Thoughts for January 26 from Fr Willie Doyle


The mere saving of their souls should be the last thought of religious who have vowed their lives for God’s glory.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s comments were written to a member of a religious order, but they apply equally to us all.

It is true that our own salvation is one of our highest duties, but the reality is that our salvation is connected with that of others.

There is an old saying that we don’t go to Heaven alone. Our lives are intimately intertwined with that of others. In fact, one of the things that sociology shows us quite clearly is that the example of peers has a powerful effect on human behaviour. The way we act and live has a profound effect on others, for good or bad. We should not underestimate the power of our example to bring others to a fuller practice of the faith. Neither should we underestimate the negative influence of our hypocrisy, sloth, gossip and so forth.

We also see the importance of holy friendships in the lives of the saints. There are surprisingly large numbers of beatified and canonised saints who were friends or acquaintances while on earth. Numerous examples come to mind immediately. This very incomplete list may seem rather long and strange, yet it illustrates a very important point about our interconnectedness, and how good friendships can inspire and help us.

There is the obvious example of the Apostles and the extended family of Jesus. Beyond those saints of the Bible…St Monica was the mother of St Augustine; Augustine was baptised by St Ambrose, the sister of St Ambrose was a disciple of St Jerome. St Benedict and St Scholastica were twins; Saints Maurus and Placidus were intimately associated with the life of St Benedict. There is the example of the early companions of St Ignatius who have been formally recognised including St Francis Xavier and St Peter Faver. St Philip Neri was friendly with a large number of saints in counter-reformation Rome, including St Ignatius, St Felix of Cantalice, St John Leonardi and St Camillus, as well as Venerable Cardinal Baronius, whose cause has been reopened. He was also close to St Charles Borromeo who in turn gave shelter to St Edmund Campion when he was making his way through Milan back to England (and martyrdom). St Charles Borromeo was also a close friend of St Pius V, who surely was also close with other saints of that era (how interesting it would have been to live in Rome in the latter half of the 16th Century!!). St Dominic and St Francis knew and admired each other and the latter was of course close to St Clare. St Thomas Aquinas was taught by St Albert the Great and was a friend of St Bonaventure (3 Doctors of the Church connected together…). St Albert was himself recruited into the Dominicans by Blessed Jordan of Saxony. St Teresa of Avila received spiritual direction from St John of the Cross, St Francis Borgia and St Peter of Alcantara, and her companion and secretary at the end of her life was Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew. St Martin de Porres and St John Macias were friends in Lima; I’m not aware if either of them met St Rose of Lima, but given that she was a Dominican tertiary in the same city it is likely that they did, or were at least aware of her presence. Blessed Raymond of Capua was the confessor of Saint Catherine of Siena. St Francis de Sales was the director of St Jane Frances de Chantal. St Vincent de Paul was the director of St Louise de Marillac, and, latterly, of St Jane de Chantal following the death of Francis de Sales. St Claude de la Colombiere was the director of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. Blessed Michael Sopocko was the director of St Faustina. St Jerome was close to St Epiphanius and St Gregory Nazianzen, and provided guidance to St Paula; she was the mother-in-law to St Pammachius. Saint John Henry Newman was received into the Church by Blessed Dominic Barberi, who also received St Charles of Mount Argus into the Passionists. Venerable Ignatius Spencer also moved in this circle and knew all of these men very well. Blessed Dominic Barberi and St John Henry Newman both knew Fr Luigi Gentili, whose cause should be opened. Luigi Gentili was a disciple of Blessed Antonio Rosmini who was closely connected with Blessed Pius IX. St Vincent Strambi was a disciple of St Paul of the Cross (and his postulator and biographer) and a director of St Gaspar de Bufalo and Blessed Anna Maria Taigi who in turn was a close friend of Blessed Elizabeth Canora Mora. St Vincent Pallotti also moved within this 19th century Roman circle. The Passionists Blessed Lorenzo Salvi was himself close friends with St Gaspar del Buffalo and Blessed Dominic Barberi; he joined the Passionists because of the preaching of St Vincent Strambi. When St Benedict Joseph Labre died as a beggar on the streets of Rome, the children ran through the streets shouting that the saint was dead. Blessed Anna Maria Taigi lived in that very area of Rome and it is thought that she was one of those children who raised the alarm at his death, and that her mother prepared his body for burial. St John Vianney’s family gave hospitality to St Benedict Joseph Labre when he passed through their town. St John Vianney, in turn, was a friend of St Peter Julian Eymard, St Marcellin Champagnat and Venerable Pauline Jaricot. The boy saint Nunzii Sulprizio was directed by St Gaetano Errico. There were numerous saints in Turin who interacted with or influenced each other at the time of St John Bosco, including St Joseph Cafasso (his confessor), St Joseph Cottolengo and St Dominc Savio. St John Bosco also worked closely with St Maria Domenica Mazzarello. Blessed Elena Guerra was the teacher of St Gemma Galgani who in turn was directed by Venerable Fr Germanus. Saints Francisco and Jacinta of Fatima were brother and sister and were cousins of the probably soon to be beatified Sr Lucia. Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi was married to Blessed Maria Corsini; similarly Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were married and were the parents of St Therese of Lisieux and of Leonie Martin, whose Cause has also been opened. St Alphonsus Liguori was surrounded by an astounding number of holy souls during the early years of the Redemptorists – from those first members who associated with the saint in some fashion, there are 24 causes for canonisation that have been opened! And, a little while after the time of St Alphonsus, two well known Redemptorist missionaries in America were also close – St John Neumann and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was a friend of St Pedro Poveda, the founder of the Teresian Association. St Josemaria also received help from Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, the Benedictine Archbishop of Milan. He of course was also close to several early members of Opus Dei whose causes have been opened, in particular Venerable Isidoro Zorzano, Blessed Guadalupe Ortiz de Landázuri and of course Blessed Alvaro del Portillo. And of course there are those renowned for their holiness in the Legion of Mary who were close contemporaries – the Servants of God Frank Duff, Alfie Lambe and Venerable Edel Quinn. They would also have known Tom Doyle, unknown to many today but Frank Duff considered him to be THE saint of the Legion of Mary – remarkable praise indeed; his cause deserves consideration as well. Frank Duff would also surely have known the civil servant John McGuinness, a remarkably holy man who did much for the poor of Dublin – another potential cause that has been neglected.

