As a boy He gave me something of the kind, so that a passing glance at an immodest picture used to make me shudder; and until I began my theology at 31 I was quite ignorant of most sexual matters. That was His goodness, not mine.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, the great champion of purity. She preferred death (at age 12) to committing a sexual sin, and as such her intercession is often sought by those with struggles in this area.
Fr Doyle seems to have had an unusual purity. In addition to the above quote, here is the testimony of a fellow Jesuit on the issue of Fr Doyle’s purity:
I knew from many talks with him on the subject that Willie found it hard to realise the difficulties of those struggling with impurity and the awful fascination of this sin, just as those who have never taken strong drink fail to appreciate the difficulties and temptations of the drunkard.
This does not mean that Fr Doyle was never subject to temptations, but rather that through God’s grace his major temptations related to others aspects of the moral life, mostly relating to his temper and tendency towards impetuousness.
It is fascinating for us to consider that a normal, well adjusted young man 100 years ago could be largely unaware of sexual matters until his thirties. But then again, we live in an age which has lost the innocence of times past. Just as the fish does not know that it swims in water – the water is all it knows and it can’t imagine any other reality – we often fail to realise the errors of our own age. Of course, there has always been corruption in the world, but rarely has it been so normalised and glamourised and publicised and rarely have people been urged to take pride in it as we are today. We also see the awful effects of this corruption within the Church, and the dreadful legacy of wounded lives and shattered credibility left in its wake.
The words of St Josemaria Escriva on purity are relevant for us to consider today:
Never speak of impure things or events, not even to lament them. Remember that such matter is stickier than pitch. Change the subject or, if that is not possible, continue with it, speaking of the need and the beauty of purity — a virtue of men who know the value of their souls.
Having said all of that, we do not want to fall into a Jansenistic trap of obsessing about sin and about impurity. Sadly, some strains of Catholicism, especially in Ireland, seem to have fallen into this trap in the past. Such an approach was far from that of Fr Doyle. We must resist the temptation, but if we fail, we pick ourselves up and go forward, without scruples, nostalgia or curiosity.
Today is the memorial of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Amongst other things, Blessed Pier Giorgio was renowned, as a very young man, for his heroic charity towards the poor of Turin. Reading the life of Fr Doyle instantly reminds one of Blessed Pier Giorgio, for he too served the poor of Dalkey while he was himself was just a child. In both cases, very few knew of their hidden charity towards others.
From O’Rahilly’s Life of Fr Doyle:
For the poor people on Dalkey Hill Willie constituted himself into a Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. He raised funds by saving up his pocket-money, by numberless acts of economy and self-denial; he begged for his poor, he got the cook to make soup, he pleaded for delicacies to carry to the sick. Once he went to the family apothecary and ordered several large bottles of cod-liver oil for a poor consumptive woman, and then presented the bill to his father! He bought a store of tea with which under many pledges of secrecy he entrusted the parlourmaid. On this he used to draw when in the course of his wanderings he happened to come across some poor creature without the means of providing herself with the cup that cheers. He by no means confined himself merely to the bringing of relief. He worked for his poor, he served them, he sat down and talked familiarly with them, he read books for the sick, he helped to tidy the house, he provided snuff and tobacco for the aged. One of Willie’s cases if such an impersonal word may be used was a desolate old woman whose children were far away. One day noticing that the house was dirty and neglected, he went off and purchased some lime and a brush, and then returned and whitewashed the whole house from top to bottom. He then went down on his knees and scrubbed the floors, amid the poor woman’s ejaculations of protest and gratitude. No one knew of this but the cook and parlour maid who lent him their aprons to save his clothes and kept dinner hot for him until he returned late in the evening. While thus aiding his poor friends temporally, he did not forget their souls. He contrived skilfully to remind them of their prayers and the sacraments; he also strongly advocated temperance. There was one old fellow on the Hill whom Willie had often unsuccessfully tried to reform. After years of hard drinking he lay dying, and could not be induced to see a priest. For eight hours Willie stayed praying by the bedside of the half-conscious dying sinner. Shortly before the end he came to himself, asked for the priest and made his peace with God. Only when he had breathed his last, did Willie return to Melrose. His first missionary victory!
Two further commonalities between Blessed Pier Giorgio and Fr Doyle were their love of practical jokes and an intense interest in sport and physical activity. Pier Giorgio was a very keen mountain climber, while Fr Doyle was a very competitive team sport player – sometimes his aggressiveness on the field shocked other clerical students who expected more reserve from young Jesuits. So, while both Blessed Pier Giorgio and Fr Doyle exhibited unusual charity and goodness as young men, neither of them were sickly sentimentalists. Both were well adjusted and balanced and exhibited simple manly piety.
