Sometimes God seems to leave me to my weakness and I tremble with fear. At other times I have so much trust and confidence in his loving protection that I could almost sit down on a bursting shell feeling I could come to no harm. You would laugh, or perhaps cry, if you saw me at this moment sitting on a pile of bricks and rubbish. Shells are bursting some little distance away on three sides and occasionally a piece comes down with an unpleasantly close thud. But what does it matter? Jesus is resting on my heart, and whenever I like I can fold my arms over Him and press Him to that heart which, as He knows, beats with love of Him.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in early May 1916. When he referred to Jesus resting over his heart, he was referring to the fact that he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament with him in a pyx.
Fr Doyle’s confidence in the midst of war was one of the most remarkable aspects of his life. His very presence filled the soldiers with courage and cheerfulness. As one of his officers said about him:
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.
Yet, this courage was not necessarily innate to him. His diaries reveal the fear he felt; they show that at times he shivered while he hid in a shallow hole, seeking protection from the shells falling around him. As a missionary priest he also suffered from fear, and describes sweating from every pore with the stress of preaching. It was so bad he was determined to quit his preaching ministry. Yet, curiously, despite his fear and stress, his ministry was fruitful and he was always in high demand. As a novice he had what is described as “a complete nervous breakdown” following a fire in his building. He had to leave his formation for a while and there was even talk of his not being fit enough to return to the Jesuits.
From a nervous breakdown to a fearless hero who was a source of inspiration to his soldiers – such is the transformation that Christ can work in us if we let Him.
But we must remember that grace builds upon nature. The grace of God will transform us, but we must dispose ourselves to receive this grace. This means saying no to ourselves, and fighting to overcome sin in our lives. Without this death to sin, we do not remain in Christ and He does not remain in us.
Today is also the feast of Blessed Ana Rosa Gattorno. She is little known in the English speaking world, but she deserves our attention. She lived a very full life as a wife and mother. But as a widow in her thirties she felt a call to found a religious order, and having received confirmation of this from several ecclesiastics, including Blessed Pius IX, she founded the Daughters of St Anne, Mother of Mary Immaculate. When she died 34 years later, there were 368 houses of this congregation containing over 3,500 sisters in 6 countries, along with numerous hostels and schools. What an incredible rate of growth!
Truly, if we remain in Christ, we will be transformed and bear fruit in plenty.
Having completed his course of philosophy, Willie returned to Clongowes in 1901 for another period of prefecting. Here he remained for two years, and he was then transferred to the teaching staff of Belvedere College, Dublin, where he spent a fruitful year of labour. For, as the immediate preparation for the priesthood drew near, zeal for souls that was afterwards to become so strong and ardent, began now to show itself more markedly in his life. He did much good work for the Apostleship of Prayer and for temperance among the boys in Belvedere, with whom he was even more popular than among those he had left behind in Clongowes. The stirring little talks he gave occasionally to his class made an impression which some of his pupils still recall. Especially was he insistent on the spirit of self-sacrifice and on Holy Communion. His attractive character and kindness led many of the boys to give him their confidence and seek help and counsel in their difficulties and doubts; and more than one vocation was discussed and decided at these interviews.
COMMENTS: These words about Fr Doyle are taken from O’Rahilly’s biography of his life. Fr Doyle seems to have been a conscientious and popular teacher in the two Jesuit schools in which he was stationed during his years of formation. He realised that the task of Catholic education is not just to train children for jobs, but to shape and mould their character and to equip them for a future of personal virtue and civic service.
Today is the feast of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of both the Irish Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. These congregations were formed to provide a specifically Catholic education for boys during the period immediately after the Penal Laws when there was little or no Catholic schooling in Ireland. Blessed Edmund’s contribution to Irish life is incalculable.
The more this generous spirit springs up in your heart, the nearer and dearer will you be to Jesus. Love for Love. Blood for Blood. Life for Life. Will you give Him all?
COMMENT: God has given us everything we have. The saints were profoundly grateful people – they knew the debt they owed to God. But more than this, they repaid that debt through their love, through their action, and, in some cases (including Fr Doyle himself), they repaid this debt with their own blood and their own lives.