I previously mentioned St Vincent de Paul and St Francis de Sales but didn’t mention that they were friends of each other. They were both also friends of Blessed Marie of the Incarnation (also known as Madame Acarie). St Francis de Sales was also a friend of St Robert Bellarmine; St Robert was for a while the confessor of St Aloysius Gonzaga. St Aloysius also received his First Holy Communion from St Charles Borromeo, who we already mentioned. Shortly before this time, St Peter Canisius was recruited to the Jesuits by St Peter Faber; St Peter in turn recruited St Stanislaus Kostka, and wrote a letter to St Francis Borgia about him – a letter to a saint, from a saint, about a saint! St Peter Canisius and St Francis de Sales also corresponded about matters relating to the Catholic Reformation. Staying with the Jesuit theme, St Alphonsus Rodriguez was a close friend and advisor of St Peter Claver. St Basil the Great and St Gregory Naziazen were also close friends. St Bernard was known for his close friendships – Ireland’s own St Malachy was a close friend and he died in Bernard’s arms. St Bernard had such an influence over others that over thirty other young men joined him when he entered the monastery. Some of these are family members, and several members of his family have also been beatified and/or canonised. I’m sure that there are other saintly friendships in the life of St Bernard about which I am unaware. 

Another monk, this time the famous Irish Benedictine, Blessed Columba Marmion, was also known for his holy friendships. He was close to the well known spiritual writer Archbishop Alban Goodier and of Cardinal Mercier. I’m cheating a little bit there as their causes have not been opened, but both of them were renowned for their holiness. However, I’m not cheating by pointing out that Blessed Columba was the spiritual director of the Servant of God Mother Mary of St Peter, the foundress of the “Tyburn Benedictines”, whose cause has been opened, and who was also a friend of Fr Doyle during life and a devotee of him after death.

St Bridget of Sweden, one of the Patron Saints of Europe, was the mother of St Catherine of Sweden. Two other Patron saints of Europe – Cyril and Methodius, were brothers. Saints Cosmas and Damian were also brothers. Closer to our own day, Blessed Charles of Austria was married to Princess Zita, whose cause has recently been opened. And speaking of family members, Blessed Joan of Aza was the mother of St Dominic and Venerable Margherita Occhiena was the mother of St John Bosco.

