Thoughts for June 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

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: The feast of St Oliver Plunkett is celebrate tomorrow, but since tomorrow is also the feast of the Sacred Heart we will instead remember St Oliver today on this website.

St Oliver Plunkett was the last Catholic martyr of Tyburn and, incidentally, the last canonised Irishman. He was Archbishop of Armagh, and returned to Ireland from Rome at a difficult time for his country. He endured great trials in his attempts to organise and reform the Church in his diocese.

I can find no mention of St Oliver in Fr Doyle’s writings, but it is practically certain that he would have had great interest in his life, especially since his beatification cause was nearing completion during Fr Doyle’s life.

On this day we should pray for the Church in Ireland which suffers so much at this time.

For those who wish to see Fr Doyle recognised more formally by the Church, it also consoling to remember that St Oliver, a heroic martyr, died in 1681 and was only beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975.

More information about St Oliver can be found at http://www.saintoliverplunkett.com/

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Thoughts for June 29 from Fr Willie Doyle

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) on the right, on his ordination day 60 years ago. On his left is Georg Ratzinger, his brother, also ordained on the same day

Feast of St Peter and St Paul

Jesus during His mortal life practised many virtues; but none is more conspicuous, none appeals more strongly to us, than His infinite mercy, His tender forgiveness of all injuries. A vile sinner is brought before Him, her very mien proclaims her crime. “Have none condemned thee? Neither shall I. Go, sin no more.” Magdalen, the bye-word of the city, Magdalen whose name was sin and shame, seeks His forgiveness and finds His mercy. Peter, the favoured one, denies his Master and turns his back on Him who loved him so; and Peter’s heart is won, even in his sin, by one loving look of mercy and compassion from the Saviour whose mercy is without end.

COMMENT:  The denial of St Peter, and Christ’s subsequent forgiveness, was a frequent theme in Fr Doyle’s notes. The image of a favoured apostle denying his Master seemed to resonate with deeply with him.

As for St Paul, Fr Doyle doesn’t seem to write much about him directly, although he obviously quotes him frequently in his letters. Fr Doyle resembles St Paul in his great missionary zeal. Just as Paul underwent shipwreck and imprisonment and deprivation to bring the Gospel to others, Fr Doyle underwent life in the trenches, and all of its dangers, to bring the sacraments to others.

Peter, Paul and Fr Doyle could all have stayed at home and lived relatively comfortable, safe lives. But they sacrificed this comfort because of their love of Christ, offering their own lives in the process.

On this day we should remember in our prayers the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. He too, could have comfortably stayed at home. He was looking forward to a happy retirement with his “friends” – his books. But the Lord had other plans, and Pope Benedict, a “humble servant in the vineyard of the Lord” complied. We pray especially for him on this 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, and we give thanks to God for blessing the Church with such a wise, prudent and holy pope in this difficult time.

The ordination card of Fr Joseph Ratzinger


Thoughts about Fr Willie Doyle from St Josemaria Escriva

The feast of St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, falls on June 26. However, this year the feast falls on a Sunday, and in particular it falls on the day on which many countries celebrate Corpus Christi. Thus it seems more appropriate to remember St Josemaria today.

Instead of a message from Fr Doyle, we have a message from a saint, ABOUT Fr Doyle. From point 205 of St Josemaria’s The Way:

We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter…; did take butter!’

May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy.

Yes, that’s right: the heroically ordinary “man of God” was none other than Fr Willie Doyle.

Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle caused something of a stir on its release. Within a few years the book had been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Polish (and perhaps translations I don’t know about?). This heroically ordinary Jesuit priest from Dublin seemed to have quite an appeal for people from very different cultures.

St Josemaria read a Spanish copy of the book in 1933. He wrote in one of his notebooks:

I have read quickly the life of Fr Doyle: how well I understand the butter tragedy.

For St Josemaria, his personal butter tragedy consisted in his battle to regulate the reading of newspapers. His notes from his 1933 retreat which refer to reading newspapers reveal how difficult this was for him:

This last, not reading newspapers, is for me no small mortification. Nevertheless, with God’s grace, I stayed faithful to it…What battles these struggles of mine were! These epics can be understood only by those who have gone through similar ones. Sometimes conquering; more often, being conquered.

How consoling this is for those of us who struggle with similar small distractions and temptations.

St Josemaria also wrote about Fr Doyle in a letter in 1938 to a member of Opus Dei:

I’m quite envious of those on the battlefronts, in spite of everything. It has occurred to me that, if my path were not so clearly marked out, it would be wonderful to outdo Father Doyle.

 Over the years, many millions of copies of The Way have been sold, and it has been translated into dozens of languages. Even though he is only a very small part of the book, it’s an incredibly powerful anonymous influence on the part of Fr Doyle. How many people have copied his example of small mortifications, without ever knowing anything about him, thanks to this reference from St Josemaria?

