Death is the end of all things here, the end of time, of merit, of pain and mortification, of a hard life. It is the commencement of an eternal life of happiness and joy. In this light, life is short indeed and penance sweet. I thought if I knew I had only one year to live, how fervently I would spend it, how each moment would be utilised. Yet I know well I may not live a week more do I really believe this?
COMMENT: Today is the anniversary of the death of St Benedict, and in the older calendar it is his feast day. St Benedict, like St Joseph, is the patron of a happy death. Much of what we know about St Benedict comes from the writings of St Gregory the Great. Here is his description of the death of St Benedict on this day in 543.
Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.
St Benedict’s death was a peaceful one. Fr Doyle spent himself tirelessly to try to bring a peaceful death to many fallen soldiers. His was the last face many of them saw, as he brought the consolation of his priestly presence in their last moments. It was in this cause that he died, when he ran into no man’s land to rescue two wounded officers and was himself killed in the process.
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: Today is the feast of St Joseph, transferred from the 19th this year because it was a Sunday. We traditionally pray to St Joseph for many things – work, fidelity to one’s vocation, purity, the protection of the Church, even selling a house. But St Joseph is also regarded as the patron saint of a happy death, because tradition tells us that he died with Jesus and Mary at his side – a happy death indeed!
Fr Doyle’s mother – Christina Doyle – died at 7am on the feast of St Joseph 1915. Fr Doyle had just returned from a mission in Glasgow and was with her when she died, and was able to say Mass immediately for her soul. Fr Doyle’s parents are buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, very near Dalkey where they lived. Below is a photo of their grave.
St Joseph is a powerful patron; many saints were greatly devoted to him. St Teresa of Avila tells us that he always answered her prayers. Blessed Pius IX proclaimed St Joseph as the patron of the Universal Church. We should have recourse to him for the needs of the Church, which are very great at this time.
This is Fr Doyle’s detailed description of his work as military chaplain on Sunday 19 March 1916.
I started at seven in the morning by giving Holy Communion to the men whose Confessions I had heard the previous evening, a goodly number I am glad to say. This was followed by a number of Confessions in French for the townspeople and some French soldiers. I am quite ready to face any language at the present moment. This brought me up to nine, when my men had Mass Parade.
By chance the whole Regiment were in the village which meant of course that the Church would not hold them, so I had arranged for Mass in the open. The spot I selected was a large courtyard in front of the school whereby hangs a tale. Armed with the Mayor’s permission I approached the schoolmaster for his sanction, and I must say found him most obliging and very gracious, even helping to get things ready. It was only afterwards that I discovered that this man was a red-hot anti-clerical, anti everything that was gpod in fact, quite a bad lot, so that my request was about the same as asking the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Belfast for permission to have Mass in his hall! He was so staggered, I suppose, by my innocent request that he could not find words to refuse. But the good folk of the town are wild with delight and immensely tickled by the idea of Mass in the porch of his school above all people ; needless to say, they have rubbed it into him well.
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.
When I finished breakfast, I found a big number of men waiting for Confession. I gave them Communion as well, though they were not fasting, as they were going to the trenches that evening and being in danger of death could receive the Blessed Sacrament as Viaticum. It was the last Communion for many poor fellows who, I trust, are praying for me in Heaven now.
Having polished off all who came to the Church, I made a raid on the men’s billets, and spent a few hours in stables, barns, in fact anywhere, shriving the remainder who gladly availed themselves of the chance of settling up accounts before they started for the front. The harvest, thank God, was good and consoling. Just before they marched at six in the evening, I gave the whole regiment the Catholics, at least a General Absolution. So the men went off in the best of spirits, light of heart with the joy of a good conscience. ‘ Good-bye, Father,’one shouted, ‘we are ready to meet the devil himself now’ which I trust he did.
