Pray for all, but especially for sinners, and in particular for those whose sins are most painful to His Sacred Heart. With great earnestness recommend to His mercy the poor souls who are in their agony. What a dreadful hour, an hour tremendously decisive, is the hour of our death! Surround with your love these souls going to appear before God, and defend them by your prayers.
COMMENT: It’s almost paradoxical – the most important moment of our lives is the very last moment. In this moment our eternity is decided. Someone who has lived a life of vice may convert and be saved, but similarly someone who lived a good life, if they freely and consciously commit a mortal sin at the moment of death and do not repent, cannot see God.
This is why the grace of final perseverance is so important, and why the saints constantly prayed for this grace. Even though we attempt to live a virtuous life, we should never presume that we will persevere. It is also one of the reasons why we must flee mortal sins with all our might, for we may die unexpectedly in the act of rebellion against God. (Of course, the more perfect reason to avoid mortal sin is because it offends God…).
In the Hail Mary we ask our Mother to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”. How causally we can overlook the importance of these words.
Fr Doyle was acutely aware of the importance of those last final moments, and he risked his own life, and abandoned his own comforts, in order to provide the sacraments to soldiers during their last moments. Here is one small snippet out of many in his letters describing the gratitude of those soldiers who had the grace of a priest to bless them at the hour of death. May we all be similarly blessed with this grace!
A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee But never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. “Thank God, Father”, he said, “I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium?” The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. “I am much better now and easier, God bless you”, he said, as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: “Ah! Fr. Doyle, Fr. Doyle”, he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. “Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now.” I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said “Behold the Man” when he showed our Lord to the people.
Solid virtue is so called because it is formed by amassing together a facility in repeated acts. Hence the practice of any virtue is not the less meritorious because it is easy. Quite the contrary. The merit depends on the intention we had when we determined to practise the virtue, and not on the amount of pain it costs.
COMMENT: Here we see once again the tremendous balance of Fr Doyle. Solid virtue comes from practicing virtue time and time again, especially in little things. Big once-off actions, while they may be meritorious, are not the essence of well grounded virtue and holiness which comes from doing ordinary tasks with the right intention.
In this Fr Doyle was quite like St Francis de Sales who taught that even small, simple acts performed with love were of great merit.
Here is a description of St Francis’ view of the matter from his great friend and disciple Jean Pierre Camus, taken from the book The Spirit of St Francis de Sales:
He considered, as we have seen, that the degree of the supernatural in any virtue could not be decided by the greatness or smallness of the external act, since an act in itself altogether trivial, may be performed with much grace and charity, while a very brilliant and dazzling good work may be animated by but a very feeble spark of love of God, the intensity of which is, after all, the only rule by which to ascertain its true value in His sight.
Do I ever say, when an occasion of denying myself comes, “It’s too hard, I am no saint?” Might it not be asked of me in justice, “Why aren’t you? It is your business to be one, God intends you should be one, but you are too lazy, you won’t take the trouble.”
Let us remember that we must not drag Christ down to our own level, but rather we must let Christ lift us up to His level.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today hit where it hurts. We are not saints because we don’t take the trouble to become saints. Sanctity does not mean performing miracles or founding religious orders or even doing great things that will make us famous. It means loving God, conforming ourselves totally with His Will, and doing everything for love of Him. This is difficult, but God provides the grace we need to achieve it. But we ourselves must supply effort as well. Too often we “won’t take the trouble” to do so day after day on a consistent basis.
The liturgical calendar today presents numerous striking examples of holiness, including St Faustina, who receive the visions that are the basis of the Divine Mercy devotion and Blessed Raymond of Capua who was spiritual director to St Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest saints in all of history, and also served as Master General of the Dominicans. Both St Faustina and Blessed Raymond lead dramatic lives and are well known. However, today I want to focus on three less well known but very vivid examples of holiness who, in the words of Fr Doyle, took the trouble to strive for holiness in the very diverse and ordinary circumstances of their lives.
