and convents. To top it all off, he was a renowned mystic and miracle worker. He is also one of the elite Doctors of the Church.

Fr Doyle tells us today that Jesus has a storehouse of graces which he will pour out on those who love Him and seek Him. We see this in an extraordinary way in the life of St Lawrence. We also see it, albeit in a more subtle way but no less real way, in the life of Fr Doyle. When we look at Fr Doyle, we see a man who was transformed over the course of his life. He was born into privilege, yet he was devoted to ordinary workers, and was loved by the ordinary working class soldiers he encountered in the war. He had a nervous breakdown as a young man over a fire that broke out in his building and he almost had to leave the Jesuits, yet during the war he was a rock of fortitude and calm in the midst of fear and turmoil.

But we can also experience this transformation through grace in our own lives. The measure in which we open ourselves to grace is the measure in which we will receive it. As the Imitation of Christ says:

The more perfectly one renounces the things of the world, and the better he dies to himself by the contempt of himself, the more speedily will grace come to him, and the more abundantly will it enter in, elevating to greater heights the heart which it has found free and devoid of all.

 

Finally, returning to a consideration of St lawrence of Brindisi, Pope Emeritus Benedict gave a very worthwhile catechesis on this Doctor of the Church here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110323_en.html