100 years ago today – Fr Doyle narrowly avoids shell fire

On the way I noticed that heavy firing was going on ahead, but it was only when I reached a bend in the road that I realized the enemy were actually shelling the very spot I had to pass. Some soldiers stopped me, saying it was dangerous to go on. At the moment I was wondering what had become of the side of a vacant house which had suddenly vanished in a cloud of smoke, and I was painfully aware of the proximity of high explosive shells.

Here was a fix! I knew my regiment was waiting in the village for Mass, and also that half of them were going to the trenches that afternoon for the first time; if I did not turn up they would lose Confession and Holy Communion, but the only way to reach them was by the shell-swept road. What really decided me was the thought that I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, and I felt that, having our Lord Himself with me, no harm could possibly come to me. I mounted the bicycle and faced the music. I don’t want you to think me very brave and courageous, for I confess I felt horribly afraid; it was my baptism of fire, and one needs to grow accustomed to the sound of bursting shells. Just then I was wishing my regiment in Jericho and every German gun at the bottom of the Red Sea or any other hot place.

Call it a miracle if you will, but the moment I turned the corner the guns ceased firing, and not a shell fell till I was safely in the village Church. My confidence in God’s protection was not misplaced. Naturally I did not know this was going to happen, and it was anything but pleasant riding down the last stretch of road, listening for the scream of the coming shell. Have you ever had a nightmare in which you were pursued by ten mad bulls, while the faster you tried to run, the more your feet stuck in the mud? These were just my feelings as I pedalled down that blessed road which seemed to grow longer and longer the further I went.

At last I turned the corner, reached the Church, and had just begun Mass when down came the hail of shells once more. One or two must have burst very close, judging by the way the walls shook, but I felt quite happy and quite ready to be blown from the altar, for I saw a fine plump Frenchwoman just behind me; she might have been killed, but I was quite safe!

I mention this little adventure as I think it will console you, as it has consoled me, showing that all the good prayers are not in vain, and that this is a happy omen of God’s loving protection from all dangers. I have just heard that one, at least, of the men to whom I gave Holy Communion that morning was killed the same night in the trenches.

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Fr Doyle’s letter from the front on 5 March 1916

I am suffering much in every way, most of all, perhaps, from sheer fatigue. As regards food and lodging I am not badly off, but the discomforts of the life would be long to tell. However, like St. Paul I can say that I superabound with joy in all my tribulations; for I know that they come from God’s hand and that they are working out some plan of His in my soul. What a joy to be able to offer oneself entirely, even life itself, each morning at Mass, and to think that perhaps before evening He may have accepted the offering!

First Station of the Cross by Fr Willie Doyle

We are now over half way through Lent. At this stage it is easy for our dedication to wane somewhat; the early enthusiasm of Ash Wednesday is behind us; the solemnity and beauty of Holy Week is still a few weeks away.

This seems to be an appropriate time to introduce the Stations of the Cross based on the writings of Fr Doyle. For each of the next 14 days a meditation from Fr Doyle’s writings on one of the Stations will be posted on the site, normally without the usual daily comment. The images accompanying these meditations are the images of the Stations in St Raphael’s Church in Surrey, England (http://www.straphael.org.uk) and are used with the kind permission of the parish.

The First Station: Jesus Is Condemned To Death

Station 1

Around the judgement seat are grouped a motley crowd. Men and women of every rank, the high-born Jewish maiden, the rough Samaritan woman; haughty Scribes and proud Pharisees mingle with the common loafer of the great city. Hatred has united them all for one common object; hatred of One Who ever loves them and to their wild fury has only opposed acts of gentle kindness. A mighty scream goes up, a scream of fierce rage and angry fury, such a sound as only could be drawn from the very depths of hell. “Death to Him! Death to the false prophet!”. He has spent His life among you doing good – Let Him die! He has healed your sick, given strength to the palsied, sight to your blind – Let Him die! He has raised your dead – Let death be His fate!