Thoughts for September 28 from Fr Willie Doyle

Don’t let the devil spoil the work by making you fret and worry.

COMMENT: This line from Fr Doyle is taken from a much longer letter of spiritual direction, the specifics of which are unlikely to be relevant to many of the readers of this website.

But this line, about the father of lies, and his capacity to make us worry, is relevant for us all…

One of the characteristics of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is peace and serenity. On the other hand, one of the traits of the enemy is worry and anxiety.

All of the saints faced worries and anxieties. Many were founders who faced financial worries. Many saints faced false accusations of scandal. Then there were those who underwent a severe trial of faith, experiencing a profound dark night of the soul. Then we have those “victim souls” who suffered intense illness and abandonment. Other saints had to separate themselves from friends and family in the process of entering religious life, or going away to the missions, or even converting to Catholicism. And of course there were the martyrs, who faced torture and horrific death.

One thing that characterises the saints throughout their trials is serenity. They had the peace that the world cannot give; they refused to give in to the temptation to fret and worry. We see this same tranquility and cheerfulness in Fr Doyle’s letters home to his father from the Front. It is hard to believe that bombs and gas attacks were being unleashed around one who was so happy and concerned for others. 

As Fr Doyle wrote on another occasion:

Worries? Of course; and thank God. How else are you going to be a saint. 

We who live in a relatively comfortable age – which is paradoxically marked by much anxiety and stress – have much to learn from the example of the saints.

Thoughts for September 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle night before the attack

The above image was published in an Irish newspaper at the end of 1916. The priest is unidentified, but we can well imagine Fr Doyle in this situation. The picture represents a scene from 2nd September 1916. Fr Doyle and his men had to suddenly march to the front one night in September 1916 alright, but it was on the evening of the 3rd and not of the 2nd.

Before we recount the events of 3 September 1916, let us read Fr Doyle’s reflection on his experiences in the Battle of the Somme that month. Writing to his father later in September 1916, he had this to say:

“I have been through the most terrible experience of my whole life, in comparison with which all that I have witnessed or suffered since my arrival in France seems of little consequence; a time of such awful horror that I believe if the good God had not helped me powerfully by His grace I could never have endured it. To sum up all in one word, for the past week I have been living literally in hell, amid sights and scenes and dangers enough to test the courage of the bravest; but through it all my confidence and trust in our Blessed Lord s protection never wavered, for I felt that somehow, even if it needed a miracle, He would bring me safe through the furnace of tribulation. I was hit three times, on the last occasion by a piece of shell big enough to have taken off half my leg, but wonderful to relate I did not receive a wound or scratch there is some advantage, you see, in having a good thick skin! As you can imagine, I am pretty well worn out and exhausted, rather shaken by the terrific strain of those days and nights without any real sleep or repose, with nerves tingling, ever on the jump, like the rest of us; but it is all over now; we are well behind the firing line on our way at last for a good long rest, which report says will be enjoyed close to the sea.”

Now for the events of 103 years ago today from O’Rahilly’s biography:

Each morning Fr. Doyle said Mass in the open and gave Holy Communion to hundreds of the men. “I wish you could have seen them kneeling there before the whole camp, recollected and prayerful a grand profession surely of the faith that is in them. More than one non-Catholic was touched by it; and it made many a one, I am sure, turn to God in the hour of need.” On the evening of Sunday, September 3, just as they were sitting down to dinner, spread on a pile of empty shell boxes, rgent orders reached the 16th Division to march in ten minutes.

“There was only time to grab a slice of bread and hack off a piece of meat before rushing to get one’s kit. As luck would have it I had had nothing to eat since the morning and was famished, but there was nothing for it but to tighten one’s belt and look happy”. There are occasions when even the world can appreciate Jesuit obedience! After a couple of hours tramp a halt was called and an order came to stock all impedimenta kits, packs, blankets, etc., by the side of the road. Fr. Doyle, it is almost needless to say, held on to his Mass things, though to his great sorrow for five days he was unable to offer the Holy Sacrifice “the biggest privation of the whole campaign.”

The night was spent without covering or blankets, sitting on the ground.

Tomorrow we shall pick up from this point, with some of Fr Doyle’s typical close shaves with death.

Thoughts for August 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Monica

Don’t be stingy in giving praise, particularly with the young.

