Thoughts for February 19 (Anniversary of Fr John Sullivan SJ) from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr John Sullivan SJ

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.

Ordination ceremony, 28 July 1907

Fr Sullivan spent most of his life in Clongowes, a Jesuit school not too far from Dublin where Fr Doyle had also spent some time prior to his ordination. 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.

Thoughts for February 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

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 100 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?

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…). We should, however, take courage from the words of Blessed Columba Marmion:

Now let us remind ourselves that, in these our days, the Heart of Jesus is not less loving nor His arm less powerful. God is ready to shed His graces upon us…as abundant and as useful as those he shed upon the first Christians. He does not love us less than he loved them.

The second temptation is to judge others, and think ourselves immune from corruption. 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 close union with God.

St Geltrude Comensoli

Thoughts for February 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

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 and today’s quote is no exception. 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 our families or friends or our duties in life. Essentially these frivolities draw us away from the holiness and good works with which we should be busy. Of course, we need a balanced asceticism. We all need legitimate leisure pursuits and relaxation. Such activities are both good and necessary in a balanced life. Fr Doyle himself was noted for his robust enjoyment of sport. But even if we do try to live balanced lives, there will probably be some form of frivolity with which we are tempted. In today’s world it is likely to revolve around the internet or the new phenomenon of social media. That’s not to say that these things are bad – they are not! (Especially not this particular site!!). But many of us may need to examine ourselves to see if we have acquired the habit of using these new technologies in a wasteful or frivolous manner.

When Venerable Matt Talbot died, his room contained many spiritual books and it was partly through these books that we have been able to get a glimpse into his spiritual life (with Fr Doyle this process is easier due to the copious notes he left behind). One of the books in Matt Talbot’s room was a book entitled “On Reading” by Bishop Hedley. The following passage was underlined for emphasis by Matt Talbot:

Even when the newspaper is free from objection, it is easy to lose a good deal of time over it. It may be necessary and convenient to know what is going on in the world. But there can be no need of our absorbing all the rumours, all the guesses and gossip, all the petty incidents, all the innumerable paragraphs in which the solid news appears half-drowned…This is idle and it is absolutely bad for brain and character. There is a kind of attraction towards petty and desultory reading of this kind which is sure to leave its mark on the present generation…Immoderate newspaper reading leads, therefore, to much loss of time, and does no good, either to the mind or the heart.

Perhaps these words could more aptly apply today to our contemporary love of gossip, and especially the fascination with celebrities and their intimate lives, as well as to the inordinate use of other distracting social media. Again, please note, that these things are not bad in themselves, but rather it is their misuse that is potentially problematic. And if we are not distracted with news and gossip, there is undoubtedly some other frivolity that may need to be cut out from our lives.

Lent will be upon us in a couple of 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, time with our family or other acts of charity.

Venerable Matt Talbot

Thoughts for February 15 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Claude de la Colombiere

I have gone through a great deal of desolation, discouragement, fear and dread of my proposed vow. When I make it — I am quite determined now to do so — it will be the result of calm conviction that I must do so, that God wants it from me, and not a burst of fervour. I shrink from this living death, but am quite happy in the thought that, since God has inspired me to do so, He will do all the work if once I submit my will. … I was consoled by seeing Fr. de la Colombiere’s repugnance to making his heroic vow. He spoke of the sadness which this constant fight against nature sometimes gave him. He overcame that temptation by remembering that it is sweet and easy to do what we know will please one we really love.

COMMENT: The vow Fr Doyle speaks of is that of refusing no sacrifice that he perceived Jesus was asking of him. Here is the text of that vow which he made in 1911:

I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me. Amen.

Fr Doyle attached various conditions and exceptions to this in order to avoid scruples. Such a vow represents a total abandonment to God’s will in all aspects of life and represents a very great level of spiritual perfection. Most of us are well-intentioned, but we still tend to reserve areas of our life that we want to control and where we may not want God to “trespass”. Such was not the way of the saints. As the Imitation of Christ says:

What more do I require of you, than that you try to submit yourself fully to me? Whatsoever you give me outside of yourself does not interest me; for I do not seek your gift, but I seek you.

