Death is the end of all things here, the end of time, of merit, of pain and mortification, of a hard life. It is the commencement of an eternal life of happiness and joy. In this light, life is short indeed and penance sweet. I thought if I knew I had only one year to live, how fervently I would spend it, how each moment would be utilised. Yet I know well I may not live a week more do I really believe this?
COMMENT: Today is the anniversary of the death of St Benedict, and in the older calendar it is his feast day. St Benedict, like St Joseph, is the patron of a happy death. Much of what we know about St Benedict comes from the writings of St Gregory the Great. Here is his description of the death of St Benedict on this day in 543.
Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.
St Benedict’s death was a peaceful one. Fr Doyle spent himself tirelessly to try to bring a peaceful death to many fallen soldiers. His was the last face many of them saw, as he brought the consolation of his priestly presence in their last moments. It was in this cause that he died, when he ran into no man’s land to rescue two wounded officers and was himself killed in the process.
Passion of Christ, comfort me! Comfort me, for the day is long and weary. Comfort me as I fight my way up the path of life safe to the Heaven of thy Sacred Heart. Comfort me in sorrow, in pain, in sickness. Comfort me when temptation rages around me and every hope seems lost. And when that last dreaded hour has sounded and my eyes are closing on this world of sin, O Passion of Christ! comfort me then, and lead me gently to thy wounded Sacred Feet above. Amen.
With great earnestness recommend to His mercy the poor souls who are in their agony. What a dreadful hour, an hour tremendously decisive, is the hour of our death! Surround with your love these souls going to appear before God, and defend them by your prayers.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Joseph. We traditionally pray to St Joseph for many things – work, fidelity to one’s vocation, purity, the protection of the Church, even selling a house. But St Joseph is also regarded as the patron saint of a happy death, because tradition tells us that he died with Jesus and Mary at his side – a happy death indeed!
Fr Doyle’s mother – Christina Doyle – died at 7am on the feast of St Joseph 1915. Fr Doyle had just returned from a mission in Glasgow and was with her when she died, and was able to say Mass immediately for her soul. Fr Doyle’s parents are buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, very near Dalkey where they lived.
St Joseph is a powerful patron; many saints were greatly devoted to him. St Teresa of Avila tells us that he always answered her prayers. Blessed Pius IX proclaimed St Joseph as the patron of the Universal Church. We should have recourse to him for the needs of the Church, which are very great at this time.
The events described in Fr Doyle’s letter below occurred on 18 March 1917 (Passion Sunday in that year). The statue Fr Doyle refers to was a specially commissioned statue of Our Lady of Victories, paid for by members of the 16th Irish Division, constructed in honour of the dead of the Division. Then statue was due to be erected in the church of Noeux-les-Mines, in the district of Loos where the Division was stationed for some time. It avoided narrowly avoided destruction, unlike the rest of the church…
On Passion Sunday, as I told you, the men arrived with the box and asked him where he wished the statue of Our Lady of Victories to be erected. As it was only a quarter of an hour before High Mass he told them to come back later and then turned into his own garden a few yards away to finish his office. The Mass servers were playing outside the church, which at that moment, was empty, the sacristan having finished his preparations had lately left, when a 15 inch shell fired from a German naval gun about the distance of Skerries from where you are crashed through the wall and exploded in the Sanctuary. As a rule shells burst on impact, but this being an armour piercing shell, came through the wall like paper and exploded inside, with results impossible to describe.
When I went into the ruin I exclaimed to Mons le Curé ‘surely you have had fifty shells in here!’ ‘No’, he answered, ‘only one. The havoc you see is the work of a single shot.’ Not a trace of the beautiful altar where I so often offered the Holy Sacrifice remains. The carved stalls, the altar rails, benches and chairs are smashed into splinters, the roof and parts of the walls are stripped of plaster. I have never seen such a scene of desolation and destruction, the explanation being that the explosion took place inside the church and the liberated gases rushed round like ten thousand mad animals, rending and tearing all they met, seeking for an exit.
The building was nearly as large as Kingstown church, but from end to end it is a perfect ruin. Pictures, organ, statues, all are gone, the door of the sacristy blown in and the vestments torn to ribbons, while not a particle of the beautiful stained glass, which filled the twenty large windows, remains now.
There is just one ray of comfort in this sad destruction, not a life was lost. Ten minutes later the church would have been crowded with civilians and soldiers; few of them, probably, would have been touched by bits of the shell, but not a soul could have been left alive by the shock. I have seen on the battlefield men, sometimes a row at a time, standing or leaning against a trench, untouched by bullet or shrapnel, simply killed by the force of an exploding shell. You can picture the result in a strong enclosed building.
