Thoughts for February 19 (Anniversary of Venerable John Sullivan SJ) from Fr Willie Doyle

Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ
Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ

I hope every single one of you will have broken every resolution you made in the retreat before the end of the week, and if not then, at least in a fortnight. It will do you good and humble you provided you get up and begin again and do not flop down and lie there on the broad of your back, saying “It’s no use, it’s all over.” Not a bit of it, it’s not all over, it’s only beginning. So up with you and start again. Remember each time you fall that you are not back where you were before but are starting again from where you fell.

COMMENT: Today is the anniversary of the death of Fr John Sullivan SJ, who died on this day in 1933. 

Fr Sullivan had a different personality to that of Fr Doyle, but as contemporaries with the same training much of their spirituality is in common. Both were very humble, very cheerful and very ascetic. One of Fr Sullivan’s most popular maxims, very much in line with today’s quote from Fr Doyle, was:

Take life in instalments, this day now. At least let this be a good day. Be always beginning. Let the past go. The saints were always beginning. That is how they became saints.

Fr Sullivan was born into considerable wealth and privilege, and after some years of travel and study became a barrister. His father was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and he was brought up in the Church of Ireland, although his mother was a Catholic. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 35 and entered the Jesuits 4 years later. He was ordained on July 28, 1907 in the same ceremony as Fr Doyle. Fr Sullivan was 46, Fr Doyle was 34.

28 July 1907, Miltown Park, Dublin. Fr Doyle is marked with an X.
28 July 1907, Miltown Park, Dublin. Fr Doyle is marked with an X.

Fr Sullivan spent most of his life in Clongowes, a Jesuit school not too far from Dublin where Fr Doyle had also spent some time prior to his ordination. He was known for his gentle kindness towards the boys there. He lived an ascetic life, eating very little. Like Fr Doyle, he was no stranger to physical mortification, often spending entire nights in prayer, or sleeping on the floor or performing other physical acts of penance. And, in common with Fr Doyle, there is no evidence that these penances ever interfered with his work. Both priests kept them hidden, and neither ever encouraged others to follow in their own footsteps.

It seems that Fr Sullivan had great regard for Fr Doyle; after his death some of Fr Doyle’s sayings were found transcribed in Fr Sullivan’s writings amongst his private papers.

While there are some similarities between the two contemporary Jesuits, there are also some differences. Two in particular spring to mind. The first is that Fr Sullivan was given the grace of physical healing. He would regularly travel – on bike or by foot – for miles to visit the sick and dying in the countryside around Clongowes.

There are many instances of healings recorded through Fr Sullivan’s intercession, even during his own lifetime. These graces of healing have continued after his death.

The second great difference is that we know relatively little about his interior life. What we know comes from eye witness accounts. If he ever wrote detailed notes about himself, they no longer exist. Perhaps this was Professor Alfred O’Rahilly’s fault! After he published so many extracts from Fr Doyle’s private notes, it is possible that other priests ensured that their own diaries were destroyed, although given Fr Sullivan’s profound humility it is likely that he never thought anyone would be interested in his interior life anyway.

Fr Sullivan’s beatification has been approved by Pope Francis and it may happen this year. This is great news that deserves to be celebrated! As we have pointed out before, Ireland needs its own modern, contemporary saints! There are good candidates out there, two of the very best of which are the two contemporary Jesuits Frs Doyle and Sullivan.

Here is a prayer to seek Fr Sullivan’s intercession:

God, you honour those who honour you. 
Make sacred the memory of your servant John Sullivan, by granting through his intercession the petition we now make (name the petition) and hastening the day when his name will be numbered among those of your saints. 
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following video is well worth watching to learn more about the life of Fr Sullivan.

