Thoughts for Vocations Sunday from Fr Willie Doyle

padre pio at Mass 2

I do not know if I have told you of a scheme which I have in my mind to help poor boys who are anxious to be priests. Before the war I came in contact with a number of very respectable lads and young men, whose one desire was to work for God and the salvation of souls, but who, for want of means, were not able to pursue their studies. I was able to help some of them and get them free places in America or England, with a couple at Mungret, but the number of applicants was far in excess of the resources. 

One day having successfully negotiated or missed a couple of shells, I was struck instead by a happy idea. I was coming home on leave and made up my mind to make an experiment with my new idea, which was this. I gave a little talk to the Sodality of the Children of Mary in a certain convent in Dublin on the need for priests at the present time, and what a glorious work it was to help even a single lad to become one of the ‘Lord’s Anointed.’ I told them how many were longing for this honour, and suggested that they should adopt some poor boy and pay for his education until he was ordained. Two hundred girls subscribing 5/- a year would provide £50, more than enough for the purpose. I suggested that this money ought to be the result of some personal sacrifice, working overtime, making a hat or dress last longer, etc., but as a last resource they might collect the 5/- or some of it. 

The idea was taken up most warmly: nearly all the money for this year is paid in, though the girls are nearly all factory hands, and the lucky boy will begin his college course in September. I am hoping when the cruel war is over to get the other convents to follow suit; for the scheme is simple and no great burden on any one, and is a ready solution of the financial difficulty and should bring joy to many a boy’s heart. Certain difficulties naturally suggest themselves, but I think we may safely count a little at least on our Blessed Lord’s help, since the work is being done for Him, and go on with confidence. 

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in a letter home to his father in July 1917, just three weeks before his death. How remarkable that, even in the midst of some of his darkest days in the war that he was planning future apostolic initiatives. It is even more extraordinary that he launched this initiative when on leave from the Front, when most other people would simply take life easy and enjoy a well earned rest. 

Today is World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We all have a vocation in life, and our sanctity largely depends on our conformity with that vocation and our fulfillment of the duties that attach to that vocation. 

However, this is a day when we specifically pray for priestly and religious vocations. That isn’t because the vocation to the married or single life aren’t important or aren’t paths to sanctity. They clearly are paths to great holiness if they are embraced with fidelity and generosity. Instead, we pray today for priestly and religious vocations because the Church needs these vocations and because Christ still calls people to follow Him in this special way and because this call is often harder to discern and harder to follow (initially at least) in the cultural context in which we live in the secular West.

Fr Doyle was an enthusiastic and effective promoter of vocations. Not only did he provide spiritual direction for those discerning a call, he also provided practical help as well. In addition to the above mentioned fundraising schemes he also helped to place young women in convents. Specifically, found places in convents around the world (including America, Australia and South America) for women who could not find a suitable convent in Ireland due to ill health or other restrictions.  Let us remember that this was before the advent of the internet! Fr Doyle’s global efforts show the importance he placed on vocations. 

His efforts for female religious vocations were not limited only to overseas convents – he also founded the Poor Clare convent in Cork city, and was a spiritual director to many nuns around Ireland.

Some of Fr Doyle’s most famous pamphlets were on vocations, and links to them can be found here. 

Shall I be a Priest? 

Vocations.

These pamphlets sold tens of thousands during his life, surpassing all expectations. What a consolation it must have been for him when he received letters from priests and nuns informing him that his writings helped them discern their true calling. 

The impact of these pamphlets was still felt decades after Fr Doyle’s death. Recently I received a letter from a retired English priest. He reported that when he was a soldier in the Second World War his chaplain gave him a copy of Shall I be a Priest, and that it was this pamphlet that set him on the road to the priesthood. He was ordained in 1953. Years later he met the chaplain again, and was informed that at least 11 other soldiers to whom the chaplain had given this pamphlet went on to become priests. 

Perhaps Fr Doyle’s words are still bearing fruit in inspiring vocations to this day…

Thoughts for April 26 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle had many incredibly close shaves with death during the almost 2 years he spent as a military chaplain. He has recorded many of these in his diaries and in the letters he sent home to his father. One of these dramatic moments occurred on the night of April 26 and early morning April 27 1916. Here is an excerpt from a letter home to his father which recounts the experience in a lot of detail. A few things stand out in this letter. Firstly the fact that he recorded the event in so much detail in order to keep his father informed tells us something of Fr Doyle’s filial respect and love. How many of us would easily excuse ourselves of the duty of writing home, preferring instead to sleep or take it easy in some other way? Secondly there is his trust in Providence and the seemingly supernatural help he received that day. Did he imagine this help, or did his guardian angel assist him in a special way on this day? We do not know, but it would not be the first time in history that somebody has received specific assistance in this form. Thirdly, we see something of the value of the priesthood and the sacraments, and how important the presence of the priest was to the dying soldiers, and how far Fr Doyle would go to assist them. 

Tomorrow we will reproduce the text of a letter he wrote a year later in which he gives even more details of the danger he faced on this occasion (he didn’t reveal everything to his father all at once in case it worried him) and on Tuesday we will reproduce part of a letter which reveals some of the harrowing work he had to undertake in the days following this gas attack.

