Thoughts for the Feast of the Visitation from Fr Willie Doyle

To Mary’s feet in heaven today the angels come in never-ending stream to lay before her the offerings of her loving earthly children. To their Queen they bear fair wreaths of lovely roses. In many a lonely cottage or amid the bustle of the great city have these crowns been formed. Little ones and old folk, the pious nun and holy priest, the sinner too and many a wandering soul, have added to the glory of the Queen of Heaven; and from every corner of this earth to-day has risen the joyous praise of her who is Queen of the Holy Rosary. On earth she was the lowly handmaid of the Lord, and now all generations proclaim the greatness of her name.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of the Visitation in which we commemorate the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. In this scene we find Mary being an instrument of grace, bringing Jesus to Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist. We see Mary’s humility and concern for others in her travel in “haste” to assist Elizabeth. And it is from today’s feast that we derive some of the most beautiful Marian prayers.

Fr Doyle tells us that from all around the world prayers rise to Mary in her honour. There is a beautiful tradition in Rome – the Pope leads a rosary procession around the Vatican Gardens with members of the public on the evening of this feast every year.

We shall conclude today with these words from St Bernard, Doctor of the Church.

O Mary, how great is your humility when you hasten to serve others. If it is true that he who humbles himself will be exalted, who will be more exalted than you who have humbled yourself so much?

When Elizabeth caught sight of you she was astonished and exclaimed: “Whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” But I am still more astonished to see that you, as well as your Son, came not to be served, but to serve…

Humility did not make you fainthearted, magnanimity did not make you proud, but these two virtues were perfectly combined in you! O Mary, you cannot give me a share in your great privileges as Mother of God; these belong to you alone! But you want me to share in your virtues, giving me examples of them in yourself. If, then, sincere humility, magnanimous faith, and delicate sympathetic charity are lacking in me, how can I excuse myself? O Mary, O Mother of mercy, you who are full of grace, nourish us, your poor little ones, with your virtues!

St Bernard
St Bernard

Thoughts for May 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

We must be intellectually pious, that is, our piety should rest on the bedrock of principle, and not on mood, on sentiment, on spiritual consolation. 

COMMENT: In the Gospel of St Matthew Jesus tells us that it is an unfaithful and wicked generation that looks for a sign. But despite this, how many of us continue along this path, seeking consolations and signs in all sorts of ways? There are those who are overly fascinated with apparitions and with miracles and signs and wonders and with the mystical gifts of saints rather than with their witness of heroic virtue. These things are not bad in themselves, but they can be a distraction, for they do not touch upon the truly essential thing. Our task is to love God simply because he is God.

It is true that God may for a time give some people special consolations and gifts. However, it is more likely that we will face many periods of dryness and spiritual aridity. Many of the saints experienced long periods of spiritual darkness, but they persevered because they loved Jesus. They were not mercenaries…

St Josemaria Escriva has expressed the attitude we should adopt very succinctly:

When you go to pray, let this be a firm resolution: Don’t prolong your prayer because you find consolation in it or shorten it because you feel dry.

St Josemaria Escriva

St Josemaria Escriva

Thoughts for May 29 from Fr Willie Doyle

As you might like to know how the ‘game of raiding your neighbour’ is played, a sort of novelty for your next garden party, I shall give you a few particulars. You dig two trenches about 100 yards apart and fill one with the enemy, who are well provided with hand bombs, machine guns etc. Some night when you think they won’t expect your coming, a party of your men climb over the top of their parapet and start to crawl a là Red Indian towards the foe. It is exciting work for star shells are going up every few minutes and lighting up No Man’s Land, during which time your men lie on their faces motionless, probably cursing the inventor of the said star-shells and praying for Egyptian darkness. It is part of the game that if the enemy see you, they promptly paste you with bombs (which hurt) or give you a shower bath of leaden bullets. For this reason, when the game is played at garden parties it is recommended to place husbands in one trench and wives in the other and to oppose P.P.’s or Rev. Mothers by their curates and communities; in this way accuracy of aim is wonderfully improved and the casualties delightfully high, which is a desideratum in these days, when the supper hour arrives.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words to his father on this day in 1917. His aim was to give a humorous description of an attack on an enemy trench.

How can people not love Fr Willie Doyle??!!

Imagine the scenario. There he is after some chaotic days of hard and dangerous work (see posts from May 23-25 for some description of these days). He was undoubtedly exhausted; we know that the weather on these days was intensely hot – he described writing the letter under a “blazing sun” which was so bad it almost made him wish for the ice of winter. Yet he found the time to write a funny description of one aspect of trench life in order to entertain his father (this was part of a much longer letter). And what simple, witty humour he displays – “they paste you with bombs (which hurt)” and he tells us that if you want to imitate this type of attack at a garden party that putting husbands and wives in opposite trenches will ensure that “accuracy of aim is wonderfully improved”!! Here is a wonderfully down to earth man who sought to place everything in life in a positive light.

