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.