Thoughts for the Feast of St Catherine of Siena from Fr Willie Doyle

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.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Catherine of Siena. Catherine is one of the greatest saints in the Church – she was a phenomenon in her own time and is a Doctor of the Church and one of the patron saints of Europe. She is also surely one of the great women of history.

St Catherine crammed so much into her short life. She was a tireless worker for the poor, an advisor to popes, a diplomat and peacemaker and a profound mystic. Her impact on those she met on her travels was such that the Dominicans had to appoint priests to accompany her in order to hear the numerous Confessions on the part of those who converted upon meeting her. The Church was in a state of crisis in Catherine’s day, and it could be said that Catherine saved the Church from many of the dangers it faced. And she did all of this as a young, uneducated, sick laywoman who died at 33 years of age. When crises threaten the Church, God empowers saints who are equal to the task of the reform needed, and He does so with such humanly weak instruments that we are left with no doubt that it is God at work.

There are two points that we might usefully ponder today. The first relates to Fr Doyle’s quote above. Holiness involves faithfulness to duty and is not dependent on great penances or indeed on mystical phenomena or the great achievements we find in the lives of some saints like Catherine. In fact, St Catherine teaches us a wonderful way of performing our duties well. She was somewhat mistreated by her parents as a teenager – she wanted to live in solitude and prayer but her parents would not allow this. She was forced to work in the house and serve them, even though she didn’t want to do so. In order to overcome her dislike of this task, when serving them at table she would imagine that her father was Jesus, that her mother was Mary and that her brothers were the Apostles. This helped to inspire in her the charity that she did not naturally feel at that time.

The second relates to Catherine’s great love of the Pope. She defended the papacy against anti-popes, and she worked to ensure that the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon. Let us therefore support and pray for Pope Francis today.

We shall conclude today with some quotes from Catherine on diverse subjects.

On finding God in the midst of a busy life:

Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.

Faithfulness to duty:

Let all do the work which God has given them, and not bury their talent, for that is also a sin deserving severe punishment. It is necessary to work always and everywhere for all God’s creatures.

To Pope Gregory XI, who was weak and indecisive:

You can do what he (Pope Gregory the Great) did, for he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as he was. The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbour, and courage.

To a cardinal, on the need for courage:

A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. How dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see not understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a man loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason for this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance or being and vanish like the wind.

To her spiritual director Blessed Raymond of Capua, on courage:

(I long) to see you grow out of your childhood and become a grown man…For an infant who lives on milk is not able to fight on the battlefield; he only wants to play with other children. So a man who is wrapped in love for himself only wishes to taste the milk of spiritual and temporal consolation; like a child he wants to be with others of its kind. But when he becomes a grown man he leaves behind this sensitive self love…He has become strong, he is firm, serious and thoughtful, he hastens to the battlefield and his only wish is to fight for the truth.

To those who think the Church’s day has come to an end:

If you reply that it looks as though the Church must surrender, for it is impossible for it to save itself and its children, I say to you that it is not so. The outward appearance deceives, but look at the inward, and you will find that it possesses a power that its enemies can never possess.

To us all:

If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.

Thoughts for April 25 from Fr Willie Doyle

I think I can say with truth that I have now no desire or wish except His. I have told Him that He may do just as He pleases with me, and take all, even my life. This has brought me great peace and a sense of great security in the midst of danger, since I know I am in His hands.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in April 1916. He had just 16 months left to live. To have no wish except to do the will of God is generally indicative of a very high degree of sanctity and is somewhat akin to the very advanced stage of the spiritual life called the unitive way. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the unitive way in these terms:

The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love. It is called the state of “perfect charity”, because souls who have reached that state are ever prompt in the exercise of charity by loving God habitually and by frequent and efficacious acts of that Divine virtue. It is called the “unitive” way because it is by that the soul is united to God, and the more perfect the charity, the closer and more intimate is the union…Souls thus united to God are penetrated by the highest motives of the theological and moral virtues. In every circumstance of their lives the supernatural motive which ought to guide their actions is ever present to their mind, and the actions are performed under its inspiration with a force of will which makes their accomplishment easy and even delightful.

It is very far beyond my competence to comment further on such advanced matters in ascetical theology. However, I will instead refer to the famous French Jesuit writer and theologian Fr de Grandmaison:

We must unhesitatingly say that the life of Fr Doyle was that of a great mystic, as indeed it seems to have been that of a saint.

