20 August 1917: Fr Frank Browne’s praise for Fr Doyle

On this day in 1917, 4 days after Fr Doyle’s death, Fr Frank Browne, the famous photographer and Jesuit military chaplain, wrote the following in a letter expressing his esteem for Fr Doyle. Fr Browne worked closely with Fr Doyle, and these words come from the pen of one who knew Fr Doyle intimately. 

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.

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Thoughts for August 20 (St Bernard) from Fr Willie Doyle

How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.

COMMENTS: Today is the feast of St Bernard. It seems as good a day as any to address some of the controversies that seem to surround Fr Doyle’s life of penance.

In today’s quotation, Fr Doyle is clear that sanctity does not necessitate severe penances. Yes, a few are called by that path, but we are all called along the path of embracing the tasks and challenges of each day. We are all called to some form of penance, but for the most part it will be moderate and focused on doing our duties well. This is not easy but it is ultimately within our reach, if we will it and if we rely on God’s grace.

Fr Doyle certainly embraced the mundane tasks of each day. But he also went much further and lived a life of austerity. This caused something of a scandal for a very small number of people when it was revealed in O’Rahilly’s biography (though it is noteworthy that in his later editions, O’Rahilly mentions a number of Protestant clerics who admired Fr Doyle’s example in this area). 

It is clear that Fr Doyle lived a most vigorous life of action during the war and that his health was in no way compromised as a result of his penances; in fact he even reported that he felt more energetic and healthy following penance. If the test of prudence in penance is that it does not interfere with our daily duties and tasks, then he most certainly passed that test.

It is also clear, from today’s quotation and from many others, that he never advised others to adopt hard physical penances and in fact he often forbade others to do so. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints, including some of the most popular, modern saints. It also appears that he had, or at least he thought he had, a specific calling to austerity of this type. It is also worth noting that Fr Doyle seems to have given up the hard physical penances for the last years of his life in the trenches, instead cheerfully embracing the hardships of that most awful life as his penance.

Fr Doyle also acted with the approval of his superiors. From one of his letters:

The Provincial told me to make known my devotions, penances etc to Father X…and to do whatever he told me. My heart fell, for perhaps of all the Jesuits in Ireland he would be the last I should care to consult on these things, I knew it was not his line and I felt if I got permission for one discipline a month I would do well. He was just the opposite to what I expected, was most kind and encouraging and ended by telling me to do whatever I thought God wanted, so I had the reward of being obedient.

This would seem to be the definitive seal of approval on Fr Doyle’s spiritual life.

We must not forget the context in which Fr Doyle lived. It is also important to remember that people – even the very holy – are influenced by their surrounding culture. Corporal penance was the norm in religious life right up to a few decades ago. Some well known Jesuits destroyed their private notes before death precisely because of the way the secrets of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life became public following the discovery of his diaries. Perhaps Fr Doyle’s penances were more common than we imagine. It is also worth remembering that penance – moderate and appropriate for our condition – is a normal part of the Christian life, so much so that the ever popular St John XXIII wrote an entire encyclical on penance and urged Catholics to offer penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. Penance is not something obscure or disturbing in the Christian life. Indeed, it is odd for anyone to consider penance to be an anachronism given that we now live in a culture where hard, pressured work is seen as the norm, and where many people punish their bodies in a gym – this work, and these workouts, are probably much harsher than the penances normally practiced in the past. In fact, just yesterday there was a half Ironman competition in Dublin. The competitors started the morning with a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile cycle and concluding with a 13.1 mile running race. And this is only a half Ironman, not the full thing. And we dare to look down our noses at the hardships that some people practiced a few decades ago???!!!

Yes, corporal penance was an aspect of Fr Doyle’s life, as with almost all canonised saints. But these hard penances were only one aspect of Fr Doyle’s spirituality. It would be a mistake to sum up a charming personality like that of St Pope John Paul II only by reference to the modified leather belt with which he scourged himself (it has never been made clear in what way the belt was modified – did it perhaps have something sharp or heavy embedded within it to make it a penitential item?) or St Therese of Lisieux only by reference to the hairshirt which she wore, or Blessed John Sullivan by the floor on which he slept and the chains which he wore. We can keep multiplying the examples – Venerable Matt Talbot, St Pio of Pietrelcina, St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic, St Ignatius, St Martin de Porres and on and on. There is so much more to the remarkable personalities of the saints than the physical penance they practiced. We should not ignore this aspect of the lives of the saints, but neither should we allow it to overshadow the rest of their lives and certainly we should not allow it to influence us to copy their example imprudently.