St Therese and St Josemaria Escriva both made their own the famous phrase of St John of the Cross: “Love is repaid with love alone”. St Ignatius of Loyola tells us that love is more than nice feelings, rather, as he says:
Love is shown in deeds more than in words.
God has given us everything. While we can never really do enough to repay that debt, it seems very possible that we can end up doing far too little to repay it…
At the community Mass this morning I again felt an overpowering desire to become a saint. It came suddenly, filling my soul with consolation. Surely God has an object in inspiring me so often with this desire, and has great graces for me if I will only cooperate with Him.
Reflecting on this inspiration afterwards, I saw more clearly that the chief thing God wants from me at present is an extraordinary and exquisite perfection in every little thing I do, even the odd Hail Marys of the day; that each day there must be some improvement in the fervour, the purity of intention, the exactness with which I do things, that in this will chiefly lie my sanctification as it sanctified St. John Berchmans. I see here a vast field for work and an endless service of mortification. To keep faithfully to this resolve will require heroism, so that day after day I may not flag in the fervour of my service of the good God.
As you know I am very anxious to see these retreats started in Ireland, for I believe they would do a world of good and be the means of checking the dreadful irreligious spirit which is beginning to creep in even here in holy Ireland, especially among our uneducated men. … I am very grateful to you all for your good prayers; you must ask St. Joseph to find a suitable house now, for I feel if a start were once made all would be well…
For some time back I have been studying the question of retreats for workmen. But last year when I saw in Belgium the wonderful good brought about by them and had an opportunity of seeing some of the houses where these retreats are given, I made up my mind to try to do something here in Ireland.
COMMENT: The two paragraphs above are excerpts from 2 different letters Fr Doyle wrote to his sister in June and July 1909. They concern his great passion for establishing retreats for workingmen. Fr Doyle was an innovative apostle, and was in many ways a pioneer in the Church. Not only did he recognise the universal call to holiness and thus the need for lay people to have the opportunity of making a residential retreat, he was specifically concerned that workingmen should have this opportunity. Fr Doyle was greatly concerned about the spiritual and temporal welfare of workers, and he was concerned about the impact of radical atheistic and materialistic philosophies on workers. He wouldn’t live long enough to see the misery these philosophies unleashed on the world – he died two months before the October revolution in Russia, the after effects of which would cause much suffering for decades. In another letter to his sister on this topic in the autumn of 1909 he had this to say:
You may perhaps think I exaggerate when I say that if once these retreats are established they will do an amount of good which will surpass all expectations. It would seem to be the divinely appointed new remedy for a new evil, the falling away of the working classes from all religion and the spread of Socialism.
Fr Doyle worked hard to establish a retreat house – he travelled across Europe to learn how they had been established in other countries and he published a booklet entitled “Retreats for Workingmen: Why not in Ireland?” – the text can be found here: Retreats for working men
He managed to find donors but he still faced numerous hurdles. On one occasion a house that was perfect in every way was found and he was appointed director of the first retreat house for workers in Ireland. But alas, the house was burned down by suffragettes, and it was back to the drawing board.
Fr Doyle never truly gave up on the idea, despite the setbacks. At the end of 1914, 5 years after writing his pamphlet and a few months before he left for the war, he wrote the following in his diary:
I felt urged to promise our Blessed Lady to try and give up meat on Saturdays in her honour, if she in return will bring about the starting of the Workingmen’s Retreats this summer.
One of Fr Doyle’s inspirations in all of this was his friend and fellow seminarian, the English Jesuit Fr Charles Plater who established similar retreats in England. This is what Fr Plater had to say about Fr Doyle’s dedication to these retreats:
After he left Stonyhurst, and again still later when we were both priests, we corresponded much on the subject of workers’ retreats. His quick imagination pictured the immense good which might be effected by their introduction into Ireland. With his whole soul he threw himself into the work of promoting them. His letters are just himself — ardent, enthusiastic, full of piety and love of country. He would, I am convinced, gladly have given his life to see the retreats established in Ireland. He was acutely distressed because others could not see what he saw so plainly. He found it hard to be patient with those who urged expense as an insuperable obstacle, for he knew that once a start was made the money would come. The Island of Saints would not allow a School for Saints to suffer through lack of funds. “Why not in Ireland?” was the sub-title of his excellent pamphlet on Retreats for Workers, and his challenging question was really unanswerable.