As a child I was convinced that one day God would give me the grace of martyrdom. When quite small I read and re-read every martyr’s life in the twelve volumes of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and longed and prayed to be a martyr, and I have often done so ever since. As years went on, the desire grew in intensity, and even now the sufferings of the martyrs, their pictures, and everything connected with their death, have a strange fascination for me and help me much.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Oliver Plunkett. St Oliver was the last Catholic martyr of Tyburn. He was Archbishop of Armagh, and returned to Ireland from Rome at a difficult time for his country. He endured great trials in his attempts to organise and reform the Church in his diocese.
I can find no mention of St Oliver in Fr Doyle’s writings, but it is practically certain that he would have had great interest in his life, especially because Fr Doyle had a great interest in the martyrs and because St Oliver’s beatification cause was nearing completion during Fr Doyle’s life.
While reading some of St Oliver’s letters recently, I was struck by the following excerpt, written on June 24th 1681, one week before St Oliver’s execution. This was the feast of St John the Baptist, and St Oliver reflected on St John’s sufferings and penance, despite his innocence. These are sentiments that I am sure would have appealed to Fr Doyle.
St John the Baptist shed his blood although his life was unsullied by the least sin of the tongue. The original dirt he contracted, although he was free from all dust of even venial sins. What then shall we do who have cartloads of actual mire and filthiness? He had not even venials, and suffered prison and death; we have dunghills and mortals, and what ought we to suffer? But why should I speak of St John, whereas his Master who was free from all original, venial and actual sins, suffered cold, frost, hunger, prison, stripes, thorns, and the most painful death of the Cross for others’ sins, and compared to the death of the Cross, Tyburn, as I hear the description, is but a flea biting.
On this day we should pray for the Church in Ireland which suffers so much at this time.
For those who wish to see Fr Doyle recognised more formally by the Church, it is also consoling to remember that St Oliver, a heroic martyr, died in 1681 and was only beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975.
Amazingly, St Oliver is the only canonised Irish person since before the Council of Trent over 500 years ago! Ireland needs more canonised saints. Let us pray and work for this, especially with respect to Fr Doyle.
Today is also the feast of Blessed Antonio Rosmini, the founder of the Institute of Charity. Blessed Rosmini was a renowned genius whose vast intellectual interests and writings spanned all of the natural, social and ecclesiastical sciences. Fr Doyle was a boarder in Ratcliffe College which was run by the Institute of Charity, and it is certain that he would have known about Antonio Rosmini.
Peter, the favoured one, denies his Master and turns his back on Him who loved him so; and Peter’s heart is won, even in his sin, by one loving look of mercy and compassion from the Saviour whose mercy is without end.
COMMENT: The denial of St Peter, and Christ’s subsequent forgiveness, was a frequent theme in Fr Doyle’s notes. The image of a favoured apostle denying his Master seemed to resonate deeply with him.
As for St Paul, Fr Doyle doesn’t seem to write much about him directly, although he obviously quotes him frequently in his letters. Fr Doyle resembles St Paul in his great missionary zeal. Just as Paul underwent shipwreck and imprisonment and deprivation to bring the Gospel to others, Fr Doyle underwent life in the trenches, and all of its dangers, to bring the sacraments to others.
Peter, Paul and Fr Doyle could all have stayed at home and lived relatively comfortable, safe lives. But they sacrificed this comfort because of their love of Christ, offering their own lives in the process.
If an aspiration, on the authority of the Blessed Cure d’Ars, often saved a soul, what must you not do each day you suffer so bravely! This thought certainly will help you and make the pain almost nothing, and will add to its merit, since the motive for bearing it will be all the higher.
COMMENT: Today’s quotation comes from a letter of spiritual direction Fr Doyle wrote to somebody who was sick. Like many popular spiritual directors of his era, Fr Doyle had a very heavy daily correspondence with many people, especially nuns. In fact, he found this work difficult as it placed a heavy burden on him – he was known to receive a couple of dozen letters seeking spiritual direction in a single day. However, despite the burden, he persevered, and indeed it seems that he took his own advice – he offered up his work and inconveniences and sufferings for others, especially for the salvation of souls.
This principle applies to us all, irrespective of our role in life. We can offer up minor inconveniences, aches and pains, our work, in fact everything in our life for others. Seen in this light, every day presents a multitude of opportunities to help others, to merit grace and to grow in holiness.
Today is the feast of St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. Instead of a message from Fr Doyle, we have a message from a saint, ABOUT Fr Doyle. From point 205 of St Josemaria Escriva’s The Way:
We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter…; did take butter!’
May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy.
The heroically ordinary “man of God” was none other than Fr Willie Doyle.
Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle caused something of a stir on its release. Within a few years the book had been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Polish (and perhaps translations I don’t know about?). This heroically ordinary Jesuit priest from Dublin seemed to have quite an appeal for people from very different cultures.
St Josemaria read a Spanish copy of the book in 1933. He wrote in one of his notebooks:
I have read quickly the life of Fr Doyle: how well I understand the butter tragedy.
For St Josemaria, his personal butter tragedy consisted in his battle to regulate the reading of newspapers. His notes from his 1933 retreat which refer to reading newspapers reveal how difficult this was for him:
This last, not reading newspapers, is for me no small mortification. Nevertheless, with God’s grace, I stayed faithful to it…What battles these struggles of mine were! These epics can be understood only by those who have gone through similar ones. Sometimes conquering; more often, being conquered.
Of course, we must understand what St Josemaria and Fr Doyle were doing when they struggled to give up butter and newspapers. These things are not bad – far from it! But, as an act of love and reparation, saints have often denied themselves little things, even very good things. As well as making an offering of this sacrifice to God, such acts help to strengthen the will. This may all seem a little strange to our modern culture. But, just imagine the difference it makes to family life to live with someone who knows how to deny themselves, versus living with someone who has no control over their appetites, and must always have their way… We might all be better off if from time to time we struggled to give up butter, newspapers, TV, Facebook, sleeping in in the morning…
Such acts do not come easily, and it is consoling to see that St Josemaria and Fr Doyle both struggled with similar small distractions and temptations.
St Josemaria also wrote about Fr Doyle in a letter in 1938 to a member of Opus Dei:
I’m quite envious of those on the battlefronts, in spite of everything. It has occurred to me that, if my path were not so clearly marked out, it would be wonderful to outdo Father Doyle.
Over the years, many millions of copies of The Way have been sold, and it has been translated into dozens of languages. Even though he is only a very small part of the book, it’s a powerful anonymous influence on the part of Fr Doyle. How many people have copied his example of small mortifications, without ever knowing anything about him, thanks to this reference from St Josemaria?
Perhaps this is a fitting place to include some references from O’Rahilly’s book on the matter of Fr Doyle and his diet. In all of this it is very clear that Fr Doyle didn’t find these mortifications easy; they were, as St Josemaria said, a tragedy:
He was systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points; every day he did many things for no other reason than that he would rather not do them; so that, when the hour of need and big-scale heroism drew nigh, it did not find him unnerved and untrained to stand the test. For most assuredly he was a man who daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. “Other souls may travel by other roads,” he once wrote, “the road of pain is mine.” He developed a positive ingenuity in discovering possibilities of denying himself. Thus he was always striving to bear little sufferings and physical discomforts were it only the irritation of a gnat without seeking relief; he tried to imagine that his hands were nailed to the cross with Jesus. He gave up having a fire in his room and even avoided warming himself at one. Every day he wore a hair-shirt and one or two chains for some time; and he inflicted severe disciplines on himself. Moreover, between sugarless tea, butterless bread and saltless meat, he converted his meals into a continuous series of mortifications. Naturally he had, in fact, a very hearty appetite and a keen appreciation of sweets and delicacies; all of which he converted into an arena for self-denial…
We find him pencilling this resolution on the first page of the little private notebook he kept with him at the Front: “No blackberries. Give away all chocolates. Give away box of biscuits. No jam, breakfast, lunch, dinner.”
…Just after giving a retreat in a Carmelite convent, he records: “I felt urged in honour of St. Teresa to give myself absolutely no comfort at meals which I could possibly avoid. I found no difficulty in doing this for the nine days. I have begged very earnestly for the grace to continue this all my life and am determined to try to do so. For example, to take no butter, no sugar in coffee, no salt, etc. The wonderful mortified lives of these holy nuns have made me ashamed of my gratification of my appetite.” That he by no means found this mortification easy we have many indications. Thus on 5th Jan., 1912, he writes: “During Exposition Jesus asked me if I would give up taking second course at dinner. This would be a very great sacrifice; but I promised Him at least to try to do so and begged for grace and generosity.”
