Thoughts for the feast of St Pius V (April 30) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Pius V - the Pope of the Rosary

Last night I rose at twelve and knelt in the cellar for an hour to suffer from the cold. It was a hard fight to do so, but Jesus helped me. I said my rosary with arms extended. At the third mystery the pain was so great that I felt I could not possibly continue; but at each Ave (Hail Mary) I prayed for strength and was able to finish it. This has given me great consolation by showing the many hard things I could do with the help of prayer.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was greatly devoted to the rosary, and as we see in the above quote, he even turned it into an occasion of mortification. How typical of Fr Doyle!

It is interesting to read accounts of how the rosary consoled worried soldiers who were facing probable death. He regularly arranged the public recitation of the rosary for the troops, and I have read private accounts of how he would personally say the rosary with soldiers suffering from particularly severe fear, sometimes giving them his own rosary beads as a gift.

Here is a particularly touching account of a scene he witnessed just a few weeks before his death in the summer of 1917:

There were many little touching incidents during these days; one especially I shall not easily forget. When the men had left the field after the evening devotions, I noticed a group of three young boys, brothers I think, still kneeling saying another rosary. They knew it was probably their last meeting on earth and they seemed to cling to one another for mutual comfort and strength, and instinctively turned to the Blessed Mother to help them in their hour of need. There they knelt as if they were alone and unobserved, their hands clasped and faces turned towards heaven, with such a look of beseeching earnestness that the Mother of Mercy surely must have heard their prayer: ‘Holy Mary pray for us now — at the hour of our death. Amen.’

Today is the feast of Pope St Pius V. He was a zealous Dominican friar and reformer at a tough time in the life of the Church. He was the Pope who encouraged the formation of the “Holy League” to defend Europe from the Ottoman Empire – this resulted in the Battle of Lepanto in which the forces of Christendom were successful. It was a major turning point in European history.

St Pius V is known as the Pope of the Rosary because he encouraged Catholics to pray the rosary for the success of the Holy League. The feast of Our Lady now falls on October 7, the date of the Battle of Lepanto, and it was originally instituted by St Pius V as the feast of Our Lady of Victories.

St Pius V lived at a very difficult time in the life of the Church, and had to make many difficult decisions. Let us pray to him today for Pope Benedict XVI who faces his own challenges at this difficult time. Let us also remember the importance of the rosary in our own lives as we prepare to commence the month of May, traditionally dedicated to Mary.

Thoughts for the feast of St Catherine of Siena (April 29) from Fr Willie Doyle

What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes?

Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Catherine of Siena, although we do not celebrate it liturgically this year as it falls on a Sunday.

St Catherine is one of the greatest saints in the Church – she was a phenomenon in her own time and is a Doctor of the Church and one of the patron saints of Europe. She is also surely one of the great women of history.

St Catherine crammed so much into her short life. She was a tireless worker for the poor, an advisor to popes, a diplomat and peacemaker and a profound mystic. Her impact on those she met on her travels was such that the Dominicans had to appoint priests to accompany her in order to hear the numerous Confessions on the part of those who converted upon meeting her. The Church was in a state of crisis in Catherine’s day, and it could be said that Catherine saved the Church from many of the dangers it faced. And she did all of this as a young, uneducated, sick laywoman who died at 33 years of age. When crises threaten the Church, God empowers saints who are equal to the task of the reform needed, and He does so with such humanly weak instruments that we are left with no doubt that it is God at work.

There are two points that we might usefully ponder today. The first relates to Fr Doyle’s quote above. Holiness involves faithfulness to duty and is not dependent on great penances or indeed on mystical phenomenon or the great achievements we find in the lives of some saints like Catherine. In fact, St Catherine teaches us a wonderful way of performing our duties well. She was somewhat mistreated by her parents as a teenager – she wanted to live in solitude and prayer but her parents would not allow this. She was forced to work in the house and serve them, even though she didn’t want to do so. In order to overcome her dislike of this task, when serving them at table she would imagine that her father was Jesus, that her mother was Mary and that her brothers were the Apostles. This helped to inspire in her the charity that she did not naturally feel at that time.

The second relates to Catherine’s great love of the Pope. She defended the papacy against anti-popes, and she worked to ensure that the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon. Let us support and pray for Pope Benedict, especially at this time when he is so routinely attacked and mocked.

We shall conclude today with some quotes from Catherine on diverse subjects.

On finding God in the midst of a busy life:

Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.

Faithfulness to duty:

Let all do the work which God has given them, and not bury their talent, for that is also a sin deserving severe punishment. It is necessary to work always and everywhere for all God’s creatures.

To Pope Gregory XI, who was weak and indecisive:

You can do what he (Pope Gregory the Great) did, for he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as he was. The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbour, and courage.

To a cardinal, on the need for courage:

A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. How dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see not understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a man loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason for this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance or being and vanish like the wind.

To her spiritual director Blessed Raymond of Capua, on courage:

(I long) to see you grow out of your childhood and become a grown man…For an infant who lives on milk is not able to fight on the battlefield; he only wants to play with other children. So a man who is wrapped in love for himself only wishes to taste the milk of spiritual and temporal consolation; like a child he wants to be with others of its kind. But when he becomes a grown man he leaves behind this sensitive self love…He has become strong, he is firm, serious and thoughtful, he hastens to the battlefield and his only wish is to fight for the truth.

To those who think the Church’s day has come to an end:

If you reply that it looks as though the Church must surrender, for it is impossible for it to save itself and its children, I say to you that it is not so. The outward appearance deceives, but look at the inward, and you will find that it possesses a power that its enemies can never possess.

To us all:

If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.

Thoughts for April 28 from Fr Willie Doyle

We continue today with an excerpt from the original letter detailing some of the work Fr Doyle had to undertake towards the end of April, 1916. After these stressful days were ended, Fr Doyle was given a few days rest, and he was able to remove and change his clothes for the first time in over two weeks! Such was his exhaustion from serving the soldiers that he slept for 13 hours straight on his first night of rest! 

On paper every man with a helmet was as safe as I was from gas poisoning. But now it is evident many of the men despised the ‘old German gas,’ some did not bother putting on their helmets, others had torn theirs, and others like myself had thrown them aside or lost them. From early morning till late at night I worked my way from trench to trench single handed the first day, with three regiments to look after, and could get no help. Many men died before I could reach them; others seemed just to live till I anointed them, and were gone before I passed back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony: the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe; while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life. 

I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leant down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.

 

Thoughts for April 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle sent the letter below to his father one year after the gas attack of April 1916 (see yesterday’s post). In this letter, he reveals more details of what had happened on April 26-28 1916. It seems to have been an even closer scrape with death than he had let on in the original letter, and he seems to have held off telling his father about it in case it caused undue worry for him.

I have never told you the whole story of that memorable April morning or the repetition of it the following day, or how when I was lying on the stretcher going to ‘peg out,’ as the doctor believed, God gave me back my strength and energy in a way which was nothing short of a miracle, to help many a poor fellow to die in peace and perhaps to open the gates of heaven to not a few.

I had come through the three attacks without ill results, though having been unexpectedly caught by the last one, as I was anointing a dying man and did not see the poisonous fumes coming, I had swallowed some of the gas before I could get my helmet on. It was nothing very serious, but left me rather weak and washy. There was little time to think of that, for wounded and dying were lying all along the trenches, and I was the only priest on that section at the time.

The fumes had quite blown away, but a good deal of the gas, being of a heavy nature, had sunk down to the bottom of the trench and gathered under the duck-boards or wooden flooring. It was impossible to do one’s work with the gas helmet on, and so as I knelt down to absolve or anoint man after man for the greater part of that day, I had to inhale the chlorine fumes till I had nearly enough gas in my poor inside to inflate a German sausage balloon.

I did not then know that when a man is gassed his only chance (and a poor one at that) is to lie perfectly still to give the heart a chance of fighting its foe. In happy ignorance of my real state, I covered mile after mile of those trenches until at last in the evening, when the work was done, I was able to rejoin my battalion in a village close to the Line. 

