Thoughts for the Feast of the Visitation from Fr Willie Doyle

Visitation

To Mary’s feet in heaven today the angels come in never-ending stream to lay before her the offerings of her loving earthly children. To their Queen they bear fair wreaths of lovely roses. In many a lonely cottage or amid the bustle of the great city have these crowns been formed. Little ones and old folk, the pious nun and holy priest, the sinner too and many a wandering soul, have added to the glory of the Queen of Heaven; and from every corner of this earth to-day has risen the joyous praise of her who is Queen of the Holy Rosary. On earth she was the lowly handmaid of the Lord, and now all generations proclaim the greatness of her name.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of the Visitation in which we commemorate the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. In this scene we find Mary being an instrument of grace, bringing Jesus to Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist. We see Mary’s humility and concern for others in her travel in “haste” to assist Elizabeth. And it is from today’s feast that we derive some of the most beautiful Marian prayers.

Fr Doyle tells us that from all around the world prayers rise to Mary in her honour. There is a beautiful tradition in Rome – the Pope leads a rosary procession around the Vatican Gardens with members of the public on the evening of this feast every year.

We shall conclude today with these words from St Bernard, Doctor of the Church.

O Mary, how great is your humility when you hasten to serve others. If it is true that he who humbles himself will be exalted, who will be more exalted than you who have humbled yourself so much?

When Elizabeth caught sight of you she was astonished and exclaimed: “Whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” But I am still more astonished to see that you, as well as your Son, came not to be served, but to serve…

Humility did not make you fainthearted, magnanimity did not make you proud, but these two virtues were perfectly combined in you! O Mary, you cannot give me a share in your great privileges as Mother of God; these belong to you alone! But you want me to share in your virtues, giving me examples of them in yourself. If, then, sincere humility, magnanimous faith, and delicate sympathetic charity are lacking in me, how can I excuse myself? O Mary, O Mother of mercy, you who are full of grace, nourish us, your poor little ones, with your virtues!

Thoughts for Memorial Day

A certain Roman Catholic chaplain…lies in a soldier’s grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battle field with bullets whining about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them Absolution, walking with death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with reverence and a kind of awe until a shell burst near him and he was killed. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place. Each time he came back across the field he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head and went again into the storm. He had been with his boys at Ginchy and through other times of stress, and he would not desert them in their agony. They remember him as a saint. they speak his name with tears.

COMMENT: The above quote does not come from Fr Doyle today, but from Percival Phillips, a war correspondent who published the above tribute to Fr Doyle in the Daily Express on 22 August 1917, less than a week after Fr Doyle’s death. 

Today is Memorial Day in the United States and I have chosen the above quote, which refers to Fr Doyle’s war exploits, specifically for any American visitors today – many of the readers of this site are based in the US. Fr Doyle, while obviously not American, is one in a long line of saintly military chaplains who laid down his life in service of others, and he is very much in the mode of Fr Vincent Capodanno and Fr Emil Kapaun who will probably be well known to American visitors. The short YouTube video below gives some small insight into the life and spirit of Fr Doyle.

Thoughts for Corpus Christi from Fr Willie Doyle

adoration 3

Real devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is only to be gained by hard, grinding work of dry adoration before the Hidden God. But such a treasure cannot be purchased at too great a cost, for once obtained, it makes of this life as near an approach to heaven as we can ever hope for.

COMMENT: Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. While the feast properly falls on a Thursday, the liturgical celebration is translated to the following Sunday in many dioceses.

In today’s quote, Fr Doyle shows us that the encounter with Christ in prayer and adoration is not primarily emotional. We may experience consolations, but it is often more likely that this will not happen. 

It was this hard, grinding work at prayer (and indeed in all aspects of his life) that prepared Fr Doyle and procured for him the grace to willingly suffer the deprivation of the trenches and to make the ultimate sacrifice of giving his life while serving others. 