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos was a German Redemptorist missionary in the United States who died in New Orleans in 1867. He was a renowned healer even during his life and his spirituality was very similar to that of Fr Doyle. His retreat notes and diaries reveal resolutions to sleep on the floor and engage in other ascetical practices to discipline the will. Like Fr Doyle, he was known for his good humour and cheerfulness. Here is a short excerpt from one of his letters:
Every offering has value only insofar as one snatches it away from one’s own benefit dedicates it to God through this self-conquest. One loves and gives precisely because one loves, and because one considers what is given as a good, as a treasure. Love of creatures must be subordinated to the love of God, whom one is pledged to love above all things. Time, in which we have found nothing to offer up to God, is lost for eternity. If it is only the duties of our vocation that we fulfil with dedication to the will of God; if it is the sweat of our faces that, in resignation, we wipe from our brow without murmuring; if it is suffering, temptations, difficulties with our fellow men – everything we can present to God as an offering and can, through them, become like Jesus his Son.
Blessed Alberto Marvelli was a remarkable Italian layman who was killed in an accident on this day in 1946. He modelled himself on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, giving away his clothing, opening a soup kitchen and assisting the poor and homeless in the city of Rimini which had largely been destroyed by bombing raids in the Second World War. He was an engineer who used his professional competence to help rebuild the city. His intense works of charity were nourished by a deep spiritual life. He was also fully engaged in political life, was a local town councillor and was a renowned opponent of the communists. He was fighting an election against communists when he was killed in an accident, aged only 28. There are several books about him published in Italian, along with his spiritual diaries. Alas, I cannot speak the language – I would very much like to read them…
Our third example today is Blessed Bartolo Longo, who had a complete transformation in life. He got caught up in the occult when he was young and became a satanic priest. He experienced a conversion, and became a renowned apostle of the rosary, a Third Order Dominican, a founder of several charitable works and established the famous shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii. He died in 1926. His example shows that nobody is too far gone to be saved by God’s Divine Mercy.
A missionary priest, a young, politically engaged layman and a former satanic priest: the examples we find in today’s diverse feasts show us that anyone from any background can be a saint. As Fr Doyle says to us today:
Why aren’t you (a saint)? It is your business to be one, God intends you should be one, but you are too lazy, you won’t take the trouble.
In the end what once caused us pain and tears becomes the source of great interior joy, since we have realised how these things help in our spiritual progress.
COMMENT: It is true, as Fr Doyle says, that things that were once disagreeable to us can become a source of peace in our lives. We can see this in today’s saint, Francis of Assisi, who, as the son of a rich merchant, had many pleasures available to him but chose to abandon this luxury to embrace a life of extreme poverty and penance. The deprivation that would have caused the young Francis much pain became a source of joy as he matured into great sanctity.
Like St Therese of Lisieux, modern piety does a great disservice to Francis, presenting him as a type of medieval environmentalist and peace activist, and downplaying other aspects of his character. Sanctity is always well balanced. It calls us to love justice and peace AND to hate vice and overcome it; it calls us to respect animals and the environment AND to radical conversion and serious apostolate.
Despite first impressions, there are many similarities between Fr Doyle and St Francis including an ardent love for souls, a desire to go on the missions, an openness to martyrdom, great asceticism and a passionate love for Christ.
One of the pivotal moments of St Francis’ life was when he heard Christ calling to him to rebuild the Church which was falling into ruin. The Church faces ruin in every age, and always from the same sources – the compromises and unfaithfulness of Her members. St Francis’ remedy was not to boycott the Church or to seek to change its teachings. He chose the harder, and more heroic route of personal reform. His example changed the face of the earth and bequeathed numerous saints to the Church.
The path for the renewal of the Church today is exactly the same – real personal renewal which will allow us to preach the Gospel constantly, but by our example rather than by words, as Francis urged his followers.
Kneeling at the grave of the Little Flower I gave myself into her hands to guide and to make me a saint. I promised her to make it the rule of my whole life, every day without exception, to seek in all things my greater mortification, to give all and to refuse nothing. I have made this resolution with great confidence because I realise how utterly it is beyond my strength; but I feel the Little Flower will get me grace to keep it perfectly.
