18 November 1917: General Hickie’s praise for Fr Doyle

Sir William Bernard Hickie was Major General of the 16th Irish Division and knew Fr Doyle extremely well. He wrote the following in a letter to friend on 18 November 1917, 3 months after Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here.  He did his duty, and more than his duty, most nobly, and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death, 16th August, he had worked in the front line, and even in front of that line, and appeared to know no fatigue – he never knew fear.  He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day, and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge… He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Commanding Officer, by his Brigadier, and by myself.  Superior Authority, however, has not granted it, and as no other posthumous reward is given, his name will, I believe, be mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief’s Despatch…I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men; and even among these, Fr Doyle stood out.

Major General Hickie

15 November 1915: Fr Doyle is appointed as chaplain to the 16th Irish Division

Soldiers from the 16th Irish Division. Fr Doyle was appointed chaplain 106 years ago today

 

Received my appointment from the War Office as chaplain to the 16th Division. Fiat voluntas tua. What the future has in store I know not but I have given Jesus all to dispose of as He sees best. My heart is full of gratitude to Him for giving me this chance of being really generous and of leading a life that will be truly crucified.

COMMENT: The above words were written by Fr Doyle on 15 November 1915. His long desired wish to give all for Christ was approaching, and the final heroic chapter of his life was about to open.

Anyone who has read an account of the experiences of Fr Doyle in the Great War knows just how difficult and “crucified” that life really was. None of us know what the future holds in store for us. Undoubtedly it holds a mixture of joys and sufferings. Would Fr Doyle have offered himself as a military chaplain if he knew all that it would involve? I am inclined to think that he would, although we can never know for sure. What we can know is that many of us would gladly decline such sufferings if we could. But there is an important spiritual lesson in all of this. We receive grace to cope with sufferings when we actually need it, in other words, when we are actually experiencing those sufferings. As Fr Doyle once wrote, we carry our cross bit by bit, not all in one go – we take each day as it comes. We do not receive grace to bear sufferings that are not asked of us at all, or that are not asked of us yet. That is why fear about the future is such an awful thing – the imagined problems of the future lack the divine assistance that we would receive if we were actually asked to carry that particular cross. 

Fr Doyle believed in living in the present moment – it is the only time we actually have, and the only time we can truly offer to God. By cultivating this habit, and relying on the grace God gives us in the present moment, we can learn to have the same detachment and serene acceptance that Fr Doyle exhibited 106 years ago today.

11 November – 103 years since the end of World War I

 

103 years ago today the First World War came to an end. It was a dreadful war; the first industrial war in which millions were killed, and many more millions were scarred and wounded. As Fr Doyle once wrote:

This is a sad, sad war, of which you at home have but the faintest idea. May the good God end it soon.

Yet sanctity still shines through in the midst of the horrors. Apart from the case of Fr Doyle, the heroic examples of Blessed Rupert Mayer SJ and of Blessed Charles of Austria, both on the “other side,” also come to mind. Even in the midst of horror and bloodshed, the Holy Spirit continues to inspire many to acts of heroism and sanctity.

Traditionally this is a day on which all those who have died in war are remembered. It is thus a special day for remembering Fr Doyle and his own special sacrifice in giving up all worldly comforts, and laying down his own life, in order to bring comfort and the sacraments to those dying on the field of battle. He was dedicated to dying soldiers, and lost his own life while rushing into danger to assist them. In remembering Fr Doyle, it is thus right that we remember and pray for those for whom he offered his own life.

It is also a day in which we can talk to others about Fr Doyle, and seek to spread awareness of his life, and devotion to him.

For anyone interested in Fr Doyle’s military services, there is no better source than Carole Hope’s Worshipper and Worshipped. It is a definitive account of Fr Doyle’s life in the war, and can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Worshipper-Worshipped-Across-Chaplain-1915-1917/dp/1908336862

10 November 1914: Fr Doyle volunteers as a military chaplain

My offering myself as a war chaplain to the Provincial has had a wonderful effect on me. I long to go and shed my blood for Jesus, and, if He wills it, to die a martyr of charity. The thought that at any moment I may be called to the Front, perhaps to die, has roused a great desire to do all I can while I have life. I feel great strength to make any sacrifice and little difficulty in doing so. I may not have long now to prove my love for Jesus. 

Fr Doyle wrote these words on November 10 1914. As it happened he had to wait almost exactly a year before being called up as chaplain, and he had almost three years of life left. Fr Doyle had a great desire to do all he could for God and man while he had life, and he crammed much into his remaining years of life. Once again he gives an example we can all learn something from.  