Also closer to our own time we find the friendship of St Damien of Molokai and St Marianne Cope. The great Spanish Carmelite reformer of the 20th Century, St Maravillas was a friend of the Jesuit Venerable Fr Tomas Morales, who founded the Crusaders of Mary. The founder of the Divine Word Missionaries, St Arnold Jansen, was a friend of St Joseph Freinademetz and of Blessed Helena Stollenwerk. And of course, Saint John Paul II had a well known friendship with Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and was naturally also friendly with many contemporary saints of his time, including Blessed Alvaro del Portillo. He was also appointed bishop by Saint John XXIII and created a cardinal by Saint Paul VI. He also corresponded with St Pio of Pietrelcina and went to him for confession on at least one occasion. 

Then there are numerous martyrs who supported each other during major persecutions. Consider the supportive friendships and good examples provided by the early Christians, those persecuted in Elizabethan England, the French Revolution, the Mexican Cristero War, the Spanish Civil War and as well as the Nazi and Communist persecutions. And then there are those blessed Irish martyrs who knew and inspired each other during the time of the Irish Penal Laws.

The number of saints who modelled themselves on other saints and who developed a spiritual, as opposed to temporal, friendship, with them is far too numerous to even begin to list them. Then there are the many unrecognised saints in heaven who inspired, and were in turn inspired by, other unknown saints…

We see this friendship also in the life of Fr Doyle. He was ordained on the same day as Blessed John Sullivan SJ; both were close to Fr Michael Browne, a remarkably holy Jesuit who many also argued should be a candidate for canonisation. and was directed by Venerable Adolphe Petit during his tertian year in 1907 in Belgium. He also assisted Fr James Cullen SJ in his work in governing the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. One wonders if Venerable Matt Talbot ever met Fr Doyle? He probably did, since they were around Dublin at the same time. Blessed Columba Marmion, as Fr Joseph Marmion, was a professor in Clonliffe and may well have interacted with Matt Talbot – the two were almost exact contemporaries and Matt was known to visit the priests in Clonliffe. Venerable Mary Aikenhead and Venerable Catherine McCauley were contemporaries who surely would have known each other; the famous Fr Henry Young, once known as the Curé d’Ars of Dublin was also a contemporary who would have known them; he also interacted with Luigi Gentili in Dublin at that time, as well as the famous Carmelite Fr John Spratt, another potential candidate for canonisation who has been ignored.

And of course, after his death Fr Doyle continued to inspire many others recognised for their own holiness. These include St Josemaria Escriva, St Alberto Hurtado, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, St Raphael Arnaiz, the Servant of God Monsignor Bernard Quinn from New York and Fr Wlodimir Ledóchowski, the Superior General of the Jesuits (whose own sisters have been raised to the altars: Blessed Maria Teresia Ledóchowska and St Ursula Ledóchowska).

And, because saints are humans and not angels, not all saints got on well together. There are surely fewer cases of disagreeing saints, and perhaps biographies don’t want to record them in quite so much detail. But we know that St Jerome and St Ambrose, despite being two great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, were not friendly, and St Jerome seems to have written to St Augustine in somewhat gruff terms. I seem to recall that St Charles Borromeo had a falling out with another saint, perhaps about vocations, but I can’t recall the details, so I may be wrong. I also have a faint recollection that St Philip Neri may have had a short lived misunderstanding with another saint, perhaps it was St Ignatius? Again, my recollection may be faulty here. But one thing we are more certain about – St John Henry Newman was distinctly cool towards Blessed Pius IX. I don’t know if they ever met, but St John Henry wrote about Blessed Pius IX as follows: “But we must hope, for one is obliged to hope it, that the Pope will be driven from Rome, and will not continue the Council, or that there will be another Pope. It is sad he should force us to such wishes.” Remember – this is about a beatified pope, written by a man who himself has been canonised, and who many consider to be a future Doctor of the Church. Such is the fascinating universality and liberality of the Church – we love Christ, we love the Church, we love each other, but still human sentiments and dislikes can survive and continue. 