COMMENT: As can be seen from this quote, Fr Doyle had a great devotion to St Therese, whose feast we celebrate today. This devotion may have been heightened by the fact that they were born in the same year, 1873. It always comes as a shock to see others younger than us who, already having died, are plainly seen to have lived lives of great holiness. It is a reminder to us that holiness is not the preserve of the old or something that we should set our minds to some day in the future. It is the task we are to achieve today, now!
Modern piety has tended to greatly distort the image of St Therese, presenting her in a rather sentimental manner. Perhaps her own nickname, as the Little Flower, is partly to blame. The reality is that St Therese was a tough spiritual warrior who faced many problems and sufferings, including a dreadful spiritual blackness. Her Little Way is anything but simple or “little” – her way of abandonment and trust and simplicity and acceptance of daily crosses is open to all, but it takes much effort and holiness to persevere in this, even for one day!
There are many similarities between Therese and Fr Doyle, especially when it comes to embracing our daily duties, the life of spiritual childhood and the spirit of mortification.
Of course, the sentimental image of St Therese tends to emphasise her simplicity and joy and humility and to ignore her strong spirit of mortification. Here are some quotes from and about Therese and mortification. The aim is not to overemphasise this aspect of her character, for like all the saints, it is only one, albeit essential, dimension of her spiritual life. Rather, the aim is to dispel the awful saccharine image that has been built up around Therese.
Above all I endeavoured to practise little hidden acts of virtue; thus I took pleasure in folding the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and I sought for every possible occasion of helping them. One of God’s gifts was a great attraction towards penance, but I was not permitted to satisfy it; the only mortification allowed me consisted in mortifying my self-love, and this did me far more good than bodily penance would have done.
When someone knocks at our door, or when we are rung for, we must practise mortification and refrain from doing even another stitch before answering. I have practised this myself, and I assure you that it is a source of peace.
And here are some comments from one of her sisters in Carmel on St Therese’s spirit of penance:
Thus in many pretty ways she hid her mortifications. One fast-day, however, when our Reverend Mother ordered her some special food, I found her seasoning it with wormwood because it was too much to her taste. On another occasion I saw her drinking very slowly a most unpleasant medicine. “Make haste,” I said, “drink it off at once!” “Oh, no!” she answered; “must I not profit of these small opportunities for penance since the greater ones are forbidden me?”
Toward the end of her life I learned that, during her noviciate, one of our Sisters, when fastening the scapular for her, ran the large pin through her shoulder, and for hours she bore the pain with joy. On another occasion she gave me proof of her interior mortification. I had received a most interesting letter which was read aloud at recreation, during her absence. In the evening she expressed the wish to read it, and I gave it to her. Later on, when she returned it, I begged her to tell me what she thought of one of the points of the letter which I knew ought to have charmed her. She seemed rather confused, and after a pause she answered: “God asked of me the sacrifice of this letter because of the eagerness I displayed the other day . . . so I have not read it.”
This spirit of simple daily penance is reflected in the life of Fr Doyle. Here is a quote from him on embracing our daily duties, followed by some commentary from O’Rahilly’s biography:
“What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God s great heroes? Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake. How many alas! who might be saints are now leading lives of indifferent virtue, because they have deluded themselves with the thought that they have no strength to bear the holy follies of the saints. How many a fair flower of innocence, which God had destined to bloom in dazzling holiness, has faded and withered beneath the chill blast of a fear of suffering never asked from it.” (April, 1905.)
