Speech by Ronan McGreevy at launch of To Raise the Fallen

Ronan McGreevy at launch of book

Ronan McGreevy launched the book “To Raise the Fallen: A Selection of the War Letters, Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Fr Willie Doyle SJ” in Hodges Figgis bookstore in Dublin. The event was a tremendous success. It was a privilege to have to many at the event as it is a great testament to the devotion – and enthusiasm – that exists for Fr Doyle. It was a special privilege to have some of Fr Doyle’s relatives at the event, as well as the current owner of Melrose, where Fr Doyle was born and grew up. It was also an honour to have many Jesuits in attendance, including the Jesuit Provincial Fr Leonard Moloney SJ. Many thanks to Veritas, the publishers, and Hodges Figgis, a great bookshop, for organising and hosting the event. 

I will post some photos of the event in the coming days, but for now some can be found here:  https://www.facebook.com/VeritasIreland/posts/1661675287208505

Ronan is a journalist with the Irish Times, and he has a great enthusiasm for helping us Irish to remember the sacrifices many Irish men made in the First World War. The latest paperback edition of his own book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front contains a new chapter on the Irish at Passchendaele which includes the story of the death of Fr Willie Doyle. It also contains a preface by Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland. It can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wherever-Firing-Line-Extends-Ireland/dp/1845888731 

It is an excellent book and I am sure that many readers of this blog would find it interesting – go and buy a copy!!

Ronan has an article about Fr Doyle in today’s Irish Times here: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ronan-mcgreevy-an-irishman-s-diary-on-fr-willie-doyle-who-died-in-the-trenches-1.3182685

Below you will find a copy of Ronan’s comments at the launch of the book. I am very grateful to him for his enthusiasm about Fr Doyle and his kind comments about the book.

On August 16th, 2017, we will be commemorating the death of Fr Wille Doyle SJ, but not just Fr Doyle either. On the day he died 1,200 men from the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division were killed during an attack on heavily fortified divisions during the Battle of Langemarck. This was a phase of the Battle of Passchendaele which followed on from the initial attack on July 31st.

The two Irish divisions entered the line on August  4th and for the next 12 days were shelled continually.   

In less than two weeks, the two Irish divisions sustained 8,000 casualties to no obvious end. Their treatment, even by the debased standard of the war, was an outrage.

Some years later the war correspondent Phillip Gibbs wrote of the Irish at Langemarck.

“The two Irish divisions were broken to bits and their brigadiers called it murder.  They were violent in their denunciation of the Fifth Army for having put their men into the attack after those 13 days of heavy shelling.”

Fr Doyle was killed ministering to three men from the Royal Dublin fusiliers in a shellhole. All their bodies have been lost to the suffocating mud of Flanders and they are remembered  on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the missing, but, as we know, death was not the end of the Fr Doyle story. 

Altogether 179 British army chaplains were killed in the war; a disproportionate number of them were Catholics. These were all brave men: many of them were distinguished, but why was Fr Doyle remembered above all of these men?

The answer to that question is obvious. The Professor Alfred O’Rahilly book in the early 1920s brought his teachings and life to another generation. It is not hard to see how the story of Fr Doyle, his sufferings and trials, would be so appealing to a generation bereaved by the First World War.

But even that is not to explain his appeal. Though it was his intense spirituality which initially attracted devotees to Fr Doyle, nobody should overlook the attractiveness of his personality or his eloquence.

Few wrote as vividly or as eloquently about the first World War as he did. Take his description of the gas attack at Hulluch during Easter Week 1916 when the Rising was going on in Dublin.

“Many men died before I could reach them and were gone before I could pass 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 cloths torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe while from end to end of that valley of death came one long unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.”

Or this description of the agonies written by Doyle about the agonies endured by so many Irish mothers.

“My poor brave boys. They are lying now out on the battlefield: some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain, who loves them all as if they were his own children; others stiff and stark with staring eyes, hidden in a shell-hole where they had crept to die; while perhaps in some far-off thatched cabin an anxious mother sits listening for the well-known step and voice which will never gladden her heart again.”