There is only one possible memorial to Fr. William Doyle, and that is a house of retreats for workers in Ireland, That he would have asked for; indeed, we may be sure that he does ask for it. Those to whom his life of smiles and tears and his glorious death have been an inspiration will surely help him to get it.
Such a house was eventually opened in Rathfarnham in 1921, less than four years after Fr Doyle’s death.
It is appropriate to reflect on this passion of Fr Doyle’s life today, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. This feast was instituted by Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1955 in an effort to emphasise the importance of work and to counteract the communist propaganda associated with May Day. This specific threat may have receded somewhat in recent years, but the very same atheistic, and anti-religious, philosophies still threaten religious faith and freedom in a variety of different ways.
St Joseph is an excellent patron for all of us who work. He can teach us to do our work well, not just counting down the hours of the working day, but instead turning our work into a fitting sacrifice to give glory to God.
We shall conclude today with the prayer of Pope St Pius X to St Joseph the Worker:
O Glorious St Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labour, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honour to employ and to develop by labor the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully, and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty to work above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, food not done, and vain complacency in success, so baneful to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate thee, O Patriarch St Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen
I said my rosary with arms extended. At the third mystery the pain was so great that I felt I could not possibly continue; but at each Ave (Hail Mary) I prayed for strength and was able to finish it. This has given me great consolation by showing the many hard things I could do with the help of prayer.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle was greatly devoted to the rosary. It is interesting to read accounts of how the rosary consoled worried soldiers who were facing probable death. He regularly arranged the public recitation of the rosary for the troops, and I have read private accounts of how he would personally say the rosary with soldiers suffering from particularly severe fear, sometimes giving them his own rosary beads as a gift. I have received emails from families who have treasured the rosaries that were given by Fr Doyle to their ancestors who fought in World War 1.
Here is a particularly touching account of a scene he witnessed just a few weeks before his death in the summer of 1917:
There were many little touching incidents during these days; one especially I shall not easily forget. When the men had left the field after the evening devotions, I noticed a group of three young boys, brothers I think, still kneeling saying another rosary. They knew it was probably their last meeting on earth and they seemed to cling to one another for mutual comfort and strength, and instinctively turned to the Blessed Mother to help them in their hour of need. There they knelt as if they were alone and unobserved, their hands clasped and faces turned towards heaven, with such a look of beseeching earnestness that the Mother of Mercy surely must have heard their prayer: ‘Holy Mary pray for us now — at the hour of our death. Amen.’
Today is the feast of Pope St Pius V. He was a zealous Dominican friar and reformer at a tough time in the life of the Church. He was the Pope who encouraged the formation of the “Holy League” to defend Europe from the Ottoman Empire – this resulted in the Battle of Lepanto in which the forces of Christendom were successful. It was a major turning point in European history.
St Pius V is known as the Pope of the Rosary because he encouraged Catholics to pray the rosary for the success of the Holy League. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary now falls on October 7, the date of the Battle of Lepanto, and it was originally instituted by St Pius V as the feast of Our Lady of Victories.
St Pius V lived at a very difficult time in the life of the Church: he had to deal with grave threats to the unity of Christendom, with the challenge of the Ottoman Empire and with the urgent need for internal reform and renewal within the Church. Perhaps his time was not so different from our own. and had to make many difficult decisions. Let us also remember the importance of the rosary in our own lives as we prepare to commence the month of May, traditionally dedicated to Mary.
What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes?
Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Catherine of Siena. Catherine is one of the greatest saints in the Church – she was a phenomenon in her own time and is a Doctor of the Church and one of the patron saints of Europe. She is also surely one of the great women of history.
St Catherine crammed so much into her short life. She was a tireless worker for the poor, an advisor to popes, a diplomat and peacemaker and a profound mystic. Her impact on those she met on her travels was such that the Dominicans had to appoint priests to accompany her in order to hear the numerous Confessions on the part of those who converted upon meeting her. The Church was in a state of crisis in Catherine’s day, and it could be said that Catherine saved the Church from many of the dangers it faced. And she did all of this as a young, uneducated, sick laywoman who died at 33 years of age. When crises threaten the Church, God empowers saints who are equal to the task of the reform needed, and He does so with such humanly weak instruments that we are left with no doubt that it is God at work.