Holy friendships ensure that we do not go to Heaven alone. But so too, bad friendships can drag us away from the Lord. One is reminded of the words of St Thomas More (who of course was closely associated with St John Fisher – another friendship to remember) to his daughter Meg as he was being led to death:

Pray for me, as I will for thee, that we may all happily meet in Heaven.

Let us live with our friends in such a way that we can be assured of bringing them to Heaven with us.

By the way, I would be delighted if anyone can add to this list – just leave a comment!

Thoughts for January 25 (Conversion of St Paul) from Fr Willie Doyle

The Conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio

Every grace we get enlightens the understanding and strengthens the will. When the understanding is enlightened, we have the awful alternative of cooperating with or rejecting the inspirations of grace. This we are either doing or not doing all the day long. God will not compel us, He will not interfere with our freedom, it must be our own choice. St. Paul was struck down when he received the inspiration. But he did not lie there as so many of us do. He got up and asked God what He wanted him to do. His will was strengthened because he accepted the grace that was offered. Let us do the same. From neglect of Thy holy inspirations, O Lord, deliver us.

COMMENT: “We have the awful alternative of cooperating with or rejecting the inspirations of grace.” Think about these words of Fr Doyle… This is the price of freedom. God wants us to love Him. But love cannot be forced. God does not impose himself on us. We are free to choose Him, or reject Him. But it is not a once-off choice – we choose to follow Him or not each moment of each day. So long as we do not freely choose to reject Him in a big matter then our souls remain in a state of grace, and our task is to train ourselves, with the help of grace, to continually adhere to God’s holy will in all aspects of our lives.

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Saul, as he was originally called, was one of the greatest persecutors of the early Church. God revealed himself to Saul in a dramatic moment on the road to Damascus. But He didn’t force Himself. Saul still had a choice. St Paul became the great Apostle of the Gentiles – neither loneliness nor shipwreck nor prison could prevent him from journeying to spread the Gospel. Imagine how impoverished the early Church would have been if Paul had ignored God’s grace. Imagine how many soldiers might have gone without the consolation of the sacraments if Fr Doyle had decided not to follow the inspiration of grace to become a military chaplain.

Look at the difference one person made in each of those situations. We may not be as heroic as St Paul or as Fr Doyle, but as St. John Henry Newman put it, God has called us to “some definite service”. We must respond to this grace with generosity and trust. If we do not, others may suffer. We will never know the good we have done, or the good that we could have done, until the end of our days.

In conclusion, let us also pray for all of those who now persecute the Church, whether they do so through physical persecution or through scorn and verbal attacks which are so typical in the media in the West. May they respond to the grace offered to them, and follow the road of conversion travelled by St. Paul.


Thoughts for January 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Francis de Sales


There is nothing better than the practice of aspirations, steadily growing in number. Keep a little book and enter them once a day. . . . I would like you to keep count of these little acts like the aspirations, but don’t go too fast; build up and do not pull down.

COMMENT: The use of spiritual aspirations – short heartfelt prayers which remind us that we are in the presence of God – were an extremely important part of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life. His diaries record how, at certain points in his life, he repeated tens of thousands of aspirations each day. Nobody quite knows how he managed to say (and count!) so many.

Today is the feast of St Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church. St Francis is one of the most efficacious guides to the spiritual life. His advice is eminently practical, especially for lay people, and one doesn’t need to be a great mystic to follow it. One of the key elements of St Francis’ teaching was that we do not need to do great tings to be holy, we just need to do out own work, even if it is very little, but do it with great love. We find the same theme in the advice Fr Doyle gave to others.

Fr Doyle referred to St Francis quite a few times in his letters of spiritual direction. Incidentally, like Fr Doyle, St Francis was naturally very hot tempered and impatient, and he knew that he needed to conquer this particular vice in order to reach holiness. He was so successful at this that everyone who knew him viewed him as the sweetest, most gentle and patient man they knew. This practice of deliberately targeting one’s dominant defect and focusing one’s spiritual energies on this specific point is a central part of the Spiritual Exercises which of course formed such an important part of the spiritual formation of Fr Doyle himself.

Back to the issue of aspirations… The following is a quote from St Francis’ classic book Introduction to the Devout Life on the issue of aspirations. As we can see, Fr Doyle was not alone in his devotion to the practice. St Francis’ analogy of how lovers constantly think of their beloved is especially apt in explaining this practice.