But let us remember that Fr Doyle lived a life of very intense prayer and faced scenes of death and destruction. It is incredible to believe that this man, who was always so light hearted in the face of awful danger, had experienced a nervous breakdown as a student when his novitiate building went on fire.

In his typically blunt style, Pope Francis has criticised a certain brand of Christianity – “long faced, mournful, funeral Christians”, “sourpusses”, “disillusioned pessimists”, “real downers” and “religious who have a heart as sour as vinegar”. Perhaps there is a temptation to think that these words apply to people from a previous era who followed a more traditional form of asceticism. Well, one thing we can be absolutely sure about – these words most certainly do not apply to Fr Doyle!

For some, Fr Doyle is a controversial figure because of his penances. Yet his penances seem to have been approved by his confessor, and everything he did has a precedent in the lives of canonised saints, including very often in the lives of Jesuit saints. His penances did not adversely affect his health or his personality. Fr Doyle had less than 3 months left to live when he wrote these words. To the very end he retained his winning personality and displayed a charming simplicity in all that he said and did.

Fr Doyle’s joyful humour is disarming and surprising, and along with his willingness to die for others, it remains one of the very best signs of his personal holiness and closeness to Christ.

Thoughts for May 26 (St Philip Neri) from Fr Willie Doyle

Dear Sir — One is often struck, on glancing over the papers, at the numerous appeals made to provide ‘comforts for our troops,’ but no one ever seems to think that the souls of those who have fallen in battle may possibly be in need of much greater comfort than the bodies of their comrades who survive .

With all the spiritual help now at their disposal, even in the very firing line, we may be fairly confident that few, if any, of our Catholic men are unprepared to meet Almighty God. That does not mean they are fit for Heaven. God’s justice must be fully satisfied, and the debt of forgiven sin fully atoned for in Purgatory. Hence I venture to appeal to the great charity of your readers to provide ‘comforts for our dead soldiers’ by having Masses offered for their souls. Remembrance of our dead and gratitude are virtues dear to every Irish heart. Our brave lads have suffered and fought and died for us. They have nobly given their lives for God and country. It is now our turn to make some slight sacrifice, so that they may soon enter into the joy of eternal rest. — Very faithfully yours, NEMO.

COMMENT: This letter appeared in the Irish Catholic on this day in 1917. The author was, of course, Fr Doyle himself, who, due to his characteristic humility, wished to disguise his identity and write under a pseudonym.

Was there any limit to his care for the soldiers? He looked after their physical needs, he shared his meagre food with them, he gave up all comfort and even life itself in order to bring the sacraments to them. And here, in the midst of all his other activities, he found time to write a letter back home to encourage Masses for the dead. What a simple, yet loving, act this was. He was willing to sacrifice his time to provide aid for the souls of Irish soldiers in purgatory.

Perhaps we can examine our conscience on this issue today. Do we pray for the dead? Do we remember our deceased loved ones? Do we take time out of our busy lives to write letters or emails to those who would appreciate it? Do we write letters to newspapers to defend the Church in the midst of the persecutions she faces in these times? If Fr Doyle, facing death every day, found time to do this, do we have any real excuse? 

Today is also the feast of St Philip Neri, who died in 1595. St Philip is one of those remarkable, lovable saints. There are many aspects of St Philip’s life that are similar to that of Fr Doyle’s. Both were renowned for their cheerfulness and love of practical jokes; both had a very affectionate and passionate love for Christ which revealed itself with the tenderness with which they greeted religious items and statues; both longed to go on the missions but could not – St Philip understood that Rome was to be his Indies. Both were devoted to the ministry of the Confessional. In fact, St Philip was one of the truly great confessors who was given the mystical gift of reading souls. In relation to today’s quote from Fr Doyle about the souls in Purgatory, we can recall that St Philip was always concerned about these departed souls, and when he approached death he begged those whose confessions he heard to say a rosary for his own soul after death. St Philip is one of those very lovable saints who is perhaps not as widely known today as he should be, especially in English speaking countries.

Remarkably, St Philip also has a military connection – he is the patron saint of the US Special Forces, a remarkable fact about an Italian saint who died over 400 years ago and never had any connection with the military during his earthly life.

St Philip Neri
St Philip Neri

Thoughts for May 25 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle wrote these words in late May 1917, and they recount some of the events he experienced in the war around this time. Once again, his love for the soldiers, his care for both their spiritual and human needs and his basic good humour shine through.

