Sr Clare Crockett, Fr Doyle, and religious joy

Sr Clare Crockett

Sr Clare Crockett, a religious of the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother, died on this day in 2016. She was only 33. She was a typical religiously disinterested teenager from Derry, Northern Ireland, when she had a completely unexpected and powerful encounter with the Lord on Good Friday in the year 2000. She was a talented actress and budding TV presenter with a bright future, and the party lifestyle to go along with it, but she could not resists the call to give it all up to follow Jesus as a consecrated religious. Overcoming significant temptations and strong family opposition, she left to enter religious life in Spain in 2001. She was unexpectedly killed in an earthquake in Ecuador this day in 2016.

On the surface Sr Clare seems very different to Fr Doyle. Fr Doyle had a relatively conventionally pious upbringing. His was the 4th religious vocation in his family. He certainly had no party lifestyle to leave behind; given his later involvement with the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and his regular homilies on the danger of alcohol, it seems likely to me that he never touched a drop of alcohol in his entire life. Fr Doyle was musical by nature but seems to have suppressed this interest to some degree whereas Sr Clare used her music and acting skills in her work with young children. While Fr Doyle faced the ongoing slog of conversion we all must undergo, there was no dramatic moment that changed his life like Sr Clare experienced on that Good Friday.

Yet for all the differences there are some striking similarities between Sr Clare and Fr Doyle at the level of temperament. They were both headstrong, determined, and generous, and the Lord blessed that generosity as they strove to overcome their defects and grow in humility, docility and trust. Their respective private diaries, published in part after their deaths, show that this process of growth and purification was an ongoing one that required constant effort. But, aided by grace, their growth continued. This should be an encouragement to us all. 

There is a strange incident in Fr Doyle’s early life. He was renowned as a practical joker throughout his life, and these jokes were especially elaborate in his early years as a Jesuit.

Fr Doyle’s brother, Fr Charles Doyle, describes one such prank in his book Merry in God:

Among the novices was a secular priest with whom Willie was very good friends, but who was the object of many of his innocent pranks. One day during the summer vacation the novices were gathered outside the door of the novitiate, chatting and laughing, preparatory to moving off for a bathe. Willie, in hat and gown, appeared at an upper window. After exchanging some bantering remarks with his friend, he withdrew. Suddenly there was a loud scream, and a figure in hat and gown came hurtling through the air from the window where we had been a moment before. His friend had just time and presence of mind to give conditional absolution before the body crashed to the ground. He rushed over, expecting to find Willie dead or badly injured, when Willie himself appeared at the window above, grinning and chuckling. It was a long time before his friend heard the end of his absolution of the dressed up bolster.

Not everyone approved of jokes like this. Even though Fr Doyle was very young at the time, and probably still a teenager, some have (wrongly) suggested that this showed a lack of virtue. 

In the new biography of Sr Clare entitled Alone with Christ Alone, written by Sr Kristen Gardner, we find the following remarkably similar prank perpetrated by Sr Clare on Sr Kristen while she was about the same age Fr Doyle had been:

Clare told Bernadette, “I’ve got a plan. Go and ask Kristen if I can use her computer. She’s going to ask what I need it for. You tell her that you don’t know and that she can come ask me. I’ll be waiting here with the ladder.” Bernadette agreed and went running to the Casita to tell me Clare wanted to use my computer. The fact that I reacted exactly as Clare had expected goes to show not only how well she knew me personally, but how perspicacious she was as she got to know people. “What does Clare need it for?” I asked. And, just as Clare had planned, Bernadette went on to say she did not know and invited me to go ask Clare myself. As I came up close to the corner where she was working, all of a sudden, I saw a ladder fall and Clare with it. I was scared to death! “Clare! Are you alright?!” And then she burst out in laughter. She had thrown the ladder to the ground and acted as if she had fallen! That had been her plan from the beginning.

Interestingly, both Sr Clare and Fr Doyle also shared a talent for impersonating those they lived with, and used this skill to bring joy and laughter to their respective religious families. But despite the fact that they were fun to be with, and that their magnetic personalities drew – and after death continue to draw – people to them, they both strove to love and follow Christ with an undivided heart. 

