14 August 1917: Fr Doyle’s last letter??

Fr Doyle’s last written words

I have told you all my escapes, dearest Father, because I think what I have written will give you the same confidence which I feel, that my old arm chair up in Heaven is not ready yet, and I do not want you to be uneasy about me. I am all the better for these couple of days rest, and am quite on my fighting legs again. Leave will be possible very shortly, I think, so I shall only say au revoir in view of an early meeting. Heaps of love to every dear one. As ever, dearest Father, your loving son, Willie. 14/8/17.

COMMENT: These are probably Fr Doyle’s last written words, written 100 years ago today, just two days before his death. As ever, Fr Doyle was thinking of others, even amongst the mess and strain of the trenches. Could we honestly say that we would have a similar concern for others if we found ourselves in the same situation that Fr Doyle was in?

Today of course, is also the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe, one of the shining examples of holiness and apostolic zeal of the twentieth century. It is interesting that St Maximilian, who was so devoted to Mary, was given the grace of martyrdom on the eve of the feast of the Assumption, while Fr Doyle, who always reported receiving special graces from Mary on this particular feast, received his long desired wish for “martyrdom” immediately after this feast. Their “martyrdoms” are also quite similar. St Maximilian volunteered to take the place of a husband and father who was to be killed in the concentration camp as an act of revenge by the Nazis for the escape of a prisoner. Fr Doyle was blown up while trying to rescue some wounded soldiers. Both St Maximilian and Fr Doyle laid down their lives to save others. This is significant in terms of the changes to the laws on canonisations. I will write more about this in coming days.

Like Fr Doyle in the trenches of World War 1, and St Teresa Benedicta at Auschwitz (who we discussed a few days ago), St Maximilian’s body was entirely destroyed by the Nazis, although there are still some first class relics of St Maximilian due to a barber who cleverly kept some of his hair when it was being cut. 

We shall return to this issue of the destruction of the body of martyrs with some reflections from St Ignatius of Antioch and St Patrick on Wednesday when we remember Fr Doyle’s anniversary. In the meantime, those who want to read more about St Maximilian’s spirituality could fruitfully read some reflections from Fr John Hardon SJ here:


St Maximilian Kolbe in the concentration camp starvation bunker

Thoughts for August 13 from Fr Willie Doyle

Blessed John Henry Newman

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 Blessed 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 Blessed 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:


Blessed Mark of Aviano

Thoughts for August 12 from Fr Willie Doyle

We will return to our discussion on the last days of the life of Fr Doyle in a few days time when we get closer to the anniversary of his death later next week.

For now, however, we shall have one of Fr Doyle’s thoughts.

‘What is it to thee? Follow thou Me’ (John 21: 22). This thought came to me: I am not to take the lives of others in the house as the standard of my own, what may be lawful for them is not for me; their life is most pleasing to God, such a life for me would not be so; God wants something higher, nobler, more generous from me, and for this will offer me special graces.

COMMENT: Here Fr Doyle touches on an important truth, and an interesting aspect of his life and spirituality.

How tempting it is for us to allow the social norms we perceive around us to determine our behaviour. So often we can rationalise away our faults or our mediocrity with the thought that “everybody is doing it”. But we must not take “everybody” as the standard of our behaviour. Our standard must be Christ, and he has a definite plan for each of us. We know that He desires our perfection and holiness. The details of what this looks like in practice may be different things for different people. For Fr Doyle it meant an austere and mortified life. The legitimate luxuries that were permitted to others were not God’s will for Fr Doyle. And, perhaps it is a consolation to realise that Fr Doyle’s austerities are not for everyone else, although at the very least the spirit of self-denial will be relevant for all of us, even if it is lived out in different ways in each person’s individual life. After all, any relationship with a person incapable of self-denial would be an appalling strain.

Knowing the temptation that we have to base our standards on the behaviour of others, we must remember that we, ourselves, can become role models on whom others may base their own behaviour and attitudes. We should live in such a way to encourage and edify those we live with. As St Francis said, we should preach always, and when necessary, use words. If we want others to be generous, patient and tolerant of us, perhaps we also need to show that to them…

Today is also the feast of Blessed Karl Leisner, a martyr of the Nazi Holocaust who lived his faith despite the compromises with Nazism he saw around him, even at the cost of his freedom, and ultimately his life. Movingly, he managed to be ordained while in the concentration camp, dying from TB soon after celebrating his first Mass.

Blessed Karl Leisner shows us how to stand firm in the face of evil, even in the midst of weakness and ill health.

Thoughts for August 11 from Fr Willie Doyle

Today we have the last of Fr Doyle’s narratives from his letters home to his father in August 1917, less than a week before his death.