If in a community there is some sister not as edifying as she might be, but who after a retreat makes an effort to rise, be ever the one to encourage and to hold out a helping hand. Many a first attempt has been crushed in the bud by the contemptuous look or sneering remark as to how long it will last.

COMMENT: How appropriate Fr Doyle’s advice is today on the feast of St Monica, the mother of St Augustine who prayed so long and so hard for his conversion.

Monica was married to a pagan who beat her. She cultivated the virtue of patience, ultimately winning her husband’s conversion before he died. So too with her son Augustine – her prayers and patience had an effect that bitterness or nagging could never have.

Like Monica, the early Christians were known for the love they had for one another, and it was this love that helped create the conditions which allowed the Christian faith to spread so far in such a short space of time. Fr Doyle, too, was known for his gentleness and love towards all, including “outsiders” like the street prostitute Fanny Cranbush and captured German soldiers.


Thoughts for August 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

Look upon the grace God gives you as a talent you must work with and increase. The Master in the Gospel gave his profitable servants twice as many talents. In like manner will God double your grace if you make good use of it. He will give you “grace for grace”. (John 1. 16)

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was most certainly a profitable servant, who carefully “invested” the grace God gave him. He set out to be faithful in little things, always striving to perform each task with love and perfection. In the end he was faithful in much, even when it came to offering his own life to save a wounded soldier. This heroism in the trenches finds its foundation in daily faithfulness. In the ordinary ways of life, barring a miracle of grace, it is hard to imagine someone who was slovenly and careless in his daily life of work and relationships and ordinary duty suddenly becoming a hero in the trenches. Really great achievements are built on daily fidelity to duty and preparation.

Today is also the feast of St Rose of Lima, the first canonised saint of the Americas who died at the age of 31. Like Fr Doyle, she was noted for her life of extraordinary penance which she offered for sinners and for the souls in Purgatory.

St Rose of Lima

Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary – Day 6: The virtue of fortitude in the life of Fr Doyle

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following to say about the virtue of fortitude.

1808 Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defence of a just cause. “The Lord is my strength and my song.” “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Fortitude was one of the characteristic virtues of Fr Doyle. He had a very strong will, and he generously oriented that will towards the service of God and others. 

Fr Doyle had much to overcome in life. It is incredible to consider that this hero of the trenches actually suffered a complete nervous breakdown while training to be a priest. What a remarkable development of fortitude in his soul that he who suffered greatly from being exposed to a fire in his college could, a couple of decades later, serenely face the nearly constant risk of death during the war.

His illness during his studies also caused many setbacks for him. He was certainly intelligent, but was more of a practical man than a natural scholar, and it was by dint of hard work and fortitude that he caught up on the work that he missed due to his illness.

A Jesuit who knew Fr Doyle as a young man prior to his ordination gave the following testimony on this aspect of Fr Doyle’s moral character:

Viewing his character as a whole, it seems to me that the fundamental quality in it was courage — courage of a fine and generous type. When confronted with difficulties, with danger or labour or pain, instead of hesitating or weakly compromising, he was rather braced to a new and more intense resolve to see the matter out. Give in, he would not. It was this courage, supported, no doubt, by a natural liveliness of disposition, that enabled him to preserve through life his gaiety of heart and to face his troubles as they came with a smiling countenance; it was this courage, too, that steeled him to hold fast to his purpose no matter what difficulties or obstacles might arise.

This courage also showed itself while he worked in the Jesuit schools – he produced musicals and plays with the boys when others thought that it would be impossible and was not worth the effort.

The same fortitude was on display in his zeal for souls as a missioner, and also in his determination to found a retreat house for working men, despite the many difficulties.

His interior life of constant prayer and asceticism also required considerable fortitude.

But it is of course during the war years that Fr Doyle displays his fortitude to the full. The very fact that he volunteered as a chaplain, despite his fears, says much. He also continued to suffer from his intestinal complaint throughout the war. This had been a particular problem in his youth, but it never really left him. We are not sure how this stomach illness manifested itself, but surely life in the trenches made this illness significantly more intense and inconvenient for him. Yet, still he worked, and impressed all those around him with his courage.