And this brings us to today’s feast of St Bernard, who admitted that he ruined his health through imprudent penance, and repented of his folly. This revelation of his imprudence does not make St Bernard any less of a role model for the rest of us, nor did it ever prevent him from being canonised or declared a Doctor of the Church. 

By the way, it is often said that St Bernard exerted more influence during his own life than any other saint in history. Some of this was probably due to his own magnetic personality and to the gifts God gave him, and some of it is almost certainly due to the era in which he lived – Christendom in the West was not yet divided and the Church was organised and very powerful.

Here is an interesting homily on St Bernard which elaborates on St Bernard’s incredible influence on those around him, and which also touches on the topic of his imprudent penance.

Thoughts for August 19 from Fr Willie Doyle

St John Eudes

Two wings by which we can fly to God and become saints: the habit of little tiny acts of self-denial and the habit of making a definite fixed number of aspirations every day.

COMMENT: The use of aspirations was an important part of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life. Those under a certain age may be unfamiliar with aspirations and may even be unaware of what they mean. Aspirations are simple, short prayers of just a sentence or even a few words. They can be repeated in times of trial or temptation, or like many of the saints, on a regular or indeed constant basis in order to deepen our union with Christ.

In his diary Fr Doyle writes that constantly repeating aspirations was the penance of his life. Those who know something about Fr Doyle’s inner life will realise what a big claim that is!

Amazingly his diary records him saying tens of thousands of aspirations each day. It’s not quite clear how he managed this; in practice it probably means that his mind was always continually focused on God and that he lived St Paul’s recommendation that we pray without ceasing. He also records how saying some aspirations helped him in moments of temptation and weakness; he also used to pray aspirations to give him the strength to get out of bed on time. Perhaps we can all learn from that!

While we hear much less about the use of aspirations than in previous generations, the practice was very important to the saints.

St Josemaria Escriva writes:

There will be other occasions on which all we’ll need will be two or three words, said with the quickness of a dart — ejaculatory prayers, aspirations that we learn from a careful reading of Christ’s life: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” ”Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.” ”Lord, I do believe, but help my unbelief,” strengthen my faith. “Lord, I am not worthy.” ”My Lord and my God!”… or other short phrases, full of affection, that spring from the soul’s intimate fervour and correspond to the different circumstances of each day.

Today’s saint, John Eudes, was also much devoted to the use of aspirations. Writing about himself in the third person, he says that he knows a person

…who by the frequent use of (aspirations) has arrived at such a stage that it is easy for him, even when taking his meals, to make actually almost as many acts of love for Jesus as he places morsels in his mouth. This he does not only without strain or trouble of inconvenience, but he is not thereby prevented from talking and taking recreation. I say this, not that you should do the same, for there would immediately be an outcry that I was asking things too difficult, but that you may know how much power there is in a holy habit, and how wrong the world is in imagining so much difficulty and bitterness where there is merely every kind of sweetness and delight.

 

August 18: St Alberto Hurtado and Fr Doyle

St Alberto Hurtado

 

Today is the feast of St Alberto Hurtado, a Jesuit saint from Chile. He was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and is renowned for his social work and love of the poor.

Contacts in Chile also tell me that he is remembered among the Jesuits there as a devotee of Fr Doyle. He apparently distributed literature relating to Fr Doyle and encouraged others to learn about his life. I understand that he came to Ireland as a young Jesuit to learn English, so it was probably on this occasion that he heard about Fr Doyle. Here we have a joyful, cheerful modern saint who was devoted to social justice and who also presumably derived personal spiritual benefits from the example, and words, of Fr Doyle.

St Alberto is not alone – we know that St Josemaria Escriva, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed John Sullivan, Venerable Adolphus Petit and the Servant of God Bernard Quinn all admired Fr Doyle. There may well be other well known saints who were also devoted to him, and indeed there are many thousands of ordinary people from all walks of life who have been inspired by Fr Doyle’s love of God and of neighbour.