It was only then I began to realise that I felt ‘rotten bad’ as schoolboys say. I remember the doctor, who was a great friend of mine, feeling my pulse and shaking his head as he put me lying in a corner of the shattered house, and then he sat beside me for hours with a kindness I can never forget. He told me afterwards he was sure I was a ‘gone coon’ but at the moment I did not care much. Then I fell asleep only to be rudely awakened at four next morning by the crash of guns and the dreaded bugle call ‘gas alarm, gas alarm.’ The Germans had launched a second attack, fiercer than the first. It did not take long to make up my mind what to do — who would hesitate at such a moment, when the Reaper Death was busy? — and before I reached the trenches I had anointed a number of poor fellows who had struggled back after being gassed and had fallen dying by the roadside.’ 

The harvest that day was a big one, for there had been bloody fighting all along the Front. Many a man died happy in the thought that the priest’s hand had been raised in absolution over his head and the Holy Oils’ anointing had given pardon to those senses which he had used to offend the Almighty. It was a long, hard day, a day of heart rending sights, with the consolation of good work done in spite of the deadly fumes, and I reached my billet wet and muddy, pretty nearly worn out, but perfectly well, with not the slightest ill effect from what I had gone through, nor have I felt any since. Surely God has been good to me. That was not the first of His many favours, nor has it been the last.

Thoughts for April 26 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle had many incredibly close shaves with death during the almost 2 years he spent as a military chaplain. He has recorded many of these in his diaries and in the letters he sent home to his father. One of these dramatic moments occurred on the night of April 26 and early morning April 27 1916. Here is an excerpt from a letter home to his father which recounts the experience in a lot of detail. A few things stand out in this letter. Firstly the fact that he recorded the event in so much detail in order to keep his father informed tells us something of Fr Doyle’s filial respect and love. Remember – when he wrote these letters he didn’t have the convenience of a desk and a typewriter. They were written by hand in a dug out, surrounded by danger and all manner of inconvenience. How many of us would easily excuse ourselves of the duty of writing home, preferring instead to sleep or take it easy in some other way? Secondly there is his trust in Providence and the seemingly supernatural help he received that day. Did he imagine this help, or did his guardian angel assist him in a special way on this day? We do not know, but it would not be the first time in history that somebody has received specific assistance in this form. Thirdly, we see something of the value of the priesthood and the sacraments, and how important the presence of the priest was to the dying soldiers, and how far Fr Doyle would go to assist them. 

Tomorrow we will reproduce the text of a letter he wrote a year later in which he gives even more details of the danger he faced on this occasion (he didn’t reveal everything to his father all at once in case it worried him) and on Saturday we will reproduce part of a letter which reveals some of the harrowing work he had to undertake in the days following this gas attack.

About four o’clock (in the morning) the thought struck me that it would be a good thing to walk back to the village to warm myself and say an early Mass for the nuns, who usually have to wait hours for some chaplain to turn up. They have been very kind to me, and I was glad of this chance of doing this little service to them. The village is about two miles behind our trench, in such a position that one can leave cover with perfect safety and walk there across the fields. As I left the trench about 4.45, the sun was just rising. It was a perfect morning with a gentle breeze blowing. Now and again came the crack of a rifle, but all was unusually calm and still: little did I think of the deadly storm about to burst and hurry so many brave men into eternity. I had just reached a point half way between our trenches and the village when I heard behind me the deep boom of a German gun quickly followed by a dozen others. In a moment our gunners replied and before I could well realize what was taking place, the air was alive with shells. At first I thought it was just a bit of the usual good morning greeting and that after ten minutes artillery strafe all would be quiet once more. But I soon saw this was a serious business, for gun after gun, and battery after battery, was rapidly coming into action, until at the lowest number 500 guns were roaring all round me. It was a magnificent if terrifying sight. The ground fairly shook with the roar of the guns, for the heavies now had taken up the challenge, and all round the horizon I could see the clouds of smoke and dust from the bursting shells as both sides kept searching for their opponents’ hidden cannon. 

There I stood in the very centre of the battle, the one man of all the thousands engaged who was absolutely safe, for I was away from the trenches, there were no guns or troops near me to draw fire, and though tens of thousands of shells went over my head, not even a splinter fell near me. I felt that the good God had quietly dumped me there till all danger had passed.

