How one priest saved countless souls in the First World War

Being a great fan of Father Willie Doyle SJ (1873-1917) I was delighted to read a wonderful tribute to this holy, lovable Irish priest and military chaplain during WW1 in the UK Catholic Herald this morning. Also, I highly recommend the daily meditations from this blog dedicated to Fr Willie Doyle, written by Patrick Kenny.

The sun sets behind the Cross of Sacrifice in Passchendaele (Getty)

By K.V. Turley*

Fr William Doyle showed staggering courage at Passchendaele

Like so many caught up in the conflict that came to be known as the Great War, Fr Willie Doyle was buried where he fell, without a marker, just another casualty among millions. He might have been forgotten; however, it proved not to be the case.

Before his death, he had requested that his private papers be burned. Thankfully, his wishes were ignored. The discovery of the papers, and their subsequent publication as part of a biography published in 1920, were a surprise to those who had known him.

After days spent giving retreats, hearing confessions and, above all, saying Holy Mass, his spiritual notebooks revealed another dimension of Fr Doyle. Hours were spent at night in long watches in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the sanctity of priests. Then there was the frequent use of the discipline (whip), immersion in cold lakes, and nocturnal, barefoot pilgrimages in reparation of sins. All this was hidden from view, but, importantly, with the knowing approval of the Jesuit’s spiritual director. And then there was his less dramatic daily “war” on self: for instance, the “Butter Tragedy” – some days butter on his toast, others not, just one example of a constant spirit of mortification in everyday matters.

The personal papers revealed an intense inner life that edified some. Others deemed his mortifications too harsh, his prayer life too extreme; and yet, this was a man with a reputation unlike that of any gloomy ascetic. He was a much loved, affable priest, a perpetual prankster. This paradox only seemed to deepen the mystery surrounding Fr Doyle.

Willie Doyle was born in Dublin on March 3, 1873. His parents were both well-to-do and devoutly religious. Four of their seven children entered some form of religious life. Having been educated in both Ireland and England, Willie entered the Society of Jesus.

Finally, he was ordained in 1907, and soon after was assigned to the Jesuit mission to parishes throughout the British Isles. From the start he excelled as preacher and confessor. Crowds flocked to him, but only after his death was the secret of his “success” revealed: penance.

When war broke out in 1914, Fr Doyle volunteered immediately. He understood that, with thousands on their way to death, a priest was needed for what would prove to be the decisive hour for many souls, with all lost or gained, and for all eternity.

Continue reading this article on the Catholic Herald.

KV Turley is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of Fr Willie Doyle & World War I: A Chaplain’s Story (CTS)

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7 Responses to How one priest saved countless souls in the First World War

  1. He was a Jesuit. No, he was a JESUIT.

    And today? Those who are allowed to write “S.J.” after their names? What are they?

    Compare Father Willie Doyle to – for example – Father James Martin.

    Or among countless other relevant examples, compare the North American Martyrs to today’s Jesuits.

    Holy Mother of God, good St. Ignatius of Loyola, how did a great religious order come to THIS?

  2. Those of us who do not have even the tiniest shred of the heroism that men like Father Willie Doyle had can only stand in awe of the lives they led.

    And we can only weep over what the Jesuits have become.

  3. David O'Neill says:

    May his soul rest in peace for eternity. My father served in WW1 & only ever spoke of the padres who helped so many. Although he won the Military Medal he never spoke of his experiences & we only found out about his MM after his death.

  4. kathleen says:

    And my maternal grandfather served in WW1 (very young) where two of his brothers of the four who served were killed! One of my father’s uncles serving in an Irish regiment was also killed in that horrendous war.
    Over twelve million casualties, we are told! So many good brave men used as cannon fodder to fuel the ambitions of war-mongering generals and ambitious politicians. What a tragedy! The inability of Pope St. Pius X to prevent the war – foreseeing the dreadful consequences for Western Christendom if it lost the finest and best of its male population – led him to an early death.

    The incredible courage and heroism of Fr Willie Doyle, who never lost his good humour and joy amongst so much death, filth and horror of trench warfare, could only come from his love of God and deep prayer life. I hope and pray that one day the cause for his beatification be opened so that more people can come to know him and reap the benefits of his writings and passionate witness to Christ.

  5. geoffkiernan says:

    I wonder just how many of our current Bishops,Priests would lay down their lives for the sheep and the Master Shepherd? Not many I fear. Few have the testicles they were born with….

  6. geoffkiernan says:

    RBJ says, ” compare Father W Doyle to for example fr. James Martin?” Not in the same breath, not in the same lifetime…… Never

  7. toadspittle says:

    Fr. Doyle and Fr. Brandsma – two magnificent men. Both gave their lives for others.

    Howeever, to use Father Doyle as a cudgel to beat the Pope with – well, I’m not sure the Jesuit would approve. But what do I know? …Maybe he’d love it.

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