There are some lessons today for those of us who struggle with our own mediocrity.

In the first instance, barring a real miracle, such holiness is not acquired in one day – it is the result of struggle and co-operation with God’s grace over many years. The remarkable thing about Fr Doyle’s life is that this struggle is laid bare before us in his diaries and notes. Fr Doyle was not necessarily a great theologian of the spiritual life, but he was an expert tactician of the spiritual life. His diaries reveal his numerous attempts to go against himself and empty himself of self-love so that God’s grace could more readily sanctify him. While it would not be recommended for most of us to follow Fr Doyle’s particular spiritual tactics, nonetheless the general principle of daily examination and slow steady efforts towards virtue hold true for us all.

The second lesson is the great serenity and peace that Fr Doyle felt even in the midst of grave dangers. Often we can be afraid to let go of our own will and to abandon ourselves to God. Fr Doyle’s witness shows us that we find great peace, the greatest gift of all, even in objectively horrific human circumstances.

Jesuit theologian Fr de Grandmaison

Thoughts for April 24 (St Fidelis of Sigmaringen) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Fidelis of Sigmaringen

I have long had the feeling that, since the world is growing so rapidly worse and worse and God has lost His hold, as it were, upon the hearts of men, He is looking all the more earnestly and anxiously for big things from those who are faithful to Him still. He cannot, perhaps, gather a large army round His standard, but He wants every one in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a Capuchin Franciscan who was martyred 395 years ago on this day.

St Fidelis had been a successful lawyer, but like St Alphonsus of Liguori after him, he became disillusioned with the law and felt called to the religious life. As a Capuchin priest he was renowned for his charity and care for the poor, working tirelessly to assist those suffering from the plague. He was also a devoted missionary who worked for the reunification of Christendom during the Catholic Reformation. It was in the course of these efforts that St Fidelis was killed out of hatred for the Faith by a band of men. As he was being killed, he prayed that they would be forgiven and when they encouraged him to renounce the Catholic Faith he declared that he had come to extirpate their heresy and not to embrace it. Some of those involved in his death subsequently converted to Catholicism as a result of his witness.

I’m sure that St Fidelis, who lived in the early 17th Century, would have agreed with Fr Doyle’s assessment three hundred years later that the “world is growing so rapidly worse and worse”. The division of Christianity in the West was a shattering event for those who lived through it.

If we fast forward three hundred years to Fr Doyle’s time we see a gradual weakening of moral values. Dangerous, atheistic philosophies were growing popular, subtly undermining the faith of ordinary people. In the year of Fr Doyle’s death, this philosophy of atheistic materialism made a breakthrough in Russia with devastating consequences for many millions of people for decades to come.

Every age has its crises, and it always seems that the world is indeed growing worse and worse. But yet, God still IS. The Holy Spirit is still at work, calling forth heroes who will be lovingly devoted to Him. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, He raised up great saints like St Fidelis and so many others of that era who would work for the reform and unification of the Church. We can see the same divine call for heroes, right up to the time of Fr Doyle, and indeed up to our own day.

And what of our own day? Yes, it is true that the world seems to have grown steadily worse and worse. This is so even here in Ireland where those who express Christian values are publicly mocked and made a laughing stock. Yet, God still calls for heroes who are devoted to Him. We have no excuse. If we have been born in this era of crisis it is because this is where God has placed us in order to work out our salvation and to save souls in the midst of the concrete circumstances of our lives and cultures. It has always been this way, for every age has its errors that, to borrow St Fidelis’ famous phrase, need to be extirpated rather than embraced.

Let us therefore serve God with generosity in whatever place and circumstance He has placed us. Let us never lose hope, even if the world seems to be growing steadily worse and worse. Let us remember the example of the saints, who never despaired despite the unfavourable cultures in which they laboured.

Thoughts for April 22 from Fr Willie Doyle

A mother puts her little child on its feet, but the child itself must do something, must make an effort if it wants to walk. God does all that is necessary, but man must do his share.

