Thoughts for May 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

One German prisoner, badly wounded in the leg, was brought in. He knew only a few words of English, but spoke French fluently. I try to do all I can for the unfortunate prisoners, as sometimes not much sympathy is shown them, and they have evidently been drilled into believing that we promptly roast and eat them alive. I gave him a drink, made him as comfortable as possible, and then seeing a rosary in his pocket, asked him was he a Catholic. ‘I am a Catholic priest,’ I said, ‘and you need not have any fear’.

‘Ah’, he replied, ‘you are a true priest’. He gave me his home address in Germany, and asked me to write to his parents. ‘Poor father and mother will be uneasy,’ he said, as his eyes filled with tears. ‘O my God, how I am suffering, but I offer it all up to You’. I hope to get a letter through by means of the Swiss Red Cross, which will be a comfort to his anxious parents, who seem good pious souls.

COMMENT: This incident occurred on this day in 1917. It demonstrates Fr Doyle’s kindness to everyone he met, even to one who was probably firing shells at him just a few days previously. There are many other recorded instances of Fr Doyle’s kindness to German prisoners. He fed them, tended to their wounds, found them something to eat or drink.

In this way he reflected his Master who told us to love our enemies and that whatever we do for others should be considered as done to Christ also.

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Thoughts for May 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

The following quote from one of Fr Doyle’s letters recounts some of his war time adventures on 23 May 1917, 102 years ago today. What shines out for us on this occasion is Fr Doyle’s naturalness, his dedication to providing the sacraments to the soldiers and, as always, his calm courage – I’m not sure that many of us would sum up these events by saying “there was really little danger”…

I had been along the front line as usual to give the men a General Absolution which they are almost as anxious to receive for the comfort it will be for their friends at home, should they fall, as for themselves. I was coming down to the advanced dressing station, when I learned that a small party had ‘gone over the top’ on our right, though I had been told the raid was only from the left. When I got to the spot I found they had all gone and were lying well out in No Man’s Land. It was a case of Mahomet and the mountain once more. The poor ‘mountain’ could not come back, though they were just longing to, but the prophet could go out, could he not? So Mahomet rolled over the top of the sandbags into a friendly shell hole, and started to crawl on his hands and knees and stomach towards the German trenches. Mahomet, being only a prophet, was allowed to use bad language, of which privilege he availed himself, so report goes, to the full, for the ground was covered with bits of broken barbed wire, shell splinters, nettles, etc., etc., and the poor prophet on his penitential pilgrimage left behind him much honest sweat and not a few drops of blood.

That was a strange scene! A group of men lying on their faces, waiting for certain death to come to some of them, whispering a fervent act of contrition, and God’s priest, feeling mighty uncomfortable and wishing he were safely in bed a thousand miles away, raising his hand in Absolution over the prostrate figures. One boy, some little distance off, thinking the Absolution had not reached him, knelt bolt upright, and made an act of contrition you could have heard in Berlin, nearly giving the whole show away and drawing the enemy’s fire.

There was really little danger, as shell holes were plentiful, but not a little consolation when I buried the dead next day to think that none of them had died without Absolution. I was more afraid getting back into our own trenches; for sentries, seeing a man coming from the direction of No Man’s Land, do not bother much about asking questions and object to nocturnal visitors.

22 May 1917

The enemy for once did me a good turn. I had arranged to hear the men’s Confessions, shortly before he opened fire and a couple of well- directed shells helped my work immensely by putting the fear of God into the hearts of a few careless boys who might not have troubled about coming near me otherwise. I wonder whether the Sacraments were ever administered under stranger circumstances. Picture my little dug-out (none too big at any time) packed with men who had dashed in for shelter from the splinters and shrapnel coming down like hail. In one corner is kneeling a poor fellow, recently joined who has not ‘knelt to the priest’, as the men quaintly say, for many a day, trying to make his confession. I make short work of that for a shower of clay and stones falling at the door is a gentle hint that the ‘crumps’ are getting uncomfortably near and I want to give him absolution in case an unwelcome visitor should walk in. Then, while outside, the ground rocks and seems to split with the crash of the shells – big chaps some of them – I give them all Holy Communion, say a short prayer and perform the wonderful feat of packing a few more men into our sardine tin of a house. 

As soon as I got the chance I slipped round to see how many casualties there were, for I thought not a mouse could survive the bombardment. Thank God no one was killed, or even badly hit, and the firing having ceased, we should breathe again. I was walking up the trench from the dressing station when I heard the scream of another shell…It was then I realised my good fortune. There were two ways to my dug-out and naturally I choose the shorter. This time, without any special reason, I went by the longer way and it was well I did for the shell pitched in the other trench and probably would have caught me nicely as I went by, but instead of that it wreaked its vengeance on my unfortunate orderly, who was close by in his dug-out, sending him spinning on his head, but otherwise not injuring him. I found another string of men awaiting my return for Confession and Holy Communion, in fact quite a busy evening, thanks once more to Fritz’s ‘H.E.’ or High Explosive, which has a wonderful persuasive effect of its own. I am wondering how many pounds of H.E. I shall require when giving my next retreat. 

22 May 1916

You will be sorry to hear that I have lost the good nuns and my little Chapel. I call it ‘mine’ as it was associated with so many stirring events in my life at the front. I was on my way there the famous Sunday morning when the shells miraculously stopped falling on the road I had to pass. I was going to the same little chapel when the bombardment and gas attack of 27 April began, and several times I have said Mass at the Altar, which is now in fragments. A few mornings ago a big shell hit the chapel, burst inside, and literally blew it to bits, not a brick being left standing on another. It was the most complete bit of destructive work I have ever seen. I remember the poor nuns telling me that they had become so accustomed to the shelling they did not bother taking shelter in the cellar. For some reason or other (God’s providence over them no doubt) they had gone down to the lower regions this morning and so escaped without a scratch. I am very sorry to leave them, for we had become fast friends and more than once they had bound up my wounds, internal ones be it noted, pouring in rolls and coffee, hot and strong. I think I never met four pluckier women – three times they were sent away by the military authorities and as often came back. I should not be a bit surprised to find them one morning camped once more on the ruins of the convent.