Dr Buchanan, a medical doctor with whom he worked in the trenches, gave this testimony:

Fr. Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, so we became fast friends, I acting as medical officer to his first Battalion. Often I envied him his coolness and courage in the face of danger: for this alone his men would have loved him.

Sergeant Flynn of the Dublin Fusiliers also spoke of Fr Doyle’s fortitude in glowing terms:

We had the misfortune to lose our chaplain, Fr. Doyle, the other day. He was a real saint and would never leave his men, and it was really marvellous to see him burying dead soldiers under terrible shell fire. He did not know what fear was, and everybody in the battalion, Catholic and Protestant alike, idolised him.

Such testimonies could be multiplied many times over.

Yet, Fr Doyle never considered himself to be courageous. He knew his weaknesses and he felt his own fears deeply. In fact, he very frequently described himself as a coward in his private diary, and he knew that all of his courage and fortitude came from God. Without the assistance of grace, he would shake with fear:

Sometimes God seems to leave me to my weakness and I tremble with fear.

But the memory of Christ’s closeness gave him renewed strength.

On we hurried in the hope of reaching cover which was close at hand, when right before us the enemy started to put down a heavy barrage, literally a curtain of shells, to prevent reinforcements coming up. There was no getting through that alive and, to make matters worse, the barrage was creeping nearer and nearer, only fifty yards away, while shell fragments hummed uncomfortably close. Old shell holes there were in abundance, but every one of them was brim full of water, and one would only float on top. Here was a fix! Yet somehow I felt that though the boat seemed in a bad way, the Master was watching even while He seemed to sleep, and help would surely come. In the darkness I stumbled across a huge shell-hole crater, recently made, with no water. Into it we rolled and lay on our faces, while the tempest howled around and angry shells hissed overhead and burst on every side. For a few moments I shivered with fear, for we were now right in the middle of the barrage and the danger was very great, but my courage came back when I remembered how easily He Who had raised the tempest saved His Apostles from it, and I never doubted He would do the same for us. Not a man was touched, though one had his rifle smashed to bits.

We will conclude today with Fr Doyle’s advice to us on the importance of fortitude in our spiritual life.

A want of will is the chief obstacle to our becoming saints. We are not holy because we do not really wish to become so. We would indeed gladly possess the virtues of the saints — their humility and patience, their love of suffering, their penance and zeal. But we are unwilling to embrace all that goes to make a saint and to enter on the narrow path which leads to sanctity. A strong will, a resolute will, is needed; a will which is not to be broken by difficulties or turned aside by trifling obstacles; a determination to be a saint and not to faint and falter because the way seems long and hard and narrow. A big heart, a courageous heart, is needed for sanctification, to fight our worst enemy — our own self-love

Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary. Day 2: The virtue of hope in the life of Fr Doyle

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following to say about the virtue of hope:

1817 Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” “The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

1818 The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

1819 Christian hope takes up and fulfills the hope of the chosen people which has its origin and model in the hope of Abraham, who was blessed abundantly by the promises of God fulfilled in Isaac, and who was purified by the test of the sacrifice.”Hoping against hope, he believed, and thus became the father of many nations.”

1820 Christian hope unfolds from the beginning of Jesus’ preaching in the proclamation of the beatitudes. The beatitudes raise our hope toward heaven as the new Promised Land; they trace the path that leads through the trials that await the disciples of Jesus. But through the merits of Jesus Christ and of his Passion, God keeps us in the “hope that does not disappoint.” Hope is the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . that enters . . . where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.” Hope is also a weapon that protects us in the struggle of salvation: “Let us . . . put on the breastplate of faith and charity, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” It affords us joy even under trial: “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation.” Hope is expressed and nourished in prayer, especially in the Our Father, the summary of everything that hope leads us to desire.

1821 We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere “to the end” and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for “all men to be saved.” She longs to be united with Christ, her Bridegroom, in the glory of heaven:

Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.

Fr Doyle lived the virtue of hope throughout his life, but most especially during the war years. He ardently desired the Kingdom of Heaven, so much so that he even desired martyrdom. We do not hear much talk of “merit” in contemporary religious discourse, but it was an important element of the spiritual life in Fr Doyle’s time. In the Gospel, Jesus says that in His Father’s house there are many mansions. In other words, even though Heaven is a place of perfect happiness, there are different degrees of glory in Heaven relative to our capacity to receive it. The greater our capacity for love, the greater is our capacity for being filled with God’s love and glory in Heaven. Thus Fr Doyle often wrote about growing in the love of God and of acquiring merit on earth so that we will be capable of being more fully filled with God’s love in Heaven:

What treasures of grace, what innumerable opportunities of merit are within my grasp if only I seize them.