The enemy for once did me a good turn. I had arranged to hear the men’s confessions shortly before he opened fire, and a couple of well directed shells helped my work immensely by putting the fear of God into the hearts of a few careless boys who might not have troubled about coming near me otherwise. I wonder were the Sacraments ever administered under stranger circumstances? Picture my little dug-out (none too big at any time) packed with men who had dashed in for shelter from the splinters and shrapnel coming down like hail. In one corner is kneeling a poor fellow recently joined — who has not ‘knelt to the priest’ as the men quaintly say, for many a day — trying to make his Confession. I make short work of that, for a shower of clay and stones falling at the door is a gentle hint that the ‘crumps’ are getting uncomfortably near, and I want to give him Absolution in case an unwelcome visitor should walk in. Then, while the ground outside rocks and seems to split with the crash of the shells, I give them all Holy Communion, say a short prayer, and perform the wonderful feat of packing a few more men into our sardine tin of a house.

As soon as I got the chance, I slipped round to see how many casualties there were, for I thought not a mouse could survive the bombardment. Thank God, no one was killed or even badly hit, and the firing having ceased, we could breathe again. I was walking up the trench from the dressing station when I suddenly heard the scream of another shell. … It was then I realized my good fortune. There are two ways to my dug-out, and naturally I choose the shorter. This time, without any special reason, I went by the longer way; and it was well I did, for the shell pitched in the other trench, and probably would have caught me nicely as I went by. But instead of that it wreaked its vengeance on my unfortunate orderly, who was close by in his dug-out, sending him spinning on his head but other wise not injuring him I found another string of men awaiting my return in order to get Confession and Holy Communion. In fact I had quite a busy evening, thanks once more to Fritz’s High Explosive, which has a wonderful persuasive effect of its own. I am wondering how many pounds of high explosive I shall require when giving my next retreat!

Thoughts for the Feast of Pentecost from Fr Willie Doyle

A devotion which does not consist in any special form of prayer nor in doing anything in particular more than to listen to inspirations, is devotion to the Holy Spirit of God…For, as the work of Creation belongs preeminently to the Father and that of the Redemption to the Son, so the work of our Sanctification and Perfection is the work of the Holy Ghost. We honour Him when we listen to His inspirations. He is ever whispering what we ought to do and what we ought not to do. When we are deliberately deaf to His voice, which is no other than the small voice of conscience, we grieve instead of honouring the Holy Spirit of God. So let us often say: Come, O Holy Ghost, into my heart and make me holy so that I may be generous with God and become a saint. See what the Holy Spirit made of the Apostles – changed them from skulking cowards into great saints afire with the love of God.

COMMENT: Yes, see how the Holy Spirit changed the Apostles from cowards into heroes who travelled the earth to preach the Gospel without fear of imprisonment, shipwreck or death. See also how the Holy Spirit changed Fr Doyle from a young nervous Jesuit who had a complete nervous breakdown after being involved in a fire, to a hero of the trenches whose powerful presence was enough to give renewed courage to tough Irish soldiers.

The Feast of Pentecost is really one of the great feasts of the liturgical year, but unfortunately we can tend to treat it like any other day…Truly we need the Holy Spirit today, and nowhere more so than in Ireland, where morale within the Church is low and where the sins of yesterday hold us back from proclaiming the Gospel today. The Holy Spirit can transform us and equip us for the challenge of apostolate in this generation. His presence is available to us today, just as much as it was for the Apostles and the early Christians. Let us conclude today with some words from the great Irish Benedictine Blessed Columba Marmion:

This action of the Holy Spirit in the Church is varied and manifold…In the first days of the Church’s existence, this action was much more visible than in our own days; it entered into the designs of Providence, for it was necessary that the Church should be firmly established by manifesting, in the sight of the pagan world, striking signs of the Divinity of her Founder, of her origin and mission. These signs, the fruits of the out pouring of the Holy Spirit, were wonderful. We marvel when we read the account of the beginnings of the Church. The Holy Spirit descended upon those who through baptism were made Christ’s disciples. He filled them with “charismata” as numerous as they were astonishing; graces of miracles, gifts of prophecy, gifts of tongues and many other extraordinary favours granted to the first Christians in order that the Church, adorned with such an abundance of eminent gifts, might be recognised as the true Church of Jesus…If the visible and extraordinary character of the effects of the workings of the Holy Spirit have in great part disappeared, the action of this Divine Spirit ever continues in souls and is not the less wonderful for now being chiefly interior.

Columba Marmion disguised as a cattle dealer during the war
Columba Marmion disguised as a cattle dealer during the war