In this entry in his letter we see his close brush with death in the form of a shell landing very close to him.

Close beside us I had found the remains of a dug-out which had been blown in the previous day and three men killed. I made up my mind to offer up Mass there for the repose of their souls. In any case I did not know a better hole to go to, and to this little act of charity I attribute the saving of my life later on in the day. I had barely fitted up my altar when a couple of shells burst overhead, sending the clay tumbling down. For a moment I felt very tempted not to continue as the place was far from safe. But later I was glad I went on for the Holy Souls certainly came to my aid as I did to theirs.

I had finished breakfast and had ventured a bit down the trench to find a spot to bury some bodies left lying there. I had reached a sheltered corner, when I heard the scream of a shell coming towards me rapidly, and judging by the sound, straight for the spot where I stood. Instinctively I crouched down, and well I did so, for the shell whizzed past my head I felt my hair blown about by the hot air and burst in front of me with a deafening crash. It seemed to me as if a heavy wooden hammer had hit me on the top of the head, and I reeled like a drunken man, my ears ringing with the explosion. For a moment I stood wondering how many pieces of shrapnel had hit me, or how many legs and arms I had left, and then dashed through the thick smoke to save myself from being buried alive by the shower of falling clay which was rapidly covering me. I hardly know how I reached the dug-out for I was speechless and so badly shaken that it was only by a tremendous effort I was able to prevent myself from collapsing utterly as I had seen so many do from shell shock. Then a strange thing happened: something seemed to whisper in my ear, one of those sudden thoughts which flash through the mind: Did not that shell come from the hand of God? He willed it should be so. Is it not a proof that He can protect you no matter what the danger?

The thought that it was all God’s doing acted like a tonic; my nerves calmed down, and shortly after I was out again to see could I meet another iron friend. As a matter of fact I wanted to see exactly what had happened, for the report of a high explosive shell is so terrific that one is apt to exaggerate distances. An officer recently assured me he was only one foot from a bursting shell, when in reality he was a good 40 yards away. You may perhaps find it hard to believe, as I do myself, what I saw. I had been standing by a trellis work of thin sticks. By stretching out my hand I could touch the screen, and the shell fell smashing the woodwork! My escape last year at Loos was wonderful, but then I was some yards away, and partly protected by a bend in the trench. Here the shell fell, I might say, at my very feet; there was no bank, no protection except the wall of your good prayers and the protecting arm of God.

That night we were relieved, or rather it was early morning, 4.30 a.m., when the last company marched out. I went with them so that I might leave no casualties behind.

We hurried over the open as fast as we could, floundering in the thick mud, tripping over wires in the darkness, and, I hope, some of the lay members cursing the German gunners for disturbing us by an odd shot. We had nearly reached the road, not knowing it was a marked spot when like a hurricane a shower of shells came smashing down upon us. We were fairly caught and for once I almost lost hope of getting through in safety. For five minutes or more we pushed on in desperation; we could not stop to take shelter, for dawn was breaking and we should have been seen by the enemy. Right and left in front and behind, some far away, many very close, the shells kept falling Crash! One has pitched in the middle of the line, wounding five men, none of them seriously. Surely God is good to us, for it seems impossible a single man will escape unhurt, and then when the end seemed at hand, our batteries opened fire with a roar to support an attack that was beginning. The German guns ceased like magic, or turned their attention elsewhere, and we scrambled on to the road and reached home without further loss.

Today we also celebrate the feast of St Clare, the friend of St Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Poor Clares. We remember in a special way Fr Doyle’s dedication to this order and in particular the fact that he was instrumental in founding the Poor Clare convent in Cork City, and we remember this particular monastery in our prayers in a special way today. http://poorclarescork.ie/monastery

St Clare

Fr Doyle’s struggle against his dominant defect

Fr Doyle, like all of us, had to struggle against his defects. We see an especially vivid example of his struggle in private diary notes written on this day 100 years ago (10 August 1916 – 1 year before his death and one year before the “Behold the Man” episode reported in an earlier posting today).

For the past couple of days I have been very unhappy, in bad humour, with peace of soul quite gone, owing to certain arrangements about billets etc which I dislike. This has come from fighting against God’s will. I know He wants me to take every detail of my life as coming from His hand; and I cannot bring myself to submit. I get irritated and annoyed over trifles e.g. the server signing the bell at Mass too long, my men coming into my room in the morning for my boots etc etc. I feel Jesus urges me to these things: (1) to take every single detail of my life as done by Him; (2) lovingly to accept it all in the spirit of immolation that my will and wishes may be annihilated; (3) never to complain or grumble even to myself; (4) to try and let everyone do with me as he pleases, looking on myself as a slave to be trampled on…If I kept these rules I should never be annoyed or upset about anything and should never lose my peace of soul.