Thoughts for February 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

I saw many interesting places and things during my weeks of travel. But over all hung a big cloud of sadness, for I realised as I never did before how utterly the world has forgotten Jesus except to hate and outrage Him, the fearful, heart-rending amount of sin visible on all sides, and the vast work for souls that lies before us priests. My feelings at times are more than I can describe. The longing to make up to our dear Lord for all He is suffering is overwhelming, and I ask Him, since somehow my own heart seems indifferent to His pleading, to give me the power to do much and very much to console Him.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this note in 1912, after a period of travel in France, Belgium and Holland where he was investigating the feasibility of setting up a retreat house for lay people in Ireland. How our culture has changed over the past 100 years! What would Fr Doyle say were he to travel to these countries today? What would he say if he was to look at Ireland today?

In all of this we must avoid two great temptations. The first is to think that the past was a golden age, and that we now live in a time of unparalleled debauchery. Our culture, and the Church, has passed through many tough and un-Christian (and even anti-Christian) times in the past. We must always remain positive despite the troubles of our particular age. God is still God, and His promise that Hell will not prevail against the Church still stands (although we must remember that He didn’t promise that particular local churches, like the French, Belgian, Dutch – or even Irish – Churches would prevail…). We should, however, take courage from the words of Blessed Columba Marmion:

Now let us remind ourselves that, in these our days, the Heart of Jesus is not less loving nor His arm less powerful. God is ready to shed His graces upon us…as abundant and as useful as those he shed upon the first Christians. He does not love us less than he loved them.

The second temptation is to judge others, and think ourselves immune from corruption. St Josemaria Escriva said that the crises in the world are crises of saints. If our culture has wandered far from the values we hold dear, it is because we have failed to live those values to a heroic degree. Certainly this is nowhere more true than in Ireland, where the scandal of abuse and corruption has fundamentally undermined the Church in the eyes of many.

As Fr Doyle says, we must beg for the grace to do much, very much, to console Jesus. We can follow the example of today’s saint, Geltrude Comensoli. She was dedicated to Christ in the Eucharist, and found therein the strength she needed for her apostolic labours. She focussed her particular apostolic efforts on the education of young women working in factories. This was a pressing social need of late 19th Century Italy. Different priorities may present themselves to us today, but we must always remember that we will never succeed in re-generating our culture except by fulfilling our individual vocation in close union with God.

St Geltrude Comensoli
St Geltrude Comensoli

17 February 1916

Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 101 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.

Thoughts for February 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

We should call a man a fool who wasted his wealth warming himself before a fire made of banknotes. Do we act less madly in seeking gratification by consuming our precious day in frivolities?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle often wrote about how each day is a precious opportunity to grow in holiness and today’s quote is no exception. We never stand still in the spiritual life – we either move forward towards sanctity, or we regress. How many of us live wasteful lives of frivolity? Even if we are basically “good” people, we can still be consumed with frivolous habits that distract us from our families or friends or our duties in life. Essentially these frivolities draw us away from the holiness and good works with which we should be busy. Of course, we need a balanced asceticism. We all need legitimate leisure pursuits and relaxation. Such activities are both good and necessary in a balanced life. Fr Doyle himself was noted for his robust enjoyment of sport. But even if we do try to live balanced lives, there will probably be some form of frivolity with which we are tempted. In today’s world it is likely to revolve around the internet or the new phenomenon of social media. These technologies are not inherently bad. But many of us may need to examine ourselves to see if we have acquired the habit of using these new technologies in a wasteful or frivolous manner.

When Venerable Matt Talbot died, his room contained many spiritual books and it was partly through these books that we have been able to get a glimpse into his spiritual life (with Fr Doyle this process is easier due to the copious notes he left behind). One of the books in Matt Talbot’s room was a book entitled “On Reading” by Bishop Hedley. The following passage was underlined for emphasis by Matt Talbot:

Even when the newspaper is free from objection, it is easy to lose a good deal of time over it. It may be necessary and convenient to know what is going on in the world. But there can be no need of our absorbing all the rumours, all the guesses and gossip, all the petty incidents, all the innumerable paragraphs in which the solid news appears half-drowned…This is idle and it is absolutely bad for brain and character. There is a kind of attraction towards petty and desultory reading of this kind which is sure to leave its mark on the present generation…Immoderate newspaper reading leads, therefore, to much loss of time, and does no good, either to the mind or the heart.