When I was researching my book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front, a theme popped up again and again, the faith of all the Irishmen involved.

Fr Doyle is a reminder that the majority of Irishmen who fought and died in the First World War were from a Catholic and nationalist background. Today we associate Catholicism with nationalism, but it is a bit more complicated than that. When Roger Casement tried to recruit an Irish brigade in German prisoner-of-war camps he was told by the senior Irish officers “as well as being Irish Catholics, we have the honour of being British soldiers”.

The most famous Irish painting of the First World War is the Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois. It features Fr Francis Gleeson, another stalwart Irish chaplain, blessing the Royal Munster Fusiliers men before the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915.

One sergeant remembered the scene captured so vividly by the artist Fortunio Matania before the men participated in a battle which cost the British Army 11,000 casualties to no end.

“There were no ribald jest, or courage buoyed up with alcohol, none of the fanciful pictures which imagination conjures up of soldiers going to a desperate charge; no, there were brave hearts without fear, only hope that God would bring them through, and if the end – well, only a little shortened of the allotted time span. Every man had his Rosary out reciting the prayers in response to Fr. Gleeson, just as if at the Confraternity at home, instead of having to face death in a thousand hideous forms the following morning.” 
As Fr Doyle’s life testifies, these men were not less Catholic or Irish for being British soldiers.

While Fr Doyle’s life and devotions I am sure will attract many people of faith, it is his spiritual advice which I find most interesting about this book.

It would be a mistake to detach Fr Doyle’s world view from his faith, but it does not mean that his teachings have no validity in this secular world. Fr Doyle is not just an Irish priest who died in the First World War, he is a man for the ages.

To me the most memorable thing about Pat’s book is how happy Fr Doyle was. This sounds like an impossible paradox given the horrors he witnessed, but there are many counterintuitive things in this book.

His life shows us that often happiness comes from self-denial not self-indulgence and from devoting oneself completely to the service of others.

Fr Doyle was happy because, to paraphrase President Kennedy when he spoke about the American space programme, he did things not because they were easy but because they were hard.

True happiness comes from having a sense of purpose and Fr Doyle in ministering in the most difficult conditions imaginable and bearing the greatest burden.

Fr Doyle says a lot about how soul destroying complaining can become and the importance of cheerfulness. “Keep smiling. It is a grand thing to cultivate a smile. Keep the corners of your mouth up especially if you have an attack of the dumps. “Oh my God, I will never complain. You will get to heaven by keeping this one resolution”.

There are many things in this book which find themselves echoed in the modern practice of mindfulness.

We live in a world of ceaseless distractions. Far too many of us are tethered to our smart phones or the internet. There is a lot in this book about peace of mind.

I’m talking about the self-compassion which he speaks in accepting yourselves and when he speaks of peace at heart. “At all costs you must conquer and keep your peace of mind; otherwise goodbye to holiness”.

There is a world of wisdom in the pages of this book. Take his simple philosophy that one should get up in the morning and do one’s best in every endeavour.  

“To do something great and heroic may never come, but I can make my life heroic by faithfully and daily putting my best effort into each duty as it comes round”.

To me his greatest exhortation is his most pithy. “Make every day a generous day”. How much happier and fulfilled we would be if we would could do that.  

There is a richness and a wisdom in Fr Doyle’s thoughts which comes from not only his deep spirituality but from his goodness as a person. Fr Doyle was a good man elevated to greatness by the First World War.

Finally, there is one passage in the book that made me smile. In 1914 before the war, Fr Doyle found there was no book on Vocations, so, like all busy men, he decided to do it himself.

Like all authors, he worried that nobody would be interested in buying it and that it would be a waste of time.

 “I remember well when the manuscript had passed the censors to my great surprise, the venerable manager of the Messenger Office began shaking his head over the prospect of its selling, for as he said with truth, ‘It is a subject which appeals to a limited few’. He decided to print five thousand, and hinted I might buy them all myself !”

