St Damien of Molokai, Fr Doyle, and the role of the priest in a time of danger

The world is living through an extraordinary crisis due to the Covid-19 viral infection. Quite apart from the morbidity and mortality that will flow from the virus itself, the lockdown mechanisms introduced to curb the virus will also take their toll in potentially far reaching ways.

Catholics face a particular pain during all of this. Our inability to avail of the sacraments is a real suffering. While in principle there is an argument for the short-lived suspension of public Masses during a time of public health crisis (St Charles Borromeo did as much in the plague of Milan), perhaps of even greater consequence is the suspension of the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and the Anointing of the Sick. The sacraments are the ordinary economy of God’s grace. It is true that He can provide grace as He sees fit, and that in extraordinary times extraordinary graces will not be lacking. Indeed, this virus and the lockdown measures are at least permitted by God, who wants us to draw definite fruit from them. Perhaps many of us have been too casual about the sacraments, taking them for granted and allowing familiarity to cool our devotion.

Nonetheless, there are creative ways in which the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and the Last Rites can be provided safely, despite the need for social distancing and the ongoing lockdown.

Generations of priests have risked their lives to bring these sacraments to the dying. St Damien of Molokai, whose feast it is today, risked the slow and painful death of leprosy to bring spiritual aid to exiled lepers. Fr Doyle risked instant obliteration from German shells to bring the sacraments to wounded soldiers. May their example inspire priests today to creativity and courage in this time of danger.

This excellent meditation provides us with a reflection on St Damian, Fr Doyle, and the heroism of priests in a time of danger.


Thoughts for May 10 (St Damien of Molokai) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Damien of Molokai


O eternal Lord . . . provided it be for Thy greater service and praise . . . and if Thy most Holy Majesty be pleased to choose and receive me for such a life and state, I offer myself to Thee for the Congo Mission. Thy will be done. Amen.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle had long felt a call become a missionary in the Congo. He struggled for some time with the decision to volunteer for this mission, knowing that he would probably end up as a martyr. He wanted it and didn’t want it at the same time. When he finally offered himself for this role, his offer was not accepted. However, his subsequent offer some years later to become a military chaplain was accepted, with all of the heroic and tragic consequences that amaze us to this day.

May 10 is the feast of St Damien of Molokai, one of the great modern missionaries of the Church. St Damien is well respected, even by those who otherwise would not know much about the Church or the saints. Like Saint Teresa of Calcutta, his selfless love of the poor and abandoned has a strange fascination for modern culture.

St Damien was a great apostle of charity. His journey far from home in Belgium to live amongst lepers, constantly facing the risk of contracting the disease himself, shows him to be a heroic imitator of Christ who laid down His life for others. But St Damien was a true apostle of charity, who cared for both body and soul. It is significant that one major aspect of his apostolate was a reformation of the morals of the lepers which, due to their despair and abandonment, had become degraded over time.

St Damien drew his energy for this remarkable mission from both prayer and penance. His spiritual notes and resolutions resemble Fr Doyle’s in places – he lived a disciplined life of prayer with many small acts of mortification. Just like in the case of Fr Doyle, we are forced to remember that heroic acts of charity do not materialise from thin air – they arise from daily, grinding faithfulness in our spiritual life.

There is one other surprising similarity between Fr Doyle and St Damien. It seems that Fr Doyle’s desire for the missionary life was not fully satisfied by his time in the trenches. Not long after Fr Doyle’s death, Fr Flinn, a fellow Jesuit military chaplain, wrote the following in a letter:

In the train somewhere here in France I met an officer of W.Doyle’s regiment…For one half-hour in the crowded carriage he spoke the praises of poor Billy. ‘That man was’, he said, ‘the limit’. He wound up with a word that was new, to me at least – ‘He’d have died a martyr anyway, for he had made up his mind to go, after the war, to one of the leper settlements’.

Given what we know about the outrageous sufferings and strains Fr Doyle experienced in the war we might well be forgiven in thinking that he deserved a rather comfortable and safe apostolate if he managed to survive the experience. But this great apostle had other ideas and he wanted to give of himself right to the very end.

Those interested in St Damien can find an excellent overview of his life and spirit from the Benedictine monks of Clairval here: