Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary – Day 6: The virtue of fortitude in the life of Fr Doyle

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

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