Thoughts for the Feast of St Catherine of Siena from Fr Willie Doyle

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 support and pray for Pope Francis today.

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.

Thoughts for April 24 (St Fidelis of Sigmaringen) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Fidelis of Sigmaringen

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 395 years ago on this day.

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 era who would work for the reform and unification 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. Yet, God still calls for heroes who are devoted to Him. 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.

Thoughts for April 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

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.

St Josemaria Escriva

Thoughts for April 19 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Maximilian Kolbe in the concentration camp starvation bunker

If I were put in a dungeon, like the martyrs, with nothing to lie on but the bare stone floor, with no protection from intense cold, bread and water once a day for food, with no home comfort whatever, I could endure all that for years and gladly for the love of Jesus; yet I am unwilling to suffer a little inconvenience now, I must have every comfort, warm clothes, fire, food as agree able as I possibly can, etc.

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.

Thoughts for Easter Monday from Fr Willie Doyle

Resurrection

If my resurrection is to be a real one and is to produce fruit, it must be external, so that all may see I am not the same man, that my life is changed in Christ.

COMMENT: Just as Christ rose from the dead, in a sense we too much continuously rise from sin, from spiritual death. Fr Doyle makes an extremely important point in today’s quote – if the reformation of our lives is real, it should manifest itself in virtuous external acts.

St Josemaria Escriva also touches on this point:

How I wish your bearing and conversation were such that, on seeing or hearing you, people would say: This man reads the life of Jesus Christ.

Have our days of penance in Lent, our commemoration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, produced any external fruit that enriches the lives of those around us?

Fr Doyle and St Benedict Joseph Labre (Post 2 of 4)

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: April 16 is normal the feast of St Benedict Joseph Labre, though of course it is superseded those year by Easter Sunday.  Fr Doyle had a great devotion to this saint – 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 can 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 this era in which there is much talk of financial austerity. 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. But as St Francis de Sales tells us, 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.

St Benedict Joseph Labre bed

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

Finally, it is worth noting that today is also the birthday of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – he is 90. We should remember him in our prayers today.

12 April 1917

Kneeling on the altar steps Jesus told me to devote one day of each week to the work of sanctification and reparation for His priests in each part of the world, e.g. Monday for the priests of Europe etc.

COMMENT: Today’s quote was written in Fr Doyle’s diary on this day in 1917.

Fr Doyle was something of a mystic. Again and again he reports in his diaries the messages he felt he received in prayer. These messages were private and normally referred to his own spiritual life. It is not up to us to judge the authenticity of such private messages, though we should recall that prayer is not a monologue in which we rattle off words in God’s direction, but rather an intimate conversation with our Father. A conversation implies a two way flow of communication, and this communication can of course take the form of locutions from time to time. 

In any event, it is clear that Fr Doyle did feel that he received heavenly inspirations and that his directors seem not to have disagreed with him on this point. Indeed, as the famous French Jesuit spiritual writer Fr de Grandmaison once declared:

We must unhesitatingly say that the life of Fr Doyle was that of a great mystic, as indeed it seems to have been that of a saint.

Today’s words carry on the theme of yesterday’s commentary on Fr Doyle’s care for priests and their sanctification. Without priests the Church withers and suffers. Saying this does not undermine the serious call to holiness of lay people. But how can lay people grow in holiness without ready access to the nourishment of the sacraments and the formation that comes from holy priests? I am reminded of St John Vianney who, while trying to find the way to Ars on his first journey there, asked a local boy, and remarked that, while the boy had shown the priest the way to Ars, the priest would show the boy the way to Heaven. This is how it should be. But sadly we know far too many stories about priests who have not done this, and who have scandalised there world instead. 

Today’s quote also shows us the universal nature of Fr Doyle’s concerns – he felt that he was called to work for the sanctification of all priests, not just Jesuits or not just Irish priests.

One final concluding through for today… It seems that Fr Doyle was not the only one to dedicate his prayers and work for a different intention each day of the week. Blessed Columba Marmion offered each day of the week as follows:

Monday: Souls in Purgatory

Tuesday: Order of St Benedict

Wednesday: Relations and those to whom I am under any obligation

Thursday: Sovereign Pontiff, bishops, clergy, religious Orders

Friday: Missionaries, sinners, heretics, infidels

Saturday: Spiritual children

Sunday: Abbot, Community, my own perfection

Perhaps there is something that we can learn from this for our own lives. We all face challenges each day – our duties and work, as well as inconveniences, weaknesses and illnesses common to all of humanity. We can choose to waste these, or else to “offer them up”. To use St Paul’s phrase, in some mysterious way we can make up for whatever is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Let us not waste these precious opportunities for merit.

Blessed Columba Marmion