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.

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