St John Paul II, St John XXIII and Fr Doyle

St John Paul II
St John Paul II

When it was not some infirmity or other than caused him to experience pain, it was he himself who inflicted discomfort and mortification on his own body. Aside from the prescribed fasting, which he followed with great rigour, especially during Lent, when he reduced his nourishment to one complete meal per day, he also abstained from food before ordaining priests and bishops. And it was not infrequent for him to spend nights lying on the bare floor. His housekeeper in Cracow realised it, even though the archbishop crumpled his bedclothes to conceal it. But he did more. As a number of members of his closest entourage heard with their own ears, in Poland and the Vatican, Karol Wojytla flagellated himself. In his bedroom closet, among his cassocks, hanging from a hook was an unusual trouser belt that he used as a whip and always brought to Castel Gandolfo.

Such is the testimony of Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Postulator for the cause of canonisation of St John Paul II. This is the beloved and joyful pope who attracted so many young people. Yet he lived a rigorous life of penance. So rigorous, in fact, that others heard him flagellating himself. And he used an unusual trouser belt. It’s not clear why it was unusual. Was it modified in some way to make it more painful? In what other way would it be unusual?

And what of the beloved St John XXIII?

Well, one of St John XXIII’s encyclicals was entitled Paenitentiam Agere – On the need for the practice of interior and exterior penance. We find in this encyclical a call for all the faithful to offer up penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. We also find this interesting paragraph:

It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God’s grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?

St John XXIII speaks of inspiration, admiration and saintly heroism when considering the harsh penances of the saints…

The entire document is well worth reading:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_01071962_paenitentiam_en.html

Fr Doyle’s life of penance may not be something we are called to imitate in its totality today, but it was entirely in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and is mirrored in the lives and teachings of the saints, including the two newest saints that we celebrate today. 

It would be bizarre for anybody to over-emphasise the role of physical penance in the life of St John XXIII or St John Paul II, and to reduce their personality to one aspect of their spiritual lives. So, too, those who allow Fr Doyle’s penance to loom too large in their memory of him do him an disservice, and foster an unbalanced image of a very human and very self-sacrificing war hero. 

NOTE: Today is a busy day – there are two further posts for today which can be found below this post.

St John XXIII
St John XXIII

Thoughts for the Feast of Divine Mercy from Fr Willie Doyle

Divine Mercy

“Let the mercies of the Lord give glory to Him.” (Psalm 106: 21). Jesus during His mortal life practised many virtues; but none is more conspicuous, none appeals more strongly to us, than His infinite mercy, His tender forgiveness of all injuries. A vile sinner is brought before Him, her very mien proclaims her crime. “Have none condemned thee? Neither shall I. Go, sin no more.” Magdalen, the bye-word of the city, Magdalen whose name was sin and shame, seeks His forgiveness and finds His mercy. Peter, the favoured one, denies his Master and turns his back on Him who loved him so; and Peter’s heart is won, even in his sin, by one loving look of mercy and compassion from the Saviour whose mercy is without end.

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.