Consider the stress of the life Fr Doyle was living and the sights he had already witnessed at this stage of the war. We can hardly blame him for feeling bit irritable! There are some lessons that we can take from this. 

Firstly, we all have to struggle. Those who are advanced in the spiritual life have to struggle just like the rest of us. Holiness, at every stage, requires struggle. Any spirituality that denies this or ignores it is a spirituality that is not based on the Gospel. Some people will cope with the struggle better than others, but the struggle will always be there.

Secondly our struggle will primarily be against our dominant defect. We all have one particular weakness that drags us down. We will have many sins, but one particular sin that will lead us into other faults. For some it might be pride. Perhaps this was the case with St Vincent de Paul. Other struggled with sensuality – St Augustine and St Margaret of Cortona come to mind. But with Fr Doyle it seems, on my reading of his writing at least, to have been a certain tempestuousness – a quick temper and strong passions. Perhaps this was also the dominant defect of St Peter. It was certainly the case with St Francis de Sales, who, despite having this defect, is known as the gentleman saint, because he consistently fought this defect and overcome it significantly. Perhaps it is inevitable that somebody with a strong will has to fight against this defect of temper – the two probably go hand in hand. This battle against the dominant defect is fundamental to our spiritual life. If we want to be holy, and we want a practical programme for sanctity, then the battle against our own unique fault will be central to this. For those who want more information on this, see the works of the renowned expert Fr Garrigou-Lagrange on this topic http://www.christianperfection.info/tta34.php

Thirdly, despite how Fr Doyle felt internally, I suspect that nobody around him knew of his interior struggle. Those who knew Fr Doyle always spoke of how gentle and meek and mild he was. He was a source of strength, serenity and calm for others, especially in the most stressful situations. Tough Irish soldiers flocked to him – they would not flock to a man who was irritable and highly strung. Despite the interior trials Fr Doyle felt, he managed to surmount them. How rarely many of us manage to do this!

The final lesson here is that we must never give up! To give up is to fail. To stop advancing is to fall back. And if we fail, if we fall or are tempted, we get back up and begin again. We never get tired of beginning again, and as Pope Francis keeps saying, God never gets tired of forgiving us, rather it is we who get tired of asking for forgiveness, we who get tired of beginning again. Fr Doyle kept this struggle going always, and he kept it up with specific resolutions. He didn’t tell himself to merely be “nice” to others. Rather, like a good soldier trained in the practical spirituality of St Ignatius, he had specific resolutions that were aimed at rooting out his defect. We will always face this struggle against our passions and against our main defect. But the examples of those who, like Fr Doyle, fought tenaciously against their defects, are a source of inspiration to us.

To conclude, the words of St Benedict may be a source of comfort for all who find the struggle hard:

If a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.

Thoughts for August 9 (St Teresa Benedicta) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Co-Patroness of Europe

Fr Doyle does not have a specific record for the events of 9 August 1917, so we will instead have one of his typical sayings, and resume his narrative tomorrow.

You must bear in mind that, if God has marked you out for very great graces and possibly a holiness of which you do not even dream, you must be ready to suffer; and the more of this comes to you, especially sufferings of soul, the happier it ought to make you. . . . Love of God is holiness, but the price of love is pain. Round the treasure-house of His love, God has set a thorny hedge; those who would force their way through must not shrink when they feel the sharpness of the thorns piercing their very soul. But alas! how many after a step or two turn sadly back in fear, and so never reach the side of Jesus.

COMMENT: This is classic Fr Doyle. But it is also utterly representative of the message of Christ Himself who tells us:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

The way to holiness is hard. It is true that it may be filled with many consolations and the help of God’s grace, but the pursuit of sanctity itself is a hard road. This is seen in the life of every saint, from the martyrs to the hidden contemplatives to those living apostolic lives in the world, whether religious or lay. This suffering isn’t always physical, it can entail a suffering of the soul, similar, for instance, to that darkness experienced by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta for most of her life. Today in the West, and very especially in Ireland, it is becoming increasingly clear that our suffering as Catholics may involve scorn and insults because of our faith. But for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere, we see a hard road that now leads to actual martyrdom, and even crucifixion, at the hands of Islamic militants. 