I dined with the two transport officers who bring up the rations and ammunition to the soldiers and then mounted my horse and rode up to Headquarters at the communication trenches. I have a good old beast of a horse, quiet but with plenty of pace, who simply turns up her nose at a bursting shell with supreme contempt. All went well till suddenly six of our guns, hidden by the roadside (they seemed to me to be in the middle of the road judging by the noise) went off with a bang. This was not playing the game, and ‘Flunkibrandos’ (the horse’s name) stopped dead, or rather reversed engines and began to go astern. I tried to think of all the manoeuvre, and was devoutly wishing I had a bridle tied to her tail, for ‘Flunki’ backed and backed until she pulled up with a bump against a brick wall which the Germans had kindly spared – one of the few, it must be confessed, left in that town, when she sailed ahead again as if nothing had happened. I am bringing home a brick of that wall, for if it had not been there I certainly should be half way across Germany now.
My work done I mounted again and made for home. It was rather weird riding past the shattered houses in the dark, with the ping of a stray bullet to make you uncomfortable, while every few minutes a brilliant star- shell would burst overhead and the guns spat viciously at each other. An officer told me in the early days of the war our star-shells were a miserable failure, and when at last we got the right thing, the Germans greeted their first appearance with a great cheer; the war has its humorous as well as its tragic side. I reached my billet and tumbled in just as the clock struck midnight.
The events described in Fr Doyle’s letter below occurred on 18 March 1917 (Passion Sunday in that year). The statue Fr Doyle refers to was a specially commissioned statue of Our Lady of Victories, paid for by members of the 16th Irish Division, constructed in honour of the dead of the Division. Then statue was due to be erected in the church of Noeux-les-Mines, in the district of Loos where the Division was stationed for some time. It avoided narrowly avoided destruction, unlike the rest of the church…
On Passion Sunday, as I told you, the men arrived with the box and asked him where he wished the statue of Our Lady of Victories to be erected. As it was only a quarter of an hour before High Mass he told them to come back later and then turned into his own garden a few yards away to finish his office. The Mass servers were playing outside the church, which at that moment, was empty, the sacristan having finished his preparations had lately left, when a 15 inch shell fired from a German naval gun about the distance of Skerries from where you are crashed through the wall and exploded in the Sanctuary. As a rule shells burst on impact, but this being an armour piercing shell, came through the wall like paper and exploded inside, with results impossible to describe.
When I went into the ruin I exclaimed to Mons le Curé ‘surely you have had fifty shells in here!’ ‘No’, he answered, ‘only one. The havoc you see is the work of a single shot.’ Not a trace of the beautiful altar where I so often offered the Holy Sacrifice remains. The carved stalls, the altar rails, benches and chairs are smashed into splinters, the roof and parts of the walls are stripped of plaster. I have never seen such a scene of desolation and destruction, the explanation being that the explosion took place inside the church and the liberated gases rushed round like ten thousand mad animals, rending and tearing all they met, seeking for an exit.
The building was nearly as large as Kingstown church, but from end to end it is a perfect ruin. Pictures, organ, statues, all are gone, the door of the sacristy blown in and the vestments torn to ribbons, while not a particle of the beautiful stained glass, which filled the twenty large windows, remains now.
There is just one ray of comfort in this sad destruction, not a life was lost. Ten minutes later the church would have been crowded with civilians and soldiers; few of them, probably, would have been touched by bits of the shell, but not a soul could have been left alive by the shock. I have seen on the battlefield men, sometimes a row at a time, standing or leaning against a trench, untouched by bullet or shrapnel, simply killed by the force of an exploding shell. You can picture the result in a strong enclosed building.
Here, as in so many other places, God again showed His power in a wonderful way. Quite near the altar stood a magnificent Calvary; one arm of the Crucified is torn off, but otherwise neither the figure nor the cross is injured. Poor St John got badly smashed up and Saint Mary Magdalen has a bullet through her heart, the very thing she would have asked for, but our Blessed Lady, with the exception of a slight scratch on one hand ‘stands by the cross’ absolutely untouched, in the midst of all the havoc and ruin.
