Thoughts for February 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

When you commit a fault which humbles you and for which you are really sorry, it is a gain instead of a loss. 

COMMENT: Here we see the great balance and humanity of Fr Doyle, which was also the great balance and humanity of many of Fr Doyle’s generation. 

It is easy to fall into the prejudice that Catholics of previous generations were narrowly obsessed with sin and that they lacked mercy and balance. It was simply not so! 

As Fr Doyle suggests, we truly can gain from our faults when we repent and humble ourselves and adhere more closely to Christ. The bitter experience of our weakness teaches us how little we are. It is those who are little, who know their limitations, who are most secure from temptation. On the contrary it is those who feel most secure in their own merits and virtues who are most likely to fall. Pride goes before the fall, as the saying goes.

The experience of our sins also fosters a great spirit of repentance – or compunction – in our soul. As the Imitation of Christ declares, 

No man is worthy of Heavenly comfort who has not diligently exercised himself in holy compunction.

Thoughts for February 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

“The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee” (Luke, 1:35). Light comes with this blessed over-shadowing,. and before God’s power difficulties disappear. It is ever so. With God’s grace mine, I face the difficulty and find it has vanished: I take up the heavy cross and discover it most light; I put my hand to the work and it proves easy. 

22 February 1914

Jesus taught me a simple way today of conquering the temptation to break resolutions. When, for example, I want to take sugar in my tea etc I will make a vow not to do so for that one occasion, which will compel me to do it, no matter what it may cost. I know often I shall have to force myself total this little vow; but I realise that if only I can bring myself to say “I vow” then all the conflict raging in my soul about that particular thing will cease at once. This will be invaluable to me in the future. 

Thoughts for February 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

As regards confession it would be much better to confine yourself to the accusation of, say, three faults, and turn the whole flood of your sorrow upon these. I fear you, like so many, lay too much stress on the accusation of sins, which in these frequent confessions, is the least important part of the Sacrament. To my mind the one thing which completely changes all our notions of confession is the thought that every absolution means an immense increase of sanctifying grace or holiness. Let that be your aim and not the mere pouring out of little faults, all of which, maybe, were washed away that morning by Holy Communion.

COMMENT: There has been a debate about whether or not Ireland was afflicted with Jansenism in the early part of the 20th Century. Whether it was full-blown Jansenism or not, there were at least widespread tinges of it which were manifested by excessive scrupulosity and an over-emphasis on judgement and considerably less emphasis on the mercy and love of God. Fr Doyle was an enemy of what he rightly termed as “the wretched spirit of Jansenism”. 

In today’s quote he is of course writing to somebody who is striving to live a holy life, so his advice would not apply completely to somebody who has been away from the sacraments for a long time. His advice seems very Ignatian – to focus on key faults in an attempt to eradicate them. But as always, his emphasis is not on the sin itself but on the mercy of God and the grace which He longs to give us. 

These thoughts are appropriate today on the feast of St Margaret of Cortona. 

St Margaret lived in the 13th century and she seems to have been a promiscuous and rebellious teenager. She gave birth to a son but never married his father. After nine years the father of the child died, probably as a result of a murder. This shock helped bring about a conversion of life for Margaret. It wasn’t easy for her, and she had to fight valiantly against temptations to return to her former life. She became a Franciscan tertiary, and with the assistance of others who were drawn to her growing sanctity, she cared for the poor and established a hospital in Cortona.

We see the truth of Fr Doyle’s words in the life of St Margaret and indeed in the life of many saints – Confession and conversion are less about our accusation of sins, and more about God’s mercy and grace.

