Thoughts for April 30 (St Pius V) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Pius V - the Pope of the Rosary
St Pius V – the Pope of the Rosary

I said my rosary with arms extended. At the third mystery the pain was so great that I felt I could not possibly continue; but at each Ave (Hail Mary) I prayed for strength and was able to finish it. This has given me great consolation by showing the many hard things I could do with the help of prayer.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was greatly devoted to the rosary. It is interesting to read accounts of how the rosary consoled worried soldiers who were facing probable death. He regularly arranged the public recitation of the rosary for the troops, and I have read private accounts of how he would personally say the rosary with soldiers suffering from particularly severe fear, sometimes giving them his own rosary beads as a gift. I have received emails from families who have treasured the rosaries that were given by Fr Doyle to their ancestors who fought in World War 1.

Here is a particularly touching account of a scene he witnessed just a few weeks before his death in the summer of 1917:

There were many little touching incidents during these days; one especially I shall not easily forget. When the men had left the field after the evening devotions, I noticed a group of three young boys, brothers I think, still kneeling saying another rosary. They knew it was probably their last meeting on earth and they seemed to cling to one another for mutual comfort and strength, and instinctively turned to the Blessed Mother to help them in their hour of need. There they knelt as if they were alone and unobserved, their hands clasped and faces turned towards heaven, with such a look of beseeching earnestness that the Mother of Mercy surely must have heard their prayer: ‘Holy Mary pray for us now — at the hour of our death. Amen.’

Today is the feast of Pope St Pius V. He was a zealous Dominican friar and reformer at a tough time in the life of the Church. He was the Pope who encouraged the formation of the “Holy League” to defend Europe from the Ottoman Empire – this resulted in the Battle of Lepanto in which the forces of Christendom were successful. It was a major turning point in European history.

St Pius V is known as the Pope of the Rosary because he encouraged Catholics to pray the rosary for the success of the Holy League. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary now falls on October 7, the date of the Battle of Lepanto, and it was originally instituted by St Pius V as the feast of Our Lady of Victories.

St Pius V lived at a very difficult time in the life of the Church, and had to make many difficult decisions. Let us pray to him today for Pope Francis who faces his own challenges at this difficult time. Let us also remember the importance of the rosary in our own lives as we prepare to commence the month of May, traditionally dedicated to Mary.

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Fr Doyle and the Hulloch gas attack

Carole Hope is an expert on Fr Doyle’s military career and is the author of the superb biography Worshipper and Worshipped.

Worshipper and Worshipped

She recently gave a lecture in Dublin on Fr Doyle’s experience in this gas attack 100 years ago this week. Below you will find two videos on this lecture courtesy of Ronan McGreevy, a journalist in the Irish Times whose book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: An Irish Journey Along the Western Front will be published shortly.

 

Thoughts for the Feast of St Catherine of Siena from Fr Willie Doyle

St Catherine of Siena

What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes?

Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Catherine of Siena. Catherine is one of the greatest saints in the Church – she was a phenomenon in her own time and is a Doctor of the Church and one of the patron saints of Europe. She is also surely one of the great women of history.

St Catherine crammed so much into her short life. She was a tireless worker for the poor, an advisor to popes, a diplomat and peacemaker and a profound mystic. Her impact on those she met on her travels was such that the Dominicans had to appoint priests to accompany her in order to hear the numerous Confessions on the part of those who converted upon meeting her. The Church was in a state of crisis in Catherine’s day, and it could be said that Catherine saved the Church from many of the dangers it faced. And she did all of this as a young, uneducated, sick laywoman who died at 33 years of age. When crises threaten the Church, God empowers saints who are equal to the task of the reform needed, and He does so with such humanly weak instruments that we are left with no doubt that it is God at work.

There are two points that we might usefully ponder today. The first relates to Fr Doyle’s quote above. Holiness involves faithfulness to duty and is not dependent on great penances or indeed on mystical phenomena or the great achievements we find in the lives of some saints like Catherine. In fact, St Catherine teaches us a wonderful way of performing our duties well. She was somewhat mistreated by her parents as a teenager – she wanted to live in solitude and prayer but her parents would not allow this. She was forced to work in the house and serve them, even though she didn’t want to do so. In order to overcome her dislike of this task, when serving them at table she would imagine that her father was Jesus, that her mother was Mary and that her brothers were the Apostles. This helped to inspire in her the charity that she did not naturally feel at that time.

The second relates to Catherine’s great love of the Pope. She defended the papacy against anti-popes, and she worked to ensure that the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon. Let us therefore support and pray for Pope Francis today.