The shell you will remember fell in the sanctuary, blowing the altar to bits. After much search and digging among the debris the tabernacle was found, whole and entire; inside the ciborium,or sacred vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament, was standing upright, not even the cover having been knocked off and the Consecrated particles in perfect order, though the tabernacle must have been blown to the ceiling.
I beg of God whom I love to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I be without burial itself, or my corpse be most miserably divided, limb by limb, amongst dogs and fierce beasts, or the birds of the air devour it. I think it most certain that if this happens to me, I shall have gained my soul with my body.
COMMENT: These thoughts are not in fact from Fr Doyle, but instead are from St Patrick. Given the importance of today’s great feast for the Church in Ireland it seems appropriate to lead with a quote from our national patron saint instead of from Fr Doyle.
But even though Fr Doyle did not write these words, they could so easily apply to him. Fr Doyle did shed his blood with his men in the battle field, and his corpse was probably “miserably divided”, whether through the action of a German shell or some other process.
There are many other similarities between Fr Doyle and St Patrick, not the least of which was the zeal and originality with which they both evangelised their respective cultures, their nocturnal vigils and their tendency to “count” their prayers – St Patrick tells us that he used to say a hundred prayers during the day and almost as many at night while Fr Doyle’s remarkable “spiritual accountancy” by which he counted his thousands of daily aspirations remains a source of mystery to us today.
Both also had a strong urging towards reparation. Consider the following from St Patrick:
Today I may confidently offer Him a sacrifice – my soul as a living victim to Christ my Lord.
Fr Doyle made a similar offering in 1913:
I offer myself to You to be Your Victim in the fullest sense of the word. I deliver to You my body, my soul, my heart, all that I have, that You may dispose of and immolate them according to Your good pleasure. Do with me as You please, without consulting my desires, my repugnances, my wishes.
Today is a great day for the Irish. But we must remember that it is NOT a day for celebrating Irishness per se. It is a day for celebrating the gift of the Catholic Faith in Ireland. It is a day of thanksgiving for the courage and fortitude of St Patrick in bringing us this priceless gift. It is also a day of thanksgiving for all of those countries who received the light of faith indirectly through St Patrick, by means of the many selfless Irish missionaries over the centuries. In particular we think of the many European countries that were evangelised by Irish monks, and in recent centuries those parts of America, Australia, Africa and Asia that were so well served by Irish missionaries, even up to this day (including some regular readers of this site!).
But in addition to our celebrations, perhaps today should also contain a certain element of penance. Not only did Irish priests and religious export the genuine Faith to many countries, but a number of them exported vice and corruption as well. Some of the abuses in America, Australia and Canada can unfortunately be traced back to Irish priests and religious…
Let us consider then this verse from one of the Epistles approved for use at Mass for the feast of St Patrick:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
We see these itching ears in the drift towards an aggressive secularism in some quarters and the refusal of a vocal minority to recognise any good in the Church, accompanied by a desire to see its destruction. We also see these itching ears in the growth of superstition and New Age “spirituality”. And most damningly we saw it in the moral relativism and/or cowardice that failed to recognise, or act against, the evils of abuse, preferring the advice of secular therapists rather than the advice of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. For all of this, reparation is needed.
But we should avoid pessimism, for there is still life and holiness in the Church in this country.
Let us turn to our great patron St Patrick, asking him for holiness in our land. We should also pray to him for more Irish beatifications and canonisations so that we can have modern heroes to emulate in our own lives and to aid our evangelisation. Ireland has a poor record in this regard. And perhaps you might say a prayer for the writer of this blog, for St Patrick is my name saint (in some countries this is more significant than one’s birthday).
We shall conclude today with our beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict’s prayer for Ireland:
God of our fathers, renew us in the faith which is our life and salvation, the hope which promises forgiveness and interior renewal, the charity which purifies and opens our hearts to love you, and in you, each of our brothers and sisters.