I am not aware of a specific reference to Fr Doyle in St Alberto’s writings, but there may well be something there: if anybody knows anything please let me know.

There is a list of some meditations in English from St Alberto here. Interestingly, St Alberto refers to the Venerable Matt Talbot (we have no direct evidence, but also surely a devotee of Fr Doyle??) in this meditation.

Here is a short video of his life:

Fr Willie the Wonder Worker?

Instead of a quote from Fr Doyle, today we present, courtesy of the Irish Messenger, a scanned copy of a booklet published in 1931 entitled “Father Willie”. It seems appropriate to look at this booklet today, the day following his anniversary. And the title of today’s post, suggesting that Fr Doyle is a “wonder worker” is not mine, but rather comes from this Jesuit pamphlet.

No author is mentioned for this booklet which leads me to believe that it was written by Fr Doyle’s brother Fr Charles Doyle SJ. Fr Charlie was Fr Willie’s great friend and boyhood companion, and it was he who recruited Willie to the Jesuits – Willie had considered becoming a diocesan priest and decided to become a Jesuit following some prodding from Charlie.

The first 19 pages of the booklet provide a short biography of Fr Doyle’s life which might be of special interest for individuals who are relatively new to this site. There are some letters attesting to people’s devotion to Fr Doyle, followed by an incredible 26 pages of reported favours and cures allegedly granted through Fr Doyle’s intercession.

The figures are astounding. The booklet was published in 1931, a mere 14 years after Fr Doyle’s death, and only 11 years after the first edition of O’Rahilly’s biography was first published. In that time, a staggering 6,426 alleged favours were reported through Fr Doyle’s intercession!

These alleged favours came from all around the world – amongst many other countries from every continent, there are 101 from Australia, 21 from New Zealand, 53 from India, 11 from Brazil, 71 from various parts of Africa, 57 from Holland, 791 from England, 1,872 from the United States and 3,197 from Ireland.

These figures are truly amazing in an era before the internet and global mass media, especially when one considers the social and economic situation in the 1920’s. It is also likely that many more people felt that they received favours from Fr Doyle but never got around to reporting them. The true figure is likely much higher than 6,426,

Of course, without further details, and without the guidance of the Church, one cannot say with certainty that Fr Doyle answered these prayers, or that there is anything other than natural processes at work. Some of the alleged favours are quite small. Having said that, some seem to involve significant and unexplained healings.

The one conclusion that we can definitely draw from this booklet was that there was a significant, global devotion to Fr Doyle in the first half of the 20th Century, and that many thousands of people felt that their prayers were answered through his intercession.

Some people do not fully appreciate the Communion of Saints. In our natural world, we do not hesitate to ask others – friends, family, priests – to pray for us and for our concerns. The doctrine of the Communion of Saints is the very same, except we ask our friends in Heaven (the saints) to pray for us. It is not the saints themselves who answer our prayer, and we do not strictly pray to them, but we ask them to intercede for us with God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses it:

They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus.

So, let us remember that we have a friend in Fr Doyle, and ask him for his help in our temporal and spiritual needs, whether they are big or small. And let us remember that the best way to ensure the beatification and canonisation of those we admire is through reporting favours we feel have come through their intercession.

Here is the booklet:

Fr Willie (1931)

The death of a hero: 101 years ago today, Fr Doyle laid down his life to save wounded soldiers.

My Martyrdom for Mary’s Sake.

Darling Mother Mary, in preparation for the glorious martyrdom which I feel assured thou art going to obtain for me, I, thy most unworthy child, on this the first day of thy month, solemnly commence my life of slow martyrdom by earnest hard work and constant self-denial. With my blood I promise thee to keep this resolution, do thou, sweet Mother, assist me and obtain for me the one favour I wish and long for: To die a Jesuit Martyr.

May 1st, 1893.

May God’s will, not mine, be done! Amen.