Thoughts for May 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

Are you not foolish in wishing to be free from these attacks of impatience, etc.? I know how violent they can be, since they sweep down on me at all hours without any provocation. You forget the many victories they furnish you with.

COMMENT: Each one of us has our own temperament. Some are timid and quiet. Some are very goal-oriented and work hard. Others are easily excited. Fr Doyle probably fell into this last category – he had a very fiery temperament. This manifested itself in his generous apostolic zeal, his appetite for mortifications and his competitiveness on the sports field. Yet throughout his life we see many examples of how he won “victories” against his natural impatience. One example will suffice – in his last few months, while he was a chaplain in the war, he had many opportunities to lose his temper with the circumstances and people around him. It seems that he rarely did. In fact, he even wanted those around him to treat him like a slave – he wanted to be subject to them and to be mistreated by them in order to learn more patience and humility. For example, Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary in October 1916:

Lately the desire to be trampled on and become the slave of everybody has grown very strong. I have resolved to make myself secretly the slave of my servant and, as far as I can, to submit to his will e.g. to wait til he comes to serve my Mass and not to send for him, never to complain of anything he does, to take my meals in the way he chooses to cook them and at the hours he suggests, to let him arrange my things as he thinks fit, in a word, humbly to let him trample on me as I deserve.

While this practice clearly shows a high degree of detachment, it is probably not advisable for all of us. But that does not mean that it was not desirable for Fr Doyle or for those others who were renowned for their high degree of holiness and who also followed this practice (for example, the Spanish noblewoman Luisa Carvajal, who was herself very close to the Jesuits of her day). Clearly, in adopting this practice, Fr Doyle was simply following the Jesuit ideal of going on the offensive to overcome our weaknesses and vices; in this case Fr Doyle’s desire to have things his way. While we may not go so far as to make ourselves the slave of others, it is clear that our homes and our societies would be healthier places if we were all more patient and insisted on our own way less frequently.

Today is the feast of St Rita of Cascia. She is known as the saint of the impossible due to the efficacy of her prayers. But perhaps she could also be known as a saint who personified the virtue of patience. She spent 18 years married to an abusive, violent and unfaithful husband. However, her patience and love finally converted him near the end of his life. After her husband was murdered by some of his many enemies, she successfully prevented her sons from taking revenge, and she entered an Augustinian convent where she spent the last 40 years of her life.

We may not be called to act like the slave of others like Fr Doyle, or to put up with an abusive marriage like St Rita. But we are all called to live the virtue of patience in the concrete circumstances of our own lives. Who can doubt that the world would be a better place if we were all a little more patient with each other.

One final thought today – St Rita is an extremely popular saint but she was only beatified 170 years after her death and canonised 443 years after her death. Not all of the great saints are recognised immediately after death.

St Rita of Cascia

Thoughts for May 21 from Fr Willie Doyle

A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows sharper with use.

COMMENT: How correct Fr Doyle’s assessment is! The more we criticise others, the more critical we can become ourselves. Like all vices, the more we engage in them, the easier and easier it becomes to keep engaging in them, and to grow worse over time. That is why big sins don’t normally arise out of thin air – they are normally preceded by smaller infidelities that weaken our resolve and undermine our spiritual lives. On the other hand, just like with exercise, the gradual pursuit of virtue strengthens us, and equips us for ever greater acts of virtue and charity. If our sins become “sharper” with use, then so too do our virtues. And that is precisely why Fr Doyle’s methodical pursuit of holiness is so important. It may seem old fashioned or pedantic, but it is the safe and sure path that the saints followed, and it is the path that Jesus Himself recommended when He told his disciples that those who are faithful in little things will also be faithful in greater things. 

Thoughts for May 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

I did not write because I had nothing but disappointment, opposition, cold shower-baths and crosses to chronicle…Your news about the success in England is glorious, and yet I am assured that mine will come in Dublin if ever a house is opened. … I am confident the real difficulty will be to keep the men out. I never realised till I got on the mission staff the immense amount of faith and love for holy things there is everywhere still in Ireland. … It has been a four years’ Calvary, but yesterday the Resurrection, I hope, began, for I heard that Rathfarnham Castle with 53 acres has been purchased at last, and I have the Provincial’s promise (when that took place) to allow me to make a start in the stables. Ye Gods! Fancy the mighty Doyle preaching in a stable! Very like the Master is it not?’

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words 106 years ago today, on May 20 1913, in a letter to Fr Charles Plater SJ. Fr Plater had founded a retreat house for working men, and Fr Doyle was a supporter of this initiative, and expended much energy in his attempts to establish a similar house for workers in Ireland. He traveled around Europe researching the idea and wrote a booklet on the issue. Fr Doyle saw such retreats as an essential outreach to lay people and to ordinary workers in general at a time when worker’s rights were a burning issue of the day – the Dublin Lockout also occurred in late 1913, and the rights of labour were central to the political and philosophical debates of the day.

Fr Doyle did not live to see his cherished workers retreat, but eventually a house for this purpose was built in Rathfarnham after Fr Doyle’s death. It evolved into the Lay Retreat Association which continued in operation until it sadly closed down in 2016.

Fr Charles Plater SJ