Lord Jesus Christ, may the Church in Ireland renew her age-old commitment to the education of our young people in the way of truth and goodness, holiness and generous service to society.
Holy Spirit, comforter, advocate and guide, inspire a new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal for the Church in Ireland.
May our sorrow and our tears, our sincere effort to redress past wrongs, and our firm purpose of amendment bear an abundant harvest of grace for the deepening of the faith in our families, parishes, schools and communities, for the spiritual progress of Irish society, and the growth of charity, justice, joy and peace within the whole human family.
To you, Triune God, confident in the loving protection of Mary, Queen of Ireland, our Mother, and of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and all the saints, do we entrust ourselves, our children, and the needs of the Church in Ireland.
The path of life is rough and stony. Sharp flints and hidden thorns are thickly strewn upon its surface, wounding our weary feet as we toil ever onwards and upwards towards our heavenly home. Does our courage fail, do our hearts grow faint? Do our aching eyes look sadly upon that broad and tempting way, so bright, so pleasant, so attractive to our senses but which we know would lead us on to destruction ? Then turn to Christ as He hangs upon the cruel gibbet with outstretched arms and bleeding hands.
My intense desire and longing is to make others love Jesus and to draw them to His Sacred Heart. Recently at Mass I have found myself at the Dominus Vobiscum opening my arms wide with the intention of embracing every soul present and drawing them in spite of themselves into that Heart which longs for their love.
COMMENT: We cannot truly encourage others to love Jesus unless we love Him ourselves. Similarly, we know that we do not truly love Jesus unless we want others to know and love Him.
Fr Doyle was a most effective mission preacher and retreat master who longed to make Jesus known and loved. O’Rahilly reports that during some missions, Fr Doyle could be found at the docks at midnight searching out sailors arriving into port, urging them to come to the church and occasionally hearing their confessions on the spot. He could also be found the next day before 6.00am, searching out those on their way to work in factories. Fr Doyle was an indefatigable apostle, seeking out the lost sheep wherever they may be. We could do well to learn from his approach…
Fr Doyle’s efforts found much success. As he wrote once in a letter:
I have not met a single refusal to come to the mission or to confession so far during my missionary career. Why should there be one because Jesus for some mysterious reason seems to delight in using perhaps the most wretched of all His priests as the channel of His grace? When I go to see a hard hopeless case, I cannot describe what happens exactly, but I seem to be able to lift up my heart like a cup and pour grace and the love of God upon that poor soul. I can see the result instantly, almost like the melting of snow.
Today the Church commemorates St Clement Mary Hofbauer, the great Redemptorist preacher and Apostle of Vienna who died in 1820. As the bull of St Clement’s canonisation (1909) pointed out:
He used every effort to bring sinners to penance and confession…He sought this from God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the saints; to obtain this he afflicted his body.
Fr Doyle seems to have adopted a similar methodology. As O’Rahilly reports:
After an arduous day’s work in pulpit and confessional he would often spenda good part of the night before the Tabernacle, cutting his sleep down to three or four hours. Thus during a mission in Drogheda, the curate observed that Fr. Doyle, on emerging from his confessional at eleven o’clock at night, used to retire to the little oratory and remain on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament until the clock struck two; yet he was always up and out of the house before any one else was astir.
In applying these ideas to our own lives, perhaps we should consider the apostolic opportunities that present themselves to us every day. For many of us there will be several opportunities to discuss the faith or to defend the Church in conversations in friends and colleagues. And of course there is the permanent apostolate of good example that we can exercise all day everyday.
We should not absolve ourselves of our apostolic obligations, thinking it to be the job of others. Those of us who are lay people have an important role in this regard. Let us look to the example of Fr Doyle, St Clement and all of the other great apostles of the Church for examples of creativity and effectiveness in bringing the good news of salvation to others.