It is unlikely that Fr Doyle could have functioned effectively in the war years were he not filled with hope. He also had this hope for the soldiers he risked his life to serve – he believed that by providing the sacraments to them that he was literally opening the gates of Heaven for them. They shared this belief, and were always relieved when they met the priest before death.

I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leaned down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh ! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.

But Fr Doyle also had great hope in his own safety and protection. Despite his own very natural fears, he trusted in God’s loving providence over all things. He wrote the following to his father while he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a pyx in his pocket.

Sometimes God seems to leave me to my weakness and I tremble with fear. At other times I have so much trust and confidence in His loving protection that I could almost sit down on a bursting shell feeling I could come to no harm. You would laugh, or perhaps cry, if you saw me at this moment sitting on a pile of bricks and rubbish. Shells are bursting some little distance away on three sides and occasionally a piece comes down with an unpleasantly close thud. But what does it matter? Jesus is resting on my heart, and whenever I like I can fold my arms over Him and press Him to that heart which, as He knows, beats with love of Him.

Fr Doyle’s hope in the face of such death and destruction is all the more remarkable when one considers that he was caught up in a fire while he was a student and had a nervous breakdown as a result. His transformation was so complete that two decades later he was a rock of strength, courage and hope, and that tough men flocked to him to be strengthened. 

Thoughts for August 7 from Fr Willie Doyle

Today’s account, from 7 August 1917, gives us some small insight into the horrors of the war, especially when it involved the use of poisoned gas. Of note also is the way in which Fr Doyle accepts spending extra days at the front to cover for a priest who never showed up to relieve him. He doesn’t grumble or complain, and in fact is glad he stayed in order to help those who died.

No Mass this morning, thanks, I suppose, to the kindly attention of the evil one. I reached my chapel of the previous morning only to find that a big 9.5 inch shell had landed on the top of it during the day; went away feeling very grateful I had not been inside at the time, but had to abandon all thought of Mass as no shelter could be found from the heavy rain.

The Battalion went out to-day for three days rest, but I remained behind. Fr. Browne has gone back to the Irish Guards. He is a tremendous loss, not only to myself personally, but to the whole Brigade where he did magnificent work and made a host of friends. And so I was left alone.

Another chaplain was appointed, but for reasons best known to himself he did not take over his battalion and let them go into the fight alone. There was nothing for it but to remain on and do his work, and glad I was I did so, for many a man went down that night, the majority of whom I was able to anoint.

Word reached me about mid-night that a party of men had been caught by shell fire nearly a mile away. I dashed off in the darkness, this time hugging my helmet as the enemy was firing gas shells. A moment’s pause to absolve a couple of dying men, and then I reached the group of smashed and bleeding bodies, most of them still breathing. The first thing I saw almost unnerved me; a young soldier lying on his back, his hands and face a mass of blue phosphorus flame, smoking horribly in the darkness. He was the first victim I had seen of the new gas the Germans are using, a fresh horror in this awful war. The poor lad recognized me, I anointed him on a little spot of unburnt flesh, not a little nervously, as the place was reeking with gas, gave him a drink which he begged for so earnestly, and then hastened to the others.

Back again to the aid-post for stretchers and help to carry in the wounded, while all the time the shells are coming down like hail. Good God! how can any human thing live in this? As I hurry back I hear that two men have been hit twenty yards away. I am with them in a moment, splashing through mud and water. A quick absolution and the last rites of the Church. A flash from a gun shows me that the poor boy in my arms is my own servant, or rather one who took the place of my orderly while he was away, a wonderfully good and pious lad.

By the time we reached the first party, all were dead, most of them with charred hands and faces. One man with a pulverized leg was still living. I saw him off to hospital made as comfortable as could be, but I could not help thinking of his torture as the stretcher jolted over the rough ground and up and down the shell holes.

Little rest that night, for the Germans simply pelted us with gas shells of every description, which, however, thanks to our new helmets, did no harm.