After a while seeing that this heavy shelling meant an attack of some kind, and that soon many a dying man would need my help, I turned round and made my way towards the ambulance station. As I approached the trenches I noticed the smoke from the bursting shells, which was hanging thickly over them and was being driven towards me across the fields. For once, I said to myself, I am going to smell the smoke of a real battle, and I stepped out quite gaily— the next moment I had turned and was running back for my life — the Germans had started a poison gas attack which I had mistaken for shell smoke, and I had walked straight into it!

After about 20 yards I stopped to see what was to be done, for I knew it was useless to try and escape by running. I saw (assuredly again providentially) that I had struck the extreme edge of the gas and also that the wind was blowing it away to my left. A hundred yards in the opposite direction, and I was safe. I must confess for a moment I got a shock, as a gas attack was the very last thing I was thinking about — in fact we thought the Germans had given it up. Fortunately too I had not forgotten the old days of the chemistry room at Ratcliffe College nor Brother Thompson and his stink bottles so I knew at the first whiff it was chlorine gas and time for this child to make tracks.

But I was not yet out of the wood. Even as I was congratulating myself on my good fortune, I saw both right and left of where I stood the green wave of a second gas attack rolling towards me like some huge spectre stretching out its ghostly arms. As I saw it coming, my heart went out to God in one fervent act of gratitude for His goodness to me. As probably you know we all carry smoke helmets slung over our shoulders in a case, to be used against a gas attack. That morning as I was leaving my dugout I threw my helmet aside. I had a fairly long walk before me, the helmet is a bit heavy on a hot day, and as I said, German gas was most unlikely. So I made up my mind to leave it behind. In view of what happened, it may appear imagination now, but a voice seemed to whisper loudly in my ear: ‘Take your helmet with you; don’t leave without it’ (On the anniversary of this escape he once more asserted: ‘Some invisible, almost physical, force turned me back to get my helmet.’)  I turned back and slung it over my shoulder. Surely it was the warning voice of my guardian angel, for if I had not done so, you would never have had this letter. 

I wonder can you picture my feelings at this moment? Here was death in its most awful form sweeping down towards me; thank God I had the one thing which could save me, but with a carelessness for which I ought to be scourged, I had never tried the helmet on and did not know if it were in working order. In theory, with the helmet on I was absolutely safe, but it was an anxious moment waiting for the scorching test, and to make things more horrible, I was absolutely alone. But I had the companionship of One Who sustained me in the hour of trial, and kneeling down I took the Pyx from my pocket and received the Blessed Eucharist as Viaticum. I had not a moment to spare, and had my helmet just fixed when I was buried in a thick green fog of poison gas. In a few moments my confidence returned for the helmet worked perfectly and I found I was able to breathe without any ill effects from the gas.

By the time I got down to the dressing station the guns had ceased fire, the gas blown away, and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Already a stream of wounded was coming in and I soon had my hands full, when an urgent message  reached me from the front trench. A poor fellow had been desperately wounded, a bullet had cut him like a knife across the stomach, with results you can best imagine. He was told he had only a few minutes to live, and asked if they could do anything for him. ‘I have only one wish before I die’, he answered, ‘could you possibly get me Fr. Doyle? I’ll go happy then.’ It was hard work to reach him, as parts of the communication trench were knee deep in water and thick mud. Then I was misdirected and sent in the wrong direction, but I kept on praying I might be in time, and at last found the dying man still breathing and conscious. The look of joy, which lit up his face when I knelt beside him, was reward enough for the effort I had made. I gave him Absolution and anointed him before he died, but occupied as I was I did not notice that a third gas attack had begun. Before I could get my helmet out and on, I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, which did me no serious harm beyond making me feel rather sick and weak.