Finally,  an interesting detail in the image of St Margaret below – as St Margaret turns to the angel, and the devil is driven to despair and rage in the background…

St Margaret of Cortona
St Margaret of Cortona

Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests

The great light of this retreat, clear and persistent has been that God has chosen me, in His great love and through compassion for my weakness and misery, to be a victim of reparation for the sins of priests especially; that hence my life must be different in the matter of penance, self-denial and prayer, from the lives of others not given this special grace.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle clearly perceived that he had a special calling to make reparation for the sins of priests. In fact, he reiterated this calling in the very last entry that he ever made in his diary, on July 28 1917, the 10th anniversary of his ordination and just two weeks before his death:

I have again offered myself to Jesus…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…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.

We don’t hear very much about reparation these days but this idea is entirely scriptural. St Paul tells us:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

In some mysterious way, our own sacrifices strengthen the Church and win grace for others.

Fr Doyle specifically focuses on the sins of priests. Priests were held in very high esteem 100 years ago, yet here we have Fr Doyle recognising the reality of priestly sinfulness. It was a desire to atone for these sins that drove him to some of his severe penances.

How much more we know about the sinfulness of some priests now than we did 100 years ago! The Church in Ireland has been especially badly hit by the scandal – the crime! – of child abuse. It is no exaggeration to say that the moral credibility of the Church has been dreadfully undermined by these scandals, and especially by their mishandling. Those in the United States who have seen the fallout of clerical abuse in dioceses like Boston have some sense of the implications of clerical scandals on the credibility and life of the Church. But it must be stressed – the fallout for the Church in Ireland has been vastly more serious than anywhere else, and that includes places like Boston.

Today we celebrate the feast of St Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church. St Peter Damian is not one of the better known Doctors, but he is of great significance for his zealous work in reforming the Church, and in particular the clergy, of his time. And what was the main focus of his reform? Yes, that’s right, sexual corruption amongst the clergy, and in particular the abuse of teenage boys by priests and monks. Remarkably, St Peter Damian was born over 1,000 years ago, and died in 1072. His extensive writings on this problem cite with approval the works of another Doctor of the Church, St Basil the Great, who died over 1,600 years ago in 379. It is clear that neither saint took the matter lightly. Their prescription for abusers included public flogging, imprisonment, bad food and constant supervision to ensure that the guilty party never again had contact with children.

This is not to suggest that the crime of abuse is disproportionately acute in the Church; we know from authoritative statistics that this is not the case. But we do know that the way in which the problem was handled in recent decades was gravely deficient. Perhaps the Church leaned too heavily on psychologists, or was too strongly influenced by the prevailing secular social norms which, in that period, trivialised this activity.

The point remains that the Church has, within its own tradition, a strong response to the problem of clerical abuse. If the Church in Ireland had adopted the zero tolerance approach of St Peter Damian the Church would have underlined its seriousness in eradicating this crime and would have protected children.

And so we come back to Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests…

Once again we find that Fr Doyle is a very fitting model for us today. Here is a priest who died for others, even those who did not share his faith. Here is a man who literally offered his life to God in reparation for the sins of other priests. True, we must not follow his own personal style of penance – he makes it clear that he had a special calling for hard penance that others did not have – but the principle is there for us to follow nonetheless. And it now officially forms part of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis. Pope Benedict, in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, urged us to offer our Friday penances essentially in reparation for the sins of priests and for healing and renewal.

Let us pray to St Peter Damian for reform within the Church – and most importantly within ourselves – and to Fr Doyle that we may make adequate reparation for sin through our own small penances.

Here is the text of an address by Pope Benedict XVI on St Peter Damian:

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20090909_en.html

St Peter Damian
St Peter Damian

Thoughts for February 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

I am convinced that generally we reach sanctity of life only through a long series of falls from which we get up.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a very realistic understanding of our human nature. He too struggled with temptations and with his own defects, but like the saints he realised that we do not battle alone, but rather with the help of our loving God, of our guardian angel and of the entire communion of saints.

Perhaps many of us have already forgotten what our new year’s resolutions were. No matter, we can pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. The most important thing is never to give up.