Progress in the spiritual life requires effort, just like progress in a sport or a career requires effort. Those who win medals do not do so by accident – their success is based on many years of training and effort. But the fact that effort is required is not a sufficient excuse to stay still; as Fr Doyle says, we may have been marked out for a holiness of which we do not even dream. What a tragedy, for us and the world, if we do not strive to reach the level of holiness God has planned for us. Imagine if Fr Doyle had settled for a life of average sanctity, if he turned “sadly back in fear”? He could have lived a comfortable life; he could have managed to get a relatively easing posting at home. But how much more difficult would life in the trenches have been for some of those soldiers as a result? The same can be said for all the saints – if they had turned back sadly in fear, how many religious orders with all their works would remain unfounded; how many works of charity or of apostolate would remain undone?

And the same can be said of us. If we turn back out of fear of suffering, how many people will be worse off? That’s why the universal call to holiness is so remarkable, and exciting, and why we must not forget the implications of this spiritual truth for all of us. There are some high ranking prelates in the Church who have recently expressed the view that heroism isn’t for “ordinary Christians”. This is a strange clericalist mindset and it seems hard to reconcile this with the Gospel and with the witness of the first Christians. It’s true that we may not actually become heroic in practice, but we are still called to strive for heroism, even in faithfulness to mundane daily duties.

But we must not give way to fear, for Christ has promised His grace, and this will help carry us forward, for without it we can do nothing. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He will help us. As St Benedict tells us in his Rule:

For as we advance…in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.

Finally, we can turn today to St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross for help. She is one of the patron saints of Europe, where the Church suffers so much today. St Teresa Benedicta surely did not imagine what God had in store for her – from Jew to atheist to brilliant scholar to Catholic convert to enclosed Carmelite mystic to martyr of the Nazi holocaust. She did not turn sadly back when she felt the pain of the thorns, but trusted in God each step of the way. How richer the world, and the Church, is for her holiness.

St Teresa Benedicta, pray for us.

Thoughts for August 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

Continuing our narrative today, it is hard not to be struck by the extraordinary good humour of Fr Doyle. The “cathedral” to which he refers was, of course, just another dug out or shell hole somewhere in a battlefield. His final comment about being glad not to be asked to say the rosary with bombs falling around him is classic Irish wit. It is important to remember that these letters were sent home to give comfort to his worried father. By putting such a brave face in circumstances that it is clear that he loathed, Fr Doyle once again shows us something of his virtue. It also shows that his life of penance did not deprive him of his charm one bit.

Also of note is the devotion of the other soldiers in carrying out the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead, at some risk to their own lives.

Here are the events of 8 August 1917 in Fr Doyle’s own words…

There is little to record during the next couple of days except the discovery of a new cathedral and the happiness of daily Mass. This time I was not quite so well off, as I could not kneel upright and my feet were in the water which helped to keep the fires of devotion from growing too warm.

Having carefully removed an ancient German leg, I managed to vest by sitting on the ground, a new rubric I had to introduce also at the Communion, as otherwise I could not have emptied the Chalice. I feel that when I get home again I shall be absolutely miserable because everything will be so clean and dry and comfortable. Perhaps some kind friend will pour a bucket or two of water over my bed occasionally to keep me in good spirits.

When night fell, I made my way up to a part of the Line which could not be approached in daylight, to bury an officer and some men. A couple of grimy, unwashed figures emerged from the bowels of the earth to help me, but first knelt down and asked for Absolution. They then leisurely set to work to fill in the grave. ‘Hurry up, boys’, I said, ‘I don’t want to have to bury you as well’, for the spot was a hot one. They both stopped working much to my disgust, for I was just longing to get away. ‘Be gobs, Father’, replied one, I haven t the divil a bit of fear in me now after the holy Absolution’. ‘Nor I, chimed in the other, I am as happy as a king’. The poor Padre who had been keeping his eye on a row of crumps which were coming unpleasantly near felt anything but happy; however there was nothing for it but to stick it out as the men were in a pious mood; and he escaped at last, grateful that he was not asked to say the rosary.

St Dominic

Also of note today are two liturgical feasts . Firstly there is of course St Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans are one order who are experiencing tremendous growth in Ireland despite all of our problems, so well done to them.

And for Jesuits, today is the feast of St Peter Faber, one of the very first companions of St Ignatius and the man largely responsible for the vocation of St Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church. (Or at least, according to some calendars, it is his feast, others place it on the 2nd. But since we didn’t mention him on the 2nd, we’ll do so here).

He died in 1546 in the arms of St Ignatius, on his way to the Council of Trent, worn out from his apostolic labours aged only 40. He was beatified in 1872 and canonised in an equipollent canonisation by Pope Francis in 2013. Sometimes causes move slowly, even in very worthy cases, a point of consolation for all devotees of Fr Doyle.

St Peter Faber SJ

Later today we shall also have the first in a series of 9 special posts which examine the virtues in the life of Fr Doyle, as we mark each of the 9 remaining days before Fr Doyle’s anniversary.