I am very grateful to Fr Eamonn McCarthy and the team at Radio Maria Ireland for their great welcome and for the opportunity to speak about Fr Doyle yesterday. Recording below.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following to say about the virtue of fortitude.
1808 Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defence of a just cause. “The Lord is my strength and my song.” “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Fortitude was one of the characteristic virtues of Fr Doyle. He had a very strong will, and he generously oriented that will towards the service of God and others.
Fr Doyle had much to overcome in life. It is incredible to consider that this hero of the trenches actually suffered a complete nervous breakdown while training to be a priest. What a remarkable development of fortitude in his soul that he who suffered greatly from being exposed to a fire in his college could, a couple of decades later, serenely face the nearly constant risk of death during the war.
His illness during his studies also caused many setbacks for him. He was certainly intelligent, but was more of a practical man than a natural scholar, and it was by dint of hard work and fortitude that he caught up on the work that he missed due to his illness.
A Jesuit who knew Fr Doyle as a young man prior to his ordination gave the following testimony on this aspect of Fr Doyle’s moral character:
Viewing his character as a whole, it seems to me that the fundamental quality in it was courage — courage of a fine and generous type. When confronted with difficulties, with danger or labour or pain, instead of hesitating or weakly compromising, he was rather braced to a new and more intense resolve to see the matter out. Give in, he would not. It was this courage, supported, no doubt, by a natural liveliness of disposition, that enabled him to preserve through life his gaiety of heart and to face his troubles as they came with a smiling countenance; it was this courage, too, that steeled him to hold fast to his purpose no matter what difficulties or obstacles might arise.
This courage also showed itself while he worked in the Jesuit schools – he produced musicals and plays with the boys when others thought that it would be impossible and was not worth the effort.
The same fortitude was on display in his zeal for souls as a missioner, and also in his determination to found a retreat house for working men, despite the many difficulties.
His interior life of constant prayer and asceticism also required considerable fortitude.
But it is of course during the war years that Fr Doyle displays his fortitude to the full. The very fact that he volunteered as a chaplain, despite his fears, says much. He also continued to suffer from his intestinal complaint throughout the war. This had been a particular problem in his youth, but it never really left him. We are not sure how this stomach illness manifested itself, but surely life in the trenches made this illness significantly more intense and inconvenient for him. Yet, still he worked, and impressed all those around him with his courage.
Dr Buchanan, a medical doctor with whom he worked in the trenches, gave this testimony:
Fr. Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, so we became fast friends, I acting as medical officer to his first Battalion. Often I envied him his coolness and courage in the face of danger: for this alone his men would have loved him.
Sergeant Flynn of the Dublin Fusiliers also spoke of Fr Doyle’s fortitude in glowing terms:
We had the misfortune to lose our chaplain, Fr. Doyle, the other day. He was a real saint and would never leave his men, and it was really marvellous to see him burying dead soldiers under terrible shell fire. He did not know what fear was, and everybody in the battalion, Catholic and Protestant alike, idolised him.
Such testimonies could be multiplied many times over.
Yet, Fr Doyle never considered himself to be courageous. He knew his weaknesses and he felt his own fears deeply. In fact, he very frequently described himself as a coward in his private diary, and he knew that all of his courage and fortitude came from God. Without the assistance of grace, he would shake with fear:
Sometimes God seems to leave me to my weakness and I tremble with fear.
But the memory of Christ’s closeness gave him renewed strength.
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.
Finally for today, Fr Doyle’s advice to us on the importance of fortitude in our spiritual life.
A want of will is the chief obstacle to our becoming saints. We are not holy because we do not really wish to become so. We would indeed gladly possess the virtues of the saints — their humility and patience, their love of suffering, their penance and zeal. But we are unwilling to embrace all that goes to make a saint and to enter on the narrow path which leads to sanctity. A strong will, a resolute will, is needed; a will which is not to be broken by difficulties or turned aside by trifling obstacles; a determination to be a saint and not to faint and falter because the way seems long and hard and narrow. A big heart, a courageous heart, is needed for sanctification, to fight our worst enemy — our own self-love.
We conclude with a prayer to Fr Doyle for private use.
O Jesus, who has given us the example of Your servant, Father William Doyle, graciously grant us the favours we ask You through his intercession…[Make petition.]
Teach us to imitate his love for You, his heroic devotion to Your service, his zeal for repairing the outrages done to Sacred Heart. For Your greater glory and for the salvation of souls hear our prayer and show us the credit he now enjoys in heaven so that we may soon be able to venerate him in public worship.”
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
While praying for light to know what God wants from me in the matter of mortifying my appetite, a voice seemed to say: “There are other things besides food in which you can be generous with Me, other hard things which I want you to do.” I thought of all the secret self-denial contained in constant hard work, not giving up when a bit tired, not yielding to desire for sleep, not running off to bed if a bit unwell, bearing little sufferings without relief, cold and heat without complaint, and, above all, the constant never-ending mortification to do each action perfectly. This light has given me a good deal of consolation, for I see I can do much for Jesus that is hard without being singular or departing from common life.
COMMENT: Despite his joyfulness, there is no doubt that Fr Doyle lived an austere life. It is true that he performed some remarkable penances from time to time. But to focus only on these singularities is to miss the wonderful simplicity of Fr Doyle’s example for us.
We can see this simplicity in his message today. For most lay people, penance does not mean hairshirts and disciplines and extraordinary things, but rather willingly accepting the burdens of each day. The penance of getting up out of bed on time, or of not complaining if we have a headache, or as Fr Doyle describes it “the constant never-ending mortification to do each action perfectly” presents a simple, but extremely challenging road for all of us.
This is reminiscent of some words of Saint John Henry Newman:
It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.
I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.
We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.
He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.
I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
These are indeed useful thoughts for all of us – both Fr Doyle and Saint John Henry Newman, today show us a way to fulfil Christ’s command by staying right where we are.
Finally, today is the feast of Blessed Mark of Aviano, a remarkable Capuchin military chaplain who played a pivotal role in preserving what was left of Christendom by supporting the army at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. If it were not for him, the history of Europe may well have turned out very differently indeed. He died in 1699 and was beatified in 2003. Once again, another long wait for beatification, and again a consolation for those devoted to Fr Doyle. It is said that he was the inventor of cappuccino – have one in his honour!
You may read more about Blessed Mark at the link below: