Thoughts about Fr Willie Doyle for August 18

Fr Doyle was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery at the Battle of the Somme

As we have been reflecting on Fr Doyle’s heroic activities in the trenches and on the battlefield over the past few weeks, we could form the impression that he was some form of clerical Rambo, a superhero who never felt fear and who was thrilled with danger and with war.

If we believed this, we would be very mistaken.

After his death, many testified about Fr Doyle’s courage. They based this only on what they saw, not on what went on inside of him. Hence it is worthwhile to quote the following letter from an unnamed army colonel who knew him intimately:

Fr Doyle felt fear deeply. He had a highly-strung nervous system and a vivid imagination that visualised danger fully, and realised the risk before him – all the physical elements of cowardice were his. He went out to perils, not at the word of command that meant death to disobey, not with the lust of battle surging in his veins and sweeping him along with a primitive savage longing to kill, not in the company of cheering, sustaining comrades. Fr Doyle had no word of command but his conscience and his sense of duty. He had no violent emotions to blind him to danger. Usually he had no comrade to bear him save grim Death, who walked very close to him at times. It may sound a paradox, but it is the perfect truth: Fr Doyle was the biggest coward in the 16th Division, and the bravest man in the British army!

This echoes the testimony that Fr Francis Browne SJ, a fellow chaplain:

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… 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.

Fr Doyle, like any normal human, hated the cold, the heat, the trenches, the vermin, the mud, the shells, the hunger, the  violence and everything else involved in that most awful of wars. And that’s why he is such a compelling figure. He went beyond the strict call of duty because of his heroic virtue. To acquire this virtue he of course had to rely on God’s grace, but he also had to dispose himself to receive that grace, and he did so by his life of constant prayer and self-denial, without which he would certainly have yielded to his fears in the trenches.

The simple humanity of Fr Doyle is very reassuring to us. But it is also a challenge. If Fr Doyle, fallen and human like us, could work and pray to acquire such heroic virtue, why can’t we?