A hero dies: The 98th anniversary of the death of Fr Doyle

Fr William Doyle SJ 3 March 1873 - 16 August 1917
Fr William Doyle SJ 3 March 1873 – 16 August 1917

My Martyrdom for Mary’s Sake.

Darling Mother Mary, in preparation for the glorious martyrdom which I feel assured thou art going to obtain for me, I, thy most unworthy child, on this the first day of thy month, solemnly commence my life of slow martyrdom by earnest hard work and constant self-denial. With my blood I promise thee to keep this resolution, do thou, sweet Mother, assist me and obtain for me the one favour I wish and long for: To die a Jesuit Martyr.

May 1st, 1893.

May God’s will, not mine, be done! Amen.

These words were written in Fr Doyle’s private diary. He kept his part of the bargain – the remaining 24 years of his life were literally a slow martyrdom of “earnest hard work and constant self-denial”. As might be expected, Mary kept her part of the bargain, and won for him the grace of “martyrdom” on August 16, 1917: 98 years ago today. Of course, Fr Doyle is not a martyr in the formal, classical sense of the term – he was not killed out of hatred for the Faith. The concept of being a “martyr of charity” – one who dies while serving others or administering the sacraments – while not a formally recognised category in the Church, can be traced back to heroic Christians who died after nursing plague victims in the 3rd century. Some background on the concept of a “martyr of charity” can be found here: http://newsaints.faithweb.com/new_martyrs/martyrs_charity.htm

This is O’Rahilly’s brief account of Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle had been engaged from early morning in the front line, cheering and consoling his men, and attending to the many wounded. Soon after 3 p.m. he made his way back to the Regimental Aid Post which was in charge of a Corporal Raitt, the doctor having gone back to the rear some hours before. Whilst here word came in that an officer of the Dublins had been badly hit, and was lying out in an exposed position. Fr. Doyle at once decided to go out to him, and left the Aid Post with his runner, Private Mclnespie, and a Lieutenant Grant. Some twenty minutes later, at about a quarter to four, Mclnespie staggered into the Aid Post and fell down in a state of collapse from shell shock. Corporal Raitt went to his assistance and after considerable difficulty managed to revive him. His first words on coming back to consciousness were: “Fr. Doyle has been killed!” Then bit by bit the whole story was told. Fr. Doyle had found the wounded officer lying far out in a shell crater. He crawled out to him, absolved and anointed him, and then, half dragging, half carrying the dying man, managed to get him within the line. Three officers came up at this moment, and Mclnespie was sent for some water. This he got and was handing it to Fr. Doyle when a shell burst in the midst of the group, killing Fr. Doyle and the three officers instantaneously, and hurling Mclnespie violently to the ground. Later in the day some of the Dublins when retiring came across the bodies of all four. Recognising Fr. Doyle, they placed him and a Private Meehan, whom they were carrying back dead, behind a portion of the Frezenberg Redoubt and covered the bodies with sods and stones.

The book The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Armed Forces claims that another military chaplain by the name of Fr Fitzmaurice heard Fr Doyle’s confession 15 minutes before his death. If this is true, then Fr Doyle himself had the great grace of confession just moments before death – this is a great gift to one who lost his own life while bringing this sacrament to others.

Those who wish to know more about Fr Doyle’s service as a military chaplain, and who wish to know the identity of the officers that Fr Doyle ran to help when he was killed, should purchase a copy of Carole Hope’s Worshipper and Worshipped – it is the definitive guide to this aspect of Fr Doyle’s life.

Worshipper and Worshipped

Of course, Fr Doyle’s body was not properly buried and preserved. There are various suggestions that he was hastily buried under rocks, and that soldiers who found his body removed some of his uniform buttons and his Pioneer pin and gave them to Fr Frank Browne for safe keeping. There are other suggestions that the location of Fr Doyle’s body was noted, and when men returned to bury him, that it was no longer to be found, presumably having been hit by another shell. Ultimately, we don’t know where his body is so we have no physical remains or monuments to him. In this regard, one of the later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography quotes the words of St Ignatius of Antioch which are very fitting:

Entice the wild beasts to become my tomb and leave no trace of my body so that in falling asleep I may be a burden to no one. Then shall I be really a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will not even see my body.

St Patrick wrote in a similar vein: 

I beg of God whom I love to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I be without burial itself, or my corpse be most miserably divided, limb by limb, amongst dogs and fierce beasts, or the birds of the air devour it. I think it most certain that if this happens to me, I shall have gained my soul with my body.

