The merit of living under religious rule may be gathered from the difficulty of always and faith fully keeping that rule. Holiness and deliberate violation of our rules are a contradiction.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle was known for his close adherence to the Jesuit rule, and the faithful fulfilment of its precepts is a recurring theme in his resolutions and notes. Adhering to a religious rule is tough, and because of this it is a sign of sanctity. St Teresa of Avila said that her nuns would not need miracles to prove their sanctity – if they faithfully followed the rule she established it would be enough for them to reach holiness.
Normally it is only members of a religious order to have rules that they have to formally live by. However, it would be a mistake for the rest of us, especially for lay people, to attempt to live without some rule of life. Many people establish rules or guidelines in order to help them get through their work each day. When people join a gym they are given set exercises to follow. If we are to take our spiritual life seriously we will also establish some rules or guidelines which we should aim to follow. Otherwise we run the risk of following particular spiritual exercises only when we feel like it, and as anybody who has ever achieved anything will testify, this is a sure way to fail!
Fr Wilfrid Upson who was Abbot of Prinknash Abbey in England in the 1940’s laid out the importance of having our own rule of life in the middle of the world in the following words:
Human nature is the same whether we respond to the monastic cell or whether we live out our lives in a normal worldly environment. Few are so spiritually minded that they can afford to neglect the help of some sort of rule of life and standard of spirituality to which they can endeavour to conform themselves when faced with the many problems of a world where even moral standards have ceased to exist.
A habit of ejaculatory prayer is a sign of nearness to God, for our own holiness will be in proportion to our love and thought of Him all day long.
COMMENT: St Paul tells us to pray always. The great saints and mystics lived constantly in God’s presence, almost unconsciously making everything they did a prayer. Yet, unless they have received many graces, it is unlikely that they started out with this constant presence of God. For many, it required much effort and discipline to overcome their natural human tendency towards dissipation.
One technique for living more completely in God’s presence is the use of aspirations – short prayers interspersed throughout the day to help remind us that we are in the presence of God.
If we love someone with a human passion, it is normal that we think about them throughout the day. Can we really say that we love God as we ought if we only think of Him during our times of formal prayer, or when we want His help with something?
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: Once again we see that Fr Doyle was ahead of his time. 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’s words seem quite radical for their time. He is of course writing to somebody who is striving to live a holy life, so his advice may not apply completely to somebody who has been away from the sacraments for a long time. His advice seems very Ignatian – to focus only on key faults in an attempt to eradicate them. But as always, his emphasis is not on the sin 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. This saint can be somewhat overlooked because today is also the feast of the Chair of St Peter.
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.
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. It seems like an old fashioned concept, although Fr Doyle was writing less than 100 years ago. Yet 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.
Yet, even though Fr Doyle’s emphasis on reparation may seem a bit old fashioned, it is also very radical, and ahead of its time, in another way. 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.
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 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. Yes, we may wish to adapt some of the penalties prescribed by St Peter Damian and we may consider that there is a role for psychological therapy in addition to punitive measures. But if it 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.
For some reason, however, especially in Ireland, the Church decided to prefer the solution of secular therapists to that of the saints.
And so we come back to Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests…
Once again we find that Fr Doyle is a model for us today. 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. Similarly, the Irish Bishops have recently issued a document calling for Friday penance in reparation for these sins, and indeed they now send out “tweets” (messages on Twitter for those unfamiliar with the term…) suggesting specific penances each Friday.
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.
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 the Servant of God, Fr John Sullivan SJ, who died on this day in 1933.
Fr Sullivan had a different personality to that of Fr Doyle, but some aspects of his spirituality were very similar. 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 a Protestant, 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.
Fr Sullivan spent most of his life in Clongowes, a Jesuit school not too far from Dublin. 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 cause is making reasonable progress. It is certainly a worthy cause that should be supported through prayer and active promotion. 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 two videos are well worth watching to learn more about the life of Fr Sullivan.
I saw many interesting places and things during my weeks of travel. But over all hung a big cloud of sadness, for I realised as I never did before how utterly the world has forgotten Jesus except to hate and outrage Him, the fearful, heart-rending amount of sin visible on all sides, and the vast work for souls that lies before us priests. My feelings at times are more than I can describe. The longing to make up to our dear Lord for all He is suffering is overwhelming, and I ask Him, since somehow my own heart seems indifferent to His pleading, to give me the power to do much and very much to console Him.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this note in 1912, after a period of travel in France, Belgium and Holland where he was investigating the feasibility of setting up a retreat house for lay people in Ireland. How our culture has changed over the past 99 years! What would Fr Doyle say were he to travel to these countries today? What would he say if he was to look at Ireland today? What would he say if he was to visit his old home town of Dalkey today, where the voters look likely to elect certain politicians in next week’s election who wish to remove religion from the school curriculum and legalise abortion without time limits…
In all of this we must avoid two great temptations. The first is to think that the past was a golden age, and that we now live in a time of unparalleled debauchery. Our culture, and the Church, has passed through many tough and un-Christian (and even anti-Christian) times in the past. We must always remain positive despite the troubles of our particular age. God is still God, and His promise that Hell will not prevail against the Church still stands (although we must remember that He didn’t promise that particular local churches, like the French, Belgian, Dutch – or even Irish – Churches would prevail…).
The second temptation is to judge others, and think ourselves immune. St Josemaria Escriva said that the crises in the world are crises of saints. If our culture has wandered far from the values we hold dear, it is because we have failed to live those values to a heroic degree. Certainly this is nowhere more true than in Ireland, where the scandal of abuse and corruption has fundamentally undermined the Church in the eyes of many.
As Fr Doyle says, we must beg for the grace to do much, very much, to console Jesus. We can follow the example of today’s saint, Geltrude Comensoli. She was dedicated to Christ in the Eucharist, and found therein the strength she needed for her apostolic labours. She focussed her particular apostolic efforts on the education of young women working in factories. This was a pressing social need of late 19th Century Italy. Different priorities may present themselves to us today, but we must always remember that we will never succeed in re-generating our culture except by fulfilling our individual vocation in union with God.
We should call a man a fool who wasted his wealth warming himself before a fire made of banknotes. Do we act less madly in seeking gratification by consuming our precious day in frivolities?
COMMENT: Fr Doyle often wrote about how each day is a precious opportunity to grow in holiness. We never stand still in the spiritual life – we either move forward towards sanctity, or we regress. How many of us live wasteful lives of frivolity? Even if we are basically “good” people, we can still be consumed with frivolous habits that distract us from the holiness and good works with which we should be busy. By this I don’t mean that we waste time with legitimate leisure pursuits and relaxation. Such activities are both good and necessary in a balanced life. But even if we do try to live balanced lives, there will probably be some form of frivolity (such as television, food, internet, sleep, gossip, day dreaming…) with which we are often tempted.
Lent starts in 3 weeks. Perhaps this year it might be a good idea to focus our Lenten penitential activities on removing these frivolities from our lives and replacing them with prayer, work or acts of charity.