Fr Doyle mentions Fr (now Saint) Claude de la Colombiere, a French Jesuit whose feast it is today. He died this day in 1682. St Claude made a similar vow as a young Jesuit. Here is his (somewhat pessimistic!) reflection on the implications of this vow:

It seems as if it would be easy to spend any other kind of life holily; and the more austere, solitary and obscure it might be and separated from all intercourse, the more pleasing it would appear to me to be. As to what usually terrifies nature, such as prisons, constant sickness and even death, all this seems easy compared with this everlasting war with self, this vigilance against the attacks of the world and of self-love, this living death in the midst of the world.

Whatever about St Claude’s fears of this vow and its “living death”, we know that Fr Doyle remained serene and cheerful, despite his constant war with self-love.

Fr Doyle and St Claude are not the only ones to have made such a vow – great saints like Therese of Liseux did likewise. And together, they inspired saints that came after them. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta read the life of Fr Doyle while she was a young nun (perhaps when she lived in Ireland, very near the Jesuit house in Rathfarnham, where Fr Doyle had lived for a time). His life and spirit so inspired her that she herself took the same vow to refuse no sacrifice to Christ. We see here Fr Doyle’s influence on one of the best known and best loved saints of recent years.

Here is a description from the book “Come be my Light” written by Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk MC, the postulator for Mother Teresa’s canonisation cause.

It was this mysterious feature of love that moved Mother Teresa to seal the total offering of herself by means of a vow and thus tangibly express her longing to be fully united with her Beloved…Thus for Mother Teresa the vow was the means of strengthening the bond with the One she loved and so experiencing the true freedom that only love can give.

Mother Teresa would have read about the practice of making private vows in the spiritual literature of her time.

Irish Jesuit Fr William Doyle, made numerous private vows, as he found this practice a help in keeping his resolutions. One such vow, which he made in 1911 and renewed from day to day until he could obtain permission from his confessor to make it permanently, was “I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me”.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Returning now to St Claude and his vow…Fr Doyle had other reasons to be intrigued by the life of St Claude, for the latter was the spiritual director of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the great mystic to whom Fr Doyle was much devoted. St Margaret Mary received many visions of the Sacred Heart and it is probably because of St Claude’s influence that the Jesuits have traditionally promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. This devotion features prominently in the writings and spirituality of Fr Doyle. It is consoling for devotees of Fr Doyle to note that it took almost 250 years before the well known St Claude was beatified.

Today is also the feast of another great spiritual director. Blessed Michal Sopocko was the spiritual director of St Faustina, the great apostle of Divine Mercy. It is quite a coincidence that the spiritual directors of the two visionaries of the most prominent apparitions of Jesus of modern times have both been raised to the altars and that they share the same anniversary of death and feast day. These spiritual directors were crucial supports for St Margaret Mary and St Faustina respectively, and they show us the importance of spiritual direction in our lives.

Fr Doyle obviously knew nothing of St Faustina who died in 1938 or of Blessed Michal who died in 1975. But we can well imagine that he would have been a great promoter of the Divine Mercy devotion which sits so well with his own Christocentric spirituality.

One final coincidence for today – Fr Doyle would have identified with Blessed Michal if he knew of him: Blessed Michal served as a military chaplain in the Polish army during World War 1.

Blessed Michal Sopocko

Book review of “Worshipper and Worshipped”

Worshipper and Worshipped

It would not be unfair to say that, from the middle of the last century until quite recently, the once famous Fr Willie Doyle has seemingly been shrouded in a certain reserved silence. At one stage his name and deeds were renowned not just in Ireland, but around the globe. The fact that there are 6,426 recorded favours, from literally every part of the world, allegedly granted through his intercession in the first 14 years after his death, is ample testimony to the worldwide appeal he once had. But in recent years, it appeared that Fr Doyle was no longer of interest to modern Catholics, and that devotion to him was something of the past.

