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, though it is not celebrated as it is a Sunday. 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.

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Thoughts for April 21 from Fr Willie Doyle

This morning I lay awake powerless to over come myself and to make my promised visit to the chapel. Then I felt prompted to pray; I said five aspirations and rose without difficulty. How many victories I could win by this easy and powerful weapon!

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was tough. It’s a bit consoling to read about his difficulty getting out of bed. But in all of the things Fr Doyle did he relied on the grace of God to see him through. When we read about his heroics and austerities in the war it’s sometimes easy to forget that he came from a very comfortable and privileged background; that he suffered from poor health, that he had a constant digestive ailment of some sort, and that he had previously had a nervous breakdown from the shock of a fire in his novitiate. yet here he is, in his mid 40’s, a tower of strength and composure to whom the fighting men flocked for comfort. It was the grace of God that transformed Fr Doyle through many “small victories”.

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?

The Titanic, Fr Frank Browne and Fr Willie Doyle

 

106 years ago today, the Titanic sank with the loss of 1,514 lives. 

A lot of the media coverage of the anniversary, in Ireland at least, tends to mention Fr Francis Browne S.J., and rightly so. For those who do not know, Fr Browne (or Br Browne, as he then was) was a passenger on board the Titanic as it sailed from Southampton to Cobh. He was due to leave the ship at Cobh, but some wealthy passengers offered to pay for his ticket all the way to the US. He telegraphed his provincial for permission, but he received a short and terse message in reply – “Get off that ship”. Religious obedience saved his life. Fr Browne is significant in the Titanic story because he was an enthusiastic photographer, and he took the only photographs of the Titanic at sea. In fact, some of his photos are the only photos we have of certain rooms on the Titanic.

Fr Frank Browne

Fr Browne played an important role in Fr Doyle’s life – they were together in the schools at Clongowes and Belvedere, but in particular they worked together as military chaplains in World War I, and they had great esteem for each other. I have been told that, so great was Fr Browne’s respect for Fr Doyle, that he kept a pair of Fr Doyle’s shoes as a relic and only ever wore them while saying Mass.

O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle recounts a touching scene in which both priests arose exhausted, at 1am on Corpus Christi, June 7 1917, to say Mass before moving off to the front line. Fr Doyle, who was older and senior to Fr Browne, made a resolution to ask Fr Browne to treat him like a slave, so that he could experience occasions for perfecting the virtue of humility. It’s not known if Fr Browne took him up on this offer!

Fr Browne and Fr Doyle used to relieve each other at the front line, and would hear each other’s confessions whenever they swapped over. Here is Fr Browne’s description of this arrangement:

During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days. I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away. He knew how I hated it — and I did not hate it half as much as he did. We used generally to confess each other before leaving. We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.

However, Fr Browne was appointed chaplain to a different group of soldiers on August 2 1917, but due to a mix up his replacement never showed up. This meant that Fr Doyle had double the work with no rest and was the only chaplain to 4 Battalions from August 2 to his death on August 16, and that during some of the worst days of battle. Fr Doyle commented on this loss of Fr Browne’s company in these terms:

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.

Here is some of Fr Browne’s testimony about Fr Doyle, written on August 15 1917, just a day before Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: — ‘Little Fr. Doyle’ — they all call him that, more in affection than anything else — ‘deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery’. Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again.’

I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.

Fr Browne was also there for Fr Doyle’s last homily – Fr Browne said Mass and Fr Doyle preached at the Mass in late July 1917 in front of 2,500 Irish soldiers in the church at St. Omer in France. Here is Fr Browne’s account of Fr Doyle’s homily:

From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O’Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

When Fr Browne heard of Fr Doyle’s death, he wrote the following in a letter on August 20: 

All during these last months he was my greatest help, and to his saintly advice, and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything I felt and did. With him, as with others of us, his bravery was no mere physical show-off. He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise. And yet the last word said of him to me by the Adjutant of the Royal Irish Rifles in answer to my question, ‘I hope you are taking care of Fr. Doyle?’, was, ‘He is as fond of the shells as ever.’ His one idea was to do God’s work with the men, to make them saints. How he worked and how he prayed for this! Fine weather and foul he was always thinking of them and what he could do for them. In the cold winter he would not use the stove I bought for our dug-out. He scoffed at the idea as making it ‘stuffy’ – and that when the thermometer was fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, the coldest ever known in living memory here.

And how he loathed it all, the life and everything it implied! And yet nobody suspected it. God’s Will was his law. And to all who remonstrated, ‘Must I not be about the Lord’s business?’ was his laughing answer in act and deed and not merely in word. May he rest in peace — it seems superfluous to pray for him.

And so back to the Titanic…I read with interest recently the story of three different priests – a German, a Lithuanian and an Englishman, who stayed on board the Titanic to minister to those who were inevitably going to die. Like Fr Doyle who died while trying to minister to wounded soldiers, these three priests, by refusing to get into lifeboats, gave up their lives to serve others. What a powerful witness and example of heroic charity. Surely the cause of these “Titanic martyrs of charity” should be introduced? You may read more about them here:

Father Juozas Montvila http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/juozas-montvila.html

Father Thomas Byleswww.fatherbyles.com

Thoughts for April 15 from Fr Willie Doyle

What more insignificant than the ordinary daily duties of religious life! Each succeeding hour brings with it some allotted task, yet in the faithful performance of these trifling acts of our everyday life lies the secret of true sanctity. Too often the constant repetition of the same acts, though in themselves they be of the holiest nature, makes us go through them in a mechanical way We meditate, we assist at holy Mass, more from a sense of duty than from any affection to prayer. Our domestic duties, our hours of labour, of teaching, are faithfully discharged — but what motive has animated us in their performance? Have we not worked because we must, or unconsciously because the bell has rung, rather than from the motive of pleasing God and doing His will?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on this day in 1905. While he writes about religious life, the point he makes is equally applicable to all of us. We have duties to perform in both the temporal and spiritual realm. Faithful adherence to our duty is a road to, and a hallmark of, sanctity. But are we merely adhering to our duty out of a sense of duty or even because we have no choice, or are we joyfully performing our duty out of love for God and for His glory? It is certainly meritorious to doggedly stick to our duty out of a sense of fidelity to our duty, but joyfully embracing to for love of God is a more perfect act. 

Some people are called to do great things, but generally most of us are called to fidelity in small matters. What matters to God is not the magnitude to the task He gives us, but rather our faithfulness and love in performing it. The widow with her mite was more generous than those who donated far greater sums of money.

22.4.2010: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna