Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary – Day 3: The virtue of Charity in the life of Fr Doyle

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following to say about the virtue of charity:

1822 Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.

1823 Jesus makes charity the new commandment. By loving his own “to the end,” he makes manifest the Father’s love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive. Whence Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” And again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

1824 Fruit of the Spirit and fullness of the Law, charity keeps the commandmentsof God and his Christ: “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”

1825 Christ died out of love for us, while we were still “enemies.” The Lord asks us to love as he does, even our enemies, to make ourselves the neighbor of those farthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ himself.

The Apostle Paul has given an incomparable depiction of charity: “charity is patient and kind, charity is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Charity does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Charity bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

1826 “If I . . . have not charity,” says the Apostle, “I am nothing.” Whatever my privilege, service, or even virtue, “if I . . . have not charity, I gain nothing.” Charity is superior to all the virtues. It is the first of the theological virtues: “So faith, hope, charity abide, these three. But the greatest of these is charity.”

1827 The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”; it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice. Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love.

1828 The practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who “first loved us”:

If we turn away from evil out of fear of punishment, we are in the position of slaves. If we pursue the enticement of wages, . . . we resemble mercenaries. Finally if we obey for the sake of the good itself and out of love for him who commands . . . we are in the position of children.

Where does one start in discussing the virtue of charity in the life of Fr Doyle? An entire book would be needed to do justice to this theme. In fact, such a book does exist – it is the classic biography of Fr Doyle written by Alfred O’Rahilly and published about 90 years ago. This book is a detailed description of Fr Doyle’s intense love of God, and the manifold ways that that love spilled over into his love for others. Many people have read it and been inspired; if you do not have a copy, you will find a link to a site that sells them in the side bar on the right.

There is so much to say on this theme, but I am going to be very brief. But first, an important distinction. Loving someone is not the same as liking them. We are called to love others. This is an act of the will. We are not called to like them. Far too often we confuse the two, and we reduce Christian love to mere “niceness”. Yes, it is good to be nice to others. Courtesy is certainly an important human virtue that is sadly lacking in my quarters today. But these are not the same as love. True love wants the best for the other, even when we do not actually like them. A profoundly evil man may still love his family. Speaking loosely, even a dog may, in a certain instinctive sense, “love” his pack. But it takes the theological virtue of charity to love everyone, even those who hate us. Unfortunately, few of us reach, or sustain, this level of charity, and our society, and the Church, is poorer for it.

Fr Doyle lived a very ordinary childhood in Dalkey, County Dublin. He loved games and sports and pranks. But there was one thing that distinguished him – he went out of his way to show kindness to his poor neighbours. He painted their houses, bought them presents, brought food from his home, assisted the lonely at the hour of death. As Alfred O’Rahilly says, he constituted himself into a one man St Vincent de Paul Conference. This charity, which distinguished him as a child, would be the hallmark of his entire life.

There are so many charitable episodes in his life that one could reflect on. His care for the boys he worked with in the Jesuit schools; his concern for souls while he was a missionary, even to the point of hunting out those who had been away from the Church for many years or waiting to find sailors coming into port late into the night; his care for the street prostitute Fanny Cranbush; his voluminous spiritual direction by mail that entailed many hours of work; his fundraising for abandoned African children; his concern for those struggling to find their vocation in life; his founding of the Poor Clare convent in Cork City; his concern for workers and his desire to establish a retreat house for them. And all of this before we get to the period of his supreme acts of love – his almost daily self-sacrifice for his soldiers in the war, culminating in his death while rescuing some fallen officers.

Fr Doyle knew what he was getting into during the war, and foresaw that he might well die as a martyr of charity, imitating Christ by offering his life to save others. As he wrote in a letter not long after volunteering to become a military chaplain:

What I am going to tell you now may pain you. I have volunteered for the Front as Military Chaplain, though perhaps I may never be sent. Naturally I have little attraction for the hardship and suffering the life would mean; but it is a glorious chance of making the ‘ould body’ bear something for Christ’s dear sake. However, what decided me in the end was a thought that flashed into my mind when in the chapel: the thought that if I get killed I shall die a martyr of charity and so the longing of my heart will be gratified. This much my offering myself as chaplain has done for me: it has made me realise that my life may be very short and that I must do all I can for Jesus now.

There is one particular episode that I want to draw attention to, for every time I think of it, I am struck speechless. Fr Doyle worked alongside a medical doctor called Dr Buchanan for many months during the war. They often shared the same quarters. On one occasion, when the doctor was sick and there were no blankets to place on the damp dug-out floor, Fr Doyle lay face down in the damp and made the doctor lie on his back, so that at least the sick doctor would get some rest.

What can one say when confronted with such selfless love of others?

Well, in fact, there is one thing that can be said, and it is this – such love, especially for strangers, is not natural. It is not natural because it is supernatural. Fr Doyle’s love for his neighbours was fundamentally based upon, and nourished by, the great love of his life – his love for Jesus Christ. And so today we will conclude with some words from Fr Doyle on loving God with our whole heart.

We must love God with our whole heart. Can He be loved otherwise? Is it too much that a finite heart should love infinite Beauty? I fail in this wholehearted love if I keep back anything from Him, if I am determined not to pass certain limits as proof of my love, if I absolutely refuse to sacrifice certain things which He asks, if I refuse to follow the grace which is impelling me on. It is not necessary to imagine extraordinary circumstances in the future; there is presumption in this; we must not count on ourselves as St. Peter did. Also there is a danger of despondency in such imaginings, when we do not feel capable of such tests of love. Examine the present.

We must love God with our whole strength. If I love God with all the strength that grace gives me now, this grace is increased by each act of love, so that I should from day to day love Him more. Love for a creature is strongest at its commencement, it becomes weaker, it ends in weariness and disgust. It is quite the contrary with divine love. Weak in the beginning, it grows as we come to know God better, as we taste Him more, as we approach Him more familiarly and enjoy His presence more intimately.

Thoughts for August 10 from Fr Willie Doyle

Ecce Home: Behold the Man
Ecce Home: Behold the Man

We return today to Fr Doyle’s narrative, and get some glimpse of the horror of war, and the comfort that the presence of a priest can bring to the dying.

Of particular note is his reference to Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the crowd after the scourging with the words: “Ecce homo” (Behold the Man)…

These events occurred on this day in 1917.

A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee But never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. Thank God, Father, he said, I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium? The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. I am much better now and easier, God bless you, he said, as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: Ah! Fr. Doyle, Fr. Doyle, he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now. I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said Behold the Man when he showed our Lord to the people.

In the afternoon, while going my rounds, I was forced to take shelter in the dug-out of a young officer belonging to another regiment. For nearly two hours I was a prisoner and found out he was a Catholic from Dublin, and had been married just a month. Was this a chance visit, or did God send me there to prepare him for death, for I had not long left the spot when a shell burst and killed him? I carried his body out the next day and buried him in a shell hole, and once again I blessed that protecting Hand which had shielded me from his fate.

That night we moved head quarters and aid-post to a more advanced position, a strong concrete emplacement, but a splendid target for the German gunners. For the forty- eight hours we were there they hammered us almost constantly day and night till I thought our last hour had come. There we lived with a foot, sometimes more, of water on the floor, pretty well soaked through, for it was raining hard at times. Sleep was almost impossible – fifty shells a minute made some noise and to venture out without necessity was foolishness. We were well provided with tinned food, and a spirit lamp for making hot tea, so that we were not too badly off, and rather enjoyed hearing the German shells hopping off the roof or bursting on the walls of their own strong fort.