Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests

St Peter Damian
St Peter Damian

The great light of this retreat, clear and persistent has been that God has chosen me, in His great love and through compassion for my weakness and misery, to be a victim of reparation for the sins of priests especially; that hence my life must be different in the matter of penance, self-denial and prayer, from the lives of others not given this special grace.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle clearly perceived that he had a special calling to make reparation for the sins of priests. In fact, he reiterated this calling in the very last entry that he ever made in his diary, on July 28 1917, the 10th anniversary of his ordination and just two weeks before his death:

I have again offered myself to Jesus…to do with me absolutely as He pleases. I will try to take all that happens, no matter from whom it comes, as sent to me by Jesus and will bear suffering, heat, cold, etc., with joy…in reparation for the sins of priests. From this day I shall try bravely to bear all “little pains” in this spirit. A strong urging to this.

We don’t hear very much about reparation these days but this idea is entirely scriptural. St Paul tells us:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

In some mysterious way, our own sacrifices strengthen the Church and win grace for others.

Fr Doyle specifically focuses on the sins of priests. Priests were held in very high esteem 100 years ago, yet here we have Fr Doyle recognising the reality of priestly sinfulness. It was a desire to atone for these sins that drove him to some of his severe penances.

How much more we know about the sinfulness of some priests now than we did 100 years ago! The Church in Ireland has been especially badly hit by the scandal – the crime! – of child abuse. It is no exaggeration to say that the moral credibility of the Church has been dreadfully undermined by these scandals, and especially by their mishandling. Those in the United States who have seen the fallout of clerical abuse in dioceses like Boston have some sense of the implications of clerical scandals on the credibility and life of the Church. But it must be stressed – the fallout for the Church in Ireland has been vastly more serious than anywhere else, and that includes places like Boston.

Today we celebrate the feast of St Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church. St Peter Damian is not one of the better known Doctors, but he is of great significance for his zealous work in reforming the Church, and in particular the clergy, of his time. And what was the main focus of his reform? Yes, that’s right, sexual corruption amongst the clergy, and in particular the abuse of teenage boys by priests and monks. Remarkably, St Peter Damian was born over 1,000 years ago, and died in 1072. His extensive writings on this problem cite with approval the works of another Doctor of the Church, St Basil the Great, who died over 1,600 years ago in 379. It is clear that neither saint took the matter lightly. Their prescription for abusers included public flogging, imprisonment, bad food and constant supervision to ensure that the guilty party never again had contact with children.

This is not to suggest that the crime of abuse is disproportionately acute in the Church; we know from authoritative statistics that this is not the case. But we do know that the way in which the problem was handled in recent decades was gravely deficient. Perhaps the Church leaned too heavily on psychologists, or was too strongly influenced by the prevailing secular social norms which, in that period, trivialised this activity.

The point remains that the Church has, within its own tradition, a strong response to the problem of clerical abuse. If the Church in Ireland had adopted the zero tolerance approach of St Peter Damian the Church would have underlined its seriousness in eradicating this crime and would have protected children.

For some reason, however, especially in Ireland, the Church decided to prefer the solution of secular therapists to that of the saints.

And so we come back to Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests…

Once again we find that Fr Doyle is a very fitting model for us today. Here is a priest who died for others, even those who did not share his faith. Here is a man who literally offered his life to God in reparation for the sins of other priests. True, we must not follow his own personal style of penance – he makes it clear that he had a special calling for hard penance that others did not have – but the principle is there for us to follow nonetheless. And it now officially forms part of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis. Pope Benedict, in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, urged us to offer our Friday penances essentially in reparation for the sins of priests and for healing and renewal.

Let us pray to St Peter Damian for reform within the Church – and most importantly within ourselves – and to Fr Doyle that we may make adequate reparation for sin through our own small penances.

Here is the text of an address by Pope Benedict XVI on St Peter Damian:http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20090909_en.html

Thoughts for the Second Sunday of Lent from Fr Willie Doyle

Transfiguration 2

I wish I could write to you at length about grace. It is a fascinating subject. You are quite right in calling it “a participation of the divine nature,” since Scripture uses almost the same words to describe it. A comparison of the Fathers of the Church helps to explain things a little. A piece of iron, they say, placed in a fire does not in reality change its nature, yet it seems to do so; it burns and glows like the fire around it, it cannot be distinguished from the fire. In similar wise a soul clad in grace borrows beauty and magnificence from God’s beauty and magnificence; it seems to partake of the nature of God. What joy to remember that every tiny thing done for God, an act, a word, a glance even, brings fresh grace to the soul, makes it partake more and more of the nature of God, until St. Paul has to exclaim: “I have said you are gods!” and no longer mortals. Our Lord longs for this transformation, and so He sends many hard trials to hasten the day of this perfect union. Let Him, then, have His way. You can have perfect confidence that He is doing the right thing ever and always. Holiness is really nothing more than perfect conformity to God’s Will, and so every step in this direction must please Him immensely.

COMMENT: In today’s Gospel we read about the Transfiguration, whereby Jesus shows just a small glimpse of His Divine glory. Even this small glimpse of His Divinity is enough to dumbfound the apostles and fill them with fear. While the earthly transfiguration, as such, was obviously unique to Christ because of His Divinity, it remains true that we are all meant to be “transformed” in some spiritual way by grace.

However, this transformation can also be physical in some way in the lives of the saints. There is a temptation to discount such phenomena as part of as mythical “Golden Legend” of the saints. Sometimes it can be good to be a little sceptical about mystical phenomena, but it is surely not the Christian position to completely and automatically dismiss such phemonena out of hand entirely.

We read in the lives of many saints about how, on occasion, others thought that they could perceive a certain radiance around them. The Book of Exodus tells us how the face of Moses was shining and radiant after he came down from the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai. These tales are not confined to the distant past; for instance there have been reports of how acquaintances of St John Paul II perceived that his face also shone on occasion. Those who were present at the apparitions at Lourdes also reported a radiant look on the face of St Bernadette during her visions, and it was the power of this radiance that convinced them of the authenticity of the visions. Similarly, those present when St Pio said Mass could also perceive a radiance in his face.

Perhaps the same internal transformation through grace was at work in Fr Doyle’s soul at times. Here is the testimony of his brother, Fr Charles Doyle SJ:

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.

Was Fr Charles mistaken? Did he imagine it? We shall never know. But our instinct surely tells us that, sometimes, internal holiness manifests itself externally in some fashion. Here is some similar testimony from a soldier who knew Fr Doyle in the Great War:

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.’

We shall conclude today with this reflection from Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, the Carmelite Spiritual writer:

Glory is the fruit of grace; the grace possessed by Jesus in an infinite degree is reflected in an infinite glory transfiguring Him entirely. Something similar happens to us; grace will transform us “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18) until one day it will bring us to the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven. But while grace transfigures, sin, on the other hand, darkens and disfigures whoever becomes its victim.