by K. V. Turley (CRISIS MAGAZINE)
In an unmarked grave in those now silent fields of Flanders lies the body of an Irish priest.
Like so many caught up in the conflict that came to be known as the Great War, he was buried where he fell, without marker or tombstone; one more casualty amongst the millions. That should have been the end; it proved not to be the case, however.
If, after his death, the private papers, which he had asked to be burned, had lain undisturbed then, almost certainly, he would have been forgotten by all except those closest to him. Instead, the discovery, and subsequent publication of a biography in 1920, caused ferment.
Willie Doyle was born into a well to do Catholic family on March 3, 1873. His upbringing on the outskirts of Dublin was outwardly idyllic, but also one charged with the devout religious faith of that household. From this Christian home, four of the seven children was to enter some form of religious life. After being educated in both Ireland and England, Willie Doyle entered the Society of Jesus.
After many long years of study, he was ordained in 1907 and assigned to the Jesuit mission to parishes throughout the British Isles. From the start he excelled as preacher and confessor, and the crowds flocked to hear and be converted. Only after his death was the secret of such success revealed—penance.
Appearing at the start of the twentieth century, here was a figure like Irish monks of old. Night watches in front of the Blessed Sacrament, frequent use of the Discipline, immersion in cold lakes, nocturnal barefoot pilgrimages—all hidden from view, but, importantly, with the knowing approval of his Spiritual Director. Added to this was his less dramatic daily “war” on self. The “Butter Tragedy”—some days butter on his toast, others not, just one example of a constant spirit of mortification in everyday matters. It was to prove never-ending; and combined with countless invocations his waking hours were eventually to become a veritable litany of reparation and supplication to the Mercy of God.
The discovery of the papers that revealed this intrigued those who knew him, unaware until then of the intensity of the life he had led. To others, however, such practices appeared too extreme, too harsh; but this was no gloomy ascetic. Instead, a much loved, affable priest, constantly joking—it was perceptions that were mistaken. Nevertheless, like those called to perfection—and that remains all baptized Catholics—Father Willie Doyle had understood what clay we were made from, and so was under no illusions: the Battle for Heaven was one to be fought to the death of self. He could not have foreseen that for him at least this combat was to reach its conclusion in a very real battle in the European conflict then threatening…
From one of the many memoirs of Fr. Willie Doyle of WW1 comes this moving account:
“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’.”