Thoughts for September 23 (St Pio of Pietrelcina) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Pio of Pietrelcina

It is indeed easy to condemn oneself to death, to make a generous offering of self-immolation; but to carry out the execution daily is more than most can do. . . . Go on bravely, don’t expect too much from yourself, for God often leaves one powerless in acts of self-conquest in order to make one humble and to have more recourse to Him. Remember above all that even one small victory makes up for a hundred defects.

COMMENT: Well, perhaps it is not quite as easy for us to condemn ourselves to death as Fr Doyle suggests! Perhaps many of us can identify with the character in the Flannery O’Connor story: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick!”

More seriously, we can sometimes be willing to make great sacrifices, but keeping up the struggle against our selfishness day after day is what really presents the difficulty for us. And as Fr Doyle encouragingly says, we should not expect too much from ourselves: we are weak, and should accept our weakness with humility. But this doesn’t mean that we settle for mediocrity: as Fr Doyle points out, God is always with us and will sustain us. As St Pio, whose feast is today, says,

Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.

There is a temptation for the demanding message of hugely popular saints like Padre Pio to be overlooked. Too often the lives of such saints get swamped with tales of their miracles and extraordinary phenomena. Lest that happen, here is one final thought from St Pio which in many ways is very similar to the spirit and teaching of Fr Doyle:

The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self.




18 September 1913

A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving 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.

14 September 1912

Having again indulged my appetite, I made this resolution, that whenever I do so, no matter for what reason (health, feasts etc) I will enter it in the other book. I think this will be a check and a help to me to do what Jesus has asked so long – no indulgence whatever in food.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was renowned for keeping “books” – little notebooks where he noted his spiritual victories, and his failures. Some people might find this strange. But in doing so he was merely following the advice of St Ignatius of Loyola and the example of many Jesuits across the centuries. Indeed, many people today keep a track of their exercise or their diets on their smartphones, and, unlike Fr Doyle who kept all of this as a secret to himself, many people broadcast their own “successes” and “failures” in their exercise regime with social media posts that draw attention to themselves.

So long as one doesn’t end up being scrupulous as a result, the practice of noting successes and failures each day can help us to see where we should make our stand and fight the next day. It helped Fr Doyle to steadily grow in virtue, and it can help us too if we are faithful to it. 

12 September 1913

I have felt strongly urged again to give myself entirely to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to follow His inspirations. For example, I sometimes feel urged to take the discipline during the day, and when I have been able to overcome the repugnance to the trouble of it, my soul has been filled with joy. Many other thoughts of this kind come into my mind – to rise when I wake, not to do this or that – I am certain they are from the Holy Spirit, but I resist His voice, and hence feel unhappy. In future I will say a little prayer for light and then do what I am impelled to. Just now I was sitting in an armchair fearfully tired. It cost me a big effort to undress and take the discipline, and put on chain round waist. But the result was a most marvellous increase of bodily vigour. 

Thoughts for September 6 from Fr Willie Doyle

How little I think of committing venial sin, and how soon I forget I have done so! Yet God hates nothing more than even the shadow of sin, nothing does more harm to my spiritual progress and hinders any real advance in holiness. My God, give me an intense hatred and dread and horror of the smallest sin. I want to please You and love You and serve You as I have never done before. Let me begin by stamping out all sin in my soul.

We could not take pleasure in living in the company of one whose body is one running, festering sore; neither can God draw us close to Himself, caress and love us, if our souls are covered with venial sin, more loathsome and horrible in His eyes than the most foul disease. To avoid mortal sin I must carefully guard against deliberate venial sin, so to avoid venial sin I must fly from the shadow of imperfection in my actions. How often in the past have I done things when I did not know if they were sins or only deliberate imperfections and how little I cared, my God!

COMMENT: In today’s quote Fr Doyle lays before us the need to steadily advance in virtue and to fight against sins and imperfections. If we are to advance in the life of the soul we need to progress from the battle against mortal sin to a battle against even venial sins and from there eve to a battle against imperfections. Obviously mortal sins are deadly to our spiritual life and are to be avoided at all costs. But venial sins are also very damaging even though they do not destroy the life of grace within us. We can so often easily yield to them because they are “only” venial sins.

Fr Doyle was not alone in pronouncing the dangers of venial sins. The great St Teresa of Avila tells us:

One venial sin can do us greater harm than all the forces of hell combined.

And she should know, for she spent many years of religious life with indifferent virtue. Certainly in her early years she lived a life that was more admirable than most of us today, but after her “conversion” at around the age of 40 she was appalled at the weakness and lukewarmness to which venial sins had lead her.

The Venerable Louis of Granada gives a similar warning:

Venial sin, however slight, is always prejudicial to the soul. It weakens our devotion, troubles the peace of our conscience, diminishes the fervour of charity, exhausts the strength of our spiritual life, and obstructs the work of the Holy Ghost in our souls. I pray you then to do all in your power to avoid these sins, for there is no enemy too weak to harm us if we make no resistance. Slight anger, gluttony, vanity, idle words and thoughts, immoderate laughter, loss of time, too much sleeping, trivial lies or flatteries – such are the sins against which I would particularly warn you. Great vigilance is required against offences of this kind, for occasions of venial sin abound.