Perhaps these words could more aptly apply today to our contemporary love of gossip, and especially the modern fascination with celebrities and their intimate lives, as well as to the inordinate use of other distracting social media. And if we are not distracted with news and gossip, there is undoubtedly some other frivolity that may need to be cut out from our lives…

Venerable Matt Talbot
Venerable Matt Talbot

Thoughts for February 15 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Claude de la Colombiere
St Claude de la Colombiere

I have gone through a great deal of desolation, discouragement, fear and dread of my proposed vow. When I make it — I am quite determined now to do so — it will be the result of calm conviction that I must do so, that God wants it from me, and not a burst of fervour. I shrink from this living death, but am quite happy in the thought that, since God has inspired me to do so, He will do all the work if once I submit my will. … I was consoled by seeing Fr. de la Colombiere’s repugnance to making his heroic vow. He spoke of the sadness which this constant fight against nature sometimes gave him. He overcame that temptation by remembering that it is sweet and easy to do what we know will please one we really love.

COMMENT: The vow Fr Doyle speaks of is that of refusing no sacrifice that he perceived Jesus was asking of him. Here is the text of that vow which he made in 1911:

I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me. Amen.

Fr Doyle attached various conditions and exceptions to this in order to avoid scruples. Such a vow represents a total abandonment to God’s will in all aspects of life and represents a very great level of spiritual perfection. Most of us are well-intentioned, but we still tend to reserve areas of our life that we want to control and where we may not want God to “trespass”. Such was not the way of the saints. As the Imitation of Christ says:

What more do I require of you, than that you try to submit yourself fully to me? Whatsoever you give me outside of yourself does not interest me; for I do not seek your gift, but I seek you.

Fr Doyle mentions Fr (now Saint) Claude de la Colombiere, a French Jesuit whose feast it is today. He died this day in 1682. St Claude made a similar vow as a young Jesuit. Here is his (somewhat pessimistic!) reflection on the implications of this vow:

It seems as if it would be easy to spend any other kind of life holily; and the more austere, solitary and obscure it might be and separated from all intercourse, the more pleasing it would appear to me to be. As to what usually terrifies nature, such as prisons, constant sickness and even death, all this seems easy compared with this everlasting war with self, this vigilance against the attacks of the world and of self-love, this living death in the midst of the world.

Whatever about St Claude’s fears of this vow and its “living death”, we know that Fr Doyle remained serene and cheerful, despite his constant war with self-love.

Fr Doyle and St Claude are not the only ones to have made such a vow – great saints like Therese of Liseux did likewise. And together, they inspired saints that came after them. Saint Teresa of Calcutta read the life of Fr Doyle while she was a young nun (perhaps when she lived in Ireland, very near the Jesuit house in Rathfarnham, where Fr Doyle had lived for a time). His life and spirit so inspired her that she herself took the same vow to refuse no sacrifice to Christ. We see here Fr Doyle’s influence on one of the best known and best loved saints of recent years.

Here is a description from the book “Come be my Light” written by Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk MC, the postulator for Mother Teresa’s canonisation cause.

It was this mysterious feature of love that moved Mother Teresa to seal the total offering of herself by means of a vow and thus tangibly express her longing to be fully united with her Beloved…Thus for Mother Teresa the vow was the means of strengthening the bond with the One she loved and so experiencing the true freedom that only love can give.

Mother Teresa would have read about the practice of making private vows in the spiritual literature of her time.

Irish Jesuit Fr William Doyle, made numerous private vows, as he found this practice a help in keeping his resolutions. One such vow, which he made in 1911 and renewed from day to day until he could obtain permission from his confessor to make it permanently, was “I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me”.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta
Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Returning now to St Claude and his vow…Fr Doyle had other reasons to be intrigued by the life of St Claude, for the latter was the spiritual director of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the great mystic to whom Fr Doyle was much devoted. St Margaret Mary received many visions of the Sacred Heart and it is probably because of St Claude’s influence that the Jesuits have traditionally promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. This devotion features prominently in the writings and spirituality of Fr Doyle. It is consoling for devotees of Fr Doyle to note that it took almost 250 years before the well known St Claude was beatified.