Do you then, my daughter, aspire continually to God, by brief, ardent upliftings of heart; praise His Excellence, invoke His Aid, cast yourself in spirit at the Foot of His Cross, adore His Goodness, offer your whole soul a thousand times a day to Him, fix your inward gaze upon Him, stretch out your hands to be led by Him, as a little child to its father, clasp Him to your breast as a fragrant nosegay, upraise Him in your soul as a standard. In short, kindle by every possible act your love for God, your tender, passionate desire for the Heavenly Bridegroom of souls. Such is ejaculatory prayer, as it was so earnestly inculcated by St. Augustine upon the devout Proba; and be sure, my daughter, that if you seek such nearness and intimacy with God your whole soul will imbibe the perfume of His Perfections. Neither is this a difficult practice,–it may be interwoven with all our duties and occupations, without hindering any; for neither the spiritual retreat of which I have spoken, nor these inward upliftings of the heart, cause more than a very brief distraction, which, so far from being any hindrance, will rather promote whatever you have in hand. When a pilgrim pauses an instant to take a draught of wine, which refreshes his lips and revives his heart, his onward journey is nowise hindered by the brief delay, but rather it is shortened and lightened, and he brings it all the sooner to a happy end, pausing but to advance the better.

Sundry collections of ejaculatory prayer have been put forth, which are doubtless very useful, but I should advise you not to tie yourself to any formal words, but rather to speak with heart or mouth whatever springs forth from the love within you, which is sure to supply you with all abundance. There are certain utterances which have special force, such as the ejaculatory prayers of which the Psalms are so full, and the numerous loving invocations of Jesus which we find in the Song of Songs. Many hymns too may be used with the like intention, provided they are sung attentively. In short, just as those who are full of some earthly, natural love are ever turning in thought to the beloved one, their hearts overflowing with tenderness, and their lips ever ready to praise that beloved object; comforting themselves in absence by letters, carving the treasured name on every tree;–so those who love God cannot cease thinking of Him, living for Him, longing after Him, speaking of Him, and fain would they grave the Holy Name of Jesus in the hearts of every living creature they behold. And to such an outpour of love all creation bids us–nothing that He has made but is filled with the praise of God, and, as says St. Augustine, everything in the world speaks silently but clearly to the lovers of God of their love, exciting them to holy desires, whence gush forth aspirations and loving cries to God.

Thoughts for January 23 from Fr Willie Doyle


I should examine all my actions, taking Jesus as my model and example. What a vast difference between my prayer and His; between my use of time, my way of speaking, walking, dealing with others, etc., and that of the child Jesus! If I could only keep Him before my eyes always, my life would be far different from what it has been.

COMMENT: The incarnation was one of the central moments of history, and the reality that the Word was made flesh is central to Catholicism. God has taken on human form. We can know Him. God is revealed to us in the sacred Humanity of Christ. Jesus should be our model and guide; we should seek to know Him through scripture, through prayer and through the Eucharist.

The Humanity of Christ was central to the spiritual life of many of the saints. St Teresa of Avila is particularly known for her devotion to the Humanity of Christ. It was while meditating in front of an image of Christ being scourged at the pillar that she experienced her deeper conversion to Christ.

Here are some words from St Teresa:

If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.
Many, many times I have perceived this through experience. The Lord has told it to me. I have definitely seen that we must enter by this gate if we wish his Sovereign Majesty to reveal to us great and hidden mysteries. A person should desire no other path, even if he is at the summit of contemplation; on this road he walks safely. All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding his life we find that he is the best example. 
What more do we desire from such a good friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, he will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near. Let us consider the glorious Saint Paul: it seems that no other name fell from his lips than that of Jesus, because the name of Jesus was fixed and embedded in his heart. Once I had come to understand this truth, I carefully considered the lives of some of the saints, the great contemplatives, and found that they took no other path: Francis, Anthony of Padua, Bernard, Catherine of Siena. A person must walk along this path in freedom, placing himself in God’s hands. If God should desire to raise us to the position of one who is an intimate and shares his secrets, we ought to accept this gladly.

