Thoughts for September 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Vincent de Paul

For fifteen years has Jesus been waiting for me to return to Him, to return to the fervour of my first year of religious life. During that time how many pressing and loving invitations has He not given me? What lights and inspirations, remorse of conscience, and how many good resolves which were never carried into effect. O my God, I feel now as if I cannot resist You longer. Your infinite patience and desire to bring me to You has broken the ice of my cold heart. “I will arise and go” to You, humbled and sorrowful, and for the rest of my life give You of my very best. Help me, sweet Jesus, by Your grace, for I am weak and cowardly.

COMMENT: In today’s quote we find Fr Doyle lamenting what he considered to be his unfaithfulness during his first 15 years of religious life. These lines were written during the 30 day spiritual exercises he did just after ordination in 1907.

In retrospect, it’s not immediately clear to us that Fr Doyle was lukewarm or lacking in zeal during his time studying for the priesthood. Many who knew him then considered him an excellent role model. However it is clear that Fr Doyle felt he lacked something during this time, and it is also clear that after this retreat he went about the process of serving God with a much greater efficiency and exactitude so that in comparison a very pious period of studying for the priesthood might seem lukewarm and lacking in devotion.

Fr Doyle isn’t the only great spiritual hero who felt he had much lukewarmness to account for. Today’s saint, Vincent de Paul, seems to have had very mixed motives during his early years. The desire to secure a prestigious ecclesiastical benefice and live in comfort seems to have been foremost in his mind when he was ordained a priest in his very early 20’s. In fact, he even had recourse to the courts to vindicate what he saw as his rights in the Church, and, so keen was he to protect his rights that even chased a man who owed him money to Marseilles. It was on this expedition that he was kidnapped by Turkish pirates and sold as a slave. It is this experience, plus the importance of friendships like those with St Francis de Sales and Pierre de Berulle that gradually brought about his conversion.

There are other important similarities between St Vincent and Fr Doyle. Both were renowned for their charity. In Fr Doyle’s case this started very early in life – as a child he would take food from his family home and give it to the poor around Dalkey, his native village. He kept this habit all his life, often giving away his food and gifts to soldiers in the trenches.

Both also stand in opposition to the dreadful disease of Jansenism. For anyone unfamiliar with this heresy, here is an excellent description of it, and it’s relevance to Ireland (and the history of abuse in Irish institutions) that I have taken from the blog of Fr Ray Blake:

The bleakness of the Irish institutions where abuse took place seems to reflects the theology of those who ran them. There is no Baroque exuberance, no time of festivity, just grinding tedium, where the norm is fast and penance mitigated by an occasional feast which is itself yet another penitential act. The pictures of these institutions show no sign of the Catholic sun shining, and black tea is served instead of good red wine, there is indeed only Calvinist gloom. One simply can’t imagine a sense of festival that is more than an empty mouthing of the Gloria in these grim mills.

People have suggested that Jansenism lies behind the appalling accounts of dehumanisation and abuse. What type of anthropology lies behind Jansenism? There is a heightened sense of sin, sin which cannot be overcome, but only beaten into semi-containment. There is a division of humanity into the saved and the damned, with the majority being damned. There is a tendency to see the poor, the weak as being damned, or at the very least as being beyond the influence of grace. Victims are damned, abusers are damned. Grace is given so sparingly, by a God who is mean with both love and Grace, and man, he is made in the same niggardly image. God is not merciful and forgiving but full of anger and rage, swift to condemn, waiting to punish. The wounds of the Son are not salvific but condemnatory, both victims and abusers are left without hope, the hell of now is but a foretaste of the hell to come. It is in this image man is created.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Irish Catholic history over the past century will instantly identify with what Fr Blake says here. Even if Irish priests and nuns didn’t know about Jansenism or thought that they were unaffected by it, it is clear that many were at least tainted with its spirit.

In St Vincent’s case, he knew the original promoters of this heresy, and tried, through gentleness and friendship, to win them back. There is no record of Fr Doyle writing about Jansenism that I can find, but it is clear that everything he stood for was in marked opposition to its dreadful spirit. Fr Doyle had a great love of the poor and the weak and a burning, passionate love of Christ. He was always gentle with others, and wrote a booklet to combat the problem of scruples. He encouraged the notion of spiritual childhood and the reliance on God’s grace to overcome our faults. There may be some who might mistakenly believe that Fr Doyle’s personal emphasis on physical mortification was tainted with Jansenism, but only somebody who completely ignores every other aspect of Fr Doyle’s life and writings could believe such a thing.

Both St Vincent and Fr Doyle are relevant to us today for another reason. It is truly shocking to read about the state of the Church in France during St Vincent’s lifetime. Priests were uneducated, slovenly, given to liturgical abuse and living lives of scandal. Bishoprics were seen as the hereditary rights of powerful families, and young boys were appointed bishops by these families in an attempt to secure their rights and benefices.

Yes the Church in Ireland, and indeed in much of the world, faces its fair share of problems today. But we must remember that it is in immeasurably better shape than it was 350 years ago. Both St Vincent and Fr Doyle were deeply concerned for the reform of the Church and for the priesthood in particular. Let us pray to both St Vincent and Fr Doyle, that they will intercede for priests and pray for the authentic reform of the Church.

To conclude, this seems like a fitting place to place Fr Doyle’s prayer for priests. This prayer lurks permanently on the right hand side of the screen, but perhaps some readers haven’t noticed it there…

O my God, pour out in abundance Thy spirit of sacrifice upon Thy priests. It is both their glory and their duty to become victims, to be burnt up for souls, to live without ordinary joys, to be often the objects of distrust, injustice, and persecution.

The words they say every day at the altar, “This is my Body, this is my Blood,” grant them to apply to themselves: “I am no longer myself, I am Jesus, Jesus crucified. I am, like the bread and wine, a substance no longer itself, but by consecration another.”

O my God, I burn with desire for the sanctification of Thy priests. I wish all the priestly hands which touch Thee were hands whose touch is gentle and pleasing to Thee, that all the mouths uttering such sublime words at the altar should never descend to speaking trivialities.

Let priests in all their person stay at the level of their lofty functions, let every man find them simple and great, like the Holy Eucharist, accessible to all yet above the rest of men. O my God, grant them to carry with them from the Mass of today, a thirst for the Mass of tomorrow, and grant them, ladened themselves with gifts, to share these abundantly with their fellow men. Amen.