“A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving,” he records a year later (18th Sept., 1913), “to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast. The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable. Jesus urged me to pray for strength though I could scarcely bring myself to do so. But the temptation left me in the refectory, and joy filled my heart with the victory. I see now that I need never yield if only I pray for strength.”
On the subject of butter there are many resolutions in the diary. Materially the subject may seem trivial, but psychologically it represents a great struggle and victory…It is in such little acts that man rises above the beast and fosters his human heritage of a rational will. So Fr. Doyle’s butter-resolutions are not at all so unimportant or whimsical as they who have ever thoughtlessly eaten and drunk may be inclined to fancy. “God has been urging me strongly all during this retreat,” he writes in September 1913, “to give up butter entirely. I have done so at many meals without any serious inconvenience; but I am partly held back through human respect, fearing others may notice it. If they do, what harm? I have noticed that X takes none for lunch; that has helped me. Would not I help others if I did the same?” “One thing,” he continues, “I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him: the promise to give up butter entirely.” On 29th July, 1914, we find this resolution: “For the present I will take butter on two mouthfuls of bread at breakfast but none at other meals.” To this decision he seems to have adhered.
…This relentless concentration of will on matters of food must not lead us to suppose that Fr. Doyle was in any way morbidly absorbed or morosely affected thereby. For one less trained in will or less sure in spiritual perspective there might easily be danger of entanglement in minutiae and over-attention to what is secondary. All this apparatus of mortification is but a means to an end, it should not be made an end in itself…This persistent and systematic thwarting of appetite helped Fr. Doyle to strengthen his will and to fix it on God. He never lost himself in a maze of petty resolutions, he never became anxious or distracted.
Alfred O’Rahilly concludes his discussion of Fr Doyle’s eating habits with some wise advice for the reader:
The armour of Goliath would hamper David. There are those whom elaborate prescriptions and detailed regulations would only strain and worry. And these best find the peace of God in a childlike thankful acceptance of His gifts, without either careless indulgence or self-conscious artificiality.
As a humorous aside, Point 205 of The Way has been translated in the past to refer to a “marmalade” tragedy and a “sugar” tragedy because the translators could not understand the concept of giving up butter as a mortification. In any event, all three translations would be an accurate reflection of Fr Doyle’s life and asceticism.
Those who are unfamiliar with Alfred O’Rahilly’s definitive biography of Fr Doyle, from where the above quotations are taken, can find details of how to order a copy of the bookhere.
St Josemaria Escriva is,of course, not the only person renowned for their sanctity who had a devotion to Fr Doyle. Amongst those who admired Fr Doyle we can include Blessed John Sullivan SJ; the Servant of God Fr Bernard Quinn; the Venerable Adolf Petit SJ; Saint Teresa of Calcutta and St Alberto Hurtado SJ. Recently I have learned that St Rafael Arnaiz Baron, the young Spanish Cistercian who died in 1938 at the age of 27, also had a devotion to him, as did the Servant of God Mother Adele Garnier, the Foundress of the Tyburn Benedictines. The Servant of God Frank Duff quotes Fr Doyle and references the O’Rahilly biography at least three times in the Legion of Mary handbook. To these we can add countless others: priests, religious and lay people, both anonymous and renowned, from Ireland and from overseas. Fr Doyle seems to have exerted a wide ranging appeal to many different types of people over the course of several decades.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. The Church only celebrates the birth of Jesus, Mary and St John the Baptist. It is a great testament to the sanctity and importance of St John that he is in this elite group and that he has two feasts – his birthday and his beheading.
Fr Doyle does not seem to have written about St John very much, but in one letter to his sister, a nun, written on 19th December 1916, he alludes to the similarities between the harshness of his own life and that of St. John’s. The letter is worth quoting in its totality. Two things come across very clearly in this letter – his own natural abhorrence at the nature of his life in the trenches and, secondly, his supernatural joy and acceptance of this cross.
I want to have a little chat with you. But you must promise to keep to yourself what I write to you. Did I ever tell you that my present life was just the one I dreaded most, being from a natural point of view repugnant to me in every way? So when our Blessed Lord sent me to the Front I felt angry with Him for taking me away from a sphere of work where the possibilities, at least, of doing good were so enormous, and giving me a task others could perform much better. It was only after a time that I began to understand that ‘God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts’ and the meaning of it all began to dawn on me. In the first place my life, especially here in the trenches, has become a real hermit’s one, cave and all, a mixture of solitude with a touch of the hardships of a foreign mission. The result has been that God has come into my life in a way He never did before. He has put strange thoughts into my head and given me many lights which I feel have changed my whole outlook upon life. Then I feel, oh, so strongly, that I am going through a kind of noviceship, a sort of spiritual training, for some big work He wants me to do in the future. I feel every day as if spiritual strength and power were growing in my soul.