Yet, such an analysis would be entirely superficial. Devotion to Fr Doyle has always survived. In the first place, that devotion was maintained by those whose fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers knew, or were helped by, Fr Doyle in the war. For example, I have personally received numerous emails from people who have preserved a devotion to Fr Doyle in their families precisely because of what he is reported to have done for their ancestors during the Great War. The second category of those who have preserved devotion to Fr Doyle are those who have stumbled across Alfred O’Rahilly’s classic biography, first published 94 years ago this month. I belong to this second category, as do countless others around the globe who have found O’Rahilly’s biography to be a source of amazement and spiritual wonder. It is because of this growing number of those who have recently discovered Fr Doyle that we can say that interest in Fr Doyle is growing once again, and this new substantial biography of Fr Doyle by Carole Hope is the very greatest testimony to this fact.

The first lines of the Foreword to Worshipper and Worshipped by Carole Hope present sentiments that will be familiar to many people who have unexpectedly encountered Fr Doyle, and they absolutely ring true to my own personal experience:

Fr Willie Doyle’s life has been told before. I started writing this new biography for reasons I don’t entirely understand myself; only that Willie Doyle has ‘got under my skin’.

What is all the more remarkable is that, on reading O’Rahilly’s biography, Fr Doyle’s life and character reached across the decades and touched a lady living in England who had never heard of him before, had never written a book before, and is not even a Catholic. Fr Doyle’s spirit and example touched people of all backgrounds during life, and it still does so after death.

Worshipper and Worshipped is primarily concerned with Fr Doyle’s military service and is not a spiritual biography like O’Rahilly’s biography. The first 9 chapters – about 160 pages – deal with Fr Doyle’s early life and background, including his childhood, spiritual formation and life as a mission priest. The next 22 chapters – almost 450 pages – deal with the last two years of Fr Doyle’s life, and cover his service as a military chaplain in fascinating detail.

One might legitimately wonder if Worshipper and Worshipped can add anything to our knowledge of Fr Doyle beyond what we learn from Alfred O’Rahilly. Despite having access to all of Fr Doyle’s letters and diaries, O’Rahilly didn’t use them all, and what he did use, he did not necessarily present in an entirely chronological order. Using archival material preserved by Fr Doyle’s extended family, Carole Hope presents Fr Doyle’s life in chronological order, and fills in many details and provides anecdotes that were hitherto unknown to the wider public. She tells the story of Fr Doyle’s war adventures using his own words – she reproduces practically the full text of all his letters and diaries that he sent to his father during the war, and a staggering total of 89,000 words come directly from Fr Doyle’s own pen. This is the definitive history of Fr Doyle’s military service.

In addition to providing very useful background commentary on the war and the conditions encountered by the soldiers (topics that O’Rahilly did not discuss in much detail), Worshipper and Worshipped reveals how Fr Doyle provided spiritual support to a soldier who was executed for desertion, staying with him right to the end, and writing to his family for him. Presumably O’Rahilly did not deal with this incident because the man’s family was still alive when he published his book. Also of great interest will be the revelation of the identities of the officers and soldiers Fr Doyle was with when he died, including those he went into No Man’s Land to rescue when they were wounded.

Of particular interest to many readers will be the last 4 chapters which look at the aftermath of Fr Doyle’s death, including a fascinating chapter which examines the Fr Doyle’s recommendation for the Victoria Cross, which O’Rahilly claimed was not awarded because Fr Doyle was a Catholic priest. The author does an excellent job of analysing this question, examining archives for cases where similar awards were made. Her conclusions on this matter are of great interest.

Also of interest in the book are some of the photographs, including previously unpublished photographs of the entire Doyle family and a particularly heart breaking one (for me, at least!) of Fr Doyle home on leave from the war – the weight loss and strain caused by life in the trenches can be seen, but the joyful serenity is still there in Fr Doyle’s eyes.