Venerable Louis of Granada

Thoughts for August 20 (St Bernard) from Fr Willie Doyle


How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.

COMMENTS: Today is the feast of St Bernard. It seems as good a day as any to address some of the controversies that seem to surround Fr Doyle’s life of penance.

In today’s quotation, Fr Doyle is clear that sanctity does not necessitate severe penances. Yes, a few are called by that path, but we are all called along the path of embracing the tasks and challenges of each day. We are all called to some form of penance, but for the most part it will be moderate and focused on doing our duties well. This is not easy but it is ultimately within our reach, if we will it and if we rely on God’s grace.

Fr Doyle certainly embraced the mundane tasks of each day. But he also went much further and lived a life of austerity. This caused something of a scandal for a very small number of people when it was revealed in O’Rahilly’s biography (though it is noteworthy that in his later editions, O’Rahilly mentions a number of Protestant clerics who admired Fr Doyle’s example in this area). 

It is clear that Fr Doyle lived a most vigorous life of action during the war and that his health was in no way compromised as a result of his penances; in fact he even reported that he felt more energetic and healthy following penance. If the test of prudence in penance is that it does not interfere with our daily duties and tasks, then he most certainly passed that test.

It is also clear, from today’s quotation and from many others, that he never advised others to adopt hard physical penances and in fact he often forbade others to do so. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints, including some of the most popular, modern saints. It also appears that he had, or at least he thought he had, a specific calling to austerity of this type. It is also worth noting that Fr Doyle seems to have given up the hard physical penances for the last years of his life in the trenches, instead cheerfully embracing the hardships of that most awful life as his penance.

Fr Doyle also acted with the approval of his superiors. From one of his letters:

The Provincial told me to make known my devotions, penances etc to Father X…and to do whatever he told me. My heart fell, for perhaps of all the Jesuits in Ireland he would be the last I should care to consult on these things, I knew it was not his line and I felt if I got permission for one discipline a month I would do well. He was just the opposite to what I expected, was most kind and encouraging and ended by telling me to do whatever I thought God wanted, so I had the reward of being obedient.

This would seem to be the definitive seal of approval on Fr Doyle’s spiritual life.

We must not forget the context in which Fr Doyle lived. It is also important to remember that people – even the very holy – are influenced by their surrounding culture. Corporal penance was the norm in religious life right up to a few decades ago. Some well known Jesuits destroyed their private notes before death precisely because of the way the secrets of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life became public following the discovery of his diaries. Perhaps Fr Doyle’s penances were more common than we imagine. It is also worth remembering that penance – moderate and appropriate for our condition – is a normal part of the Christian life, so much so that the ever popular St John XXIII wrote an entire encyclical on penance and urged Catholics to offer penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. Penance is not something obscure or disturbing in the Christian life. Indeed, it is odd for anyone to consider penance to be an anachronism given that we now live in a culture where hard, pressured work is seen as the norm, and where many people punish their bodies in a gym – this work, and these workouts, are probably much harsher than the penances normally practiced in the past. In fact, next weekend there will be a half Ironman competition in Dublin. The competitors started the morning with a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile cycle and concluding with a 13.1 mile running race. And this is only a half Ironman, not the full thing. And we dare to look down our noses at the hardships that some people practiced a few decades ago???!!!

Yes, corporal penance was an aspect of Fr Doyle’s life, as with almost all canonised saints. But these hard penances were only one aspect of Fr Doyle’s spirituality. It would be a mistake to sum up a charming personality like that of St Pope John Paul II only by reference to the modified leather belt with which he scourged himself (it has never been made clear in what way the belt was modified – did it perhaps have something sharp or heavy embedded within it to make it a penitential item?) or St Therese of Lisieux only by reference to the hairshirt which she wore, or Blessed John Sullivan by the floor on which he slept and the chains which he wore. We can keep multiplying the examples – Venerable Matt Talbot, St Pio of Pietrelcina, St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic, St Ignatius, St Martin de Porres and on and on. There is so much more to the remarkable personalities of the saints than the physical penance they practiced. We should not ignore this aspect of the lives of the saints, but neither should we allow it to overshadow the rest of their lives and certainly we should not allow it to influence us to copy their example imprudently.

And this brings us to today’s feast of St Bernard, who admitted that he ruined his health through imprudent penance, and repented of his folly. This revelation of his imprudence does not make St Bernard any less of a role model for the rest of us, nor did it ever prevent him from being canonised or declared a Doctor of the Church. 

By the way, it is often said that St Bernard exerted more influence during his own life than any other saint in history. Some of this was probably due to his own magnetic personality and to the gifts God gave him, and some of it is almost certainly due to the era in which he lived – Christendom in the West was not yet divided and the Church was organised and very powerful.

Here is an interesting homily on St Bernard which elaborates on St Bernard’s incredible influence on those around him, and which also touches on the topic of his imprudent penance.

Fr Doyle’s battle 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 103 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. Holiness, at every stage, requires struggle, although there nature of the struggle differs from person to person.

Secondly our struggle, at least in the beginning, if not for all of our life, 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

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. 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.