24 October 1916: Fr Doyle’s night of prayer at the Front

Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on October 25 1916. It refers to the previous night, in other words, this evening and night 105 years ago. It is worth remembering that at this time Fr Doyle was at the Front. His prayer was conducted in a dug out, not in the relative comfort of a Jesuit house far from violence and death. He obviously found it hard, hence his use of the old strategy of making a vow not to give in to tiredness. We know that he spent at least one full night of prayer at the Front for the Poor Clares in Cork which he was instrumental in founding – they were experiencing some difficulties at the time. Perhaps this was the occasion on which he prayed through the night for this convent and its difficulties?

Jesus has long urged me to give Him a whole night of prayer and reparation. Last night I prayed in my dug-out at Kemmel from 9 till 5 (eight hours), most of the time on my knees. I bound myself beforehand to do so by vow in order not to let myself off. Though I had only two hours’ sleep, I am not very tired or weary today. Jesus wants more of these nights of prayer, adoration and atonement.

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.

Thoughts for October 7 (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.

 

Thoughts for the feast of the Guardian Angels from Fr Willie Doyle

 

He hath given His angels charge over us, to guide us, to guard and shelter us from dangers, to lead us safely through this world of sin and bring us to the throne prepared for us in heaven. Ever beside us our faithful angel stays. We heed him not; his spotless purity, his majestic dignity, checks us not in our career of sin; but could we see our guardian spirit when passion urges us on, the sight would check our downward path.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of the Guardian Angels. Fr Doyle had a lively sense of his angel’s closeness. Commenting on an outdoor Mass at the Front in a letter home to his father he said:

I had never celebrated Mass in the open before, and I think the men were as much impressed as I was. It was a glorious morning with just a sufficient spice of danger to give the necessary warlike touch to the picture by the presence of a German aeroplane scouting near at hand. I was a wee bit anxious lest a bomb might come down in the middle of the men, but I fancy our unwelcome visitor had quite enough to do, dodging the shells from our guns which kept booming all during Mass; besides I felt confident that for once our guardian angels would do their duty and protect us all till Mass was over.

And on another occasion he comments on the danger he faced when burying a dead soldier in a dangerous spot at night:

As soon as it was dark we carried the poor fellow out on a stretcher, just as he had fallen, and as quietly as we could began to dig the grave. It was weird. We were standing in front of the German trenches on two sides, though a fair distance away, and every now and then a star-shell went up which we felt certain would reveal our presence to the enemy. I put my ritual in the bottom of my hat and with the aid of an electric torch read the burial service, while the men screened the light with their caps, for a single flash would have turned the machine guns on us. I cannot say if we were seen or not, but all the time bullets came whizzing by, though more than likely stray ones and not aimed at us. Once I had to get the men to lie down as things were rather warm (dangerous); but somehow I felt quite safe, as if the dead soldiers guardian angel was sheltering us from all danger, till the poor dust was laid to rest. It was my first war burial though assuredly not my last. May God rest his soul and comfort those left to mourn him.

And here Fr Doyle recounts how he felt that his guardian angel helped save him from a poison gas attack:

I saw both right and left of where I stood the green wave of a second gas attack rolling towards me like some huge spectre stretching out its ghostly arms. As I saw it coming, my heart went out to God in one fervent act of gratitude for His goodness to me. As probably you know we all carry smoke helmets slung over our shoulders in a case, to be used against a gas attack. That morning as I was leaving my dugout I threw my helmet aside. I had a fairly long walk before me, the helmet is a bit heavy on a hot day, and as I said, German gas was most unlikely. So I made up my mind to leave it behind. In view of what happened, it may appear imagination now, but a voice seemed to whisper loudly in my ear: “Take your helmet with you; don t leave without it”.  I turned back and slung it over my shoulder. Surely it was the warning voice of my guardian angel, for if I had not done so, you would never have had this letter.

Later on, recounting the above close escape, he further noted: “Some invisible, almost physical, force turned me back to get my helmet”.

Sadly many people seem to have fallen into the error of believing that angels are a nice fantasy for children. We imagine them to the soft, fluffy and harmless little creatures. But the Church is very clear on the presence of the angels. And they are far from fluffy and harmless – they far surpass us in their intelligence, insight, devotion and strength. 

Devotion to the guardian angels is not unique to Fr Doyle; many saints and holy people had a similar devotion and felt that they were saved from danger by their intervention.

St Josemaria Escriva had great devotion to his guardian angel and felt that he was saved from physical danger on several occasion by his intervention. In fact he had a hidden pious practice whereby he would pause before passing through a door to allow his angel to pass ahead of him. Of course the angels are outside of time and space, but the gesture was a way of calling the presence of the angels to mind. He gave people this advice about their angel:

Have confidence in your guardian Angel. Treat him as a lifelong friend — that is what he is — and he will render you a thousand services in the ordinary affairs of each day.