This thought of being trained or fitted for God’s work (if I may use the comparison with all reverence) like St. John the Baptist, has filled me with extraordinary joy and made me delight in a life which could not well be much harder.
Here I am in a bit of a hole in the side of a ditch, so low that I cannot stand upright and have to bend my head and shoulders during Mass — I can tell you my back aches at the end. My only window is the door (without a door) through which the wind blows day and night; and a cold wind it is just now. I was offered a little stove but my ‘Novice Master’ did not want that luxury, for it never came. My home would be fairly dry if I could keep out the damp mists and persuade the drops of water not to trickle from the roof. As a rule I sleep well, though one is often roused to attend some poor fellow who has been hit. Still it is rather reversing the order of things to be glad to get up in the morning to try and get warm; and it is certainly not pleasant to be wakened from sweet dreams by a huge rat burrowing under your pillow or scampering over your face! This has actually happened to me. There is no great luxury in the matter of food, as you may well guess. Recently, owing to someone’s carelessness, or possibly because the bag was made to pay toll on the way up to the trenches, my day’s rations consisted of half a pot of jam and a piece of cheese!
Through all this, and much in addition, the one thought ever in my mind is the goodness and love of God in choosing me to lead this life, and thus preparing me without a chance of refusal for the work He wants doing. No amount of reading or meditating could have proved to me so convincingly that a life of privation, suffering and sacrifice, accepted lovingly for the love of Jesus, is a life of great joy, and surely of great graces You see, therefore, that I have reasons in abundance for being happy, and I am truly so. Hence you ought to be glad that I have been counted worthy to suffer something for our dear Lord, the better to be prepared to do His work. Ask Him, won’t you, that I may not lose this golden opportunity, but may profit to the full by the graces He is giving me. Every loving wish from my heart for a holy and happy Christmas. Let our gift to the divine Babe be the absolute sacrifice of even our desires, so that His Will alone may be done.
“No evil shall come upon you”, (Jerem. 23. 17). It is a consoling thought that God watches over us with unceasing care; that no matter where we may be – alone in our humble cell or passing through the crowded streets of the feverish panting city – the hand of God is over us and sheltering us from a thousand unknown dangers, guiding us safely along the path of life. Wicked men may plot evil things against us, all the hellish horde may rage in fury round us, but harm us they cannot without His consent who directs all things for His own wise ends.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle certainly personified this tremendous trust in God throughout his own adventurous life. But we also see this abandonment to, and trust in, Divine providence in the lives of all the saints, and none more so than the great Thomas More whose feast is today.
There is something quite fascinating about lay saints. There are obviously many great saints who were priests or members of religious orders, but then their entire lives – its structure and timetable and relative freedom from worldly cares – more readily orient that life towards sanctity. Yes, it takes much effort, and grace, for religious to reach heroic sanctity, but at least the external form and support of religious life is designed to do this. There are few such obvious supports for lay people. This is why the many new lay movements and organisations of different types and spiritualities are a great assistance as they provide structure and support for holiness for those who must seek that holiness in the midst of daily troubles and distractions.
St Thomas More himself faced many obstacles to sanctity. He was the head of a large household and one of the most powerful men in one of the most powerful countries in the world. In addition to his extensive legal, political and scholarly pursuits (any one of which would have made for a very complete life), St Thomas was a real family man who took the education of his children (and his daughters!) very seriously. He was renowned for his cheerfulness and for the depth of his spiritual life. It is said that he went to bed at 9pm and arose at 2am every morning, spending several hours in prayer before setting off for his busy public engagements at dawn. He was also known for his asceticism, and wore a hairshirt under his robes, as well as small spiked crucifix. He was a third order Franciscan and, due to his relationship with the Charterhouse, was probably the equivalent of what we would today regard as a Benedictine oblate.
When those around him compromised in order to maintain the favour of the King, St Thomas remained steadfast, and gave up everything to remain faithful to the Church. He knew the truth of Fr Doyle’s quote today – God watches over us with care no matter where we may be and no matter whether we remain powerful and respected or whether we end up in prison awaiting death simply because we upset the powers that be. As St Thomas put it himself:
Every tribulation which ever comes our way either is sent to be medicinal, if we will take it as such, or may become medicinal, if we will make it such, or is better than medicinal, unless we forsake it.
