A note on Fr Doyle’s asceticism

Fr Sean Coyle, an Irish priest working in the Philippines, has left an interesting comment under yesterday’s post. I want to deal briefly with one key line in that comment:

I was chatting with an Irish bishop last year who didn’t think that Father Willie’s cause for beatification and canonisation would prosper because of the form of his asceticism.

This issue is raised very often. Sadly I am under time pressure today, but some brief thoughts on it…

As Fr Doyle’s diary entry 100 years ago makes clear (see post for December 1), he felt he was called to a different road than most others, one that involved a more intense life of penance than many others. He would appear to have received the graces necessary to live this life. Nine crucial points need to be borne in mind (actually there are many more points that could be made, but I only have time for 9 today!):

1. Fr Doyle NEVER encouraged anyone else to follow his example, and always encouraged others to offer small, simple sacrifices to God. In fact, practically nobody knew of his penances at the time, and we only know about them now because his wishes that his private notes be destroyed were not followed. 

2. Fr Doyle’s penance did not damage his health or limit his capacity to perform his duties in life. On the contrary, his vigour in the war, and indeed in other aspects of his life, would seem to encourage us all to be a little tougher with ourselves. (Note: There was one occasion, as far as we can tell, when he was indisposed for a few days from some penance. He felt that his recovery from this was miraculous. Whether this was miraculous is neither here or there – he seems to have learned from this one episode and didn’t repeat it. It’s worth noting other saints learned from mistakes with penance – St Bernard comes particularly to mind here).

3. It seems clear from his notes and diaries that his spiritual director was aware of his penances, an important issue in ensuring that he acted within certain limits. Indeed, there is evidence that Fr Doyle modified his penance in response to suggestions from his confessor.

4. Physical penance was the norm in religious life during Fr Doyle’s lifetime. Fr Doyle’s penances must be understood in the context of his time. It is probably fair to say that all religious of that time, or at least the vast majority of them, used corporal penances. It was entirely unremarkable. 

5. A precedent for all of Fr Doyle’s penances can be found in the lives of the saints. Indeed, many of the saints surpassed Fr Doyle’s penances. Compared to them, Fr Doyle’s penances were quite unremarkable. O’Rahilly went into great detail to show this in his book, especially in the later editions. To some extent, large sections of his brilliant book are an apologia for Fr Doyle’s asceticism. This has the undesirable side effect of highlighting the penances and giving them undue attention in the context of Fr Doyle’s life in general. 

6. On a related note, if harsh penances are an impediment to canonisation, then we had better remove the vast majority of saints from the calendar. The penances of Rose of Lima or Martin de Porres or the Jesuit Peter Claver would seem to vastly outstrip those of Fr Doyle. Consider Matt Talbot. If you ask the average person what they know about him, they would tell you that he was a reformed alcoholic who was found dead on the streets with chains embedded in his flesh. The legend of the chains is somewhat embellished, but that’s the point – Matt’s penances were not in any way an impediment to his popularity. In fact, simple piety actually recognises Matt’s holiness because of his asceticism, not despite it. Similarly, Ireland’s newest Venerable, Fr John Sullivan SJ also used the cilice and discipline and often slept on floors, spent all night in prayer and ate as little as a bird. We rightly recognise holiness in this. The same standard should apply to Fr Doyle.

7. To reduce Fr Doyle’s personality to his penances does him a great disservice. Now, this may be O’Rahilly’s fault. The decision to publish Fr Doyle’s diaries necessitated many pages in justifying this aspect of his interior life. The result of this was to highlight this in a perhaps disproportionate way. But it appears that those who lived with Fr Doyle did not really know him as an ascetic, or at least, no more than any other good Jesuit of the time. Rather, they knew him as a happy joker who loved playing tricks on people. If there was any complaint about Fr Doyle it was his excessive exuberance and enthusiasm for life and danger and adventure. If O’Rahilly had spent as much time collecting first hand testimonies of those who lived with Fr Doyle as he did recounting his penances, we could perhaps today know him as God’s Joker. And then there might even be some people around today who wouldn’t consider him serious enough… In a similar vein, we don’t reduce other saints to their penances. St Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow as an act of penance. But we don’t reduce him to these acts. St Benedict rolled in a thorn bush, but this does not overshadow the rest of his life and spirit. St John Paul scourged himself loudly with an apparently “special” belt* but we never view him in purely ascetically terms. We must view Fr Doyle as a whole, and the best source for this is Carole Hope’s wonderful new biography Worshipper and Worshipped, which truly brings out the humanity of Fr Doyle. (*Note: St John Paul’s postulator tells us that he used a special belt for penance. But we don’t know how it was special. Was it modified in some way? Were implements inserted in some fashion to make it harsher? How else could it be special? We don’t know…But nobody raised this as an impediment to his canonisation).

8. By the end of his life Fr Doyle seemed to have eased off on the harsher penances and to have willingly accepted the inconveniences of each day as his penance. Certainly his daily regime was ascetical enough for anybody. We see the same pattern of asceticism in the lives of many saints: harsh penance when young, gradually tapering off into a more gentle acceptance of the daily cross in later life. This is a normal pattern in the spiritual life. 

9. Fr Doyle inspired many many holy men and women across the last century. We can include at least two canonised saints (St Josemaria Escriva , the founder of Opus Dei, and the Jesuit St Alberto Hurtado) and at least one Blessed (Mother Teresa). Indeed, perhaps there are more I don’t know of. Why do we think that our 21st Century judgement of Fr Doyle’s asceticism is inherently more mature and spiritually insightful than that of the popular saints who were formed in the same spiritual climate that Fr Doyle was formed in? 


Thoughts for December 2 from Fr Willie Doyle


It is scarcely necessary to state that deliberate sin in any shape or form utterly destroys the interior life and even gives a loathing and disgust for its practice. It is not so evident that deliberate imperfections, and for religious repeated violation of rule, have the same result. These are the “little foxes,” attractive and apparently harmless creatures, which must be hunted down and destroyed…if the vineyard is not to perish. A soul given to sin or consciously violating the rules to which it has freely bound itself for life, will sigh in vain for the secret loving embraces of its Beloved.

COMMENT: We have, in general, lost the sense of sin in the world today. For modern culture, it seems as if anything goes. It’s hard not to become influenced by this prevailing opinion, and as a result we can end up easily yielding to sin and temptation because we no longer think it’s a big deal anymore.

We must of course avoid the other extreme of scrupulosity and obsession with sin (an affliction that seems to have been very acute with previous generations). Fr Doyle was a very effective director for those afflicted with this problem.

We are all sinners, and we must start to fight against sin where we are at. For some that will mean a struggle against habitual mortal sin; for others it is the struggle against deliberate venial sin and for the more advanced it will be a struggle against imperfections and omissions with respect to certain virtues.

Wherever we are at, we all have these “foxes” of whatever type that we must chase out of our lives. There’s no better time to start the chase than Advent and our preparation for Christmas!