I recently read (on the always excellent Vultus Christi blog) a wonderful quote from Mother Mectilde du Saint-Sacrement (1614-1698), foundress of the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, which is relevant for today’s topic.

The interior life is not what one thinks or imagines. It consists not in having beautiful thoughts, nor in saying beautiful words, nor in remaining in a passive kind of prayer without applying one’s mind, as if one were in lofty heights. All of this is, more often than not, no more than fantasy. 

The interior life is found in the solid practice of mortification, in the love of littleness and in total detachment from oneself and from creatures. 

May we all seek to love the Lord through this tried and tested manner, whether we feel like it or not.

Mother Mechtilde
Mother Mechtilde

Thoughts for May 26 from Fr Willie Doyle

Dear Sir — One is often struck, on glancing over the papers, at the numerous appeals made to provide ‘comforts for our troops,’ but no one ever seems to think that the souls of those who have fallen in battle may possibly be in need of much greater comfort than the bodies of their comrades who survive.

With all the spiritual help now at their disposal, even in the very firing line, we may be fairly confident that few, if any, of our Catholic men are unprepared to meet Almighty God. That does not mean they are fit for Heaven. God’s justice must be fully satisfied, and the debt of forgiven sin fully atoned for in Purgatory. Hence I venture to appeal to the great charity of your readers to provide ‘comforts for our dead soldiers’ by having Masses offered for their souls. Remembrance of our dead and gratitude are virtues dear to every Irish heart. Our brave lads have suffered and fought and died for us. They have nobly given their lives for God and country. It is now our turn to make some slight sacrifice, so that they may soon enter into the joy of eternal rest. — Very faithfully yours, NEMO.

COMMENT: This letter appeared in the Irish Catholic on this day in 1917. The author was, of course, Fr Doyle himself, who, due to his characteristic humility, wished to disguise his identity and wrote under a pseudonym.

Was there any limit to his care for the soldiers? He looked after their physical needs, he shared his meagre food with them, he gave up all comfort and even life itself in order to bring the sacraments to them. And here, in the midst of all his other activities, he found time to write a letter back home to encourage Masses for the dead. What a simple, yet loving, act this was. He was willing to sacrifice his time to provide aid for the souls of Irish soldiers in purgatory.

Perhaps we can examine our conscience on this issue today. Do we pray for the dead? Do we remember our deceased loved ones? Do we take time out of our busy lives to write letters or emails to those who would appreciate it? Do we write letters to newspapers to defend the Church in the midst of the persecutions she faces in these times? If Fr Doyle, facing death every day, found time to do this, do we have any real excuse? 

Today is also the feast of St Philip Neri, who died in 1595. St Philip is one of those remarkable, lovable saints. There are many aspects of St Philip’s life that are similar to that of Fr Doyle’s. Both were renowned for their cheerfulness and love of practical jokes; both had a very affectionate and passionate love for Christ which revealed itself with the tenderness with which they greeted religious items and statues; both longed to go on the missions but could not – St Philip understood that Rome was to be his Indies. Both were devoted to the ministry of the Confessional. In fact, St Philip was one of the truly great confessors who was given the mystical gift of reading souls. In relation to today’s quote from Fr Doyle about the souls in Purgatory, we can recall that St Philip was always concerned about these departed souls, and when he approached death he begged those whose confessions he heard to say a rosary for his own soul after death. St Philip is one of those very lovable saints who is perhaps not as widely known today as he should be, especially in English speaking countries.

Remarkably, St Philip also has a military connection – he is the patron saint of the US Special Forces, a remarkable fact about an Italian saint who died over 400 years ago and never had any connection with the military during his earthly life.

St Philip Neri
St Philip Neri

Thoughts for May 25 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle wrote these words in late May 1917, and they recount some of the events he experienced in the war around this time. Once again, his love for the soldiers, his care for both their spiritual and human needs and his basic good humour shine through.