These words were written in Fr Doyle’s private diary. He kept his part of the bargain – the remaining 24 years of his life were literally a slow martyrdom of “earnest hard work and constant self-denial”. Mary kept her part of the bargain, and won for him the grace of “martyrdom” on August 16, 1917: 101 years ago today. Of course, Fr Doyle is not a martyr in the formal, classical sense of the term – he was not killed out of hatred for the Faith. The concept of being a “martyr of charity” – one who dies while serving others or administering the sacraments – can be traced back to heroic Christians who died after nursing plague victims in the 3rd century. Some background on the concept of a “martyr of charity” can be found here: http://newsaints.faithweb.com/new_martyrs/martyrs_charity.htm 

This is O’Rahilly’s brief account of Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle had been engaged from early morning in the front line, cheering and consoling his men, and attending to the many wounded. Soon after 3 p.m. he made his way back to the Regimental Aid Post which was in charge of a Corporal Raitt, the doctor having gone back to the rear some hours before. Whilst here word came in that an officer of the Dublins had been badly hit, and was lying out in an exposed position. Fr. Doyle at once decided to go out to him, and left the Aid Post with his runner, Private Mclnespie, and a Lieutenant Grant. Some twenty minutes later, at about a quarter to four, Mclnespie staggered into the Aid Post and fell down in a state of collapse from shell shock. Corporal Raitt went to his assistance and after considerable difficulty managed to revive him. His first words on coming back to consciousness were: “Fr. Doyle has been killed!” Then bit by bit the whole story was told. Fr. Doyle had found the wounded officer lying far out in a shell crater. He crawled out to him, absolved and anointed him, and then, half dragging, half carrying the dying man, managed to get him within the line. Three officers came up at this moment, and Mclnespie was sent for some water. This he got and was handing it to Fr. Doyle when a shell burst in the midst of the group, killing Fr. Doyle and the three officers instantaneously, and hurling Mclnespie violently to the ground. Later in the day some of the Dublins when retiring came across the bodies of all four. Recognising Fr. Doyle, they placed him and a Private Meehan, whom they were carrying back dead, behind a portion of the Frezenberg Redoubt and covered the bodies with sods and stones.

Field near Potsdam Farm – this is near the spot where we think Fr Doyle was killed. His body was lost; it may still remain buried somewhere in this area

 

The book The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Armed Forces claims that another military chaplain by the name of Fr Fitzmaurice heard Fr Doyle’s confession 15 minutes before his death. If this is true, then Fr Doyle himself had the great grace of confession just moments before death – this is a great gift to one who lost his own life while bringing this sacrament to others.

Those who wish to know more about Fr Doyle’s service as a military chaplain, and who wish to know the identity of the officers that Fr Doyle ran to help when he was killed, should purchase a copy of Carole Hope’s Worshipper and Worshipped. Other books focus on different aspects of Fr Doyle’s life, and all include extensive treatment of the war (including KV Turley’s CTS booklet, Carmel Ui Cheallaigh’s Man of the People for children, and my own To Raise the Fallen which includes about 60 pages of war letters); but it is Worshipper and Worshipped that is the definitive scholarly guide to the specific military aspect of Fr Doyle’s life.

Of course, Fr Doyle’s body was not properly buried and preserved. There are various suggestions that he was hastily buried under rocks, and that soldiers who found his body removed some of his uniform buttons and his Pioneer pin and gave them to Fr Frank Browne for safe keeping. There are other suggestions that the location of Fr Doyle’s body was noted, and when men returned to bury him, that it was no longer to be found, presumably having been hit by another shell. Ultimately, we don’t know where his body is so we have no physical remains or monuments to him. In this regard, one of the later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography quotes the words of St Ignatius of Antioch which are very fitting:

Entice the wild beasts to become my tomb and leave no trace of my body so that in falling asleep I may be a burden to no one. Then shall I be really a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will not even see my body.

St Patrick wrote in a similar vein: 

I beg of God whom I love to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I be without burial itself, or my corpse be most miserably divided, limb by limb, amongst dogs and fierce beasts, or the birds of the air devour it. I think it most certain that if this happens to me, I shall have gained my soul with my body.

And so it was with Fr Doyle.

How does one sum up someone who lived such a varied and remarkable life as Fr Doyle on this, his anniversary? Perhaps only the words of Christ Himself would do him justice:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

Thank you Fr Willie for this love that you showed to the wounded soldiers in the Great War and for the example of your struggle to grow in virtue throughout your life.