Well that book went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I’m sure Pat and his publisher would settle for a fraction of those sales, but I think this book deserves a wide audience.

Finally I will end with a quotation from Pat in this book which aptly sums up the importance of Fr Doyle in the modern world.

“The priesthood has lost some of the esteem in which it was once held in Ireland. That is precisely why Fr Doyle’s witness is needed now more than ever, and why the time may have come to consider his cause for beatification once again. The Gospel tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others. This is exactly what Fr Doyle did, and not only on 16 August 1917, but in his daily struggle to be generous with God and with others.

Fr Doyle shows us by the generosity of his life, and especially by the sacrifice of his death, how we should behave as Christians.”

To Raise the Fallen can be purchased herehttp://www.veritasbooksonline.com/to-raise-the-fallen-a-selection-of-the-war-letters.html

Stephen from Hodges Figgis and Ronan McGreevy at book launch


Article about Fr Doyle in today’s Irish Times

Ronan McGreevy writes today’s Irishman’s Diary column about Fr Doyle. It is an excellent tribute to Fr Doyle. Ronan launched my book To Raise the Fallen last night. I am very grateful to him for this. I shall post his speech later.

Photo of the article below, and below that a link to a more reader-friendly online version. One small point – while Alfred O’Rahilly was an ex-Jesuit, he was not an ex-Jesuit priest. He left the Jesuits prior to ordination. He was however ordained as a Holy Ghost priest later in life, following the death of his wife. 


Preparing for Fr Doyle’s 100th anniversary: The virtue of prudence

Today we will consider the virtue of prudence in the life of Fr Doyle. We will take a bit more care in doing so as prudence is not as straightforward as it first appears…

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following about the virtue of prudence:

1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.

Adolphe Tanquery, in his classic book The Spiritual Life, gives a more succinct description of the virtue of prudence:

Prudence is a supernatural, moral virtue which inclines our intellect to choose in every instance the best means for attaining our aims, by subordinating them to our ultimate end.

Hence, it is not prudence of the flesh, nor merely human prudence, but Christian prudence.

Tanquery goes on the distinguish Christian prudence from prudence of the flesh and human prudence by stating:

It is Christian prudence which, based upon the principles of Christian faith, refers all things to the supernatural end, that is to say, to God known and loved upon earth and possessed in heaven…Prudence therefore concerns itself with all the details of our life. It regulates our thoughts to prevent them from straying away from God. It regulates our motives to keep them aloof from whatever may affect their singleness of purpose. It regulates our affections, our sentiments and our choices, so as to centre them on God. It regulates even our exterior actions and execution of our good resolves so as to refer them to our ultimate end.

And further:

The rule of Christian prudence is not reason alone, but reason enlightened by faith…it draws inspiration from the examples of the saints, who lived according to the Gospel and from the teachings of the Church, our infallible guide. Thus we are sure of not going astray.

I have spent more time delving into the nature of the virtue of prudence because of our natural tendency to equate prudence with merely human prudence, which is very different from supernatural, Christian prudence as Tanquery makes clear. This distinction is important, because there are aspects of Fr Doyle’s life that do not make sense in terms of merely human prudence. After all, is it prudent in worldly terms for a priest, who is already very busy and leading a fruitful life, to volunteer as a military chaplain in the first place? The same can be said for many of the saints. In human terms, it was not prudent for the apostles to follow an unknown, itinerant preacher. It was not humanly prudent for St Paul to embrace the new Christian sect and to face prison, shipwreck and death to spread its message. It was not humanly prudent for the early Christians to prefer facing lions in an amphitheatre rather than to abandon their faith. It was not humanly prudent for St Benedict to give up his patrician life of learning and go off into the wilderness. It was not humanly prudent for St Francis of Assisi to give up his family wealth. It was not humanly prudent for St Thomas More to abandon his power, his wealth and his head over a matter of conscience. It was not humanly prudent for St Ignatius to give up his life of chivalry to go and live in a cave for months and then, as a grown man, to go back to school with little children. It was not humanly prudent for St Lawrence of Brindisi to lead 18,000 Christian soldiers against 80,000 invading Muslim soldiers, brandishing only a crucifix. It was not humanly prudent for Blessed Franz Jägerstätter to become a conscientious objector in the Second World War and consequently lose his life. It was not humanly prudent for Saint Teresa of Calcutta to leave her order and to start a new order dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. The list could go on and on – every saint has practiced the virtue of Christian prudence, but probably every single one of them has been doubtful in their exercise of “prudence” in purely human, worldly terms.

