Thoughts for the Feast of the Visitation from Fr Willie Doyle

To Mary’s feet in heaven today the angels come in never-ending stream to lay before her the offerings of her loving earthly children. To their Queen they bear fair wreaths of lovely roses. In many a lonely cottage or amid the bustle of the great city have these crowns been formed. Little ones and old folk, the pious nun and holy priest, the sinner too and many a wandering soul, have added to the glory of the Queen of Heaven; and from every corner of this earth to-day has risen the joyous praise of her who is Queen of the Holy Rosary. On earth she was the lowly handmaid of the Lord, and now all generations proclaim the greatness of her name.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of the Visitation in which we commemorate the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. In this scene we find Mary being an instrument of grace, bringing Jesus to Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist. We see Mary’s humility and concern for others in her travel in “haste” to assist Elizabeth. And it is from today’s feast that we derive some of the most beautiful Marian prayers.

Fr Doyle tells us that from all around the world prayers rise to Mary in her honour. There is a beautiful tradition in Rome – the Pope leads a rosary procession around the Vatican Gardens with members of the public on the evening of this feast every year.

We shall conclude today with these words from St Bernard, Doctor of the Church.

O Mary, how great is your humility when you hasten to serve others. If it is true that he who humbles himself will be exalted, who will be more exalted than you who have humbled yourself so much?

When Elizabeth caught sight of you she was astonished and exclaimed: “Whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” But I am still more astonished to see that you, as well as your Son, came not to be served, but to serve…

Humility did not make you fainthearted, magnanimity did not make you proud, but these two virtues were perfectly combined in you! O Mary, you cannot give me a share in your great privileges as Mother of God; these belong to you alone! But you want me to share in your virtues, giving me examples of them in yourself. If, then, sincere humility, magnanimous faith, and delicate sympathetic charity are lacking in me, how can I excuse myself? O Mary, O Mother of mercy, you who are full of grace, nourish us, your poor little ones, with your virtues!

St Bernard

Thoughts for May 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

We must be intellectually pious, that is, our piety should rest on the bedrock of principle, and not on mood, on sentiment, on spiritual consolation. 

COMMENT: In the Gospel of St Matthew Jesus tells us that it is an unfaithful and wicked generation that looks for a sign. But despite this, how many of us continue along this path, seeking consolations and signs in all sorts of ways? There are those who are overly fascinated with apparitions and with miracles and signs and wonders and with the mystical gifts of saints rather than with their witness of heroic virtue. These things are not bad in themselves, but they can be a distraction, for they do not touch upon the truly essential thing. Our task is to love God simply because he is God. 

It is true that God may for a time give some people special consolations and gifts. However, it is more likely that we will face many periods of dryness and spiritual aridity. Many of the saints experienced long periods of spiritual darkness, but they persevered because they loved Jesus. They were not mercenaries…

St Josemaria Escriva has expressed the attitude we should adopt very succinctly:

When you go to pray, let this be a firm resolution: Don’t prolong your prayer because you find consolation in it or shorten it because you feel dry.

St Josemaria Escriva
St Josemaria Escriva

Thoughts for Memorial Day

A certain Roman Catholic chaplain…lies in a soldier’s grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battle field with bullets whining about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them Absolution, walking with death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with reverence and a kind of awe until a shell burst near him and he was killed. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place. Each time he came back across the field he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head and went again into the storm. He had been with his boys at Ginchy and through other times of stress, and he would not desert them in their agony. They remember him as a saint. they speak his name with tears.

COMMENT: The above quote does not come from Fr Doyle today, but from Percival Phillips, a war correspondent who published the above tribute to Fr Doyle in the Daily Express on 22 August 1917, less than a week after Fr Doyle’s death.

Today is Memorial Day in the United States and I have chosen the above quote, which refers to Fr Doyle’s war exploits, specifically for any American visitors today – many of the readers of this site are based in the US. Fr Doyle, while obviously not American, is one in a long line of saintly military chaplains who laid down his life in service of others, and he is very much in the mode of Fr Vincent Capodanno and Fr Emil Kapaun who will probably be well known to American visitors. The short YouTube video below gives some small insight into the life and spirit of Fr Doyle.