And so it was with Fr Doyle.

How does one sum up someone who lived such a varied and remarkable life as Fr Doyle on this, his anniversary? Perhaps only the words of Christ Himself would do him justice:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

Thank you Fr Willie for this love that you showed to the wounded soldiers in the Great War and for the inspiring example of your virtues throughout your life.

A song mentioning Fr Doyle

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Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary – Day 9: Peace in the life of Fr Doyle

Today, the anniversary of Fr Doyle’s heroic death, we shall consider the role of serenity and peace in Fr Doyle’s life.

One of the remarkable things about Fr Doyle was his profound interior peace, even in the midst of objectively horrific circumstances. This is something that we can also identify in the lives of canonised saints – they all had a rare serenity, even when facing death. St Thomas More joked with his executioner, while St Lawrence the Deacon joked with those who were burning him to death that they should turn him over on the griddle, because he was already well cooked on one side already! And it wasn’t just martyrs who remained peaceful – saints like Gerard Majella and Vincent de Paul remained calm when falsely accused of crimes, while others like Teresa of Avila and Maravillas remained peaceful in the face of grave financial worries related to their foundations.

Many people noticed a special peace that emanated from Fr Doyle. His brother, Fr Charles Doyle SJ noted:

Willie and I were dining at Melrose one evening. I arrived first, and I was looking out of the drawing room, when I saw Willie coming up the drive. I can still see his face as he came towards the house. It had an expression of sweetness, brightness, and holiness that was quite astonishing. During the last time that he was at home on leave from the Front, he came down to Limerick where I was stationed. We went out for a walk together. Coming home, we met a number of people walking… As each couple or party came near us, I noticed all eyes became fixed on Willie with a curiously interested and reverential expression. I stole a glance at him. His eyes were cast down, and upon his face was the same unearthly look of sweetness and radiance I had seen on it that evening years before at Melrose.

The soldiers felt a certain “something” about Fr Doyle as well, and some of this peace seemed to communicate itself to them. An Irish soldier recounts the following incident:

You need not worry any longer about my soul. I came across a Jesuit, a Fr Willie Doyle, out here, and he settled up my accounts with the Lord. Fr Doyle is a splendid fellow. He is so brave and cheery. He has a wonderful influence over others and can do what he likes with the men. I was out the other evening with a brother officer, and met him. After a few words I said: ‘This is a pal of mine, Padre; he is a Protestant, but I think he would like your blessing.’ Fr Doyle looked at my chum for a moment with a smile and then made the sign of the cross on his forehead. When he had passed on, my pal said: ‘That is a holy man. Did you see the way he looked at me? It went right through me. And when he crossed my forehead I felt such an extraordinary sensation.’  

What did Fr Doyle himself have to say about his peace of soul, and its true source? We learn a lot from his letters home:

In some ways I have found life out here much easier than I expected and in other respects a good deal more trying. Still if I get only a little bit of holiness out of it all, will it not be well worth it all? Jesus knows I have only one wish in this world — to love Him and Him alone — for the rest He has carte blanche to do as He pleases in my regard. I just leave myself in His loving Hands and so have no anxiety or care, but great peace of soul.

And elsewhere

God’s will is everything to me now. . . . True, nature rebels at times, for He has filled me with such a longing to labour for Him, to live and suffer for His dear sake, that the thought of death is very bitter. I can only call it a living martyrdom. But I conquer the feeling by saying this little prayer: ‘Take, O Lord, and receive my liberty, my health and strength, my limbs, my flesh, my blood, my very life. Do with me just as You wish; I embrace all lovingly — suffering, wounds, death — if only it will glorify You one tiny bit.’ That always brings back peace, even when a bullet grazing my head drives home the reality of the offering.

Fr Doyle also felt this peace even as a young man preparing for the priesthood. He wrote the following in a letter to his mother:

Since then I have gone on from day to day and year to year, with the same cheerful spirits, making the best of difficulties and always trying to look at the bright side of things. True, from time to time, there have been trials and hard things to face — even a Jesuit’s life is not all roses — but through it all I can honestly say, I have never lost that deep interior peace and contentment which sweetens the bitter things and makes rough paths smooth.

We will conclude today with some of Fr Doyle’s advice for finding holiness and inner peace:

If you train yourself to see God’s hand in all things and rather to be glad when everything goes wrong, you will enjoy great interior peace. Here is a most important spiritual maxim for you: A soul which is not at peace and happy will never be really holy.