Today is also the feast of another great spiritual director. Blessed Michal Sopocko was the spiritual director of St Faustina, the great apostle of Divine Mercy. It is quite a coincidence that the spiritual directors of the two visionaries of the most prominent apparitions of Jesus of modern times have both been raised to the altars and that they share the same anniversary of death and feast day. These spiritual directors were crucial supports for St Margaret Mary and St Faustina respectively, and they show us the importance of spiritual direction in our lives.

Fr Doyle obviously knew nothing of St Faustina who died in 1938 or of Blessed Michal who died in 1975. But we can well imagine that he would have been a great promoter of the Divine Mercy devotion which sits so well with his own Christocentric spirituality.

One final coincidence for today – Fr Doyle would have identified with Blessed Michal if he knew of him: Blessed Michal served as a military chaplain in the Polish army during World War 1.

Michal Sopocko

14 February 1916

We are having desperate work these days. The good God is simply pouring out His grace on these poor fellows and reconciling them before they die. It has to be quick work, no time for ‘trimmings.’ I have positively a pain in my arm giving Absolution and Communions in the morning. I was able to manage Exposition all day last Sunday, which bought in many an erring sheep. I realise that from this on my life will be a martyrdom in a way I never thought of. I have got to love my brave lads almost like my own brothers and sisters. They are so wild and reckless, and at the same time so full of faith and love of God and His Blessed Mother. Yet soon I shall have to see the majority of them blown to bits, torn and mangled out of shape. Our Brigade is leaving tomorrow for France. I am waiting till Friday night, so as to get in all the confessions I can. Do pray I may be able to say daily Mass. I shall carry everything necessary on my back, and so may manage the Holy Sacrifice in the train.

Thoughts for February 13 from Fr Willie Doyle

What I intended to imply was that I thought God had special designs on your soul and very great graces in store for you if only you will co-operate with Him in the work of your sanctification. With the record of much want of courage and generosity, there is running through your life an undercurrent of earnest desire to be a saint. Not that desires alone will do the work – barren desires are most dangerous to a soul, making one content with intentions only; yet without a big ardent desire nothing will be done. “If thou wilt be perfect,” our Lord once said, implying that sanctification is largely a question of good will. This, then, is the first grace you must pray for: the desire to be a saint.

COMMENT: The central theme of Fr Doyle’s quote today is the importance of the will. We must want to be saints. If we don’t want it, it won’t happen. The same principle applies in every aspect of life. If we don’t want to lose weight, it won’t happen. If we don’t want to work hard and progress in our career, it won’t happen. The Book of Ecclesiasticus tells us:

If you wish, you can keep the commandments; to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.

Whichever we prefer will be given to us. Either holiness or apathy or sinfulness. Which is it to be?

Today is the anniversary of the death of Sr Lucia, one of the 3 visionaries at Fatima. These three children had a great desire for holiness and a great abhorrence for sin. Even as little children they offered great penances for sinners. We can learn much from their desire for holiness.

Fr Doyle himself occasionally felt a lack of desire for holiness. Referring to the Three Classes of men in the Spiritual Exercises, Fr Doyle wrote in 1907:

The example of men of the Third Class in the world should shame me. What determination, what prolonged effort, what deadly earnestness, in the man who has determined to succeed in his profession! No sacrifice is too great for him, he wants to succeed, he will succeed. My desire, so far, to be a saint is only the desire of the man of the First Class. It gratifies my pride, but I make no real progress in perfection — I do not really will it.

Fr Doyle’s response was to trust in God’s grace, and to take determined, small steps to overcome his weakness day by day. With God’s grace, we can follow in his footsteps.

The Fatima visionaries - Blessed Jacinta, Sr Lucia and Blessed Francisco
The Fatima visionaries – Blessed Jacinta, Sr Lucia and Blessed Francisco