About four o’clock (in the morning) the thought struck me that it would be a good thing to walk back to the village to warm myself and say an early Mass for the nuns, who usually have to wait hours for some chaplain to turn up. They have been very kind to me, and I was glad of this chance of doing this little service to them. The village is about two miles behind our trench, in such a position that one can leave cover with perfect safety and walk there across the fields. As I left the trench about 4.45, the sun was just rising. It was a perfect morning with a gentle breeze blowing. Now and again came the crack of a rifle, but all was unusually calm and still: little did I think of the deadly storm about to burst and hurry so many brave men into eternity. I had just reached a point half way between our trenches and the village when I heard behind me the deep boom of a German gun quickly followed by a dozen others. In a moment our gunners replied and before I could well realize what was taking place, the air was alive with shells. At first I thought it was just a bit of the usual good morning greeting and that after ten minutes artillery strafe all would be quiet once more. But I soon saw this was a serious business, for gun after gun, and battery after battery, was rapidly coming into action, until at the lowest number 500 guns were roaring all round me. It was a magnificent if terrifying sight. The ground fairly shook with the roar of the guns, for the heavies now had taken up the challenge, and all round the horizon I could see the clouds of smoke and dust from the bursting shells as both sides kept searching for their opponents’ hidden cannon. 

There I stood in the very centre of the battle, the one man of all the thousands engaged who was absolutely safe, for I was away from the trenches, there were no guns or troops near me to draw fire, and though tens of thousands of shells went over my head, not even a splinter fell near me. I felt that the good God had quietly dumped me there till all danger had passed.

After a while seeing that this heavy shelling meant an attack of some kind, and that soon many a dying man would need my help, I turned round and made my way towards the ambulance station. As I approached the trenches I noticed the smoke from the bursting shells, which was hanging thickly over them and was being driven towards me across the fields. For once, I said to myself, I am going to smell the smoke of a real battle, and I stepped out quite gaily— the next moment I had turned and was running back for my life — the Germans had started a poison gas attack which I had mistaken for shell smoke, and I had walked straight into it!

After about 20 yards I stopped to see what was to be done, for I knew it was useless to try and escape by running. I saw (assuredly again providentially) that I had struck the extreme edge of the gas and also that the wind was blowing it away to my left. A hundred yards in the opposite direction, and I was safe. I must confess for a moment I got a shock, as a gas attack was the very last thing I was thinking about — in fact we thought the Germans had given it up. Fortunately too I had not forgotten the old days of the chemistry room at Ratcliffe College nor Brother Thompson and his stink bottles so I knew at the first whiff it was chlorine gas and time for this child to make tracks.

But I was not yet out of the wood. Even as I was congratulating myself on my good fortune, I saw both right and left of where I stood the green wave of a second gas attack rolling towards me like some huge spectre stretching out its ghostly arms. As I saw it coming, my heart went out to God in one fervent act of gratitude for His goodness to me. As probably you know we all carry smoke helmets slung over our shoulders in a case, to be used against a gas attack. That morning as I was leaving my dugout I threw my helmet aside. I had a fairly long walk before me, the helmet is a bit heavy on a hot day, and as I said, German gas was most unlikely. So I made up my mind to leave it behind. In view of what happened, it may appear imagination now, but a voice seemed to whisper loudly in my ear: ‘Take your helmet with you; don’t leave without it’ (On the anniversary of this escape he once more asserted: ‘Some invisible, almost physical, force turned me back to get my helmet.’)  I turned back and slung it over my shoulder. Surely it was the warning voice of my guardian angel, for if I had not done so, you would never have had this letter. 

I wonder can you picture my feelings at this moment? Here was death in its most awful form sweeping down towards me; thank God I had the one thing which could save me, but with a carelessness for which I ought to be scourged, I had never tried the helmet on and did not know if it were in working order. In theory, with the helmet on I was absolutely safe, but it was an anxious moment waiting for the scorching test, and to make things more horrible, I was absolutely alone. But I had the companionship of One Who sustained me in the hour of trial, and kneeling down I took the Pyx from my pocket and received the Blessed Eucharist as Viaticum. I had not a moment to spare, and had my helmet just fixed when I was buried in a thick green fog of poison gas. In a few moments my confidence returned for the helmet worked perfectly and I found I was able to breathe without any ill effects from the gas.

By the time I got down to the dressing station the guns had ceased fire, the gas blown away, and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Already a stream of wounded was coming in and I soon had my hands full, when an urgent message  reached me from the front trench. A poor fellow had been desperately wounded, a bullet had cut him like a knife across the stomach, with results you can best imagine. He was told he had only a few minutes to live, and asked if they could do anything for him. ‘I have only one wish before I die’, he answered, ‘could you possibly get me Fr. Doyle? I’ll go happy then.’ It was hard work to reach him, as parts of the communication trench were knee deep in water and thick mud. Then I was misdirected and sent in the wrong direction, but I kept on praying I might be in time, and at last found the dying man still breathing and conscious. The look of joy, which lit up his face when I knelt beside him, was reward enough for the effort I had made. I gave him Absolution and anointed him before he died, but occupied as I was I did not notice that a third gas attack had begun. Before I could get my helmet out and on, I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, which did me no serious harm beyond making me feel rather sick and weak.

As I made my way slowly up the trench, feeling altogether ‘a poor thing,’ I stumbled across a young officer who had been badly gassed. He had got his helmet on, but was coughing and choking in a terrible way. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘ help me to tear off this helmet — I can’t breathe. I’m dying.’ I saw if I left him the end would not be far; so catching hold of him, I half carried, half dragged him up the trench to the medical aid post. I shall never forget that ten minutes, it seemed hours. I seemed to have lost all my strength: struggling with him to prevent him killing himself by tearing off his helmet made me forget almost how to breathe through mine. I was almost stifled, though safe from gas, while the perspiration simply poured from my forehead. I could do nothing but pray for help and set my teeth, for if I once let go, he was a dead man. Thank God, we both at last got to the aid post, and I had the happiness of seeing him in the evening out of danger, though naturally still weak. Fortunately this last attack was short and light, so that I was able to take off my helmet and after a cup of tea was all right. The best proof I can give you of this, lies in the fact that I have since put in three of the hardest days’ work of my life which I could not possibly have done had I been really gassed, as its first effect is to leave one as helpless as a child.