We shall conclude today with some quotes from Catherine on diverse subjects.

On finding God in the midst of a busy life:

Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.

Faithfulness to duty:

Let all do the work which God has given them, and not bury their talent, for that is also a sin deserving severe punishment. It is necessary to work always and everywhere for all God’s creatures.

To Pope Gregory XI, who was weak and indecisive:

You can do what he (Pope Gregory the Great) did, for he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as he was. The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbour, and courage.

To a cardinal, on the need for courage:

A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. How dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see not understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a man loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason for this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance or being and vanish like the wind.

To her spiritual director Blessed Raymond of Capua, on courage:

(I long) to see you grow out of your childhood and become a grown man…For an infant who lives on milk is not able to fight on the battlefield; he only wants to play with other children. So a man who is wrapped in love for himself only wishes to taste the milk of spiritual and temporal consolation; like a child he wants to be with others of its kind. But when he becomes a grown man he leaves behind this sensitive self love…He has become strong, he is firm, serious and thoughtful, he hastens to the battlefield and his only wish is to fight for the truth.

To those who think the Church’s day has come to an end:

If you reply that it looks as though the Church must surrender, for it is impossible for it to save itself and its children, I say to you that it is not so. The outward appearance deceives, but look at the inward, and you will find that it possesses a power that its enemies can never possess.

To us all:

If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.

April 28 – 100th anniversary of the Hulloch gas attack

WW1 gas attack 4

We continue today with an excerpt from the original letter detailing some of the work Fr Doyle had to undertake towards the end of April, 1916. After these stressful days were ended, Fr Doyle was given a few days rest, and he was able to remove and change his clothes for the first time in over two weeks! Such was his exhaustion from serving the soldiers that he slept for 13 hours straight on his first night of rest!

On paper every man with a helmet was as safe as I was from gas poisoning. But now it is evident many of the men despised the ‘old German gas,’ some did not bother putting on their helmets, others had torn theirs, and others like myself had thrown them aside or lost them. From early morning till late at night I worked my way from trench to trench single handed the first day, with three regiments to look after, and could get no help. Many men died before I could reach them; others seemed just to live till I anointed them, and were gone before I passed back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony: the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe; while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.

I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leant down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.

Venerable Fr John Sullivan to be beatified

Fr John Sullivan SJ 2
Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ

Pope Francis has approved a miracle through the intercession of Fr John Sullivan, clearing the way for his imminent beatification. Fr Sullivan was a convert to Catholicism who was known for his humility, simplicity and charism of healing. He was a friend of Fr Doyle, admired his spirit, and they were ordained together.

This is great news for the Church in Ireland.

 

Fr Doyle ordination
Ordination of John Sullivan and Willie Doyle 28 July 1907, Miltown Park, Dublin. Fr Doyle is marked with an X.

 

 

27 April – 100th anniversary of the Hulloch gas attack

WW1 gas attack 3

Fr Doyle sent the letter below to his father one year after the gas attack of April 1916 (see yesterday’s post). In this letter, he reveals more details of what had happened on April 26-28 1916. It seems to have been an even closer scrape with death than he had let on in the original letter, and he seems to have held off telling his father about it in case it caused undue worry for him.

I have never told you the whole story of that memorable April morning or the repetition of it the following day, or how when I was lying on the stretcher going to ‘peg out,’ as the doctor believed, God gave me back my strength and energy in a way which was nothing short of a miracle, to help many a poor fellow to die in peace and perhaps to open the gates of heaven to not a few.

 I had come through the three attacks without ill results, though having been unexpectedly caught by the last one, as I was anointing a dying man and did not see the poisonous fumes coming, I had swallowed some of the gas before I could get my helmet on. It was nothing very serious, but left me rather weak and washy. There was little time to think of that, for wounded and dying were lying all along the trenches, and I was the only priest on that section at the time.

 The fumes had quite blown away, but a good deal of the gas, being of a heavy nature, had sunk down to the bottom of the trench and gathered under the duck-boards or wooden flooring. It was impossible to do one’s work with the gas helmet on, and so as I knelt down to absolve or anoint man after man for the greater part of that day, I had to inhale the chlorine fumes till I had nearly enough gas in my poor inside to inflate a German sausage balloon.

 I did not then know that when a man is gassed his only chance (and a poor one at that) is to lie perfectly still to give the heart a chance of fighting its foe. In happy ignorance of my real state, I covered mile after mile of those trenches until at last in the evening, when the work was done, I was able to rejoin my battalion in a village close to the Line.