Below is a song featuring Fr Doyle. 

Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary – Day 9: The gift of peace in the life of Fr Doyle

Today, the anniversary of Fr Doyle’s heroic death, we shall consider the role of serenity and peace in Fr Doyle’s life.

One of the remarkable things about Fr Doyle was his profound interior peace, even in the midst of objectively horrific circumstances. This is something that we can also identify in the lives of canonised saints – they all had a rare serenity, even when facing death. St Thomas More joked with his executioner, while St Lawrence the Deacon joked with those who were burning him to death that they should turn him over on the griddle, because he was already well cooked on one side already! And it wasn’t just martyrs who remained peaceful – saints like Gerard Majella and Vincent de Paul remained calm when falsely accused of crimes, while others like Teresa of Avila and Maravillas remained peaceful in the face of grave financial worries related to their foundations.

Many people noticed a special peace that emanated from Fr Doyle. His brother, Fr Charles Doyle SJ noted:

Willie and I were dining at Melrose one evening. I arrived first, and I was looking out of the drawing room, when I saw Willie coming up the drive. I can still see his face as he came towards the house. It had an expression of sweetness, brightness, and holiness that was quite astonishing. During the last time that he was at home on leave from the Front, he came down to Limerick where I was stationed. We went out for a walk together. Coming home, we met a number of people walking… As each couple or party came near us, I noticed all eyes became fixed on Willie with a curiously interested and reverential expression. I stole a glance at him. His eyes were cast down, and upon his face was the same unearthly look of sweetness and radiance I had seen on it that evening years before at Melrose.

The soldiers felt a certain “something” about Fr Doyle as well, and some of this peace seemed to communicate itself to them. An Irish soldier recounts the following incident:

You need not worry any longer about my soul. I came across a Jesuit, a Fr Willie Doyle, out here, and he settled up my accounts with the Lord. Fr Doyle is a splendid fellow. He is so brave and cheery. He has a wonderful influence over others and can do what he likes with the men. I was out the other evening with a brother officer, and met him. After a few words I said: ‘This is a pal of mine, Padre; he is a Protestant, but I think he would like your blessing.’ Fr Doyle looked at my chum for a moment with a smile and then made the sign of the cross on his forehead. When he had passed on, my pal said: ‘That is a holy man. Did you see the way he looked at me? It went right through me. And when he crossed my forehead I felt such an extraordinary sensation.’  

What did Fr Doyle himself have to say about his peace of soul, and its true source? We learn a lot from his letters home:

In some ways I have found life out here much easier than I expected and in other respects a good deal more trying. Still if I get only a little bit of holiness out of it all, will it not be well worth it all? Jesus knows I have only one wish in this world — to love Him and Him alone — for the rest He has carte blanche to do as He pleases in my regard. I just leave myself in His loving Hands and so have no anxiety or care, but great peace of soul.

And elsewhere

God’s will is everything to me now. . . . True, nature rebels at times, for He has filled me with such a longing to labour for Him, to live and suffer for His dear sake, that the thought of death is very bitter. I can only call it a living martyrdom. But I conquer the feeling by saying this little prayer: ‘Take, O Lord, and receive my liberty, my health and strength, my limbs, my flesh, my blood, my very life. Do with me just as You wish; I embrace all lovingly — suffering, wounds, death — if only it will glorify You one tiny bit.’ That always brings back peace, even when a bullet grazing my head drives home the reality of the offering.

Fr Doyle also felt this peace even as a young man preparing for the priesthood. He wrote the following in a letter to his mother:

Since then I have gone on from day to day and year to year, with the same cheerful spirits, making the best of difficulties and always trying to look at the bright side of things. True, from time to time, there have been trials and hard things to face — even a Jesuit’s life is not all roses — but through it all I can honestly say, I have never lost that deep interior peace and contentment which sweetens the bitter things and makes rough paths smooth.

We will conclude today with some of Fr Doyle’s advice for finding holiness and inner peace:

If you train yourself to see God’s hand in all things and rather to be glad when everything goes wrong, you will enjoy great interior peace. Here is a most important spiritual maxim for you: A soul which is not at peace and happy will never be really holy.