Words such as these, coming from the pen of one who was not unfamiliar with scourge and vigil and fast, are helpful and consoling. Not that they picture the path of holiness as other than the royal road of the cross. Fr. Doyle wished rather to remove the mirage of an unreal and impossible cross from the way of those of us whose true holiness is to be found in meeting the daily and hourly little crosses, humanly inglorious perhaps, but divinely destined for our sanctification. In the lives of canonised saints, and of him whose life we are recording, there are doubtless holy follies and grace-inspired imprudences. But these are not the essence of sanctity; they are its bloom, whereas its stem is self-conquest. Without these there can be great holiness – no terrifying penances marked the life of St. John Berchmans or of that winsome fragile nun who is known as the Little Flower. But without the slow secret mortification of doing ordinary and mostly trivial duties well, there can be no spiritual advance. Heroism is not a sudden romantic achievement; it is the fruit of years of humdrum faithfulness.
Today is also the 22nd anniversary of the death of the Servant of God Fr Tomás Morales SJ who, as well as being a Jesuit, had a great affection for the Carmelites and for St Therese. Here is a quote from his writings which is relevant for our considerations today.
Fight always, even though you don’t feel like it, even though your mood may be different. Remember what St Therese said: “Where would our merit be if we only fought when we felt like it”.
Don’t dwell on what you have not done, for I think that want of confidence in His willingness to forgive our shortcomings pains Him very much, but rather lift up your heart and think what you are going to do for Him now. You know the secret of making a short life very long in His eyes, and a life of few opportunities crammed full of precious things. Do everything for His sweet love alone.
COMMENT: Here we see the wonderful gentleness of Fr Doyle, consoling someone to whom he was giving spiritual direction. Sometimes there may be a tendency to consider Fr Doyle as overly austere; only somebody who deliberately looks for austerity, and ignores other aspects of his life, could come to this conclusion.
His message for us today is very helpful. Every one of us sometimes fails to do some good that ought to be done. The answer is to repent, and then move on, and do our duty now. Dwelling on past failures can lead to discouragement and perhaps even to scruples. Indeed, as Fr Doyle points out, our lack of confidence in God’s forgiveness pains Him.
Today is the feast of St Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church and also a Doctor of the Church. Fr Doyle mentioned St Jerome once in a letter to his father written from the trenches. The charming aside in which he jokingly mentions St Jerome is also further evidence of Fr Doyle’s balance and good humour. He is describing the booklet on Vocations that he wrote and refers to the old abbreviation “MSS” for the word manuscript, and how the abbreviation once lead to humorous incident in Clongowes College:
You will be glad to know, as I was, that the ninth edition (90,000 copies) of my little book “Vocations” is rapidly being exhausted. After my ordination, when I began to be consulted on this important subject, I was struck by the fact that there was nothing one could put into the hands of boys and girls to help them to a decision, except ponderous volumes, which they would scarcely read. Even the little treatise by St. Liguori which Fr. Charles gave me during my first visit to Tullabeg, and which changed the whole current of my thoughts, was out of print. I realized the want for some time; but one evening as I walked back to the train after dining with you, the thought of the absolute necessity for such a book seized me so strongly, (I could almost point out the exact spot on the road), that there and then I made up my mind to persuade someone to write it, for I never dreamt of even attempting the task myself.
I soon found out that the shortest way to get a thing done is to do it yourself, or rather God in His goodness had determined to make use of me, because I was lacking in the necessary qualifications, to get His work done, for I am firmly convinced that both in “Vocations” and “Shall I be a Priest?” my part consisted in the correction of the proof sheets and in the clawing in of the shower of bawbees.
I remember well when the MSS. – which does not stand for Mrs as Brother Frank Hegarty read out once in Clongowes: St. Jerome went off to Palestine carrying his Missus – had passed the censors to my great surprise, the venerable manager of the Messenger Office began shaking his head over the prospect of its selling, for as he said with truth, It is a subject which appeals to a limited few. He decided to print 5,000, and hinted I might buy them all myself!
Then when the pamphlet began to sell and orders to come in fast, I began to entertain the wild hope that by the time I reached the stage of two crutches and a long white beard, I might possibly see the 100,000 mark reached. We are nearly at that now without any pushing or advertising, and I hope the crutches and flowing beard are still a long way off. God is good, is He not? As the second edition came out only in the beginning of 1914 the sale has been extraordinarily rapid.
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 bed 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.