The enemy for once did me a good turn. I had arranged to hear the men’s confessions shortly before he opened fire, and a couple of well directed shells helped my work immensely by putting the fear of God into the hearts of a few careless boys who might not have troubled about coming near me otherwise. I wonder were the Sacraments ever administered under stranger circumstances? Picture my little dug-out (none too big at any time) packed with men who had dashed in for shelter from the splinters and shrapnel coming down like hail. In one corner is kneeling a poor fellow recently joined — who has not ‘knelt to the priest’ as the men quaintly say, for many a day — trying to make his Confession. I make short work of that, for a shower of clay and stones falling at the door is a gentle hint that the ‘crumps’ are getting uncomfortably near, and I want to give him Absolution in case an unwelcome visitor should walk in. Then, while the ground outside rocks and seems to split with the crash of the shells, I give them all Holy Communion, say a short prayer, and perform the wonderful feat of packing a few more men into our sardine tin of a house.

As soon as I got the chance, I slipped round to see how many casualties there were, for I thought not a mouse could survive the bombardment. Thank God, no one was killed or even badly hit, and the firing having ceased, we could breathe again. I was walking up the trench from the dressing station when I suddenly heard the scream of another shell. … It was then I realized my good fortune. There are two ways to my dug-out, and naturally I choose the shorter. This time, without any special reason, I went by the longer way; and it was well I did, for the shell pitched in the other trench, and probably would have caught me nicely as I went by. But instead of that it wreaked its vengeance on my unfortunate orderly, who was close by in his dug-out, sending him spinning on his head but other wise not injuring him I found another string of men awaiting my return in order to get Confession and Holy Communion. In fact I had quite a busy evening, thanks once more to Fritz’s High Explosive, which has a wonderful persuasive effect of its own. I am wondering how many pounds of high explosive I shall require when giving my next retreat!

Thoughts for May 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

One German prisoner, badly wounded in the leg, was brought in. He knew only a few words of English, but spoke French fluently. I try to do all I can for the unfortunate prisoners, as sometimes not much sympathy is shown them, and they have evidently been drilled into believing that we promptly roast and eat them alive. I gave him a drink, made him as comfortable as possible, and then seeing a rosary in his pocket, asked him was he a Catholic. ‘I am a Catholic priest,’ I said, ‘and you need not have any fear’.

‘Ah’, he replied, ‘you are a true priest’. He gave me his home address in Germany, and asked me to write to his parents. ‘Poor father and mother will be uneasy,’ he said, as his eyes filled with tears. ‘O my God, how I am suffering, but I offer it all up to You’. I hope to get a letter through by means of the Swiss Red Cross, which will be a comfort to his anxious parents, who seem good pious souls.

COMMENT: This incident occurred on this day in 1917. It demonstrates Fr Doyle’s kindness to everyone he met, even to one who was probably firing shells at him just a few days previously. There are many other recorded instances of Fr Doyle’s kindness to German prisoners. He fed them, tended to their wounds, found them something to eat or drink.

In this way he reflected his Master who told us to love our enemies and that whatever we do for others should be considered as done to Christ also.

Thoughts for May 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

The following quote from one of Fr Doyle’s letters recounts some of his war time adventures on 23 May 1917, 99 years ago today. What shines out for us on this occasion is Fr Doyle’s naturalness, his dedication to providing the sacraments to the soldiers and, as always, his calm courage – I’m not sure that many of us would sum up these events by saying “there was really little danger”…

What is I had been along the front line as usual to give the men a General Absolution which they are almost as anxious to receive for the comfort it will be for their friends at home, should they fall, as for themselves. I was coming down to the advanced dressing station, when I learned that a small party had ‘gone over the top’ on our right, though I had been told the raid was only from the left. When I got to the spot I found they had all gone and were lying well out in No Man’s Land. It was a case of Mahomet and the mountain once more. The poor ‘mountain’ could not come back, though they were just longing to, but the prophet could go out, could he not? So Mahomet rolled over the top of the sandbags into a friendly shell hole, and started to crawl on his hands and knees and stomach towards the German trenches. Mahomet, being only a prophet, was allowed to use bad language, of which privilege he availed himself, so report goes, to the full, for the ground was covered with bits of broken barbed wire, shell splinters, nettles, etc., etc., and the poor prophet on his penitential pilgrimage left behind him much honest sweat and not a few drops of blood.

That was a strange scene! A group of men lying on their faces, waiting for certain death to come to some of them, whispering a fervent act of contrition, and God’s priest, feeling mighty uncomfortable and wishing he were safely in bed a thousand miles away, raising his hand in Absolution over the prostrate figures. One boy, some little distance off, thinking the Absolution had not reached him, knelt bolt upright, and made an act of contrition you could have heard in Berlin, nearly giving the whole show away and drawing the enemy’s fire.

There was really little danger, as shell holes were plentiful, but not a little consolation when I buried the dead next day to think that none of them had died without Absolution. I was more afraid getting back into our own trenches; for sentries, seeing a man coming from the direction of No Man’s Land, do not bother much about asking questions and object to nocturnal visitors.

Thoughts for May 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

Are you not foolish in wishing to be free from these attacks of impatience, etc.? I know how violent they can be, since they sweep down on me at all hours without any provocation. You forget the many victories they furnish you with.

COMMENT: Each one of us has our own temperament. Some are timid and quiet. Some are very goal-oriented and work hard. Others are easily excited. Fr Doyle probably fell into this last category – he had a very fiery temperament. This manifested itself in his generous apostolic zeal, his appetite for mortifications and his competitiveness on the sports field. Yet throughout his life we see many examples of how he won “victories” against his natural impatience. One example will suffice – in his last few months, while he was a chaplain in the war, he had many opportunities to lose his temper with the circumstances and people around him. It seems that he rarely did. In fact, he even wanted those around him to treat him like a slave – he wanted to be subject to them and to be mistreated by them in order to learn more patience and humility. For example, Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary in October 1916:

Lately the desire to be trampled on and become the slave of everybody has grown very strong. I have resolved to make myself secretly the slave of my servant and, as far as I can, to submit to his will e.g. to wait til he comes to serve my Mass and not to send for him, never to complain of anything he does, to take my meals in the way he chooses to cook them and at the hours he suggests, to let him arrange my things as he thinks fit, in a word, humbly to let him trample on me as I deserve.

While this practice clearly shows a high degree of detachment, it is probably not advisable for all of us. But that does not mean that it was not desirable for Fr Doyle or for those others who were renowned for their high degree of holiness and who also followed this practice (for example, the Spanish noblewoman Luisa Carvajal, who was herself very close to the Jesuits of her day). Clearly, in adopting this practice, Fr Doyle was simply following the Jesuit ideal of going on the offensive to overcome our weaknesses and vices; in this case Fr Doyle’s desire to have things his way. While we may not go so far as to make ourselves the slave of others, it is clear that our homes and our societies would be healthier places if we were all more patient and insisted on our own way less frequently.

Today is the feast of St Rita of Cascia, though it is not celebrated as it is a Sunday. She is known as the saint of the impossible due to the efficacy of her prayers. But perhaps she could also be known as a saint who personified the virtue of patience. She spent 18 years married to an abusive, violent and unfaithful husband. However, her patience and love finally converted him near the end of his life. After her husband was murdered by some of his many enemies, she successfully prevented her sons from taking revenge, and she entered an Augustinian convent where she spent the last 40 years of her life.

We may not be called to act like the slave of others like Fr Doyle, or to put up with an abusive marriage like St Rita. But we are all called to live the virtue of patience in the concrete circumstances of our own lives. Who can doubt that the world would be a better place if we were all a little more patient with each other.

One final thought today – St Rita is an extremely popular saint but she was only beatified 170 years after her death and canonised 443 years after her death. Not all of the great saints are recognised immediately after death.

St Rita of Cascia
St Rita of Cascia