As I made my way slowly up the trench, feeling altogether ‘a poor thing,’ I stumbled across a young officer who had been badly gassed. He had got his helmet on, but was coughing and choking in a terrible way. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘ help me to tear off this helmet — I can’t breathe. I’m dying.’ I saw if I left him the end would not be far; so catching hold of him, I half carried, half dragged him up the trench to the medical aid post. I shall never forget that ten minutes, it seemed hours. I seemed to have lost all my strength: struggling with him to prevent him killing himself by tearing off his helmet made me forget almost how to breathe through mine. I was almost stifled, though safe from gas, while the perspiration simply poured from my forehead. I could do nothing but pray for help and set my teeth, for if I once let go, he was a dead man. Thank God, we both at last got to the aid post, and I had the happiness of seeing him in the evening out of danger, though naturally still weak.Fortunately this last attack was short and light, so that I was able to take off my helmet and after a cup of tea was all right. The best proof I can give you of this, lies in the fact that I have since put in three of the hardest days’ work of my life which I could not possibly have done had I been really gassed, as its first effect is to leave one as helpless as a child.

Thoughts for April 25 from Fr Willie Doyle

I think I can say with truth that I have now no desire or wish except His. I have told Him that He may do just as He pleases with me, and take all, even my life. This has brought me great peace and a sense of great security in the midst of danger, since I know I am in His hands.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in April 1916. He had just 16 months left to live. To have no wish except to do the will of God is generally indicative of a very high degree of sanctity and is somewhat akin to the very advanced stage of the spiritual life called the unitive way. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the unitive way in these terms:

The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love. It is called the state of “perfect charity”, because souls who have reached that state are ever prompt in the exercise of charity by loving God habitually and by frequent and efficacious acts of that Divine virtue. It is called the “unitive” way because it is by that the soul is united to God, and the more perfect the charity, the closer and more intimate is the union…Souls thus united to God are penetrated by the highest motives of the theological and moral virtues. In every circumstance of their lives the supernatural motive which ought to guide their actions is ever present to their mind, and the actions are performed under its inspiration with a force of will which makes their accomplishment easy and even delightful.

It is very far beyond my competence to comment further on such advanced stages of the spiritual life. However, I will instead refer once again to the much more qualified and experienced Jesuit writer Fr de Grandmaison who I quoted two weeks ago:

We must unhesitatingly say that the life of Fr Doyle was that of a great mystic, as indeed it seems to have been that of a saint.

I would suggest two lessons today for those of us who struggle with our own mediocrity and inhabit much less lofty realms of the spiritual life.

In the first instance, barring a real miracle, such holiness is not acquired in one day – it is the result of struggle and co-operation with God’s grace over many years. The remarkable thing about Fr Doyle’s life is that this struggle is laid bare before us in his diaries and notes. Fr Doyle was not necessarily a great theologian of the spiritual life, but he was an expert tactician of the spiritual life. His diaries reveal his numerous attempts to go against himself and empty himself of self-love so that God’s grace could more readily sanctify him. While it would not be recommended for most of us to follow Fr Doyle’s particular spiritual tactics, nonetheless the general principle of daily examination and slow steady efforts towards virtue hold true for us all.

The second lesson is the great serenity and peace that Fr Doyle felt even in the midst of grave dangers. Often we can be afraid to let go of our own will and to abandon ourselves to God. Fr Doyle’s witness shows us that we find great peace, the greatest gift of all, even in objectively horrific human circumstances.

Thoughts for the Feast of St Fidelis of Sigmaringen (April 24) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Fidelis of Sigmaringen

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 round His standard, but He wants every one in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a Capuchin Franciscan who was martyred 590 years ago today.

St Fidelis had been a successful lawyer, but like St Alphonsus of Liguori, he became disillusioned with the law and felt called to the religious life. As a Capuchin priest he was renowned for his charity and care for the poor, working tirelessly to assist those suffering from the plague. He was also a devoted missionary who worked for the reunification of Christendom during the Catholic Reformation. It was in the course of these efforts that St Fidelis was killed out of hatred for the Faith by a band of men. As he was being killed, he prayed that they would be forgiven and when they encouraged him to renounce the Catholic Faith he declared that he had come to extirpate their heresy and not to embrace it. Some of those involved in his death subsequently converted to Catholicism as a result of his witness.

I’m sure that St Fidelis, who lived in the early 17th Century, would have agreed with Fr Doyle’s assessment three hundred years later that the “world is growing so rapidly worse and worse”. The division of Christianity in the West was a shattering event for those who lived through it.