Let us pray today that we too may have faith in God’s paternal care for us; let us pray also for our political leaders, that they remain faithful to, and uphold, the natural law.
Today is also the feast of the heroic bishop and martyr St John Fisher. Let us pray to him for our bishops, that they will have strength when the time of trial comes.
Jesus told me today that the work of regeneration and sanctification is to be done by leading souls to Him in the Blessed Sacrament.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these notes in his diary on June 21, 1917, slightly less than two months before his death. Was this based on an actual vision or a locution or just a simply inspiration? We do not know, but ultimately it does not matter for the truth of what Fr Doyle writes is plain for us to see.
Today is also the feast of St Aloysius Gonzaga, a young Jesuit who died at the age of 23 in 1591. St Aloysius was – like pretty much every saint – deeply devoted to the Eucharist. He begged the Lord that he would die within the Octave of Corpus Christi and received his first Holy Communion from the great St Charles Borromeo.
Let us pray to St Aloysius that we may acquire some small taste of the devotion that both he and Fr Doyle both had for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Sunday and Monday last were days of wonderful grace for me, as if the Hunter of souls had run His quarry down and so surrounded it with the coils of His love that all escape was impossible. Alas! Does he not well know how that foolish hare will break loose and escape again so soon, spoiling all the plans of the patient Hunter. Still Jesus cannot pass close to the soul without leaving some lasting impression. I cannot but feel that the light he has given me must leave its mark behind, and that I cannot be quite the same again without an awful abuse of grace.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in his diary 108 years ago today, on June 20 1912.
Fr Doyle often spoke about the notion of abusing God’s grace. It is not something we hear much about today. In essence, he means that we shall have to give an account of all that God has given us. Everything we have is a gift of God. But God is entitled to a return on that gift; He expects us in some way to use the talents and graces that He has given us to good effect – to give glory to Him and to save souls. Yet, how often do we fail to wisely “invest” those talents that he has given to us…
One of the most frightening lines in the Gospel is found in Chapter 11 of St Matthew’s Gospel. It is easy to overlook it and its significance for us. Speaking of the town of Capernaum, Jesus says:
If the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgement for Sodom than for you.
In other words, those who never received the grace of faith, even though their sins are greater, will receive a lesser punishment than those who have had the faith revealed to them, but whose sins are smaller. These are stunning words that all who consider themselves to be “practising Catholics” need to carefully reflect on. We abuse the graces of God to our peril!
One of the great gifts that God has given us is the gift of faith. Here in Ireland, until very recently, the Catholic Faith was held in high esteem. Yet, largely due to internal corruption, many have now abandoned Christ and His Church, often without ever knowing much about it at all.
Today in Ireland we celebrate the feast of the Irish martyrs (though this year the Immaculate heart of Mary takes precedence) . These were 17 men and women who lost their lives because of their faith in the late 1500′s and early 1600′s and who were beatified by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1992. Whatever crisis of aggressive secularism we now face in Ireland, we are at least not losing our lives for our faith. Yes, we may be belittled, we may have our sanity or our decency questioned. We may even lose out financially or in our careers due to a subtle discrimination against those of faith. In a sense, this is also a persecution, but a bloodless, psychological one. The Irish martyrs remind us of what our ancestors suffered to preserve the faith in Ireland. From this small land, many missionaries went out to evangelise the new world, especially in Africa, America and Australia. These 17, plus the hundreds of other unrecognised martyrs, and the other unknown multitudes who suffered in other ways, have played a significant role in the evangelisation of the English speaking world by preserving the faith for future generations. How well are we doing in preserving the faith for future generations? Have we abused this gift that God has given to us?
During the homily for the beatification of these martyrs, St John Paul said:
We admire them for their personal courage. We thank them for the example of their fidelity in difficult circumstances, a fidelity which is more than an example: it is a heritage of the Irish people and a responsibility to be lived up to in every age.
Today is a day on which Irish people could well reflect on whether we have fully lived up to the responsibility of following the fidelity of these martyrs.
Today is a day of remembering these heroic men and women, and being thankful for their sacrifice. It is also a day on which those of us in Ireland might well examine our consciences, myself included. What is to happen with these 17 Irish martyrs? Is there any interest in having them canonised? Is there any attempt to promote devotion to them and learn from their examples? Do we pray through their intercession for miracles? Are we happy that they, and the hundreds of others who could be beatified, are largely forgotten?