St Pio of Pietrelcina had a lively devotion to his angel who provided many favours for him throughout this life; a similar tenderness and relationship can be found between St Gemma Galgani and her angel. St Francis de Sales greeted the angel of each town he passed through and gave this advice:

Seek to be familiar with the Angels; learn to realise that they are continually present, although invisible. Specially love and revere the Guardian Angel of the Diocese in which you live, those of the friends who surround you, and your own. Commune with them frequently, join in their songs of praise, and seek their protection and help in all you do, spiritual or temporal.

The missionary Bishop Alain-Marie de Boismenu, who did much heroic work in New Guinea and who died in 1953 had this to say of the angels:

By nature equal to the demons, the Holy Angels have the advantage of grace. They expose the adversary’s ruses and schemes. None of the dangers that confront us escapes their notice. They remove them, sometimes instantaneously. They always warn us about them, and if we wish, powerfully help us to confront them, calming our passions, enlightening our intelligence, strengthening our will, and uniting themselves with us to obtain an increase in grace and strength. Happy to serve God by serving us, their service is a service of love. For our dear Angels love us with a friendship that goes beyond our dreams. Knowing precisely the price paid for our souls, they desire their salvation more passionately than Satan desires their loss…Ah! If our faith were more simple, and we had a more lively sense of the presence of our angels, of their love, of the value of their services! If we were more attentive to their inspirations, more ready to call on them and more confident of their help, what a strength for ourselves and for our ministry!

While some dismiss the existence of the angels the opposing distortion about angels involves strange, New Age superstitions about them. May we all learn an authentic devotion to the angels from the example of Fr Doyle and from the saints.

The night of September 26 1915

Fr Doyle wrote the following very private notes in his diary on 27 September 1915 about his prayer the previous night:

Last night I rose at twelve, tied my arms in the form of a cross and remained in the chapel till three a.m. I was fiercely tempted not to do so, the devil suggesting that, as I had a cough, it was madness and would unfit me for the coming mission. Though I shivered with cold, I am none the worse this morning, in fact, the cough is better, proving that Jesus is pleased with these ‘holy imprudences.’ At the end of an hour I was cold and weary, I felt I could not possibly continue; but I prayed and got wonderful strength to persevere till the end of the three hours. This has shown me what I might do and how, with a little determined effort, I could overcome the greatest repugnances and seeming impossibilities.

Clearly we are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penitential and prayer practices. But it also seems clear that Fr Doyle had a special calling to prayer and penance of this nature. We are called not to judge others. We naturally interpret this to mean that we do not judge others harshly for their sins and failings. But there is another equally valid meaning: we should not judge others harshly for their piety, their prayer and their penance. Fr Doyle’s nocturnal prayer and penance has a precedent in the lives of many saints, and it seems to have indeed brought about about both spiritual and even physical fruit in his life. 

As Fr Doyle said on another occasion:

How much is comprised in the little words agere contra! Therein is the real secret of sanctity, the hidden source from which the saints have drunk deep of the love of God and reached that height of glory they now enjoy.

The phrase agere contra refers to the practice of going against oneself, of denying oneself in various ways in order to overcome our defects and vices.

It is not in vogue today, but it has traditionally been an important part of the spiritual life and it is essential in understanding the spirituality of Fr Doyle. He practiced this in so many different ways. In the note above about this night in 1915 he practiced what might be termed a harsh penance. But he also practiced, and always advocated, small and insignificant penances that have the effect of showing love for God, of making one stronger and generally equipping one for better service of others.

Anybody can adopt this type of practice in little things if the will is there – getting up on time, going to bed on time, giving up sugar in our tea, giving up butter on bread or maybe just giving up jam but keeping the butter!! Many of us make such sacrifices for earthly and mundane reasons such as our health or career or our appearances. Surely our love of God, and desire for sanctification, should be of more importance and should be a greater motivation for going against ourselves? Venerable Fr Petit, who was Fr Doyle’s spiritual director in Belgium during his tertian year, immediately after ordination, said that we find self-denial difficult because we have such little love of Jesus.

25 September 1916

I was very much annoyed because because someone burnt the floor of my dug-out and also on finding my candles had been taken. On arriving at Locre I found a second bed in my room and heard that X was coming, This upset and worried me terribly till I realised that all these things were God’s doing and that He wished to annihilate my will, so that I should never feel even the smallest interior disturbance no matter what might happen. I have secretly given permission to everyone to treat me as he wishes and to trample on me; why then should I not try to live up to this life?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a strong will, and with a strong will often comes a quick temper. We see here various situations which interiorly annoyed Fr Doyle but which he also used as a way of growing in virtue. There is every indication from Fr Doyle’s private notes and the testimony of those who knew him that, with the help of God, he more than conquered his annoyances and temper. We, too, can do the same if we learn to see every moment as an opportunity to grow in virtue.