I have often wondered what Jesus meant by the ‘work’, but I could never bring myself to ask you what you thought it was, for I knew if this message really came from Him, He would make clear what he wanted done in His own good time. Yesterday I was writing in my room a thought which had come to my mind: ‘Is there not something wrong with a priest who constantly feels the need of amusement and distraction? Has such a one tasted the sweetness of Jesus in the Tabernacle?’ I suppose it was only putting in words the grace He has given me; worldly amusements are nearly always now a torture to me, while it is a perfect joy, a comfort and recreation, to spend an hour with Him. As I was writing that sentence quoted above, without a thought of you or anything in particular, suddenly it flashed into my mind as clearly as if someone had spoken the words at my elbow, ‘The work I want you to do is the sanctification of My priests through retreats’.
Now, my dear child, I know well that one must not attach too much importance to what may be only a passing thought, due to many causes, still I must not conceal from you that the peace and consolation which came with this inspiration was very great, and the longing for great holiness most intense. Somehow I seemed to realise too that the retreat I have in mind, and the standard of perfection I hope, with God’s grace, to set before His priests will bring down on me much ridicule, but that, at the same time, the seed will fall on the good soil of many hearts He is now preparing, and will mean a new life of great sanctity to many. I know from experience that the material to work on is magnificent, but the standard of perfection is deplorably low. Surely there cannot be a grander work than this, but if it is to be done as Jesus wishes, it calls for a state of perfection which, without any exaggeration, I know well I am far from having reached.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these extraordinary words 100 years ago today (7 July 1914) to what O’Rahilly describes as a “privileged penitent” who was apparently in receipt of alleged private “supernatural illuminations” that Fr Doyle was inclined to believe in.
This penitent (probably a nun), told Fr Doyle that she has received some form of message that Fr Doyle had some special ‘work’ to do in his life, and this letter from 100 years ago is Fr Doyle’s assessment of what he discerned this work to be. As ever, he recognised that all work for God starts with our own growth in holiness.
Perhaps even more extraordinary are the words that this “privileged penitent” wrote about Fr Doyle (they are published in the later editions of the O’Rahilly biography):
In response to inspirations received directly or indirectly from Jesus, he strove, notably for seven or eight years before he died, to ‘put on Jesus Christ’, to model his life on the Priest-Christ, to be, as far as it was humanly possible, ‘another Christ’. This was the secret spring of his holiness. It was not a simple attraction, not a mere fad, but a forming of a life of priestly holiness, distinctly asked for and expressed by Christ. He heard with attention the first invitation: ‘Model your life on Mine, lead a perfect life’. And as if to secure a faithful response, Jesus seemed in the year 1910 to have planted in his heart a spark of divine love. This was the ‘sweet wounding’, a grace like to that received by St Teresa, of which he complained. It made him understand Christ’s love for His priests and His – almost helpless – dependence on them for the sanctification of souls. Jesus infused into his soul some of His own passionate love for souls; and it was this passion that made him at times seem to do rash things. It was the ‘charity of Christ’ that urged him, and he did nothing through mere caprice or impulse. As a matter of fact, he hated penance as being opposed to his natural gaiety of disposition; his sensitiveness to pain made him shrink from even a pin-prick. But there was no choice. He promised to be a friend of the Great Friend, to be as far as possible a priest like the Great Priest, to live as He lived and die as He died – for the priesthood and for souls. The padre offered his life for the sanctification of the priesthood as Christ offered his life for the Church. ‘When you hear of my death’, he wrote, ‘you will know that I died for them.’ Christ asked penance and death in reparation; but He asked personal priestly holiness to serve as an example to other priests – attachment to the person of Jesus – so that as he had loved, others too would learn to love, not as the ordinary good Christian loves, but as intimate friends should love their Friend and Master.
This letter contains some truly astounding suggestions, perhaps the most remarkable of which is the claim that Fr Doyle experienced something akin to the transverberation of the heart that great saints like Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Philip Neri, Pio of Pietrelcina and others encountered. It is true that Fr Doyle’s own private diary records a painful, sweet wounding of his heart. Ultimately we cannot know at this distance, and based on the material in the public domain, whether this truly was the same experience of the saints.
In any event, the extraordinary mystical experiences of the saints (just like their extraordinary penances) are not really very essential for us. What matters is the message of their lives. In today’s quote, written 100 years ago today, we see the importance Fr Doyle placed on the holiness of priests. This wasn’t just what we might today term as “clericalism” – it is true to say that the Church will be holy if there are holy priests. And the contrary is true – sinful priests will breed a lukewarm and sinful Church. Let us therefore pray for our priests as Fr Doyle asked. Even to this day, Fr Doyle’s example and writings remain a source of inspiration for many priests (and lay people) around the world – his special work continues, even after his death.