Thoughts for August 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

We once again resume Fr Doyle’s narrative of the events at the Battle of Passchendaele. This is his account of the events of August 5, 1917. In a particular way, we see Fr Doyle’s tenderness as he describes his tears for the fallen soldiers, as well as his confidence in God’s providence and protection. We also see his incredible sense of fun and adventure, though I for one cannot personally identify his description of hiding from shells as the “promise of an exciting time”!

All day I have been busy hearing the men’s confessions, and giving batch after batch Holy Communion. A consolation surely to see them crowding to the Sacraments, but a sad one too, because I know for many of them it is the last Absolution they will ever receive, and the next time they meet our Blessed Lord will be when they see Him face to face in Heaven.

My poor brave boys! They are lying now out on the battle-field; some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain, who loves them all as if they were his own children; others stiff and stark with staring eyes, hidden in a shell-hole where they had crept to die; while perhaps in some far-off thatched cabin an anxious mother sits listening for the well-known step and voice which will never gladden her ear again. Do you wonder in spite of the joy that fills my heart that many a time the tears gather in my eyes, as I think of those who are gone?

As the men stand lined up on Parade, I go from company to company giving a General Absolution which I know is a big comfort to them, and then I shoulder my pack and make for the train which this time is to carry us part of our journey. Top end for Blighty, boys, bottom end Berlin, I tell them as they clamber in, for they like a cheery word. If you’re for Jerryland, Father, we’re with you too, shouts one big giant, which is greeted with a roar of approval and Berlin wins the day hands down.

Though we are in fighting kit, there is no small load to carry: a haversack containing little necessary things, and three days rations which consist of tinned corn beef, hard biscuits, tea and sugar, with usually some solidified methylated spirit for boiling water when a fire cannot be lighted; two full water-bottles; a couple of gas-helmets the new one weighing nine pounds, but guaranteed to keep out the smell of the Old Boy himself; then a waterproof trench coat; and in addition my Mass kit strapped on my back on the off chance that some days at least I may be able to offer the Holy Sacrifice on the spot where so many men have fallen. My orderly should carry this, but I prefer to leave him behind when we go into action, to which he does not object. On a roasting hot day, tramping along a dusty road or scrambling up and down shell-holes, the extra weight tells. But then I think of my friend the hermit, and the pack grows light and easy!

As I marched through Ypres at the head of the column, an officer ran across the road and stopped me: Are you a Catholic priest? he asked, I should like to go to Confession. There and then, by the side of the road, while the men marched by, he made his peace with God, and went away, let us hope, as happy as I felt at that moment. It was a trivial incident, but it brought home vividly to me what a priest was and the wondrous power given him by God. All the time we were pushing on steadily towards our goal across the battle-field of the previous week. Five days almost continuous rain had made the torn ground worse than any ploughed field, but none seemed to care as so far not a shot had fallen near.

We were congratulating ourselves on our good luck, when suddenly the storm burst. Away along the front trenches we saw the S.O.S. signal shoot into the air, two red and two green rockets, telling the artillery behind of an attack and calling for support. There was little need to send any signal as the enemy’s guns had opened fire with a crash, and in a moment pandemonium, in fact fifty of them were set loose. I can but describe the din by asking you to start together fifty first class thunder storms, though even then the swish and scream, the deafening crash of the shells, would be wanting.

On we hurried in the hope of reaching cover which was close at hand, when right before us the enemy started to put down a heavy barrage, literally a curtain of shells, to prevent reinforcements coming up. There was no getting through that alive and, to make matters worse, the barrage was creeping nearer and nearer, only fifty yards away, while shell fragments hummed uncomfortably close. Old shell- holes there were in abundance, but every one of them was brim full of water, and one would only float on top. Here was a fix! Yet somehow I felt that though the boat seemed in a bad way, the Master was watching even while He seemed to sleep, and help would surely come. In the darkness I stumbled across a huge shell-hole crater, recently made, with no water. Into it we rolled and lay on our faces, while the tempest howled around and angry shells hissed overhead and burst on every side. For a few moments I shivered with fear, for we were now right in the middle of the barrage and the danger was very great, but my courage came back when I remembered how easily He Who had raised the tempest saved His Apostles from it, and I never doubted He would do the same for us. Not a man was touched, though one had his rifle smashed to bits.

We reached Head Quarters, a strong block house made of concrete and iron rails, a master-piece of German cleverness. From time to time all during the night the enemy gunners kept firing at our shelter, having the range to a nicety. Scores exploded within a few feet of it, shaking us till our bones rattled ; a few went smash against the walls and roof, and one burst at the entrance nearly blowing us over, but doing no harm thanks to the scientific construction of the passage. I tried to get a few winks of sleep on a stool, there was no room to lie down with sixteen men in a small hut. And I came to the conclusion that so far we had not done badly and there was every promise of an exciting time.

A flooded shell hole

Thoughts for August 4 (St John Vianney) from Fr Willie Doyle

St John Vianney

Today is the feast of St John Vianney. Fr Doyle had a great devotion to him and visited Ars in 1907.

From O’Rahilly’s biography:

In spite of missing a train, and after an adventurous journey on a very primitive steam-tram, he found himself in the spot hallowed by the Curé of Ars. Fr. Doyle insisted on seeing everything: the room in which the saint died, the half-burnt curtains said to have been damaged by the devil, the little pan in which the holy man cooked the flour-lumps which he called cakes. He was allowed as a special privilege to sit in the Curé’s confessional, and above all he was able to say Mass at his shrine, using the saint’s chalice. Just above the altar reposed the Curé’s body in a case of glass and gold. “It gave one a strange feeling,” wrote Fr. Doyle, “to see the holy old man lying before one during Mass, calm and peaceful, with a heavenly smile on his face, just as he died fifty years ago…I shall never forget my visit to Ars,” he concluded; “I knew all about the Blessed Curé’s life, so that each spot had an interest and charm for me.”

Writing in his pamphlet on the priesthood, Fr Doyle described St John Vianney in this way:

In the little village Ars, near Lyons, lived and died, some fifty years ago, a simple French Curé. He had none of the great gifts which the world looks for in her famous men; so deficient was he in learning, that his Bishop hesitated about ordaining him, and he could call neither talent nor eloquence to his aid. But the Blessed Curé d’Ars possessed a marvellous, secret power over men, the power of personal holiness. For the last thirty years his life never varied. At midnight, after a broken sleep of only three hours, he entered his confessional, where for eighteen hours he absolved and consoled the hundred thousand pilgrims who annually came to Ars. He revelled in austerities and humiliations, he hungered for prayer, winning souls to God and converting the most hardened sinners by the example of his heroic life as much as by the graces of his sanctity.

Some further reflections from Fr Doyle on St Vianney may be helpful today. Writing in his diary on this day in 1913, he said:

Making my meditation before the picture of the Blessed (John Vianney), he seemed to say to me with an interior voice: “The secret of my life was that I lived for the moment. I did not say, I must pray here for the next hour, but only for this moment. I did not say, I have a hundred confessions to hear, I but looked upon this one as the first and last. I did not say, I must deny myself everything and always, but only just this once. By this means I was able always to do everything perfectly, quietly and in great peace. Try and live this life of the present moment. Pray as if you had nothing else whatever to do; say your Office slowly as if for the last time; do not look forward and think you must often repeat this act of self-denial. This will make all things much easier.”

In another place in his diary Fr Doyle writes in a similar vein:

No sacrifice would be great if looked at in this way. I do not feel now the pain which has past, I have not yet to bear what is coming; hence I have only to endure the suffering of this one moment, which is quickly over and cannot return.

This practical and wise advice can be applied by every person, no matter what our state in life might be.

We shall conclude with some short sayings from St John Vianney.

There are people who make capital out of everything, even the winter. If it is cold they offer their little sufferings to God.

A Christian either rules his inclinations or his inclinations rule him.

God has given each of us our work to do. It is for us to pursue our road, that is to say, our vocation…When God gives such and such a vocation, He bestows upon us at the same time His grace to fulfil it. 

Very few people invite Jesus Christ to their wedding; on the contrary they seem to do all they can to keep him away.

The way to destroy bad habits is by watchfulness and by doing often those things which are the opposite one’s besetting sins.

We all make wonderful promises to God so long as nobody says anything to us, and all goes well

All soldiers are good in garrison. On the field of battle we see the difference between the brave and cowardly.

We must be like the shepherds in the fields during the winter. They have a fire, but from time to time they search about for sticks to keep it alive. If we knew how to keep up the fire of the love of God in our heart by prayers and good works, it would not go out.

In the soul which is united to God it is always spring.



Thoughts for August 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

Four Dangers to be Feared after a Retreat:

1 . Dissipation: There, it is over; amuse yourself.

2. Toning Down: Too much, too many, too hard, too often, too etc.

3. Putting Off: Wait a little, rest yourself, take your time.

4. Cowardice: You’ll never do it; you’re no good; it will be the same old story.

And Four Remedies:

1. Presence of God: No, it is not over, it is only just begun.

2. Exactness: No such thing; I’ll do all I have resolved; nothing too much for God.

3. Promptitude: No, at once; here goes; I may die to-day.

4. Determination: We’ll see; I am no good, but Someone good and powerful is with me.

COMMENT: Developing resolutions for the reform of our life is an important part of a good retreat. But Fr Doyle, the expert retreat giver who himself experienced such a deep reform of his own life through his own 30 day retreat just after ordination, knew full well the traps that await people after retreats.

A retreat can be a time of great graces and generosity. But when we return to our normal life we can start to get lazy, to lose our focus and our previous generosity.

St Ignatius, in the Spiritual Exercises, gives some advice on this point. When faced with dissipation and desolation, we must never change course, we must stick with our resolutions more firmly than ever, especially if they were developed during a retreat when we experienced consolation and God’s grace in our prayer. If, at some subsequent time when we experience consolation once more, we may be free to adapt our resolutions, but never when facing difficulties and dissipations.

