“The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee” (Luke, 1:35). Light comes with this blessed over-shadowing,. and before God’s power difficulties disappear. It is ever so. With God’s grace mine, I face the difficulty and find it has vanished: I take up the heavy cross and discover it most light; I put my hand to the work and it proves easy.
As regards confession it would be much better to confine yourself to the accusation of, say, three faults, and turn the whole flood of your sorrow upon these. I fear you, like so many, lay too much stress on the accusation of sins, which in these frequent confessions, is the least important part of the Sacrament. To my mind the one thing which completely changes all our notions of confession is the thought that every absolution means an immense increase of sanctifying grace or holiness. Let that be your aim and not the mere pouring out of little faults, all of which, maybe, were washed away that morning by Holy Communion.
COMMENT: There has been a debate about whether or not Ireland was afflicted with Jansenism in the early part of the 20th Century. Whether it was full-blown Jansenism or not, there were at least widespread tinges of it which were manifested by excessive scrupulosity and an over-emphasis on judgement and considerably less emphasis on the mercy and love of God. Fr Doyle was an enemy of what he rightly termed as “the wretched spirit of Jansenism”.
In today’s quote he is of course writing to somebody who is striving to live a holy life, so his advice would not apply completely to somebody who has been away from the sacraments for a long time. His advice seems very Ignatian – to focus on key faults in an attempt to eradicate them. But as always, his emphasis is not on the sin itself but on the mercy of God and the grace which He longs to give us.
These thoughts are appropriate today on the feast of St Margaret of Cortona.
St Margaret lived in the 13th century and she seems to have been a promiscuous and rebellious teenager. She gave birth to a son but never married his father. After nine years the father of the child died, probably as a result of a murder. This shock helped bring about a conversion of life for Margaret. It wasn’t easy for her, and she had to fight valiantly against temptations to return to her former life. She became a Franciscan tertiary, and with the assistance of others who were drawn to her growing sanctity, she cared for the poor and established a hospital in Cortona.
We see the truth of Fr Doyle’s words in the life of St Margaret and indeed in the life of many saints – Confession and conversion are less about our accusation of sins, and more about God’s mercy and grace.
Finally, an interesting detail in the image of St Margaret below – as St Margaret turns to the angel, and the devil is driven to despair and rage in the background…
The great light of this retreat, clear and persistent has been that God has chosen me, in His great love and through compassion for my weakness and misery, to be a victim of reparation for the sins of priests especially; that hence my life must be different in the matter of penance, self-denial and prayer, from the lives of others not given this special grace.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle clearly perceived that he had a special calling to make reparation for the sins of priests. In fact, he reiterated this calling in the very last entry that he ever made in his diary, on July 28 1917, the 10th anniversary of his ordination and just two weeks before his death:
I have again offered myself to Jesus…to do with me absolutely as He pleases. I will try to take all that happens, no matter from whom it comes, as sent to me by Jesus and will bear suffering, heat, cold, etc., with joy…in reparation for the sins of priests. From this day I shall try bravely to bear all “little pains” in this spirit. A strong urging to this.
We don’t hear very much about reparation these days but this idea is entirely scriptural. St Paul tells us:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.
In some mysterious way, our own sacrifices strengthen the Church and win grace for others.
Fr Doyle specifically focuses on the sins of priests. Priests were held in very high esteem 100 years ago, yet here we have Fr Doyle recognising the reality of priestly sinfulness. It was a desire to atone for these sins that drove him to some of his severe penances.
How much more we know about the sinfulness of some priests now than we did 100 years ago! The Church in Ireland has been especially badly hit by the scandal – the crime! – of child abuse. The human cost of this crime is incalculable. And as for the Church itself, it is no exaggeration to say that the moral credibility of the Church has been dreadfully undermined by these scandals, and especially by their mishandling. Those in the United States who have seen the fallout of clerical abuse have some sense of the implications of clerical scandals on the credibility and life of the Church.
Today we celebrate the feast of St Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church. St Peter Damian is not one of the better known Doctors, but he is of great significance for his zealous work in reforming the Church, and in particular the clergy, of his time. And what was the main focus of his reform? Yes, that’s right, sexual corruption amongst the clergy, and in particular the corruption of teenage boys by priests and monks. Remarkably, St Peter Damian was born over 1,000 years ago, and died in 1072. His extensive writings on this problem cite with approval the works of another Doctor of the Church, St Basil the Great, who died over 1,600 years ago in 379. It is clear that neither saint took the matter lightly. Their prescription for abusers included public flogging, imprisonment, bad food and constant supervision to ensure that the guilty party never again had contact with children.
The Church has, within its own tradition, a strong response to the problem of clerical abuse. If the Church in Ireland, and elsewhere, had adopted the zero tolerance approach of St Peter Damian, many children would have been spared the horrors they experienced.
And so we come back to Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests…
Once again we find that Fr Doyle is a very fitting model for us today. Here is a priest who died for others, even those who did not share his faith. Here is a man who literally offered his life to God in reparation for the sins of other priests. True, we do not have to follow his own personal style of penance – he makes it clear that he had a special calling for hard penance that others did not have – but the principle is there for us to follow nonetheless. And it now officially forms part of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis. Pope Benedict, in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, urged us to offer our Friday penances essentially in reparation for the sins of priests and for healing and renewal.
You may find an article I wrote about this theme in Fr Doyle’s life here: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/02/17/a-priest-who-offered-his-life-in-reparation-for-the-sins-of-priests/
Let us pray to St Peter Damian for reform within the Church – and most importantly within ourselves – and to Fr Doyle that we may make adequate reparation for sin through our own small penances.
Here is the text of an address by Pope Benedict XVI on St Peter Damian:
I am convinced that generally we reach sanctity of life only through a long series of falls from which we get up.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a very realistic understanding of our human nature. He too struggled with temptations and with his own defects, but like the saints he realised that we do not battle alone, but rather with the help of our loving God, of our guardian angel and of the entire communion of saints.
Perhaps many of us have already forgotten what our new year’s resolutions were. No matter, we can pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. The most important thing is never to give up.
As the moth is attracted to the light, is drawn ever nearer to the warmth and brightness, until at length with irresistible longing it casts itself into the flame, so the Sacred Heart draws us to Itself by Its love. We are warm by the fervour of Its affection, dazzled by Its brilliancy. We come to realize the extent of that love, its foolish excesses; it bursts upon us that all this is a personal love for me.
I saw many interesting places and things during my weeks of travel. But over all hung a big cloud of sadness, for I realised as I never did before how utterly the world has forgotten Jesus except to hate and outrage Him, the fearful, heart-rending amount of sin visible on all sides, and the vast work for souls that lies before us priests. My feelings at times are more than I can describe. The longing to make up to our dear Lord for all He is suffering is overwhelming, and I ask Him, since somehow my own heart seems indifferent to His pleading, to give me the power to do much and very much to console Him.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this note in 1912, after a period of travel in France, Belgium and Holland where he was investigating the feasibility of setting up a retreat house for lay people in Ireland. How our culture has changed over the past 100 years! What would Fr Doyle say were he to travel to these countries today? What would he say if he was to look at Ireland today?
In all of this we must avoid two great temptations. The first is to think that the past was a golden age, and that we now live in a time of unparalleled debauchery. Our culture, and the Church, has passed through many tough and un-Christian (and even anti-Christian) times in the past. We must always remain positive despite the troubles of our particular age. God is still God, and His promise that Hell will not prevail against the Church still stands (although we must remember that He didn’t promise that particular local churches, like the French, Belgian, Dutch – or even Irish – Churches would prevail…). We should, however, take courage from the words of Blessed Columba Marmion:
Now let us remind ourselves that, in these our days, the Heart of Jesus is not less loving nor His arm less powerful. God is ready to shed His graces upon us…as abundant and as useful as those he shed upon the first Christians. He does not love us less than he loved them.
The second temptation is to judge others, and think ourselves immune from corruption. St Josemaria Escriva said that the crises in the world are crises of saints. If our culture has wandered far from the values we hold dear, it is because we have failed to live those values to a heroic degree. Certainly this is nowhere more true than in Ireland, where the scandal of abuse and corruption has fundamentally undermined the Church in the eyes of many.
As Fr Doyle says, we must beg for the grace to do much, very much, to console Jesus. We can follow the example of today’s saint, Geltrude Comensoli. She was dedicated to Christ in the Eucharist, and found therein the strength she needed for her apostolic labours. She focussed her particular apostolic efforts on the education of young women working in factories. This was a pressing social need of late 19th Century Italy. Different priorities may present themselves to us today, but we must always remember that we will never succeed in re-generating our culture except by fulfilling our individual vocation in close union with God.
Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 104 years ago today. Here are his sentiments on this occasion, as captured in a letter written to his father just half an hour before departure.
I set out to face to future with a certain amount of trepidation…Strange to say, I have not the smallest anxiety about the possible dangers of warfare, not so great for me, as for others, but I do dread the horrors of the battlefield which all say no words can picture. Still it is a consolation to know what a comfort the mere presence of a priest is to both officers and men alike. They are one and all going to face their duty with the joy of heart which comes with a clear conscience; many of them had not been to confession for over twenty years.