Thoughts for March 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle had many close shaves with death during his time as a military chaplain. One of those adventures occurred on this day in 1916. This incident, and Fr Doyle’s description of it, reveal several things about his character: his trust in God’s protection and especially his faith in the Eucharist, his own personal courage, his willingness to face danger in order to assist the soldiers and perhaps most of all his remarkable good cheer and sense of humour in the face of danger (and apologies in advance to any plump French women reading this!). Perhaps it is this good cheer that makes Fr Doyle such an attractive role model.

Here is the relevant excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle:

It was not long before he had an experience of real danger. On Sunday, 5th March, he said Mass for the 8th Fusiliers. After he had finished (about 9 o’clock) he mounted his bicycle in order to go to the 8th Inniskillings, of whom he also had charge, and say Mass at eleven for them. They were stationed four miles away near the ruined village of Mazingarbe. Fr. Doyle may be left to describe his adventure in his own words.

“On the way I noticed that heavy firing was going on ahead, but it was only when I reached a bend in the road that I realized the enemy were actually shelling the very spot I had to pass. Some soldiers stopped me, saying it was dangerous to go on. At the moment I was wondering what had become of the side of a vacant house which had suddenly vanished in a cloud of smoke, and I was painfully aware of the proximity of high explosive shells.

“Here was a fix! I knew my regiment was waiting in the village for Mass, and also that half of them were going to the trenches that afternoon for the first time; if I did not turn up they would lose Confession and Holy Communion, but the only way to reach them was by the shell-swept road. What really decided me was the thought that I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, and I felt that, having our Lord Himself with me, no harm could possibly come to me. I mounted the bicycle and faced the music. I don’t want you to think me very brave and courageous, for I confess I felt horribly afraid; it was my baptism of fire, and one needs to grow accustomed to the sound of bursting shells. Just then I was wishing my regiment in Jericho and every German gun at the bottom of the Red Sea or any other hot place.

“Call it a miracle if you will, but the moment I turned the corner the guns ceased firing, and not a shell fell till I was safely in the village Church. My confidence in God’s protection was not misplaced. Naturally I did not know this was going to happen, and it was anything but pleasant riding down the last stretch of road, listening for the scream of the coming shell. Have you ever had a nightmare in which you were pursued by ten mad bulls, while the faster you tried to run, the more your feet stuck in the mud? These were just my feelings as I pedalled down that blessed road which seemed to grow longer and longer the further I went.

“At last I turned the corner, reached the Church, and had just begun Mass when down came the hail of shells once more. One or two must have burst very close, judging by the way the walls shook, but I felt quite happy and quite ready to be blown from the altar, for I saw a fine plump Frenchwoman just behind me; she might have been killed, but I was quite safe!

“I mention this little adventure as I think it will console you, as it has consoled me, showing that all the good prayers are not in vain, and that this is a happy omen of God’s loving protection from all dangers. I have just heard that one, at least, of the men to whom I gave Holy Communion that morning was killed the same night in the trenches.”