Thoughts for October 9 from Fr Willie Doyle

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.

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Thoughts for the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary from Fr Willie Doyle

Our Lady of the Rosary

To Mary’s feet in heaven today the angels come in never-ending stream to lay before her the offerings of her loving earthly children. To their Queen they bear fair wreaths of lovely roses. In many a lonely cottage or amid the bustle of the great city have these crowns been formed. Little ones and old folk, the pious nun and holy priest, the sinner too and many a wandering soul, have added to the glory of the Queen of Heaven; and from every corner of this earth to-day has risen the joyous praise of her who is Queen of the Holy Rosary. On earth she was the lowly handmaid of the Lord, and now all generations proclaim the greatness of her name.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Fr Doyle was of course very devoted to the rosary, and it formed an important part of his spiritual life.

He wrote the following in his diary on 22nd January 1915:

Last night I rose at twelve and knelt in the cellar for an hour to suffer from the cold. It was a hard fight to do so, but Jesus helped me. I said my rosary with arms extended. At the third mystery the pain was so great that I felt I could not possibly continue; but at each Ave I prayed for strength and was able to finish it. This has given me great consolation by showing the many hard things I could do with the help of prayer.

Fr Doyle was renowned for encouraging the soldiers to say the rosary, especially during the May devotions when he organised Marian processions. He makes the following touching observation in a letter to his father:

There were many little touching incidents during these days; one especially I shall not easily forget. When the men had left the field after the evening devotions, I noticed a group of three young boys, brothers I think, still kneeling saying another rosary. They knew it was probably their last meeting on earth and they seemed to cling to one another for mutual comfort and strength, and instinctively turned to the Blessed Mother to help them in their hour of need. There they knelt as if they were alone and unobserved, their hands clasped and faces turned towards heaven, with such a look of beseeching earnestness that the Mother of Mercy surely must have heard their prayer: Holy Mary pray for us now at the hour of our death. Amen.

As has been mentioned many times in the past, Fr Doyle had a great sense of humour and cheerfulness, so the following humorous anecdote deserves mention on this feast (bearing in mind the courage it must have taken to even summon up this cheerfulness when  faced with the horrors of war):

When night fell, I made my way up to a part of the Line which could not be approached in daylight, to bury an officer and some men. A couple of grimy, unwashed figures emerged from the bowels of the earth to help me, but first knelt down and asked for Absolution. They then leisurely set to work to fill in the grave. “Hurry up, boys”, I said, “I don’t want to have to bury you as well”, for the spot was a hot one. They both stopped working much to my disgust, for I was just longing to get away. “Be gobs, Father”, replied one, “I haven’t the divil a bit of fear in me now after the holy Absolution”. “Nor I”, chimed in the other, “I am as happy as a king”. The poor Padre who had been keeping his eye on a row of crumps (German shells) which were coming unpleasantly near felt anything but happy; however there was nothing for it but to stick it out as the men were in a pious mood; and he escaped at last, grateful that he was not asked to say the rosary.

Today was previously known as the feast of Our Lady of Victory. It origin commemorates the famous, and historically significant, victory of Christendom against the Turkish forces in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Pope St Pius V had urged Christians to pray the rosary for the success of the Christian forces, and despite the superiority of the Turkish navy, Christendom had a famous victory in the largest naval battle in over 1,500. More about the significance of this day can be read here.

We may not be called to military victories at this precise moment, but we are still called to victories against the enemy of our soul and the vices and defects he inspires within us. Many the Queen of the Rosary, the mediatrix of grace, procure for us the victory we need.

13 September 1917: Praise for Fr Doyle from Lt. Col. Stirke

Lieutenant Colonel H. R. Stirke, who commanded the 8th Dublins, had the following praise for Fr Doyle in a note that he wrote on this day in 1917:

He was one of the finest fellows I ever met, utterly fearless, always with a cheery word on his lips, and ever ready to go out and attend the wounded and dying under the heaviest fire. He was genuinely loved by everyone, and thoroughly deserved the unstinted praise he got from all ranks for his rare pluck and devotion to duty.

Thoughts for September 13 from Fr Willie Doyle

I realise in a way I never did before that God created me for His service, that He has a strict right that I should serve Him perfectly, and that every moment of my life is His and given to me for the one end of praising and serving Him. I recall with horror how often I have wandered from this my end, what an appalling amount of time I have wasted, and how few of my actions were done for God or worthy of being offered to Him. I see what I should have been and what I am. But the thought of Jesus waiting and eagerly looking out for me, the prodigal, during fifteen years, has filled me with hope and confidence and new resolve to turn to my dearest Jesus and give Him all He asks.

I have begun to try to perform each little action with great fervour and exactness, having as my aim to get back the fervour of my first year’s novitiate.

COMMENT: In today’s comments Fr Doyle touches on one of the fundamental facts of life: we are made to know, love and serve God. St Ignatius expresses it this way in the Spiritual Exercises:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

St Josemaria Escriva put it slightly differently:

Our Lord has given us as a present our very lives, our senses, our faculties, and countless graces. We have no right to forget that each of us is a worker.

Once we see this fact, everything changes. For Fr Doyle, recognising this had a profound effect, unleashing all of his efforts towards loving God and those around him.

But as has been said before on this site, recognising this doesn’t mean that we have to necessarily undertake dangerous missions or become a military chaplain. As Fr Doyle put it:

I have begun to try to perform each little action with great fervour and exactness.

