23 April 1916: Fr Doyle’s first Mass in the trenches

My church was a bit of a trench, the altar a pile of sandbags. Though we had to stand deep in mud, not knowing the moment a sudden call to arms would come, many a fervent prayer went up to Heaven that morning.

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16 April 1916

It was a memorable six days for us all, living day and night literally face to face with death at any moment. When I left my dug-out to go up or down the street, which I had to do scores of times daily, I never knew if I should reach the end of it without being hit by a bullet or piece of shell, and in the comparative safety of the cellar at meals, or in bed, there was always the pleasant prospect of being blown to bits, or buried alive, if a large shell came in a certain direction. The life was a big strain on the nerves, for it does make one ‘creepy’ to hear (as happened to myself yesterday) the rattle of shell splinters on the walls, on either side of the road: almost to feel the thud of a nice jagged lump right behind, and see another fragment go hopping off the road a few yards in front. Why, Daniel in the Lion’s Den had a gay and festive time compared to a walk through the main street of Loos.

I have seen very clearly since I came out here that Jesus wanted to teach me one lesson at least. I think the want of absolute submission to His will has been the cause of much I have suffered. He asked me to make the sacrifice of my life, but I was unwilling. Not indeed that in any sense I fear death – would not heaven be a welcome exchange? – but knowing what I do about the state of the world, the millions to be saved, and how little he is known and loved or thought about, I felt it hard, very hard, to leave all that work there and go and to enjoy the happiness of His company. Then, too, my mind is full of plans for His glory; and perhaps more than all, I know very well I have not done the work He gave me to do, that is, I have never fully lived the life He has so often asked for and make clearly known to me; I was too ungenerous and cowardly. That life, to put it in a word, was to be one in which I should ‘refuse Him no sacrifice He asked’. However grace has won the day. I think I can say with truth that I have now no desire or wish except his. I have told Him 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. In return He has made me see that without this absolute abandonment to His pleasure, without the breaking of my own will, a life of immolation as His victim is a farce. The ‘perfect renunciation’ may be easy, but ‘without murmur of complaint’ is the real test of the true lover.

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

3 April 1916

I had an opportunity, a rare one, thanks to the fog, of examining closely in daylight one of the wonders of the war, the famous Crucifix or Calvary of Loos. This is a very large cross standing on a mound in a most exposed position, the centre of fierce fighting. One of the four trees standing by it has been torn up by a shell, the branches of the others smashed to bits, a tombstone at its feet lies broken in half and the houses on either side are a heap of ruins. But neither cross nor figure has been touched. I looked closely and could not see even one bullet hole. Surely if the Almighty can protect the image of His Son, it will be no great difficulty to guard His priest also, as indeed He has done in a wonderful way.

Thoughts for Easter Sunday from Fr Willie Doyle

 

May every Easter blessing be yours, and may our crucified Jesus, Who has certainly drawn you to Him on the cross, raise you up now in the glory of His Resurrection.

COMMENT: Christ is risen! Let us celebrate with great joy!

Fr Doyle has left us some notes which reveal to us something of his experiences on some Easter Sundays during his life. They reveal his missionary zeal and also his good cheer, even in the midst of sufferings. I have chosen just two – his first Easter Sunday as a priest and the last Easter Sunday of his life. 

Easter Sunday 1908, on a mission in Yarmouth: 

I had a strange experience which seemed providential. In my wanderings through the slums I came across by accident an old woman over ninety who had not entered a church for long, long years. ‘I have led a wicked life,’  she said, ‘but every day I asked God to send me a good friend before I died and I feel now my prayer is heard.’ The next day I came back and heard her Confession, and brought her Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. As the tears streamed down her old withered face she said, ‘Oh, Father this is the first happy day of my life, for I have never known what happiness is since I was a child.’ I could not help feeling that the opening of heaven to that poor sinner was a reward more than enough for all the long years of preparation now passed.

This second quote comes from Easter Sunday 1917, just 4 months before his death. His touching, and respectful, comments about the local French girls shows his good humour and naturalness, even in the midst of much suffering in the war.

Easter Sunday was quite a red letter day in the annals of the town (Pas de Calais, France). The regiment turned out in full strength, headed by the pipers, and crowded the sanctuary, every inch of the church, and out beyond. I had eight stalwart sergeants standing guard with fixed bayonets round the altar. At the Consecration and also at the Communion of the Mass the buglers sounded the Royal Salute which is only given to Monarchs. The guard at the word of command presented arms, and in our poor humble way we tried to do honour to the Almighty King of Kings on the day of His glorious triumph. I must not forget to add that the lassies and maidens did us the honour of coming to sing during Mass, casting many an envious glance (so rumour says) down on the handsome Irish lads praying so devoutly below.

Let us go and meet the risen Lord, sounding the Royal Salute within our own souls.

Spy Wednesday 1917

On Spy Wednesday evening after Benediction, I told the men I wanted nine volunteers to watch an hour during the following night before the Altar of Repose. I had barely finished speaking when the whole church made a rush up to the altar rails and were keenly disappointed when I could only take the first nine, though I could have had thirty an hour if I wanted them. I was touched by the poor fellows’ generosity, for they had just finished a long, hard day’s work with more before them. I got the nine men to bring their blankets into the little sacristy, and while one watched, the others slept. Surely our Lord must have been pleased with His Guard if Honour, and will bless them as only he can.

17 February 1916

Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 102 years ago today. Here are his sentiments on this occasion, as captured in a letter written to his father just half an hour before departure.

I set out to face to future with a certain amount of trepidation…Strange to say, I have not the smallest anxiety about the possible dangers of warfare, not so great for me, as for others, but I do dread the horrors of the battlefield which all say no words can picture. Still it is a consolation to know what a comfort the mere presence of a priest is to both officers and men alike. They are one and all going to face their duty with the joy of heart which comes with a clear conscience; many of them had not been to confession for over twenty years.