22 January 1915

Last night I rose at twelve and knelt in the cellar for an hour to suffer from the cold. It was a hard fight to do so, but Jesus helped me. I said my rosary with my arms extended. At the third mystery the pain was so great that I felt I could not possibly continue; but at each Ave 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’s nocturnal prayer 107 years ago is a classic example of his asceticism. He did not find it easy or pleasant, but he strongly felt that God was calling him to such acts of penance. We are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penances, but neither do we have the right to stand in judgement over them, adopting a critical or superior attitude to one who was called by this special path. While Fr Doyle’s call was unique, there is still one thing we can all learn from today’s quote: we are capable of many hard things, perhaps even more than we imagine, with the help of prayer.

22 January 1911

My dear loving Jesus, what do you want from me? You never seem to leave me alone – thank you ever so much for that – but keep on asking, asking, asking. I have tried to do a good deal lately for you and have made many little sacrifices which have cost me a good deal, but you do not seem to be satisfied with me yet and want more.

The same thought is ever haunting me, coming back again and again; fight as I will, I cannot get away from it or conceal from myself what it is you really want. I realise it more and more every day. But, my sweet Jesus, I am so afraid, I am so cowardly, so fond of myself and my own comfort, that I keep hesitating and refusing to give in to you and to do what you want.

Let me tell you what I think this is. You want me to immolate myself to your pleasure; to become your victim by self-inflicted suffering; to crucify myself in every way I can think of; never if possible to be without some pain or discomfort; to die to myself and to my love of ease and comfort; to give myself the necessaries of life but no more (and I think these could be largely reduced without injury to my health); to crucify my body in every way I can think of, bearing heat, cold, little sufferings, without relief, constantly, if possible always, wearing some instrument of penance; to crucify my appetite by trying to take as little delicacies as possible; to crucify my eyes by a vigilant guard over them; to crucify my will by submitting it to others; to give up all comfort, all self-indulgence; to sacrifice my love of ease, love for sleep at unusual times; to work, to toil for souls, to suffer, to pray always. My Jesus, am I not right, is not this what you want from me and have asked so long?

For the thought of such a life, so naturally terrifying, fills me with joy, for I know I could not do one bit of it myself but that it will all be the work of your grace and love. I have found, too, that the more I give, the more I do, the more I suffer, the greater becomes this longing.

Jesus, you know my longing to become a saint. You know how much I thirst to die a martyr. Help me to prove that I am really in earnest by living this life of martyrdom.

O loving Jesus, help me now not to fight any longer against you. I really long to do what you want, but I know my weakness so well and my inconstancy. I have made so many generous resolutions which I have never kept that I feel it is almost a mockery to promise more. This record of my feelings and desire at this moment will be a spur to my generosity; and if I cannot live up to the perfection of what you want, at least I am now determined to do more than I have ever done before. Help me, Jesus!

Thoughts for January 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

Life is too short for a truce.

COMMENT: How typical is this pithy statement from Fr Doyle! We are here for a short time and we must love God and our neighbour during this short time. We must do our best to overcome our weakness and sinfulness in the few short years that we have on earth. There is no time for a truce, there is no time to slacken off in the spiritual life, for he who does not advance falls back. Of course, this does not mean that we live with intense frenzy and nervous exhaustion. Fr Doyle never allowed a truce in his battle against sin, but he was also a source of profound serenity and calm for those around him. The same can be said for all the saints.

Thoughts for January 21 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Agnes

Even as a child I was convinced that one day God would give me the grace of martyrdom. When quite small I read and re-read every martyr’s life in the twelve volumes of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and longed and prayed to be a martyr, and I have often done so ever since. As years went on, the desire grew in intensity, and even now the sufferings of the martyrs, their pictures, and everything connected with their death, have a strange fascination for me and help me much.

COMMENT: In today’s quote, Fr Doyle tells us that he – just like St Teresa of Avila and St Catherine of Siena – was deeply influenced by the lives of the saints as a child. We should encourage devotion to the saints amongst our children; even toddlers can learn important lessons and virtues from the lives of the saints.

Undoubtedly one of the martyrs that Fr Doyle read about in Butler’s Lives of the Saints was St Agnes, whose feast it is today. St Agnes, who was just 12 or 13, reminds us that even the young can have an ardent love of God and a willingness to die rather than offend Him.