If we fast forward three hundred years to Fr Doyle’s time we see a gradual weakening of moral values. Dangerous, atheistic philosophies were growing popular, subtly undermining the faith of ordinary people. In the year of Fr Doyle’s death, this philosophy of atheistic materialism made a breakthrough in Russia with devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of people for decades to come.

Every age has its crises, and it always seems that the world is indeed growing worse and worse. But yet, God still IS. The Holy Spirit is still at work, calling forth heroes who will be lovingly devoted to Him. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, He raised up great saints like St Fidelis and so many others of that era who would work for the reform and unification of the Church. We can see the same divine call for heroes, right up to the time of Fr Doyle, and indeed up to our own day.

And what of our own day? Yes, it is true that the world seems to have grown steadily worse and worse. This is so even here in Ireland where those who express Christian values are publicly mocked and made a laughing stock. Yet, God still calls for heroes who are devoted to Him. We have no excuse. If we have been born in this era of crisis it is because this is where God has placed us in order to work out our salvation and to save souls in the midst of the concrete circumstances of our lives and cultures. It has always been this way, for every age has its errors that, to borrow St Fidelis’ famous phrase, need to be extirpated rather than embraced.

Let us therefore serve God with generosity in whatever place and circumstance He has placed us. Let us never lose hope, even if the world seems to be growing steadily worse and worse. Let us remember the example of the saints, who never despaired despite the unfavourable cultures in which they laboured.

Recognition for two other military chaplains

Those who are interested in Fr Doyle generally take an active interest in devotion towards other heroic military chaplains. History is full of saintly military chaplains; one of them – St Lawrence of Brindisi – is even a Doctor of the Church.

Given the horrors and bloodshed of the last century there is no surprise that quite a few military chaplains died with well established reputations for sanctity and that some, like Fr Doyle, willingly gave up their lives in their service to their men.

Two such military chaplains have been in the news this week, and it is appropriate that we recognise them here.

Servant of God Fr Emil Kapaun

The Servant of God, Fr Emil Kapaun, whose cause for beatification is underway, has been in the news recently. A campaign is underway to have him awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Fr Kapaun lived a life as chaplain in the Korean War that in many respects was similar to that of Fr Doyle. He died in May 1951 in a prisoner of war camp with a great reputation for holiness and for service to those in the camp. You may read more about his life, and the campaign to have the Medal of Honor awarded here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17224774

Servant of God Fr Franz Stock

Also this week comes news of a possible miracle attributed to the intercession of the Servant of God Fr Franz Stock. Fr Stock was a German military chaplain who ministered to prisoners of war in Paris. His was the last human face that many people saw before their execution by the Nazis, and his role in assisting the French makes him a symbol of reconciliation and peace between the French and the Germans. The possible miracle involves a young man in San Francisco who was allegedly cured of incurable stomach cancer. His doctors had given up hope of his recovery and sent him home to die, but the cancer is said to have disappeared following prayers for Fr Stock’s intercession. You may read more about this possible miracle here: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/04/18/vatican-considers-healing-attributed-to-death-camp-archangel-in-hell/ and about his life in general here: http://www.clairval.com/lettres/en/2007/11/21/2211107.htm

Hopefully in time these causes will progress and we will be able to recognise two new saints who were military chaplains. With so many military chaplains of the 20th Century being formally recognised for their holiness, perhaps Fr Doyle’s time will also come.

Thoughts for April 17 from Fr Willie Doyle

I have just returned from a mission. Before going I made up my mind to give up for the week my mortifications at meals, partly through self-indulgence, partly to avoid singularity. I was very unhappy the whole time, Jesus reproaching me constantly for abandoning my life of crucifixion.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in April 1914. At this stage in his life, Fr Doyle was living a life of intense mortification. It is interesting to read that even one who was so advanced in the life of prayer and asceticism could yield to what he himself calls “self-indulgence”. The fact that self-indulgence could remain a temptation for Fr Doyle is surely something of a consolation for us. But it is also an important reminder that we shall always face temptations throughout our entire lives.

It is also interesting to read that Fr Doyle was unhappy with his self-indulgence (which we can be sure was of a very simple nature, and probably merely involved having butter on bread or maybe some dessert). Truly he had a very unique calling to the hard life, one we are not called to emulate. The serenity he felt – and transmitted to others – during the worst days of World War I is ample testament to this calling.