Here, as in so many other places, God again showed His power in a wonderful way. Quite near the altar stood a magnificent Calvary; one arm of the Crucified is torn off, but otherwise neither the figure nor the cross is injured. Poor St John got badly smashed up and Saint Mary Magdalen has a bullet through her heart, the very thing she would have asked for, but our Blessed Lady, with the exception of a slight scratch on one hand ‘stands by the cross’ absolutely untouched, in the midst of all the havoc and ruin.
The shell you will remember fell in the sanctuary, blowing the altar to bits. After much search and digging among the debris the tabernacle was found, whole and entire; inside the ciborium,or sacred vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament, was standing upright, not even the cover having been knocked off and the Consecrated particles in perfect order, though the tabernacle must have been blown to the ceiling.
I beg of God whom I love to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I be without burial itself, or my corpse be most miserably divided, limb by limb, amongst dogs and fierce beasts, or the birds of the air devour it. I think it most certain that if this happens to me, I shall have gained my soul with my body.
COMMENT: These thoughts are not in fact from Fr Doyle, but instead are from St Patrick.
But even though Fr Doyle did not write these words, they could so easily apply to him. Fr Doyle did shed his blood with his men in the battle field, and his corpse, which was never discovered, was probably “miserably divided”, whether through the action of a German shell or some other process.
There are many other similarities between Fr Doyle and St Patrick, not the least of which was the zeal and originality with which they both evangelised their respective cultures, their nocturnal vigils and their tendency to “count” their prayers – St Patrick tells us that he used to say a hundred prayers during the day and almost as many at night while Fr Doyle’s remarkable “spiritual accountancy” by which he counted his thousands of daily aspirations remains a source of mystery to us today.
Both also had a strong urging towards reparation. Consider the following from St Patrick:
Today I may confidently offer Him a sacrifice – my soul as a living victim to Christ my Lord.
Fr Doyle made a similar offering in 1913:
I offer myself to You to be Your Victim in the fullest sense of the word. I deliver to You my body, my soul, my heart, all that I have, that You may dispose of and immolate them according to Your good pleasure. Do with me as You please, without consulting my desires, my repugnances, my wishes.
Today is a great day for the Irish. But we must remember that it is NOT a day for celebrating Irishness per se. It is a day for celebrating the gift of the Catholic Faith in Ireland. It is a day of thanksgiving for the courage and fortitude of St Patrick in bringing us this priceless gift. It is also a day of thanksgiving for all of those countries who received the light of faith indirectly through St Patrick, by means of the many selfless Irish missionaries over the centuries. In particular we think of the many European countries that were evangelised by Irish monks, and in recent centuries those parts of America, Australia, Africa and Asia that were so well served by Irish missionaries, even up to this day (including some regular readers of this site!).
But in addition to our celebrations, perhaps today should also contain a certain element of penance. Not only did Irish priests and religious export the genuine Faith to many countries, but a number of them exported vice and corruption as well. Some of the abuses in America, Australia and Canada can unfortunately be traced back to Irish priests and religious…
Let us consider then this verse from one of the Epistles approved for use at Mass for the feast of St Patrick:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
We see these itching ears in the drift towards an aggressive secularism in some quarters and the refusal of a vocal minority to recognise any good in the Church, accompanied by a desire to see its destruction. We also see these itching ears in the growth of superstition and New Age spirituality. And most damningly we saw it in the moral relativism and/or cowardice that failed to recognise, or act against, the evils of abuse, preferring the advice of secular therapists rather than the advice of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. For all of this, reparation is needed.
But we should avoid pessimism, for there is still life and holiness in the Church in this country.
Let us turn to our great patron St Patrick, asking him for holiness in our land, perhaps even echoing the words he heard in his dream, calling him back to Ireland: “We beseech thee, O holy youth, to come and walk once more among us”. We should also pray to him for more Irish beatifications and canonisations so that we can have modern heroes to emulate in our own lives and to aid our evangelisation. Ireland has a poor record in this regard. And perhaps you might say a prayer for the writer of this blog, for St Patrick is my name saint (in some countries this is more significant than one’s birthday).
We shall conclude today with Pope Benedict’s prayer for Ireland:
God of our fathers, renew us in the faith which is our life and salvation, the hope which promises forgiveness and interior renewal, the charity which purifies and opens our hearts to love you, and in you, each of our brothers and sisters.
Lord Jesus Christ, may the Church in Ireland renew her age-old commitment to the education of our young people in the way of truth and goodness, holiness and generous service to society.
Holy Spirit, comforter, advocate and guide, inspire a new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal for the Church in Ireland.
May our sorrow and our tears, our sincere effort to redress past wrongs, and our firm purpose of amendment bear an abundant harvest of grace for the deepening of the faith in our families, parishes, schools and communities, for the spiritual progress of Irish society, and the growth of charity, justice, joy and peace within the whole human family.
To you, Triune God, confident in the loving protection of Mary, Queen of Ireland, our Mother, and of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and all the saints, do we entrust ourselves, our children, and the needs of the Church in Ireland.