From the diary of Sr Clare:

Let me never be separated from You. May no creature ever possess part of my heart. Grant me an undivided heart. Let nothing enter between Your heart and mine, never. Help me to always choose the crown of thorns. Let me always be with You and may this not be simply pretty words or pious and fleeting sentiments but may I truly be converted and always fix my gaze on You.

And from Fr Doyle:

How many wish to belong entirely to Jesus without reserve or restriction? Most want to serve two masters, to be under two standards. A union of wordliness and devotion; a perpetual succession of sins and repentance; something given to grace, more to nature; fervour and tepidity by turns. Such is the state of many religious. Obligations are whittled down; rules are interpreted laxly; all kinds of excuses are invented for self-indulgence, health, greater glory of God in the end, etc. No service is so hard as the half-and-half; what is given to God costs more; His yoke is heavy; the cross is dragged, not cheerfully carried; the thought of what is refused to grace causes remorse and sadness; there is no pleasure from the world and little from the service of Christ.

And elsewhere: 

Don’t be one of those who give God everything but one little corner of their heart on which they put up a notice board with the inscription: “Trespassers not allowed.”

Sr Clare’s life indicates evidence of significant growth in the life of virtue and her diaries reveal an intense spiritual life of generosity and a life of hidden reparation. There is significant speculation that her Cause for beatification will soon be introduced. We pray that it will, and that it will succeed. And we pray also that we may see the same for Fr Doyle.

 

 

16 April 1916

It was a memorable six days for us all, living day and night literally face to face with death at any moment. When I left my dug-out to go up or down the street, which I had to do scores of times daily, I never knew if I should reach the end of it without being hit by a bullet or piece of shell, and in the comparative safety of the cellar at meals, or in bed, there was always the pleasant prospect of being blown to bits, or buried alive, if a large shell came in a certain direction. The life was a big strain on the nerves, for it does make one ‘creepy’ to hear (as happened to myself yesterday) the rattle of shell splinters on the walls, on either side of the road: almost to feel the thud of a nice jagged lump right behind, and see another fragment go hopping off the road a few yards in front. Why, Daniel in the Lion’s Den had a gay and festive time compared to a walk through the main street of Loos.

I have seen very clearly since I came out here that Jesus wanted to teach me one lesson at least. I think the want of absolute submission to His will has been the cause of much I have suffered. He asked me to make the sacrifice of my life, but I was unwilling. Not indeed that in any sense I fear death – would not heaven be a welcome exchange? – but knowing what I do about the state of the world, the millions to be saved, and how little he is known and loved or thought about, I felt it hard, very hard, to leave all that work there and go and to enjoy the happiness of His company. Then, too, my mind is full of plans for His glory; and perhaps more than all, I know very well I have not done the work He gave me to do, that is, I have never fully lived the life He has so often asked for and make clearly known to me; I was too ungenerous and cowardly. That life, to put it in a word, was to be one in which I should ‘refuse Him no sacrifice He asked’. However grace has won the day. I think I can say with truth that I have now no desire or wish except his. I have told Him He may do just as He pleases with me, and take all, even my life. This has brought me great peace and a sense of great security in the midst of danger, since I know I am in His hands. In return He has made me see that without this absolute abandonment to His pleasure, without the breaking of my own will, a life of immolation as His victim is a farce. The ‘perfect renunciation’ may be easy, but ‘without murmur of complaint’ is the real test of the true lover.

Thoughts for the feast of St Benedict Joseph Labre from Fr Willie Doyle

St Benedict Joseph Labre

Second pilgrimage to Amettes from Locre. During the journey I felt our Lord wanted to give me some message through St. Benedict Joseph Labre. No light came while praying in the Church or in the house; but when I went up to his little room and knelt down a voice seemed to whisper “Read what is written on the wall.” I saw these words: “God calls me to an austere life; I must prepare myself to follow the ways of God.” With these words came a sudden light to see how much one gains by every act of sacrifice, that what we give is not lost; but the enjoyment (increased a thousand fold) is only postponed. This filled me with extraordinary consolation which lasted all day. 

COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a great devotion to Saint Benedict Joseph Labre – in one letter he outlines what he felt was a “strange devotion” that he felt to this saint, even as a boy. Indeed, the devotion we have to saints can often seem “strange” to us – we can end up attracted to saints without any specific reason that we can put our finger on. There are those who think that it is saints who choose to be friends with us rather than the other way around…

St Benedict Joseph Labre was a beggar; in the following quote from another of Fr Doyle’s letters home from the war he shows us his affection for this saint, as well as his own personal humour: 

I spent most of the next day wandering around the country, with a visit to the home and shrine of the beggarman saint, Benedict Joseph Labre. I often think he must be nearly mad with envy watching us in the trenches, surrounded, walked on and sat upon by his ‘pets’. But from the same pets deliver us, O Lord, as speedily as may be, this coming hot weather! 

The pets to which Fr Doyle refers are presumably fleas, lice and other creepy crawlies.

There are two lessons that we may take from today’s quote and feast. 

Firstly, the obvious message relates to austerity, a particularly relevant one in 2021, a year in which we all have to embrace personal austerity of some sort because of Covid-19 and associated restrictions. Our patience with it all may be wearing thin, but this makes it a more fertile ground for mortification and the practice of virtue.  God called both St Benedict Joseph Labre and Fr Doyle to a distinct type of austerity. We can be sure that we are also called to our own particular type of austerity, but this will vary from person to person and will correspond with our state in life. It is almost certainly the case that we are called to a different, and lesser, type of austerity – it would be wrong for someone to attempt to copy Fr Doyle or St Benedict Joseph without guidance from a spiritual director. St Francis de Sales tells us that our cross is made specifically for us, so whatever austerity we are asked to bear, it will stretch us and help to perfect us, even if it is not as objectively severe as serving as a chaplain in the trenches or living homeless on the streets of Rome. However, we must remember that whatever austerity we live with, it should never make us sour or unpleasant. Those who knew Fr Doyle always remarked on his cheerfulness and his good humour – his presence was a source of courage for the soldiers. So too with St Benedict Joseph Labre – despite his dirt and his poverty and austerity, his presence was a source of light to all those whom he encountered. Would that others would say the same of us!

The second lesson is that the call to holiness is universal. St Benedict Joseph Labre was a distinctly odd young man. He was certainly intelligent and very well read, but he chose (or felt called to) the life of a tramp. Some people even suggest that he was mentally disturbed, although perhaps that is going a bit too far. Nonetheless, the point remains that the young man who was not accepted into several monasteries and who wandered the roads of Europe visiting shrines and living homeless in Rome for a decade, far away from his family, was recognised by the Church as a saint worthy of honour and with virtues worthy of imitation. Truly there is wonderful diversity in the Church!  

St Benedict Joseph Labre reminds us that everyone, including the poor, are called to be saints, and that those who are materially poor can be spiritually rich. It also reminds us that clericalism or spiritual elitism has no place in the Church. There are those who think that heroism is not for “ordinary” Christians. I’m not sure how that can be reconciled with the life, witness and canonisation of this holy tramp who allegedly had psychological problems.

On one of my last visits to Rome I had the great privilege of being able to visit the house where St Benedict Joseph Labre died – he was taken to this house after he collapsed on the steps of a nearby church (he is now buried in that same church). It took some effort to find this spot, but it was worth it. I have had the honour in life of visiting many out-of-the-way places in Rome – the kind of places that don’t always show up in guidebooks. Often these are the best spots in Rome! Out of all of these locations I would consider this particular place to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful I had ever visited. Members of a secular institute now live in this house and they preserve relics associated with St Benedict Joseph with great care. Below is a photo of the bed on which the saint died.

After his death, the local children ran through the streets shouting that the saint was dead, and there were many miracles allegedly through his intercession after his death. An American Protestant clergyman called John Thayer was present in Rome when the saint died, and the experience of this holy beggar’s funeral converted him. He was ordained a priest and died in Limerick in 1815.

This is an excellent biography of St Benedict Joseph: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/STBEN.htm

And this is an excellent homily on St Benedict Joseph Labre