 It was only then I began to realise that I felt ‘rotten bad’ as schoolboys say. I remember the doctor, who was a great friend of mine, feeling my pulse and shaking his head as he put me lying in a corner of the shattered house, and then he sat beside me for hours with a kindness I can never forget. He told me afterwards he was sure I was a ‘gone coon’ but at the moment I did not care much. Then I fell asleep only to be rudely awakened at four next morning by the crash of guns and the dreaded bugle call ‘gas alarm, gas alarm.’ The Germans had launched a second attack, fiercer than the first. It did not take long to make up my mind what to do — who would hesitate at such a moment, when the Reaper Death was busy? — and before I reached the trenches I had anointed a number of poor fellows who had struggled back after being gassed and had fallen dying by the roadside.’

 The harvest that day was a big one, for there had been bloody fighting all along the Front. Many a man died happy in the thought that the priest’s hand had been raised in absolution over his head and the Holy Oils’ anointing had given pardon to those senses which he had used to offend the Almighty. It was a long, hard day, a day of heart rending sights, with the consolation of good work done in spite of the deadly fumes, and I reached my billet wet and muddy, pretty nearly worn out, but perfectly well, with not the slightest ill effect from what I had gone through, nor have I felt any since. Surely God has been good to me. That was not the first of His many favours, nor has it been the last.

26 April – 100th anniversary of the Hulloch gas attack

WW1 gas attack 2

Fr Doyle had many incredibly close shaves with death during the almost 2 years he spent as a military chaplain. He has recorded many of these in his diaries and in the letters he sent home to his father. One of these dramatic moments occurred on the night of April 26 and early morning April 27 1916. Here is an excerpt from a letter home to his father which recounts the experience in a lot of detail. A few things stand out in this letter. Firstly the fact that he recorded the event in so much detail in order to keep his father informed tells us something of Fr Doyle’s filial respect and love. How many of us would easily excuse ourselves of the duty of writing home, preferring instead to sleep or take it easy in some other way? Secondly there is his trust in Providence and the seemingly supernatural help he received that day. Did he imagine this help, or did his guardian angel assist him in a special way on this day? We do not know, but it would not be the first time in history that somebody has received specific assistance in this form. Thirdly, we see something of the value of the priesthood and the sacraments, and how important the presence of the priest was to the dying soldiers, and how far Fr Doyle would go to assist them. 

Tomorrow we will reproduce the text of a letter he wrote a year later in which he gives even more details of the danger he faced on this occasion (he didn’t reveal everything to his father all at once in case it worried him) and on Thursday we will reproduce part of a letter which reveals some of the harrowing work he had to undertake in the days following this gas attack.

About four o’clock (in the morning) the thought struck me that it would be a good thing to walk back to the village to warm myself and say an early Mass for the nuns, who usually have to wait hours for some chaplain to turn up. They have been very kind to me, and I was glad of this chance of doing this little service to them. The village is about two miles behind our trench, in such a position that one can leave cover with perfect safety and walk there across the fields. As I left the trench about 4.45, the sun was just rising. It was a perfect morning with a gentle breeze blowing. Now and again came the crack of a rifle, but all was unusually calm and still: little did I think of the deadly storm about to burst and hurry so many brave men into eternity. I had just reached a point half way between our trenches and the village when I heard behind me the deep boom of a German gun quickly followed by a dozen others. In a moment our gunners replied and before I could well realize what was taking place, the air was alive with shells. At first I thought it was just a bit of the usual good morning greeting and that after ten minutes artillery strafe all would be quiet once more. But I soon saw this was a serious business, for gun after gun, and battery after battery, was rapidly coming into action, until at the lowest number 500 guns were roaring all round me. It was a magnificent if terrifying sight. The ground fairly shook with the roar of the guns, for the heavies now had taken up the challenge, and all round the horizon I could see the clouds of smoke and dust from the bursting shells as both sides kept searching for their opponents’ hidden cannon. 

There I stood in the very centre of the battle, the one man of all the thousands engaged who was absolutely safe, for I was away from the trenches, there were no guns or troops near me to draw fire, and though tens of thousands of shells went over my head, not even a splinter fell near me. I felt that the good God had quietly dumped me there till all danger had passed.

After a while seeing that this heavy shelling meant an attack of some kind, and that soon many a dying man would need my help, I turned round and made my way towards the ambulance station. As I approached the trenches I noticed the smoke from the bursting shells, which was hanging thickly over them and was being driven towards me across the fields. For once, I said to myself, I am going to smell the smoke of a real battle, and I stepped out quite gaily— the next moment I had turned and was running back for my life — the Germans had started a poison gas attack which I had mistaken for shell smoke, and I had walked straight into it!

