18 November 1917: General Hickie’s praise for Fr Doyle

Sir William Bernard Hickie was Major General of the 16th Irish Division and knew Fr Doyle extremely well. He wrote the following in a letter to friend on 18 November 1917, 3 months after Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here.  He did his duty, and more than his duty, most nobly, and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death, 16th August, he had worked in the front line, and even in front of that line, and appeared to know no fatigue – he never knew fear.  He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day, and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge… He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Commanding Officer, by his Brigadier, and by myself.  Superior Authority, however, has not granted it, and as no other posthumous reward is given, his name will, I believe, be mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief’s Despatch…I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men; and even among these, Fr Doyle stood out.

Major General Hickie
Major General Hickie
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Thoughts for November 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle struggled to give up butter on his bread at breakfast
Fr Doyle struggled to give up butter on his bread at breakfast

Your desire for penance is an excellent sign…But have a fixed amount to be done each day and do not be doing it in fits and starts. Anything like what you call “frenzy” ought to be suspected and resisted.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s life of penance has been a stumbling block for some people. It is true that he lived a life of great personal penance. It is also true that he lived a life of great personal heroism. This shone out in the trenches, but evidence for his selflessness and courage can be seen in many other aspects of his life. Are his life of penance, and his life of heroism, related to each other? Almost certainly they are.

But Fr Doyle was also very balanced. He NEVER encouraged others to follow his own example of penance. He felt that he was given a special calling and special graces, and that such a life of penance was not appropriate for one who did not receive these graces.  In today’s quote, based on a letter of spiritual direction which he wrote to someone seeking his advice, he was clear that penance is important. But he was also clear that penance should be balanced – in one place he writes that the smaller the penance is, the better. In Fr Doyle’s life such balance and small penances can be seen in his reluctance to warm himself at the fire, his refusal to complain about little aches and pains (a favoured sport of many Irish people!), his refusal to give in to the desire to sleep during the day and, most famously, his battle to eat dry bread and to give up butter and jam.

Fr Doyle was a great tactician of the spiritual life. Once again he gives us an excellent example for us to follow.