Here is the text for the feast of St Agnes from Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The writing style is somewhat old fashioned, and perhaps some aspects of the story may owe more to the hagiographical golden legends of the saints than to historical facts (we simply do not know whether absolutely every aspect of such stories are completely historically accurate, but this does not permit us to completely dismiss them out of hand). In any event, it provides some insight into the martyrdom of St Agnes and the tales of heroism and love that inspired the young Willie Doyle.

ST JEROME says that the tongues and pens of all nations are employed in the praises of this saint, who overcame both the cruelty of the tyrant and the tenderness of her age, and crowned the glory of chastity with that of martyrdom. St. Austin observes that her name signifies chaste in Greek, and a lamb in Latin. She has always been looked upon in the church as a special patroness of purity, with the Immaculate Mother of God and St. Thecla. Rome was the theatre of the triumph of St. Agnes; and Prudentius says that her tomb was shown within sight of that city. She suffered not long after the beginning of the persecution of Diocletian, whose bloody edicts appeared in March, in the year of our Lord 303.

We learn from St. Ambrose and St. Austin that she was only thirteen years of age at the time of her glorious death. Her riches and beauty excited the young noblemen of the first families in Rome to vie with one another in their addresses who should gain her in marriage. Agnes answered them all that she had consecrated her virginity to a heavenly spouse, who could not be beheld by mortal eyes. Her suitors, finding her resolution impregnable to all their arts and importunities, accused her to the governor as a Christian, not doubting but threats and torments would overcome her tender mind, on which allurements could make no impression. The judge at first employed the mildest expression and most inviting promises, to which Agnes paid no regard, repeating always that she could have no other spouse than Jesus Christ. He then made use of threats, but found her soul endowed with a masculine courage, and even desirous of racks and death. At last terrible fires were made, and iron hooks, racks, and other instruments of torture, displayed before her, with threats of immediate execution. The young virgin surveyed them all with an undaunted eye, and with a cheerful countenance beheld the fierce and cruel executioners surrounding her, and ready to dispatch her at the word of command. She was so far from betraying the least symptom of fear that she even expressed her joy at the sight, and offered herself to the rack. She was then dragged before the idols and commanded to offer incense, “but could by no means be compelled to move her hand, except to make the sign of the cross,” says St. Ambrose.

The governor seeing his measures ineffectual, said he would send her to a house of prostitution, where what she prized so highly should be exposed to the insults of the debauchees. Agnes answered that Jesus Christ was too jealous of the purity of his spouses to suffer it to be violated in such a manner, for he was their defender and protector. “You may,” said she, “stain your sword with my blood, but will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ.” The governor was so incensed at this that he ordered her to be immediately led to the public brothel, with liberty to all persons to abuse her person at pleasure. Many young profligates ran thither, full of the wicked desire of gratifying their lust, but were seized with such awe at the sight of the saint that they durst not approach her-one only excepted, who, attempting to be rude to her, was that very instant, by a flash’ as it were, of lightning from heaven, struck blind, and fell trembling to the ground. His companions, terrified, took him up and carried him to Agnes, who was at a distance, singing hymns of praise to Christ, her protector. The virgin by prayer restored him to his sight and health.

The chief prosecutor of the saint, who at first sought to gratify- his lust and avarice, now laboured to satiate his revenge by incensing the judge against her, his passionate fondness being changed into anger and rage. The governor wanted not others to spur him on, for he was highly exasperated to see himself baffled and set at defiance by one of her tender age and sex. Therefore, resolved upon her death, he condemned her to be beheaded. Agnes, transported with joy on hearing this sentence, and still more at the sight of the executioner, “went to the place of execution more cheerfully,” says St. Ambrose, “than others go to their wedding.” The executioner had secret instructions to use all means to induce her to a compliance, but Agnes always answered she could never offer so great an injury to her heavenly spouse, and, having made a short prayer, bowed down her neck to adore God, and received the stroke of death. The spectators wept to see so beautiful and tender a virgin loaded with fetters, and to behold her fearless under the very sword of the executioner, who with a trembling hand cut off her head at one stroke. Her body was buried at a small distance from Rome, near the Nomentan Road. A church was built on the spot in the time of Constantine the Great, and was repaired by Pope Honorius in the seventh century. It is now in the hands of Canon-Regulars, standing without the walls of Rome, and is honoured with her relics in a-very rich silver shrine, the gift of Pope Paul V, in whose-time they were found in this church, together with those of St. Emerentiana. The other beautiful rich church of St. Agnes, within the city, built by Pope Innocent X (the right of patronage being vested in the family of Pamphili), stands on the place where her chastity was exposed. The feast of St. Agnes is mentioned in all Martyrologies, both of the East and West, though on different days. It was formerly a holyday for the women in England, as appears from the Council of Worcester, held in the year 1240. St. Ambrose, St. Austin, and other fathers have wrote her panegyric. St. Martin of Tours was singularly devout to her. Thomas a Kempis honoured her as his special patroness, as his works declare in many places. He relates many miracles wrought and graces received through her intercession.