Thoughts for May 26 (St Philip Neri) from Fr Willie Doyle

Dear Sir — One is often struck, on glancing over the papers, at the numerous appeals made to provide ‘comforts for our troops,’ but no one ever seems to think that the souls of those who have fallen in battle may possibly be in need of much greater comfort than the bodies of their comrades who survive .

With all the spiritual help now at their disposal, even in the very firing line, we may be fairly confident that few, if any, of our Catholic men are unprepared to meet Almighty God. That does not mean they are fit for Heaven. God’s justice must be fully satisfied, and the debt of forgiven sin fully atoned for in Purgatory. Hence I venture to appeal to the great charity of your readers to provide ‘comforts for our dead soldiers’ by having Masses offered for their souls. Remembrance of our dead and gratitude are virtues dear to every Irish heart. Our brave lads have suffered and fought and died for us. They have nobly given their lives for God and country. It is now our turn to make some slight sacrifice, so that they may soon enter into the joy of eternal rest. — Very faithfully yours, NEMO.

COMMENT: This letter appeared in the Irish Catholic on this day in 1917. The author was, of course, Fr Doyle himself, who, due to his characteristic humility, wished to disguise his identity and write under a pseudonym.

Was there any limit to his care for the soldiers? He looked after their physical needs, he shared his meagre food with them, he gave up all comfort and even life itself in order to bring the sacraments to them. And here, in the midst of all his other activities, he found time to write a letter back home to encourage Masses for the dead. What a simple, yet loving, act this was. He was willing to sacrifice his time to provide aid for the souls of Irish soldiers in purgatory.

Perhaps we can examine our conscience on this issue today. Do we pray for the dead? Do we remember our deceased loved ones? Do we take time out of our busy lives to write letters or emails to those who would appreciate it? Do we write letters to newspapers to defend the Church in the midst of the persecutions she faces in these times? If Fr Doyle, facing death every day, found time to do this, do we have any real excuse?

Today is also the feast of St Philip Neri, who died in 1595 (we do not celebrate the feast liturgically as it falls on a Sunday). St Philip is one of those remarkable, lovable saints. There are many aspects of St Philip’s life that are similar to that of Fr Doyle’s. Both were renowned for their cheerfulness and love of practical jokes; both had a very affectionate and passionate love for Christ which revealed itself with the tenderness with which they greeted religious items and statues; both longed to go on the missions but could not – St Philip understood that Rome was to be his Indies. Both were devoted to the ministry of the Confessional. In fact, St Philip was one of the truly great confessors who was given the mystical gift of reading souls. In relation to today’s quote from Fr Doyle about the souls in Purgatory, we can recall that St Philip was always concerned about these departed souls, and when he approached death he begged those whose confessions he heard to say a rosary for his own soul after death. St Philip is one of those very lovable saints who is perhaps not as widely known today as he should be, especially in English speaking countries.

Remarkably, St Philip also has a military connection – he is the patron saint of the US Special Forces, a remarkable fact about an Italian saint who died over 400 years ago and never had any connection with the military during his earthly life.

St Philip Neri

Thoughts for May 25 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle wrote these words in late May 1917, and they recount some of the events he experienced in the war around this time. Once again, his love for the soldiers, his care for both their spiritual and human needs and his basic good humour shine through.

The enemy for once did me a good turn. I had arranged to hear the men’s confessions shortly before he opened fire, and a couple of well directed shells helped my work immensely by putting the fear of God into the hearts of a few careless boys who might not have troubled about coming near me otherwise. I wonder were the Sacraments ever administered under stranger circumstances? Picture my little dug-out (none too big at any time) packed with men who had dashed in for shelter from the splinters and shrapnel coming down like hail. In one corner is kneeling a poor fellow recently joined — who has not ‘knelt to the priest’ as the men quaintly say, for many a day — trying to make his Confession. I make short work of that, for a shower of clay and stones falling at the door is a gentle hint that the ‘crumps’ are getting uncomfortably near, and I want to give him Absolution in case an unwelcome visitor should walk in. Then, while the ground outside rocks and seems to split with the crash of the shells, I give them all Holy Communion, say a short prayer, and perform the wonderful feat of packing a few more men into our sardine tin of a house.