There are two points that we might usefully ponder today. The first relates to Fr Doyle’s quote above. Holiness involves faithfulness to duty and is not dependent on great penances or indeed on mystical phenomena or the great achievements we find in the lives of some saints like Catherine. In fact, St Catherine teaches us a wonderful way of performing our duties well. She was somewhat mistreated by her parents as a teenager – she wanted to live in solitude and prayer but her parents would not allow this. She was forced to work in the house and serve them, even though she didn’t want to do so. In order to overcome her dislike of this task, when serving them at table she would imagine that her father was Jesus, that her mother was Mary and that her brothers were the Apostles. This helped to inspire in her the charity that she did not naturally feel at that time.
The second relates to Catherine’s great love of the Pope. She defended the papacy against anti-popes, and she worked to ensure that the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon. Let us therefore turn to St Catherine today, asking her to pray for the problems of the Church at this point of history.
We shall conclude today with some quotes from Catherine on diverse subjects.
On finding God in the midst of a busy life:
Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.
Faithfulness to duty:
Let all do the work which God has given them, and not bury their talent, for that is also a sin deserving severe punishment. It is necessary to work always and everywhere for all God’s creatures.
To Pope Gregory XI, who was weak and indecisive:
You can do what he (Pope Gregory the Great) did, for he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as he was. The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbour, and courage.
To a cardinal, on the need for courage:
A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. How dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see not understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a man loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason for this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance or being and vanish like the wind.
To her spiritual director Blessed Raymond of Capua, on courage:
(I long) to see you grow out of your childhood and become a grown man…For an infant who lives on milk is not able to fight on the battlefield; he only wants to play with other children. So a man who is wrapped in love for himself only wishes to taste the milk of spiritual and temporal consolation; like a child he wants to be with others of its kind. But when he becomes a grown man he leaves behind this sensitive self love…He has become strong, he is firm, serious and thoughtful, he hastens to the battlefield and his only wish is to fight for the truth.
To those who think the Church’s day has come to an end:
If you reply that it looks as though the Church must surrender, for it is impossible for it to save itself and its children, I say to you that it is not so. The outward appearance deceives, but look at the inward, and you will find that it possesses a power that its enemies can never possess.
To us all:
If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.
I have long had the feeling that, since the world is growing so rapidly worse and worse and God has lost His hold, as it were, upon the hearts of men, He is looking all the more earnestly and anxiously for big things from those who are faithful to Him still. He cannot, perhaps, gather a large army round His standard, but He wants every one in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a Capuchin Franciscan who was martyred on this day in 1622.
St Fidelis had been a successful lawyer, but like St Alphonsus of Liguori after him, he became disillusioned with the law and felt called to the religious life. As a Capuchin priest he was renowned for his charity and care for the poor, working tirelessly to assist those suffering from the plague. He was also a devoted missionary who worked for the reunification of Christendom during the Catholic Reformation. It was in the course of these efforts that St Fidelis was killed out of hatred for the Faith by a band of men. As he was being killed, he prayed that they would be forgiven and when they encouraged him to renounce the Catholic Faith he declared that he had come to extirpate their heresy and not to embrace it. Some of those involved in his death subsequently converted to Catholicism as a result of his witness.
I’m sure that St Fidelis, who lived in the early 17th Century, would have agreed with Fr Doyle’s assessment three hundred years later that the “world is growing so rapidly worse and worse”. The division of Christianity in the West was a shattering event for those who lived through it.
If we fast forward three hundred years to Fr Doyle’s time we see a gradual weakening of moral values. Dangerous, atheistic philosophies were growing popular, subtly undermining the faith of ordinary people. In the year of Fr Doyle’s death, this philosophy of atheistic materialism made a breakthrough in Russia with devastating consequences for many millions of people for decades to come.
Every age has its crises, and it always seems that the world is indeed growing worse and worse. But yet, God still IS. The Holy Spirit is still at work, calling forth heroes who will be lovingly devoted to Him. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, He raised up great saints like St Fidelis and so many others of that golden era (including the early Jesuits) who would work for the reform, unification and extension of the Church. We can see the same divine call for heroes, right up to the time of Fr Doyle, and indeed up to our own day.