Here is leaflet printed in 1955 from Maine in the United States which contains this particular quote from Fr Doyle whom the author referred to as a “the saintly chaplain of World War 1”. How true those words were. It is interesting to come across yet another unexpected reference to Fr Doyle from another part of the world. This is a further testament to how widespread devotion was to Fr Doyle was at one point.

You may find there entire pamphlet here (Fr Doyle is mentioned on page 6):

Save Souls leaflet

Thoughts for February 19 (Anniversary of Venerable John Sullivan SJ) from Fr Willie Doyle

Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ
Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ

I hope every single one of you will have broken every resolution you made in the retreat before the end of the week, and if not then, at least in a fortnight. It will do you good and humble you provided you get up and begin again and do not flop down and lie there on the broad of your back, saying “It’s no use, it’s all over.” Not a bit of it, it’s not all over, it’s only beginning. So up with you and start again. Remember each time you fall that you are not back where you were before but are starting again from where you fell.

COMMENT: Today is the anniversary of the death of Fr John Sullivan SJ, who died on this day in 1933. 

Fr Sullivan had a different personality to that of Fr Doyle, but as contemporaries with the same training much of their spirituality is in common. Both were very humble, very cheerful and very ascetic. One of Fr Sullivan’s most popular maxims, very much in line with today’s quote from Fr Doyle, was:

Take life in instalments, this day now. At least let this be a good day. Be always beginning. Let the past go. The saints were always beginning. That is how they became saints.

Fr Sullivan was born into considerable wealth and privilege, and after some years of travel and study became a barrister. His father was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and he was brought up in the Church of Ireland, although his mother was a Catholic. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 35 and entered the Jesuits 4 years later. He was ordained on July 28, 1907 in the same ceremony as Fr Doyle. Fr Sullivan was 46, Fr Doyle was 34.

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.

Fr Sullivan spent most of his life in Clongowes, a Jesuit school not too far from Dublin where Fr Doyle had also spent some time prior to his ordination. He was known for his gentle kindness towards the boys there. He lived an ascetic life, eating very little. Like Fr Doyle, he was no stranger to physical mortification, often spending entire nights in prayer, or sleeping on the floor or performing other physical acts of penance. And, in common with Fr Doyle, there is no evidence that these penances ever interfered with his work. Both priests kept them hidden, and neither ever encouraged others to follow in their own footsteps.

It seems that Fr Sullivan had great regard for Fr Doyle; after his death some of Fr Doyle’s sayings were found transcribed in Fr Sullivan’s writings amongst his private papers.

While there are some similarities between the two contemporary Jesuits, there are also some differences. Two in particular spring to mind. The first is that Fr Sullivan was given the grace of physical healing. He would regularly travel – on bike or by foot – for miles to visit the sick and dying in the countryside around Clongowes.

There are many instances of healings recorded through Fr Sullivan’s intercession, even during his own lifetime. These graces of healing have continued after his death.

The second great difference is that we know relatively little about his interior life. What we know comes from eye witness accounts. If he ever wrote detailed notes about himself, they no longer exist. Perhaps this was Professor Alfred O’Rahilly’s fault! After he published so many extracts from Fr Doyle’s private notes, it is possible that other priests ensured that their own diaries were destroyed, although given Fr Sullivan’s profound humility it is likely that he never thought anyone would be interested in his interior life anyway.

Fr Sullivan’s beatification has been approved by Pope Francis and it may happen this year. This is great news that deserves to be celebrated! As we have pointed out before, Ireland needs its own modern, contemporary saints! There are good candidates out there, two of the very best of which are the two contemporary Jesuits Frs Doyle and Sullivan.

Here is a prayer to seek Fr Sullivan’s intercession:

God, you honour those who honour you. 
Make sacred the memory of your servant John Sullivan, by granting through his intercession the petition we now make (name the petition) and hastening the day when his name will be numbered among those of your saints. 
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following video is well worth watching to learn more about the life of Fr Sullivan.