One of the greatest things about this book, and perhaps its greatest contribution, is the way in which it humanises Fr Doyle. When O’Rahilly wrote his book, he told the story of Fr Doyle’s life and revealed much of his character. But he also overlaid all of this with a lot of spiritual and theological commentary. For many, this overlay of commentary is fascinating and enlightening. But it can sometimes get in the way. By showing how brilliant and heroic Fr Doyle was, O’Rahilly sometimes unwittingly obscured his humanity. In Worshipper and Worshipped, we see a more rounded portrait of Fr Doyle. His humour and gentleness, always evident in the original biography, are on full display here. The complete text of his letters to his father reveal the many touching expressions of love and veneration he sent to Hugh Doyle. Little family jokes, naturally omitted back in the 1920’s by O’Rahilly, are reproduced here, and show us a very human, accessible and lovable side to Fr Doyle’s character. There are passages in his letters that actually made me laugh out loud.

Having said all of this, there are naturally some very small aspects of the book with which I disagree slightly, including the very brief handling of Fr Doyle’s penances – the author suggests in passing that they reflect an “inner turmoil”, whereas my own interpretation is that they reflect both the spirituality of the time as well as Fr Doyle’s own pursuit of moral and spiritual perfection, based on his own discernment and the guidance of his confessor.

But such references are fleeting, are merely matters of emphasis and interpretation, and they do not at all detract from the work. It is clear that Carole Hope has a great affection for Fr Doyle, and we have all gained by her painstaking act of love in retelling Fr Doyle’s story in a form that is accessible for readers of today.

Worshipper and Worshipped is a big book (700+ pages). But it is a fast, accessible and enjoyable read. Those who already know Fr Doyle well, or those who are merely curious about him, will read this with great profit.

Worshipper and Worshipped can be bought in local bookshops or from Amazon here. 

Amazon seems to be out of paperback copies, but you can still find a link there to purchase the book in hardback. In any event, Amazon will order new stock, particularly if you place an order for the book. Alternatively readers may contact me via the email address on the right hand side of the webpage and I will direct them to Carole Hope who will be happy to help them.

EDIT: Carole Hope left the following comment on this post; I thought it would be more useful to place it here to give it more visibility.

Thank you for the review. I would just like to add for everyone’s information that the workings of Amazon are a mystery to me and I have no control on how they present the selling information on their website. It seems to me that the pricing of some of the supposed hardback copies of Worshipper and Worshipped on offer may very well be paperback. They indicate that paperbacks are out of stock at present and I don’t really know why that is. If anyone wishes to buy a copy direct from me then I can arrange that, but for people outside of the UK the cost of postage makes it very expensive. However, if you go into any bookshop you can order the book via the ISBN numbers 978-1-908336-92-7 for hardback or 978-1-908336-86-6 for paperback.

Thoughts for February 11 (Our Lady of Lourdes) from Fr Willie Doyle

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.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Fr Doyle visited the shrine in November 1912, and today’s quote summarises his spiritual experience there.

This reflection on Lourdes is utterly characteristic of Fr Doyle, who had such a horror for sin and combined this with a special vocation for reparation for sin.

In almost all approved Marian apparitions, Our Lady urges us to prayer and penance. Yes, she also comes to tell us of the love of God, and often reveals this love through miraculous healings and other graces. But just like in the Gospel, penance remains central to the message.

Thoughts for February 10 from Fr Willie Doyle

You seem to be a little troubled at finding yourself cold at prayer and as if our Lord had abandoned you. Were it otherwise I should feel uneasy; for this is one of the best signs that you are really pleasing to God, since He puts your fidelity to the test by sending desolation. There is no happiness to be compared to the sweets one tastes at times in prayer; but this, the greatest of all sacrifices, He will ask from you at times.

Hence in darkness and dryness, when weariness and disgust come on you, when the thousand petty worries of every day crowd upon you, raise your eyes with a glad smile to the face of Jesus, for all is well and He is sanctifying you.