Thoughts for the feasts of St Benedict Joseph Labre and of St Bernadette from Fr Willie Doyle

St Benedict Joseph Labre

Second pilgrimage to Amettes from Locre. During the journey I felt our Lord wanted to give me some message through St. Benedict Joseph Labre. No light came while praying in the Church or in the house; but when I went up to his little room and knelt down a voice seemed to whisper “Read what is written on the wall.” I saw these words: “God calls me to an austere life; I must prepare myself to follow the ways of God.” With these words came a sudden light to see how much one gains by every act of sacrifice, that what we give is not lost; but the enjoyment (increased a thousand fold) is only postponed. This filled me with extraordinary consolation which lasted all day. 

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Benedict Joseph Labre. Fr Doyle had a great devotion to this saint; in one letter he outlines what he felt was a “strange devotion” that he felt to this saint, even as a boy. 

St Benedict Joseph Labre was a beggar; in the following quote from another of Fr Doyle’s letters home from the war he shows us his affection for this saint, as well as his own personal humour: 

I spent most of the next day wandering around the country, with a visit to the home and shrine of the beggarman saint, Benedict Joseph Labre. I often think he must be nearly mad with envy watching us in the trenches, surrounded, walked on and sat upon by his ‘pets’. But from the same pets deliver us, O Lord, as speedily as may be, this coming hot weather! 

The pets to which Fr Doyle refers are presumably fleas, lice and other creep crawlies.

There are two lessons that we may take from today’s quote and feast. 

Firstly, the obvious message relates to austerity, a particularly relevant one in this ear in which there is much talk of financial austerity. God called both St Benedict Joseph Labre and Fr Doyle to a distinct type of austerity. We can be sure that we are also called to our own particular type of austerity, but this will vary from person to person and will correspond with our state in life. It is almost certainly the case that we are called to a different, and lesser, type of austerity – it would be wrong for someone to attempt to copy Fr Doyle or St Benedict Joseph. But as St Francis de Sales tells us, our cross is made specifically for us, so whatever austerity we are asked to bear, it will stretch us and help to perfect us, even if it is not as objectively severe as serving as a chaplain in the trenches or living homeless on the streets of Rome. However, we must remember that whatever austerity we live with, it should never make us sour or unpleasant. Those who knew Fr Doyle always remarked on his cheerfulness and his good humour – his presence was s source of courage for the soldiers. So too with St Benedict Joseph Labre – despite his dirt and his poverty and austerity, his presence was a source of light to all those whom he encountered. Would that others would say the same of us!

The second lesson is that the call to holiness is universal. St Benedict Joseph Labre was a distinctly odd young man. He was certainly intelligent and very well read, but he chose (or felt called to) the life of a tramp. Some people even suggest that he was mentally disturbed, although perhaps that is going a bit too far. Nonetheless, the point remains that the young man who was not accepted into several monasteries and who wandered the roads of Europe visiting shrines and living homeless in Rome for a decade, far away from his family, was recognised by the Church as a saint worthy of honour and with virtues worthy of imitation. Truly there is wonderful diversity in the Church! 

There is a very touching post about the life of St Benedict Joseph Labre here: http://vultus.stblogs.org/2010/04/saint-benedict-joseph-labre.html

St Bernadette

Today is also the feast of St Bernadette, the visionary of Lourdes. I am not aware of any comments Fr Doyle made directly about Bernadette – she was beatified 10 years after Fr Doyle’s death. However, Fr Doyle did visit Lourdes, here is his record of the visit: 

Almost the first thing which caught my eye at the grotto was our Lady’s words: “Penitence, penitence, penitence”. On leaving, I asked Jesus had He any message to give me. The same flashed suddenly into my mind and made a deep impression on me. 

It is the same message Fr Doyle gleaned from the visit to St Benedict Joseph Labre’s house and the same message he lived throughout his own hard life.

And finally, as if these feasts were not enough, today is the birthday of our own beloved “Benedict Joseph” – Pope Benedict, previously known as Joseph Ratzinger, is 85 today. Happy birthday, Holy Father!