Perhaps this is a fitting place to include some references from O’Rahilly’s book on the matter of Fr Doyle and his diet. In all of this it is very clear that Fr Doyle didn’t find these mortifications easy; they were, as St Josemaria said, a tragedy:

He was systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points; every day he did many things for no other reason than that he would rather not do them; so that, when the hour of need and big-scale heroism drew nigh, it did not find him unnerved and untrained to stand the test. For most assuredly he was a man who daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. “Other souls may travel by other roads,” he once wrote, “the road of pain is mine.” He developed a positive ingenuity in discovering possibilities of denying himself. Thus he was always striving to bear little sufferings and physical discomforts were it only the irritation of a gnat without seeking relief; he tried to imagine that his hands were nailed to the cross with Jesus. He gave up having a fire in his room and even avoided warming himself at one. Every day he wore a hair-shirt and one or two chains for some time; and he inflicted severe disciplines on himself. Moreover, between sugarless tea, butterless bread and saltless meat, he converted his meals into a continuous series of mortifications. Naturally he had, in fact, a very hearty appetite and a keen appreciation of sweets and delicacies; all of which he converted into an arena for self-denial…

We find him pencilling this resolution on the first page of the little private notebook he kept with him at the Front: “No blackberries. Give away all chocolates. Give away box of biscuits. No jam, breakfast, lunch, dinner.”

…Just after giving a retreat in a Carmelite convent, he records: “I felt urged in honour of St. Teresa to give myself absolutely no comfort at meals which I could possibly avoid. I found no difficulty in doing this for the nine days. I have begged very earnestly for the grace to continue this all my life and am determined to try to do so. For example, to take no butter, no sugar in coffee, no salt, etc. The wonderful mortified lives of these holy nuns have made me ashamed of my gratification of my appetite.” That he by no means found this mortification easy we have many indications. Thus on 5th Jan., 1912, he writes: “During Exposition Jesus asked me if I would give up taking second course at dinner. This would be a very great sacrifice; but I promised Him at least to try to do so and begged for grace and generosity.”

“A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving,” he records a year later (18th Sept., 1913), “to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast. The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable. Jesus urged me to pray for strength though I could scarcely bring myself to do so. But the temptation left me in the refectory, and joy filled my heart with the victory. I see now that I need never yield if only I pray for strength.”

On the subject of butter there are many resolutions in the diary. Materially the subject may seem trivial, but psychologically it represents a great struggle and victory…It is in such little acts that man rises above the beast and fosters his human heritage of a rational will. So Fr. Doyle’s butter-resolutions are not at all so unimportant or whimsical as they who have ever thoughtlessly eaten and drunk may be inclined to fancy. “God has been urging me strongly all during this retreat,” he writes in September 1913, “to give up butter entirely. I have done so at many meals without any serious inconvenience; but I am partly held back through human respect, fearing others may notice it. If they do, what harm? I have noticed that X takes none for lunch; that has helped me. Would not I help others if I did the same?” “One thing,” he continues, “I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him: the promise to give up butter entirely.” On 29th July, 1914, we find this resolution: “For the present I will take butter on two mouthfuls of bread at breakfast but none at other meals.” To this decision he seems to have adhered.

…This relentless concentration of will on matters of food must not lead us to suppose that Fr. Doyle was in any way morbidly absorbed or morosely affected thereby. For one less trained in will or less sure in spiritual perspective there might easily be danger of entanglement in minutiae and over-attention to what is secondary. All this apparatus of mortification is but a means to an end, it should not be made an end in itself…This persistent and systematic thwarting of appetite helped Fr. Doyle to strengthen his will and to fix it on God. He never lost himself in a maze of petty resolutions, he never became anxious or distracted.

Alfred O’Rahilly concludes his discussion of Fr Doyle’s eating habits with some wise advice for the reader:

The armour of Goliath would hamper David. There are those whom elaborate prescriptions and detailed regulations would only strain and worry. And these best find the peace of God in a childlike thankful acceptance of His gifts, without either careless indulgence or self-conscious articiality.

As a humorous aside, Point 205 of The Way has been translated in the past to refer to a “marmalade” tragedy and a “sugar” tragedy because the translators could not understand the concept of giving up butter as a mortification. In any event, all three translations would be an accurate reflection of Fr Doyle’s life and asceticism.

Those who  are unfamiliar with Alfred O’Rahilly’s definitive biography of Fr Doyle, from where the above quotations are taken, can find details of how to order a copy of the book here.