And what of our own day? Yes, it is true that the world seems to have grown steadily worse and worse. This is so even here in Ireland where those who express Christian values are publicly mocked and made a laughing stock. We have no excuse. If we have been born in this era of crisis it is because this is where God has placed us in order to work out our salvation and to save souls in the midst of the concrete circumstances of our lives and cultures. It has always been this way, for every age has its errors that, to borrow St Fidelis’ famous phrase, need to be extirpated rather than embraced.
Let us therefore serve God with generosity in whatever place and circumstance He has placed us. Let us never lose hope, even if the world seems to be growing steadily worse and worse. Let us remember the example of the saints, who never despaired despite the unfavourable cultures in which they laboured. And let us remember this call to sanctity here and now in the context of the Covid-19 lockdown, with all of the restrictions and sufferings that entails for all of us.
A mother puts her little child on its feet, but the child itself must do something, must make an effort if it wants to walk. God does all that is necessary, but man must do his share.
COMMENT: The Church has always thought that it is possible to avoid sin. It may not feel possible. But the grace is always there to avoid offending God through sin, if we truly want to avail of it. In fact, the grace is also there for us to become holy – to truly become the saints that God wants us to be. But we have to want this, and we have to be faithful to the grace that we have been given. We have to make an effort. We have to make an effort to say no to sin, to conquer ourselves and to love God and our neighbour more. The same grace is available to us as was available to the the great saints. The difference is that they were more faithful to the graces they received than we often are. St Francis Xavier is meant to have said (I can’t find the original quote) that the reason we are not saints is because we have not been faithful to the graces we have already been given. In other words, if we had been faithful we would have received even more graces to assist us along the way.
We will conclude today with some words from St Josemaria Escriva:
When God our Lord gives us his grace, when he calls us by a specific vocation, it is as if he were stretching out his hand to us, in a fatherly way. A strong hand, full of love, because he seeks us out individually, as his own sons and daughters, knowing our weakness. The Lord expects us to make the effort to take his hand, his helping hand. He asks us to make an effort and show we are free. To be able to do this, we must be humble and realize we are little children of God. We must love the blessed obedience with which we respond to God’s marvellous fatherhood.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle touches on a key point in today’s quote. He shows his keen understanding of the human mind, and of his own weakness. When Fr Doyle says he could suffer for years for Jesus he wasn’t speaking literally or showing off. Rather he was speaking figuratively and showing how we can so easily imagine ourselves to be heroic when heroic things come our way while really being soft and weak in our daily activities. Many of us can probably identify with this. Perhaps some momentary fervour in prayer makes us imagine that if we lived during a time of persecution like the early Christians experienced or like those that Catholics in Ireland and England experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries that we would be heroic and brave. And yet, how reluctant we are to deal with the minor inconveniences of every day. How fearful we can be of declaring ourselves to be Catholic in “polite” society or professional circles. As Jesus tells us in Luke Chapter 16, he who is faithful in little things will be faithful in big things, but he who is unfaithful in little things will be unfaithful in big things. We fool ourselves when we imagine we will be heroes in dramatic circumstances when we cannot discipline ourselves in day to day things.
In many ways we are like Peter. He declared his loyalty to Christ at the Last Supper, and just a few hours later he denied ever knowing him. As the Imitation of Christ says:
How great is human frailty which is always prone to vice. Today you confess your sins, and tomorrow you again commit what you have confessed. Now you resolve to take care, and an hour after you act as if you had never made a resolution. We have reason therefore to humble ourselves and never to think much of ourselves since we are so frail and inconstant.
Perhaps the solution to our own weakness is not to fall into the same mistakes that Peter fell into preceding his denial – he slept instead of staying awake to watch and pray; he followed Jesus “at a distance”, and just prior to denying Jesus he was warming himself at a fire. Lack of prayer, staying some distance from Jesus, and lack of mortification all preceded Peter’s denial. Almost certainly they precede our own denials and failures also. And, if we do fall in some way, let us at least avoid the mistake of Judas, who despaired of God’s endless mercy.