It is well to remember that, as Fr Doyle tells us, we are never alone in trying to live our resolutions – Someone who is all-powerful, and who desperately wills our sanctification, is ready to help us…

St Ignatius

Thoughts for August 2 from Fr Willie Doyle

We have no more reports from Fr Doyle until August 5th, and we shall take up his narrative once again on that date. What we do know about these days is that Fr Doyle and his men had a few days rest before facing the trauma of battle once again.

This might be an appropriate place to give the following excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography which includes an excerpt of a letter from Fr Browne, who served as a military chaplain with Fr Doyle.

After the death of Fr Knapp (31st July), Fr. Browne was appointed chaplain to the 2nd Irish Guards. Hence from 2nd August till his death Fr. Doyle had the four Battalions to look after, as no other priest had come to the 48th Brigade. A certain priest had indeed been appointed as Fr. Browne’s successor by Fr. Rawlinson. But by some error the order was brought to a namesake, who, on arriving at Poperinghe and discovering the mistake, absolutely refused to have anything to do with the battle. This will explain why Fr. Doyle had such hard work and why he would not allow himself any rest or relief. On 15th August, the day before Fr. Doyle s death, Fr. Browne wrote to his brother (Rev. W. F Browne, C.C.):

“Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

“No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

“I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: ‘Little Fr. Doyle (they all call him that, more in affection than anything else) deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery.’

“Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again. ‘

“I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.”

COMMENT: Fr Browne was the famous photographer who luckily, or providentially, escaped death on the Titanic by disembarking at Cobh, County Cork, the last port of call for the famous ship. In fact, he was invited to go to the US on the Titanic but his superior ordered him to get off the ship – obedience saves lives!

In today’s quote we once again we get a glimpse at Fr Doyle’s tireless efforts to serve others, and the consequent positive effect this had on everyone around him. But let us not forget: Fr Doyle was no cartoon superhero. His capacity to serve others, and to endure suffering, was acquired by relying on God’s grace, and through many years of denying himself, even in little things.

Of such things are heroes – and saints – made.

Thoughts for August 1 (St Alphonsus Liguori) from Fr Willie Doyle

We continue today with Fr Doyle’s narrative of events in the days leading up to his death. Today’s account is somewhat shorter than that of other days. Even if the events of this day are less dramatic than what is to come, we can still glimpse some of the suffering Fr Doyle and the men had to endure, as well as the cheerful spirit with which he accepted it.

Morning brought a leaden sky, more rain, and no breakfast! Our cook with the rations had got lost during the night, so there was nothing for it but to tighten one’s belt… But He Who feeds the birds of the air did not forget us, and by mid-day we were sitting down before a steaming tin of tea, bully beef and biscuits, a banquet fit to set before an emperor after nearly twenty-four hours fast. Not for a moment during the whole of the day did the merciless rain cease. The men, soaked to the skin and beyond it, were standing up to their knees in a river of mud and water, and like ourselves were unable to get any hot food till the afternoon. Our only consolation was that our trenches were not shelled and we had no casualties. Someone must have had compassion on our plight, for when night fell a new Brigade came in to relieve us, much to our surprise and joy. Back to the camp we had left the previous night, one of the hardest marches I ever put in, but cheered at the thought of a rest. Once again we got through Ypres without a shell, though they fell before and after our passing; good luck was on our side for once.

Today is also the feast of St Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, prolific writer of esteemed spiritual works and Founder of the Redemptorists. St Alphonsus held the Jesuits in very high esteem, and declined to take over one of the Jesuit churches in Naples following the suppression of the Jesuits in the late 18th Century.

St Alphonsus played an important role in the life of Fr Doyle – if it were not for his writings Fr Doyle may not have become a Jesuit.

Here is the description from O’Rahilly’s biography. Note by the way that Clonliffe was the diocesan seminary for priests for the Dublin diocese.

In July, 1890, Willie paid a few days visit to St. Stanislaus College, Tullamore, the Novitiate of the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus, where his brother, Charlie, had entered ten months previously. One day during the visit the subject of Willie’s vocation came up for discussion. Charlie knew that Willie was going to be a priest. But was it a secular priest or a religious? “I hope soon to enter Clonliffe,” said Willie. ” Did you ever think of the religious life ? ” asked his brother. “Never!” was the emphatic reply. “I have always wanted to fill the gap left by Fred’s death, and to become a secular priest.” “But do you know anything about the religious state?” persisted the zealous novice. ” No, nothing,” said Willie; “but in any case I would never come to this hole of a place!” This led to an animated discussion concerning religious Orders in general and the Society of Jesus in particular. Willie was so far shaken as to accept a copy of St. Alphonsus Liguori’s work on the Religious State, with a promise to read it and to think over it. The sequel can be told in Willie’s own words:

“On Christmas Day I was alone in the drawing-room when Father came in and asked me if I had yet made up my mind as to my future career. I answered Yes that I intended to become a Jesuit. I remember how I played my joy and happiness into the piano after thus giving myself openly to Jesus.”

On 31st March, 1891, Willie entered the Jesuit Novitiate of Tullabeg.

For those who are interested, St Alphonsus’ book on the religious vocation can be found here:

St Alphonsus Vocation to the Religious State

Meditations and spiritual reading for each day of the year (organised according to the traditional calendar) by St Alphonsus can be found here:

St Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church