St John XXIII and Fr Doyle


Today is the feast of St John XXIII. Just as many young Catholic have a great devotion to St John Paul as he was the pope of their formative years, so too there are many of an older generation who have a strong affection for Good Pope John. 

At first glance there does not seem to be much in common between Fr Doyle and St John XXIII. But a closer examination shows many similarities. This is not surprising – Fr Doyle and St John were close in age – Fr Doyle was born in 1873 and St John in 1881. Both were nourished on the same piety and devotional practices typical of that era. Fr Doyle, as a Jesuit, was obviously a son of St Ignatius. But St John himself did the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises himself on a number of occasions. 

We know much about the spiritual life from the diaries of both men. St John’s spiritual diaries have been published under the title Journal of a Soul. It is an extraordinary book, revealing the saint’s struggle to overcome his defects and his growth in holiness. When one studies the book, comparing them to Fr Doyle’s diaries, the similarities between the two men become very clear. 

One of St John XXIII’s encyclicals was entitled Paenitentiam Agere – On the need for the practice of interior and exterior penance. We find in this encyclical a call for all the faithful to offer up penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. We also find this interesting paragraph:

It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God’s grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?

St John XXIII speaks of inspiration, admiration and saintly heroism when considering the harsh penances of the saints…

The entire document is well worth reading:

Fr Doyle’s life of penance may not be something we are called to imitate in its totality. Indeed, on this day in 1914, Fr Doyle wrote one of his characteristic diary entries:

Jesus told me at Exposition, and I do not think I have mistaken His voice, that the way in which I must sanctify myself myself is by suffering, corporal penance, and denial in all things. 

Clearly, in the absence of a special and very rare calling, we are not expected to copy Fr Doyle by denying ourselves in all things. But it is important to remember that Fr Doyle’s penitential spirit was entirely in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and is mirrored in the lives and teachings of the saints, including the ever popular St John XXIII. 

It would be bizarre for anybody to over-emphasise the role of physical penance in the life of St John XXIII and to reduce his personality to this one aspect of his spiritual life. So, too, those who allow Fr Doyle’s penance to loom too large in their memory of him and to dampen their devotion to him do him a disservice, and foster an unbalanced image of a very human and very self-sacrificing war hero. 

Thoughts for October 11 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Ignatius
St Ignatius

The Spiritual Exercises begin with a meditation on the Principle and Foundation of our existence. Any serious Christian should be able to concur with the principles St Ignatius outlines at the beginning of the Exercises. However, accepting these principles brings home to us the full extent of our obligations before Almighty God. It is one thing to accept them, quite another to wholeheartedly live our lives in accordance with these Principles. If we ever managed to fully live these principles we would, undoubtedly, become saints.

Here is what St Ignatius has to say:


Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honour rather than dishonour, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

Here are Fr Doyle’s reflections on this part of the Spiritual Exercises:

God had some special end in creating me, some particular part in His great plan. I was not created as it were one of a great number who came into the world on the same day; but God had a particular object in giving me life. Why did He create me ?

How miserable has been my service of God since I entered religion! A bit fervent one day, the next dissipated and careless, even since my ordination. I have fallen away from the fervent way in which I had resolved to live hence forth. I feel inclined to despond ; but with God’s help I will go on, trying now at last to make some little progress in serving Him worthily. My true service of God consists in performing the ordinary actions of the day as perfectly and as fervently as I can, with a pure intention for love of my Jesus. It is a mistake to think that I can only serve Him by preaching, saving souls, etc. What would have become of me if I had treated an earthly master as I have served God?

To be indifferent does not mean to desire things which are hard to nature, but a readiness and determination to embrace them when once the will of God is known. In this sense I think I am indifferent about going to the Congo. But I must force myself to be willing to accept the way of life which God seems to be leading me to and wants me to adopt. My God, I dread it but “not my will but Thine”.

God has a perfect right to ask from me what He wills; I am His servant. How then can I be free to do or not whatever He may ask?

I close the Fundamentum (meditation on the Principle and Foundation) with feelings of humility and sorrow at the thought of my past service of God. How little reverence! Thank God, I have still time to make up for it. One thing alone can repair the lost years a life of great fervour.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle here refers to the Congo. Perhaps there are readers who are unfamiliar with Fr Doyle so some commentary may be in order. Fr Doyle felt that the Lord may have been asking him to volunteer for missionary work in the Congo. Fr Doyle was at once attracted to, and repulsed by, this idea. Throughout this retreat he discerns whether he should volunteer for this tough missionary assignment. In the end he decided that it was what God wanted. However, his superiors decided against sending him, and 8 years later he volunteered as a chaplain in World War 1 and faced deprivation that was surely equal to, if not greater than, anything the Congo had to offer.

Fr Doyle revealed himself to be indifferent to health, riches, honour, comfort and life itself in his quest to praise, reverence and serve his Master.