After about 20 yards I stopped to see what was to be done, for I knew it was useless to try and escape by running. I saw (assuredly again providentially) that I had struck the extreme edge of the gas and also that the wind was blowing it away to my left. A hundred yards in the opposite direction, and I was safe. I must confess for a moment I got a shock, as a gas attack was the very last thing I was thinking about — in fact we thought the Germans had given it up. Fortunately too I had not forgotten the old days of the chemistry room at Ratcliffe College nor Brother Thompson and his stink bottles so I knew at the first whiff it was chlorine gas and time for this child to make tracks.

But I was not yet out of the wood. Even as I was congratulating myself on my good fortune, I saw both right and left of where I stood the green wave of a second gas attack rolling towards me like some huge spectre stretching out its ghostly arms. As I saw it coming, my heart went out to God in one fervent act of gratitude for His goodness to me. As probably you know we all carry smoke helmets slung over our shoulders in a case, to be used against a gas attack. That morning as I was leaving my dugout I threw my helmet aside. I had a fairly long walk before me, the helmet is a bit heavy on a hot day, and as I said, German gas was most unlikely. So I made up my mind to leave it behind. In view of what happened, it may appear imagination now, but a voice seemed to whisper loudly in my ear: ‘Take your helmet with you; don’t leave without it’ (On the anniversary of this escape he once more asserted: ‘Some invisible, almost physical, force turned me back to get my helmet.’)  I turned back and slung it over my shoulder. Surely it was the warning voice of my guardian angel, for if I had not done so, you would never have had this letter. 

I wonder can you picture my feelings at this moment? Here was death in its most awful form sweeping down towards me; thank God I had the one thing which could save me, but with a carelessness for which I ought to be scourged, I had never tried the helmet on and did not know if it were in working order. In theory, with the helmet on I was absolutely safe, but it was an anxious moment waiting for the scorching test, and to make things more horrible, I was absolutely alone. But I had the companionship of One Who sustained me in the hour of trial, and kneeling down I took the Pyx from my pocket and received the Blessed Eucharist as Viaticum. I had not a moment to spare, and had my helmet just fixed when I was buried in a thick green fog of poison gas. In a few moments my confidence returned for the helmet worked perfectly and I found I was able to breathe without any ill effects from the gas.

By the time I got down to the dressing station the guns had ceased fire, the gas blown away, and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Already a stream of wounded was coming in and I soon had my hands full, when an urgent message  reached me from the front trench. A poor fellow had been desperately wounded, a bullet had cut him like a knife across the stomach, with results you can best imagine. He was told he had only a few minutes to live, and asked if they could do anything for him. ‘I have only one wish before I die’, he answered, ‘could you possibly get me Fr. Doyle? I’ll go happy then.’ It was hard work to reach him, as parts of the communication trench were knee deep in water and thick mud. Then I was misdirected and sent in the wrong direction, but I kept on praying I might be in time, and at last found the dying man still breathing and conscious. The look of joy, which lit up his face when I knelt beside him, was reward enough for the effort I had made. I gave him Absolution and anointed him before he died, but occupied as I was I did not notice that a third gas attack had begun. Before I could get my helmet out and on, I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, which did me no serious harm beyond making me feel rather sick and weak.

As I made my way slowly up the trench, feeling altogether ‘a poor thing,’ I stumbled across a young officer who had been badly gassed. He had got his helmet on, but was coughing and choking in a terrible way. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘ help me to tear off this helmet — I can’t breathe. I’m dying.’ I saw if I left him the end would not be far; so catching hold of him, I half carried, half dragged him up the trench to the medical aid post. I shall never forget that ten minutes, it seemed hours. I seemed to have lost all my strength: struggling with him to prevent him killing himself by tearing off his helmet made me forget almost how to breathe through mine. I was almost stifled, though safe from gas, while the perspiration simply poured from my forehead. I could do nothing but pray for help and set my teeth, for if I once let go, he was a dead man. Thank God, we both at last got to the aid post, and I had the happiness of seeing him in the evening out of danger, though naturally still weak. Fortunately this last attack was short and light, so that I was able to take off my helmet and after a cup of tea was all right. The best proof I can give you of this, lies in the fact that I have since put in three of the hardest days’ work of my life which I could not possibly have done had I been really gassed, as its first effect is to leave one as helpless as a child.