Having thus established the distinction between supernatural prudence and human prudence, we can see much evidence for the virtue of Christian prudence in the life of Fr Doyle. He truly pointed his life towards Heaven, his ultimate end, and he was prudent in doing so. By following the classic Ignatian exercise of rigorous self-examination, aided by a constant habit of taking notes about his spiritual life, his successes and his sins, he came to know himself and his weaknesses, and thus to grow in all the virtues. This is important – Fr Doyle was naturally hot tempered and impetuous. Such characters can often be imprudent. It was something he had to struggle with throughout life, but the prudent habit of self-examination helped him in the task.

In his dealings with others he had to exercise prudence. Only a prudent man could win the souls of those hardened against faith, or touch the soul of Fanny Cranbush the street prostitute, or manage to win the love of the soldiers to whom he ministered. And only a prudent man would be so avidly sought out for spiritual direction as Fr Doyle was.

Fr Doyle also had to exercise prudence in his efforts to open a retreat house for workers. He even went so far as going on a fact-finding mission in England and in Europe to better understand how such houses worked elsewhere. A prudent man is always willing to learn from others who have more experience.

But having said all of this, there remains the question of Fr Doyle’s penances. There are critics who believe them to have been imprudent. Irrespective of the issue of prudence in human terms, were they imprudent in terms of the cardinal virtue of Christian prudence?

This is a big topic, and beyond the scope of the discussion today. But for now, four points will suffice:

1. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints. If we are to dismiss Fr Doyle for his penance, we must also dismiss many of the canonised saints, including St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. Many canonised saints have publicly stated that they had been imprudent in the matter of penance in their early years.

2. Fr Doyle had permission for his penances. The Jesuit provincial placed him under the supervision of a wise Jesuit to supervise his penances. Fr Doyle feared this development as he felt this Jesuit would be most unsympathetic when riot came to Fr Doyle’s perceived calling to penance. In fact, this priest only modified Fr Doyle’s penances in very minor ways and Fr Doyle was surprised at how little his confessor wished him to change.

3. He felt that he had a special calling to a life of penance, above and beyond that of those around him. His superiors evidently agreed.

4. He never allowed those he advised to adopt harsh physical penances. As he said on one occasion to someone to whom he was giving spiritual direction:

I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances.

In the light of all of the above, and especially in terms of what he (and his confessor) perceived to be his special calling, it would seem that he was not generally imprudent in the matter of his penances.

There remains, then, the matter of the war. Fr Doyle certainly took risks in saving others, but his willingness to lay down his life in service of others is certainly not imprudent in the supernatural sense.

The following quote from his letter home is significant:

I feel wonderful peace and confidence in leaving myself absolutely in God’s Hands. Only I know it would not be right, I would like never to take shelter from bursting shells; and up to a few days ago, till ordered by the Colonel, I never wore a steel helmet. I want to give myself absolutely to Him to do with me just as He pleases, to strike or kill me, as He wishes, trying to go along bravely and truthfully, looking up into His loving Face, for surely He knows best.

Crucially, Fr Doyle, who would prefer never to have to hide from shells, does so because he knows that doing so would not be right, and would be a failure of prudence, and he also obeyed the order to wear a steel helmet.