As soon as I got the chance, I slipped round to see how many casualties there were, for I thought not a mouse could survive the bombardment. Thank God, no one was killed or even badly hit, and the firing having ceased, we could breathe again. I was walking up the trench from the dressing station when I suddenly heard the scream of another shell. … It was then I realized my good fortune. There are two ways to my dug-out, and naturally I choose the shorter. This time, without any special reason, I went by the longer way; and it was well I did, for the shell pitched in the other trench, and probably would have caught me nicely as I went by. But instead of that it wreaked its vengeance on my unfortunate orderly, who was close by in his dug-out, sending him spinning on his head but other wise not injuring him I found another string of men awaiting my return in order to get Confession and Holy Communion. In fact I had quite a busy evening, thanks once more to Fritz’s High Explosive, which has a wonderful persuasive effect of its own. I am wondering how many pounds of high explosive I shall require when giving my next retreat!

Thoughts for May 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

One German prisoner, badly wounded in the leg, was brought in. He knew only a few words of English, but spoke French fluently. I try to do all I can for the unfortunate prisoners, as sometimes not much sympathy is shown them, and they have evidently been drilled into believing that we promptly roast and eat them alive. I gave him a drink, made him as comfortable as possible, and then seeing a rosary in his pocket, asked him was he a Catholic. ‘I am a Catholic priest,’ I said, ‘and you need not have any fear’.

‘Ah’, he replied, ‘you are a true priest’. He gave me his home address in Germany, and asked me to write to his parents. ‘Poor father and mother will be uneasy,’ he said, as his eyes filled with tears. ‘O my God, how I am suffering, but I offer it all up to You’. I hope to get a letter through by means of the Swiss Red Cross, which will be a comfort to his anxious parents, who seem good pious souls.

COMMENT: This incident occurred on this day in 1917. It demonstrates Fr Doyle’s kindness to everyone he met, even to one who was probably firing shells at him just a few days previously. There are many other recorded instances of Fr Doyle’s kindness to German prisoners. He fed them, tended to their wounds, found them something to eat or drink.

In this way he reflected his Master who told us to love our enemies and that whatever we do for others should be considered as done to Christ also.

Thoughts for May 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

The following quote from one of Fr Doyle’s letters recounts some of his war time adventures on 23 May 1917. What shines out for us on this occasion is Fr Doyle’s naturalness, his dedication to providing the sacraments to the soldiers and, as always, his calm courage – I’m not sure that many of us would sum up these events by saying “there was really little danger”…

What is I had been along the front line as usual to give the men a General Absolution which they are almost as anxious to receive for the comfort it will be for their friends at home, should they fall, as for themselves. I was coming down to the advanced dressing station, when I learned that a small party had ‘gone over the top’ on our right, though I had been told the raid was only from the left. When I got to the spot I found they had all gone and were lying well out in No Man’s Land. It was a case of Mahomet and the mountain once more. The poor ‘mountain’ could not come back, though they were just longing to, but the prophet could go out, could he not? So Mahomet rolled over the top of the sandbags into a friendly shell hole, and started to crawl on his hands and knees and stomach towards the German trenches. Mahomet, being only a prophet, was allowed to use bad language, of which privilege he availed himself, so report goes, to the full, for the ground was covered with bits of broken barbed wire, shell splinters, nettles, etc., etc., and the poor prophet on his penitential pilgrimage left behind him much honest sweat and not a few drops of blood.

That was a strange scene! A group of men lying on their faces, waiting for certain death to come to some of them, whispering a fervent act of contrition, and God’s priest, feeling mighty uncomfortable and wishing he were safely in bed a thousand miles away, raising his hand in Absolution over the prostrate figures. One boy, some little distance off, thinking the Absolution had not reached him, knelt bolt upright, and made an act of contrition you could have heard in Berlin, nearly giving the whole show away and drawing the enemy’s fire.

There was really little danger, as shell holes were plentiful, but not a little consolation when I buried the dead next day to think that none of them had died without Absolution. I was more afraid getting back into our own trenches; for sentries, seeing a man coming from the direction of No Man’s Land, do not bother much about asking questions and object to nocturnal visitors.

Reminder: A lady from Dalkey approached me at the end of my talk in Glasthule on Monday evening and told me that she had some information for me. I would be very grateful if she could email me at frwilliedoyle@gmail.com