Thoughts for June 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

The Birth of St John the Baptist

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. Fr Doyle does not seem to have written about St John very much, but in one letter to his sister, a nun, written on 19th December 1916, he alludes to the similarities between the harshness of his own life and that of St. John’s. The letter is worth quoting in its totality. Two things come across very clearly in this letter – his own natural abhorrence at the nature of his life in the trenches and, secondly, his supernatural joy and acceptance of this cross.

I want to have a little chat with you. But you must promise to keep to yourself what I write to you. Did I ever tell you that my present life was just the one I dreaded most, being from a natural point of view repugnant to me in every way? So when our Blessed Lord sent me to the Front I felt angry with Him for taking me away from a sphere of work where the possibilities, at least, of doing good were so enormous, and giving me a task others could perform much better. It was only after a time that

I began to understand that ‘God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts’ and the meaning of it all began to dawn on me. In the first place my life, especially here in the trenches, has become a real hermit’s one, cave and all, a mixture of solitude with a touch of the hardships of a foreign mission. The result has been that God has come into my life in a way He never did before. He has put strange thoughts into my head and given me many lights which I feel have changed my whole outlook upon life. Then I feel, oh, so strongly, that I am going through a kind of noviceship, a sort of spiritual training, for some big work He wants me to do in the future. I feel every day as if spiritual strength and power were growing in my soul.

This thought of being trained or fitted for God’s work (if I may use the comparison with all reverence) like St. John the Baptist, has filled me with extraordinary joy and made me delight in a life which could not well be much harder.

Here I am in a bit of a hole in the side of a ditch, so low that I cannot stand upright and have to bend my head and shoulders during Mass — I can tell you my back aches at the end. My only window is the door (without a door) through which the wind blows day and night; and a cold wind it is just now. I was offered a little stove but my ‘Novice Master’ did not want that luxury, for it never came. My home would be fairly dry if I could keep out the damp mists and persuade the drops of water not to trickle from the roof. As a rule I sleep well, though one is often roused to attend some poor fellow who has been hit. Still it is rather reversing the order of things to be glad to get up in the morning to try and get warm; and it is certainly not pleasant to be wakened from sweet dreams by a huge rat burrowing under your pillow or scampering over your face! This has actually happened to me. There is no great luxury in the matter of food, as you may well guess. Recently, owing to someone’s carelessness, or possibly because the bag was made to pay toll on the way up to the trenches, my day’s rations consisted of half a pot of jam and a piece of cheese!

Through all this, and much in addition, the one thought ever in my mind is the goodness and love of God in choosing me to lead this life, and thus preparing me without a chance of refusal for the work He wants doing. No amount of reading or meditating could have proved to me so convincingly that a life of privation, suffering and sacrifice, accepted lovingly for the love of Jesus, is a life of great joy, and surely of great graces You see, therefore, that I have reasons in abundance for being happy, and I am truly so. Hence you ought to be glad that I have been counted worthy to suffer something for our dear Lord, the better to be prepared to do His work. Ask Him, won’t you, that I may not lose this golden opportunity, but may profit to the full by the graces He is giving me. Every loving wish from my heart for a holy and happy Christmas. Let our gift to the divine Babe be the absolute sacrifice of even our desires, so that His Will alone may be done.

Thoughts for June 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

“No evil shall come upon you”, (Jerem. 23. 17). It is a consoling thought that God watches over us with unceasing care; that no matter where we may be – alone in our humble cell or passing through the crowded streets of the feverish panting city – the hand of God is over us and sheltering us from a thousand unknown dangers, guiding us safely along the path of life. Wicked men may plot evil things against us, all the hellish horde may rage in fury round us, but harm us they cannot without His consent who directs all things for His own wise ends.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle certainly personified this tremendous trust in God throughout his own adventurous life. But we also see this abandonment to, and trust in, Divine providence in the lives of all the saints, and none more so than today’s great saint, Thomas More.

There is something quite fascinating about lay saints. Perhaps it is my own bias as a layman that leads me to this conclusion. There are obviously many great saints who were members of religious orders, but then their entire lives – its structure and timetable and freedom from the cares of a family – more readily orient that life towards sanctity. Yes, it takes much effort, and grace, for religious to reach heroic sanctity, but at least the external form and support of religious life offers much help in this regard. For those of us in the world, there are no such supports. In fact, today there are so many temptations and structural obstacles that lead us in the opposite direction that it requires an even firmer will, and lots of grace, to even get us started on the road towards sanctity. That, however, is no excuse, for we are all called to perfection! This is why the many new lay movements and organisations of different types and spiritualities are a great assistance as they provide structure and support for holiness for those who must seek that holiness in the midst of daily troubles and distractions.

St Thomas More himself faced many obstacles to sanctity. It’s not spiritually easy to be the head of a large household and to be one of the most powerful men in one of the most powerful countries in the world. In addition to his extensive legal, political and scholarly pursuits (any one of which would have made for a very complete life), St Thomas was a real family man who took the education of his children (and his daughters!) very seriously. He was renowned for his cheerfulness and for the depth of his spiritual life. It is said that he went to bed at 9pm and arose at 2am every morning, spending several hours in prayer before setting off for his busy public engagements at dawn. He was also known for his asceticism, and wore a hairshirt under his robes. He was a third order Franciscan and, due to his relationship with the Charterhouse, was probably the equivalent of what we would today regard as a Benedictine oblate

When those around him compromised in order to maintain the favour of the King, St Thomas remained steadfast, and gave up everything to remain faithful to the Church. He knew the truth of Fr Doyle’s quote today  – God watches over us with care no matter where we may be and no matter whether we remain powerful and respected or whether we end up in prison awaiting death simply because we upset the powers that be. As St Thomas put it himself: 

Every tribulation which ever comes our way either is sent to be medicinal, if we will take it as such, or may become medicinal, if we will make it such, or is better than medicinal, unless we forsake it.

Let us pray today that we too may have faith in God’s paternal care for us; let us pray also for our political leaders, that they remain faithful to, and uphold,  the natural law.

Thoughts for June 21 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Aloysius Gonzaga SJ

Jesus told me today that the work of regeneration and sanctification is to be done by leading souls to Him in the Blessed Sacrament.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these notes in his diary on June 21, 1917, slightly less than two months before his death. Was this based on an actual vision or a locution or just a simply inspiration? We do not know, but ultimately it does not matter for the truth of what Fr Doyle writes is plain for us to see.

Today is also the feast of St Aloysius Gonzaga, a young Jesuit who died at the age of 23 in 1591. St Aloysius was – like pretty much every saint – deeply devoted to the Eucharist. He begged the Lord that he would die within the Octave of Corpus Christi. He received his first Holy Communion from the great St Charles Borromeo. It is said that he became so hot with devotion after receiving Communion that he often had to leave the church and bathe in a fountain to get relief. Perhaps this last story belongs somewhat to that line of exaggerated hagiographies; I have not read any scholarly review of his life so I cannot judge the truthfulness of this alleged aspect of his life.

Let us pray to St Aloysius that we may acquire some small taste of the devotion that both he and Fr Doyle both had for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Those interested in learning more about the life and spirituality of St Aloysius may find more information here: http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Saints/Saints_008.htm 


Thoughts on the Irish martyrs

Blessed Margaret Ball, one of the Irish martyrs whose feast we celebrate today

I have long had the feeling that, since the world is growing so rapidly worse and worse and God has lost His hold, as it were, upon the hearts of men, He is looking all the more earnestly and anxiously for big things from those who are faithful to Him still. He cannot, perhaps, gather a large army around His standard, but He wants everyone in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him. If only we could get inside that magic circle of generous souls I believe there is no grace He would not give us to help on the work He has so much at heart: our personal sanctification. Every day you live means an infallible growth in holiness which may be multiplied a thousand times by a little generosity.

COMMENT: Yes, it seems to be true that, in the West at least, a smaller army is gathered around Christ than in the past. In fact, that army seems even smaller now than when Fr Doyle wrote these words a century ago. Pope Benedict refers to this as a kind of creative minority. This means that there is an even greater need for those who adhere to Christ to strive for heroic virtue. Complacency is no longer an option. We may not be successful in our attempt, but the main thing is that we try.

We must also remember that the past was not necessarily a golden age. There have been many crises in the history of the Church, but in all of those crises the Holy Spirit has inspired heroes to witness to the truth of the faith. Today in Ireland we celebrate the feast of the Irish martyrs – 17 men and women who lost their lives because of their faith in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s and who were beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1992. Whatever crisis of aggressive secularism we now face in Ireland, we are at least not losing our lives for our faith. Yes, we may be belittled, we may have our sanity or our decency questioned. We may even lose out financially or in our careers due to a subtle discrimination against those of faith. In a sense, this is also a persecution, but a bloodless, psychological one. The Irish martyrs remind us of what our ancestors suffered to preserve the faith in Ireland. From this small land, many missionaries went out to evangelise the new world, especially in Africa, America and Australia. These 17, plus the hundreds of other unrecognised martyrs, and the other unknown multitudes who suffered in other ways, have played a significant role in the evangelisation of the English speaking world by preserving the faith for future generations. How well are we doing in preserving the faith for future generations?

Today is a day of remembering these heroic men and women, and being thankful for their sacrifice. It is also a day on which those of us in Ireland might well examine our consciences, myself included. What is to happen with these 17 Irish martyrs? Is there any interest in having them canonised? Is there any attempt to promote devotion to them? Do we pray through their intercession for miracles? Are we happy that they, and the hundreds of others who could be beatified, are largely forgotten?