COMMENT: The Church has always thought that it is possible to avoid sin. It may not feel possible. But the grace is always there to avoid offending God through sin, if we truly want to avail of it. In fact, the grace is also there for us to become holy – to truly become the saints that God wants us to be. But we have to want this, and we have to be faithful to the grace that we have been given. We have to make an effort. We have to make an effort to say no to sin, to conquer ourselves and to love God and our neighbour more. The same grace is available to us as was available to the the great saints. The difference is that they were more faithful to the graces they received than we often are. St Francis Xavier is meant to have said (I can’t find the original quote) that the reason we are not saints is because we have not been faithful to the graces we have already been given. In other words, if we had been faithful we would have received even more graces to assist us along the way. 

We will conclude today with some words from St Josemaria Escriva:

When God our Lord gives us his grace, when he calls us by a specific vocation, it is as if he were stretching out his hand to us, in a fatherly way. A strong hand, full of love, because he seeks us out individually, as his own sons and daughters, knowing our weakness. The Lord expects us to make the effort to take his hand, his helping hand. He asks us to make an effort and show we are free. To be able to do this, we must be humble and realize we are little children of God. We must love the blessed obedience with which we respond to God’s marvellous fatherhood.

St Josemaria Escriva

Thoughts for April 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

“They forgot God who saved them” (Psalm 105, 21). To how many may not these words be applied today! How many there are who come into this world and pass beyond its bounds and never know the loving God who died to save them.

COMMENT: What Fr Doyle wrote 100 years ago is even more apt for our world today. How many, even in traditionally Christian countries and even among the baptised, do not know the God who created them, who loves them, who died for them and who longs for them to spend eternity in His love!

Each of us must examine our conscience and ask – what are we doing about this?

Thoughts for April 19 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Maximilian Kolbe in the concentration camp starvation bunker

If I were put in a dungeon, like the martyrs, with nothing to lie on but the bare stone floor, with no protection from intense cold, bread and water once a day for food, with no home comfort whatever, I could endure all that for years and gladly for the love of Jesus; yet I am unwilling to suffer a little inconvenience now, I must have every comfort, warm clothes, fire, food as agree able as I possibly can, etc.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle touches on a key point in today’s quote. He shows his keen understanding of the human mind, and of his own weakness. When Fr Doyle says he could suffer for years for Jesus he wasn’t speaking literally or showing off. Rather he was speaking figuratively and showing how we can so easily imagine ourselves to be heroic when heroic things come our way while really being soft and weak in our daily activities. Many of us can probably identify with this. Perhaps some momentary fervour in prayer makes us imagine that if we lived during a time of persecution like the early Christians experienced or like those that Catholics in Ireland and England experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries that we would be heroic and brave. And yet, how reluctant we are to deal with the minor inconveniences of every day. How fearful we can be of declaring ourselves to be Catholic in “polite” society or professional circles. As Jesus tells us in Luke Chapter 16, he who is faithful in little things will be faithful in big things, but he who is unfaithful in little things will be unfaithful in big things. We fool ourselves when we imagine we will be heroes in dramatic circumstances when we cannot discipline ourselves in day to day things. 

In many ways we are like Peter. He declared his loyalty to Christ at the Last Supper, and just a few hours later he denied ever knowing him. As the Imitation of Christ says:

How great is human frailty which is always prone to vice. Today you confess your sins, and tomorrow you again commit what you have confessed. Now you resolve to take care, and an hour after you act as if you had never made a resolution. We have reason therefore to humble ourselves and never to think much of ourselves since we are so frail and inconstant.

Perhaps the solution to our own weakness is not to fall into the same mistakes that Peter fell into preceding his denial – he slept instead of staying awake to watch and pray; he followed Jesus “at a distance”, and just prior to denying Jesus he was warming himself at a fire. Lack of prayer, staying some distance from Jesus, and lack of mortification all preceded Peter’s denial. Almost certainly they precede our own denials and failures also. And, if we do fall in some way, let us at least avoid the mistake of Judas, who despaired of God’s endless mercy.

Thoughts for April 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

Sanctity is so precious, it is worth paying any price for it. God sanctified souls in many ways, the path of daily and hourly sacrifices in everything and always is mine. 

Will Jesus be content with only half-measures from me? I feel He will not; He asks for all. My Jesus, with your help I will give you all.

COMMENT: Do we really believe that sanctity is worth paying any price for? Fr Doyle did. So too did the saints – they did not put limits on their love. They wanted to be holy. Do we?