St Josemaria Escriva

9 September 1917 – praise for Fr Doyle from Dr Buchanan

For fifteen months Fr Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, we 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, but he had other sterling qualities, which we all recognised only too well. Her was beloved and respected, not only by those of his own faith, but equally by Protestants, to which denomination I belong…For his broad-mindedness we loved him. He seldom, if ever, preached, but he set us a shining example of a Christian life.

It is worth remembering what Fr Doyle did for Dr Buchanan. One night, when the doctor was sick, and there was no dry bedding in the dug-out, Fr Doyle lay face down on the damp ground and insisted that the doctor try to sleep on his back, in order to afford him some small chance of recuperation. The sacrifice and self-denial in this act is breath taking to me. 

9 September 1916 – Mass at the Battle of the Somme

This is one of my favourite scenes from all of Fr Doyle’s writings – 101 years ago today.

By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit box supported on two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice — but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.

Thoughts for September 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

We continue the narrative from O’Rahilly’s biography which recounts the events of September 5, 1916. Please note: this excerpt reveals the true horror of war, and those who are a bit squeamish may prefer to skip the first couple of paragraphs.

At last came the expected order to advance at once and hold the front line, the part assigned being Leuze Wood, the scene of much desperate fighting. Fr. Doyle may be left to describe the journey and the scene.

“The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud, and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot. It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we marched in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts. I shall spare you gruesome details, but you can picture one s sensations as one felt the ground yield under one’s foot, and one sank down through the body of some poor fellow.

“Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefield of some days previous. The wounded, at least I hope so, had all been removed, but the dead lay there stiff and stark, with open staring eyes, just as they had fallen. Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality. Some lay as if they were sleeping quietly, others had died in agony, or had had the life crushed out of them by mortal fear, while the whole ground, every foot of it, was littered with heads or limbs or pieces of torn human bodies. In the bottom of one hole lay a British and a German soldier, locked in a deadly embrace, neither had any weapon, but they had fought on to the bitter end. Another couple seemed to have realised that the horrible struggle was none of their making, and that they were both children of the same God; they had died hand-in-hand praying for and forgiving one another. A third face caught my eye, a tall, strikingly handsome young German, not more, I should say, than eighteen. He lay there calm and peaceful, with a smile of happiness on his face, as if he had had a glimpse of Heaven before he died. Ah, if only his poor mother could have seen her boy it would have soothed the pain of her broken heart.

“We pushed on rapidly through that charnel house, for the stench was fearful, till we stumbled across a sunken road. Here the retreating Germans had evidently made a last desperate stand, but had been caught by our artillery fire. The dead lay in piles, the blue grey uniforms broken by many a khaki-clad body. I saw the ruins of what was evidently the dressing station, judging by the number of bandaged men about; but a shell had found them out even here and swept them all into the net of death.

“A halt for a few minutes gave me the opportunity I was waiting for. I hurried along from group to group, and as I did the men fell on their knees to receive absolution. A few words to give them courage, for no man knew if he would return alive. A God bless and protect you, boys, and I passed on to the next company. As I did, a soldier stepped out of the ranks, caught me by the hand, and said: I am not a Catholic, sir, but I want to thank you for that beautiful prayer. The regiments moved on to the wood, while the doctor and I took up our positions in the dressing station to wait for the wounded. This was a dug-out on the hill facing Leuze Wood, and had been in German occupation the previous afternoon.

“To give you an idea of my position. From where I stood the ground sloped down steeply into a narrow valley, while on the opposite hill lay the wood, half of which the Fusiliers were holding, the Germans occupying the rest; the distance across being so short I could easily follow the movements of our men without a glass.

“Fighting was going on all round, so that I was kept busy, but all the time my thoughts and my heart were with my poor boys in the wood opposite. They had reached it safely, but the Germans somehow had worked round the sides and temporarily cut them off. No food or water could be sent up, while ten slightly wounded men who tried to come back were shot down, one after another. To make matters worse, our own artillery began to shell them, inflicting heavy losses, and though repeated messages were sent back, continued doing so for a long time. It appears the guns had fired so much that they were becoming worn out, making the shells fall 300 yards short.

“Under these circumstances it would be madness to try and reach the wood, but my heart bled for the wounded and dying lying there alone. When dusk came I made up my mind to try and creep through the valley, more especially as the fire had slackened very much, but once again the Providence of God watched over me. As I was setting out I met a sergeant who argued the point with me. ‘You can do little good, Father’, he said, ‘down there in the wood, and will only run a great risk. Wait till night comes and then we shall be able to bring all the wounded up here. Don’t forget that, though we have plenty of officers and to spare, we have only one priest to look after us.’ The poor fellow was so much in earnest I decided to wait a little at least. It was well I did so, for shortly afterwards the Germans opened a terrific bombardment and launched a counter attack on the wood. Some of the Cornwalls, who were holding a corner of the wood, broke and ran, jumping right on top of the Fusiliers. Brave Paddy from the Green Isle stood his ground …. and drove the Germans back with cold steel.

“Meanwhile we on the opposite hill were having a most unpleasant time. A wounded man had reported that the enemy had captured the wood. Communication was broken and Headquarters had no information of what was going on. At that moment an orderly dashed in with the startling news that the Germans were in the valley, and actually climbing our hill. Jerusalem! We non-combatants might easily escape to the rear, but who would protect the wounded? They could not be abandoned. If it were day light the Red Cross would give us protection, but in the darkness of the night the enemy would not think twice about flinging a dozen bombs down the steps of the dug-out. I looked round at the bloodstained walls and shivered. A nice coward, am I not  Thank God, the situation was not quite so bad as reported ; our men got the upper hand, and drove back the attack, but that half-hour of suspense will live long in my memory.”