The Titanic, Fr Browne and Fr Doyle

Titanic BW

102 years ago today, the Titanic sank with the loss of 1,514 lives.

A lot of the media coverage of the anniversary, in Ireland at least, tends to mention Fr Francis Browne S.J., and rightly so. For those who do not know, Fr Browne (or Br Browne, as he then was) was a passenger on board the Titanic as it sailed from Southampton to Cobh. He was due to leave the ship at Cobh, but some wealthy passengers offered to pay for his ticket all the way to the US. He telegraphed his provincial for permission, but he received a short and terse message in reply – “Get off that ship”. Religious obedience saved his life. Fr Browne is significant in the Titanic story because he was an enthusiastic photographer, and he took the only photographs of the Titanic at sea. In fact, some of his photos are the only photos we have of certain rooms on the Titanic.

Fr Francis Browne SJ
Fr Francis Browne SJ

Fr Browne played an important role in Fr Doyle’s life – they were together in the schools at Clongowes and Belvedere, but in particular they worked together as military chaplains in World War I, and they had great esteem for each other. I have been told that, so great was Fr Browne’s respect for Fr Doyle, that he kept a pair of Fr Doyle’s shoes as a relic and only ever wore them while saying Mass.

O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle recounts a touching scene in which both priests arose exhausted, at 1am on Corpus Christi, June 7 1917, to say Mass before moving off to the front line. Fr Doyle, who was older and senior to Fr Browne, made a resolution to ask Fr Browne to treat him like a slave, so that he could experience occasions for perfecting the virtue of humility. It’s not known if Fr Browne took him up on this offer!

Fr Browne and Fr Doyle used to relieve each other at the front line, and would hear each other’s confessions whenever they swapped over. Here is Fr Browne’s description of this arrangement:

During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days. I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away. He knew how I hated it — and I did not hate it half as much as he did. We used generally to confess each other before leaving. We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.

However, Fr Browne was appointed chaplain to a different group of soldiers on August 2 1917, but due to a mix up his replacement never showed up. This meant that Fr Doyle had double the work with no rest and was the only chaplain to 4 Battalions from August 2 to his death on August 16, and that during some of the worst days of battle. Fr Doyle commented on this loss of Fr Browne’s company in these terms:

The Battalion went out to-day for three days’ rest, but I remained behind. Fr. Browne has gone back to the Irish Guards. He is a tremendous loss, not only to myself personally, but to the whole Brigade where he did magnificent work and made a host of friends. And so I was left alone.

Here is some of Fr Browne’s testimony about Fr Doyle, written on August 15 1917, just a day before Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: — ‘Little Fr. Doyle’ — they all call him that, more in affection than anything else — ‘deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery’. Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again.’

I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.

Fr Browne was also there for Fr Doyle’s last homily – Fr Browne said Mass and Fr Doyle preached at the Mass in late July 1917 in front of 2,500 Irish soldiers in the church at St. Omer in France. Here is Fr Browne’s account of Fr Doyle’s homily:

From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O’Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

When Fr Browne heard of Fr Doyle’s death, he wrote the following in a letter on August 20: 

All during these last months he was my greatest help, and to his saintly advice, and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything I felt and did. With him, as with others of us, his bravery was no mere physical show-off. He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise. And yet the last word said of him to me by the Adjutant of the Royal Irish Rifles in answer to my question, ‘I hope you are taking care of Fr. Doyle?’, was, ‘He is as fond of the shells as ever.’ His one idea was to do God’s work with the men, to make them saints. How he worked and how he prayed for this! Fine weather and foul he was always thinking of them and what he could do for them. In the cold winter he would not use the stove I bought for our dug-out. He scoffed at the idea as making it ‘stuffy’ – and that when the thermometer was fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, the coldest ever known in living memory here.

And how he loathed it all, the life and everything it implied! And yet nobody suspected it. God’s Will was his law. And to all who remonstrated, ‘Must I not be about the Lord’s business?’ was his laughing answer in act and deed and not merely in word. May he rest in peace — it seems superfluous to pray for him.

And so back to the Titanic…I read with interest recently the story of three different priests – a German, a Lithuanian and an Englishman, who stayed on board the Titanic to minister to those who were inevitably going to die. Like Fr Doyle who died while trying to minister to wounded soldiers, these three priests, by refusing to get into lifeboats, gave up their lives to serve others. What a powerful witness and example of heroic charity. Surely the cause of these “Titanic martyrs of charity” should be introduced? You may read more about them here:

Father Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz: http://www.kloster-scheyern.de/01-benediktiner/Titanic/Eng_schicksal_titanic.htm

Father Juozas Montvila http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/juozas-montvila.html

Father Thomas Byles: www.fatherbyles.com

Thoughts for Tuesday of Holy Week from Fr Willie Doyle

Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.

My denial of Jesus has been baser than that of Peter, for I have refused to listen to His voice calling me back for fifteen years. But Jesus has won my heart in this retreat by His patient look of love. God grant my repentance may in some degree be like St Peter’s. I could indeed weep bitterly for the wasted sinful past in the Society. The time I have squandered, the little good done, and the amount of harm done by my bad example in every house in which I have been. What might I not have done for Jesus! Dear Jesus, You forgave St Peter, forgive me also, for I will serve you now.

COMMENT: The denial of our Lord by St Peter contains many powerful lessons for us. St Peter was an intimate friend of Jesus. He witnessed the miracles. He saw the dead rise to life, the blind see, the deaf hear and the dumb speak. He saw devils cast out and the paralysed get up and walk. He saw Jesus calm a storm and walk on water. He was there are the Transfiguration. Jesus taught him how to pray. He had left everything and followed the Master. He urged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and risk death. He didn’t feel worthy to have Jesus wash his feet, and promised him that he would die for him. When the guards came to arrest Jesus, he pulled out his sword to defend him. Peter was the Rock, the leader of the Apostles and the first pope. He had just been at the Last Supper – essentially he had just been ordained a priest and bishop by Christ…

And then he failed. The man who would die for Jesus denied him when a maid and some other random bystanders said that he was a friend of Jesus.

Then Jesus looked at him. How low he must have felt. The movie The Passion of the Christ has a wonderful scene where, after his denial, Peter goes to Mary. Three times she reaches out to him, and three times he pulls back. The picture above shows something similar – Peter is in tears in front of Mary. In sorrow herself, she consoles him and prays for him.

We may not have physically lived in Jesus’ presence the same way Peter did, but we have received His grace and we have seen the effects of that grace in our own lives and in the lives of others. We have received many gifts from Him. And still we deny Him by our unfaithfulness. Perhaps we even deny Him by joining in with criticism of His Church or by staying silent when we could defend it.

Like Fr Doyle, we may feel that we have gone on for years denying Jesus. Well, let us then learn some lessons from St Peter who was so contrite after his fall that he thought it nothing to suffer imprisonment and death for the One he had denied. St Peter repented. He did not despair like Judas did.

There are other important lessons we can take from this episode. We are told that Peter was warming himself at a fire when he denied Jesus. Was it the lack of a spirit of mortification that weakened his will and lead to his fall? We are told that his first denial came after a maid asked him if he knew Jesus. Was he more fearful of the judgement of the maid than the judgement of God? Did he fall because of what is termed “human respect” – a fear of the opinion of others? We are also told that instead of watching and praying with Jesus in the Garden, Peter slept. Not only once, but three times. Perhaps he failed because he did not watch and pray that he would not be put to the test.

But not everyone was asleep that night. The enemies of Jesus were wide awake and coming in the night to take Him by force. How little has changed in the last 2,000 years…