Thoughts for January 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

Blessed Angelo Paoli


For the poor people on Dalkey Hill Willie constituted himself into a Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. He raised funds by saving up his pocket-money, by numberless acts of economy and self-denial; he begged for his poor, he got the cook to make soup, he pleaded for delicacies to carry to the sick. Once he went to the family apothecary and ordered several large bottles of cod-liver oil for a poor consumptive woman, and then presented the bill to his father! He bought a store of tea with which under many pledges of secrecy he entrusted the parlourmaid. On this he used to draw when in the course of his wanderings he happened to come across some poor creature without the means of providing herself with the cup that cheers. He by no means confined himself merely to the bringing of relief. He worked for his poor, he served them, he sat down and talked familiarly with them, he read books for the sick, he helped to tidy the house, he provided snuff and tobacco for the aged. One of Willie’s cases — if such an impersonal word may be used — was a desolate old woman whose children were far away. One day noticing that the house was dirty and neglected, he went off and purchased some lime and a brush, and then returned and whitewashed the whole house from top to bottom. He then went down on his knees and scrubbed the floors, amid the poor woman’s ejaculations of protest and gratitude. No one knew of this but the cook and parlourmaid who lent him their aprons to save his clothes and kept dinner hot for him until he returned late in the evening. While thus aiding his poor friends temporally, he did not forget their souls. He contrived skilfully to remind them of their prayers and the sacraments; he also strongly advocated temperance. There was one old fellow on the Hill whom Willie had often unsuccessfully tried to reform. After years of hard drinking he lay dying, and could not be induced to see a priest. For eight hours Willie stayed praying by the bedside of the half-conscious dying sinner. Shortly before the end he came to himself, asked for the priest and made his peace with God. Only when he had breathed his last, did Willie return to Melrose. His first missionary victory!

COMMENT: These lines come from O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle, and they describe his charitable activities as a young boy while living in Dalkey. It is not clear what age he started this kind of work, but given that he went to school in England at the age of 11, it must have been before this age (or else during school holidays). What a marvellous example for us! Fr Doyle’s later life shows the same charity and concern for others, even to the point of offering his own life to serve wounded soldiers.

Today is the feast of the Carmelite Blessed Angelo Paoli. He lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Rome. He was known as the father of the poor, and established hospitals and hostels to care for the poor of Rome. His motto was “Whoever loves God must go to find Him among the poor”.

In the lives of both Blessed Angelo and of Fr Doyle we find genuine Christian love. In effect, they followed the advice of St Francis of Assisi – to preach always, and when necessary to use words.

In a hostile climate where Catholics are viewed with such jaundiced eyes, the only way to touch people’s hearts is through love. After all, God is Love! This is the same recipe that made Catholicism so compelling 2,000 years ago. There was something about the early Christians that attracted so many converts, even at the risk of death and torture. Ultimately, this attraction was Jesus Christ, but surely it was the love that Christians had for all people that first opened the door to grace and conversion. Just as the world was evangelised through love 2,000 years ago, it can only be re-evangelised through love today.

G.K Chesterton, when asked to write an essay on what was wrong with the world, simply wrote “I am”. There is a real truth here. I am what is wrong with the Church. I am the reason why there are so may empty seats at Mass on Sunday. I am the reason that so many of my contemporaries are unaware that the Church is first and foremost about love…

Let us follow the example of Blessed Angelo and of Fr Doyle, by finding Christ in those around us, by loving them, and thus changing the world.