Despite his naturally hot temper, there is ample evidence of the virtue of prudence in Fr Doyle’s life.

Thoughts for August 11 from Fr Willie Doyle

Today we have the last of Fr Doyle’s narratives from his letters home to his father in August 1917, less than a week before his death.

In this entry in his letter we see his close brush with death in the form of a shell landing very close to him.

Close beside us I had found the remains of a dug-out which had been blown in the previous day and three men killed. I made up my mind to offer up Mass there for the repose of their souls. In any case I did not know a better hole to go to, and to this little act of charity I attribute the saving of my life later on in the day. I had barely fitted up my altar when a couple of shells burst overhead, sending the clay tumbling down. For a moment I felt very tempted not to continue as the place was far from safe. But later I was glad I went on for the Holy Souls certainly came to my aid as I did to theirs.

I had finished breakfast and had ventured a bit down the trench to find a spot to bury some bodies left lying there. I had reached a sheltered corner, when I heard the scream of a shell coming towards me rapidly, and judging by the sound, straight for the spot where I stood. Instinctively I crouched down, and well I did so, for the shell whizzed past my head I felt my hair blown about by the hot air and burst in front of me with a deafening crash. It seemed to me as if a heavy wooden hammer had hit me on the top of the head, and I reeled like a drunken man, my ears ringing with the explosion. For a moment I stood wondering how many pieces of shrapnel had hit me, or how many legs and arms I had left, and then dashed through the thick smoke to save myself from being buried alive by the shower of falling clay which was rapidly covering me. I hardly know how I reached the dug-out for I was speechless and so badly shaken that it was only by a tremendous effort I was able to prevent myself from collapsing utterly as I had seen so many do from shell shock. Then a strange thing happened: something seemed to whisper in my ear, one of those sudden thoughts which flash through the mind: Did not that shell come from the hand of God? He willed it should be so. Is it not a proof that He can protect you no matter what the danger?

The thought that it was all God’s doing acted like a tonic; my nerves calmed down, and shortly after I was out again to see could I meet another iron friend. As a matter of fact I wanted to see exactly what had happened, for the report of a high explosive shell is so terrific that one is apt to exaggerate distances. An officer recently assured me he was only one foot from a bursting shell, when in reality he was a good 40 yards away. You may perhaps find it hard to believe, as I do myself, what I saw. I had been standing by a trellis work of thin sticks. By stretching out my hand I could touch the screen, and the shell fell smashing the woodwork! My escape last year at Loos was wonderful, but then I was some yards away, and partly protected by a bend in the trench. Here the shell fell, I might say, at my very feet; there was no bank, no protection except the wall of your good prayers and the protecting arm of God.

That night we were relieved, or rather it was early morning, 4.30 a.m., when the last company marched out. I went with them so that I might leave no casualties behind.

We hurried over the open as fast as we could, floundering in the thick mud, tripping over wires in the darkness, and, I hope, some of the lay members cursing the German gunners for disturbing us by an odd shot. We had nearly reached the road, not knowing it was a marked spot when like a hurricane a shower of shells came smashing down upon us. We were fairly caught and for once I almost lost hope of getting through in safety. For five minutes or more we pushed on in desperation; we could not stop to take shelter, for dawn was breaking and we should have been seen by the enemy. Right and left in front and behind, some far away, many very close, the shells kept falling Crash! One has pitched in the middle of the line, wounding five men, none of them seriously. Surely God is good to us, for it seems impossible a single man will escape unhurt, and then when the end seemed at hand, our batteries opened fire with a roar to support an attack that was beginning. The German guns ceased like magic, or turned their attention elsewhere, and we scrambled on to the road and reached home without further loss.

Today we also celebrate the feast of St Clare, the friend of St Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Poor Clares. We remember in a special way Fr Doyle’s dedication to this order and in particular the fact that he was instrumental in founding the Poor Clare convent in Cork City, and we remember this particular monastery in our prayers in a special way today. http://poorclarescork.ie/monastery

St Clare