For fifteen months Fr Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, we we became fast friends. I acting as medical officer to his First Battalion. Often I envied him his coolness and courage in the face of danger; for this alone his men would have loved him, but he had other sterling qualities, which we all recognised only too well. Her was beloved and respected, not only by those of his own faith, but equally by Protestants, to which denomination I belong…For his broad-mindedness we loved him. He seldom, if ever, preached, but he set us a shining example of a Christian life.
It is worth remembering what Fr Doyle did for Dr Buchanan. One night, when the doctor was sick, and there was no dry bedding in the dug-out, Fr Doyle lay face down on the damp ground and insisted that the doctor try to sleep on his back, in order to afford him some small chance of recuperation. The sacrifice and self-denial in this act is breath taking to me.
This is one of my favourite scenes from all of Fr Doyle’s writings – 101 years ago today.
By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit box supported on two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice — but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.
St. Peter Claver was one of those generous heroic souls whom God sends upon this earth to serve as a stimulus to our zeal, to urge us on to dare and do great things for His glory. Alone he stood upon the beach of that reeking haunt of sin, Cartagena, and saw the galley-ship vomit forth its human living burden of slaves. He saw these poor wretches dazed with their long confinement, sick in body and weary of soul, cast on the burning sand, their eyes wild with terror at the vision of the nameless death they thought awaited them. Here was scope for his zeal. Was not the image of Jesus stamped deep upon the souls of each of them? Did they not bear the likeness of the sacred Humanity in their tortured limbs? Was this goodly harvest to be left ungathered and hell alone to reap the fruit of man’s cupidity?
COMMENT: St Peter Claver SJ lived a remarkable life. He was a slave to the slaves who were captured and brought to Cartagena. He looked after their temporal and spiritual needs, catechising and baptising up to 300,000, and defended their rights and welfare when occasion arose. Normally a third or more of the slaves who were brought to Cartagena died en route from disease and ill treatment. Numerous contemporary accounts report that the smell of the diseased slaves who arrived on the slave ships was overwhelming, and practically nobody else was physically able enter their cramped, sweltering huts where they were left to die. But Peter Claver braved the disease and the horrors and often fed and washed to the sick and dying, and could often be found burying the dead himself. One biographer said that Peter Claver encompassed in one life the missionary zeal of St Francis Xavier, the dedication to the confessional of St John Vianney and the care for the sick and the lepers of St Damien of Molokai. Pope Leo XIII, who canonised St Peter, said that no other life, except the life of Christ, had as much impact on him personally.
From today’s quote it is clear that Fr Doyle had much regard for this great Jesuit saint. Indeed, in their spiritual lives and in their heroic service of others they had much in common. Incidentally, Peter Claver lived a frightful life of penance right to the very end of his days and he far exceeded Fr Doyle’s own austerities. If this is not a stumbling block to devotion to him, then neither should Fr Doyle’s asceticism be a stumbling block.