by K. V. Turley
Some years back, while doing research in a monastery library, I came across a passing reference to a priest and soldier. It intrigued me. His biography, published in 1920, was cited; I made a note, and left it at that, or so I thought. Because, unexpectedly, months later, I found the biography, and late one night sat down to read.
Like so many caught up in the conflict that came to be known as the Great War, Father Willie Doyle was buried where he fell, without marker or tombstone, just another casualty among millions. That should have been the end of matters; however, it proved not to be the case.
Before his death, he had requested that his private papers be burned. Thankfully, they weren’t; their subsequent discovery, and publication as part of the 1920 biography, caused consternation among those who knew him.
The papers revealed the intensity of the inner life he had led. Some were edified, others were horrified. His mortifications were deemed too harsh, his prayer life too extreme; but—and here was the thing—this was a man with a reputation unlike that of any gloomy ascetic. He was a much loved, affable priest, constantly joking around. This paradox only seemed to deepen the mystery surrounding Father Willie Doyle.
Appearing at the start of the 20th century, he was a figure like Irish monks of old. After days spent leading retreats, hearing confessions, giving spiritual direction, and above all saying Holy Mass, at night another dimension of Father Doyle appeared. Hours were spent in long watches in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the sanctity of priests, and were combined with frequent use of the Discipline, immersion in cold lakes, and nocturnal, barefoot pilgrimages in reparation. This may have all been hidden from view, but, importantly, was carried out with the knowing approval of Father Doyle’s spiritual director. Added to this 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. And this, with his never-ending and countless spiritual aspirations, turned his waking hours into a litany of supplication to the Merciful God.
Willie Doyle was born into a well-to-do, devoutly religious Catholic family on March 3, 1873. From this Christian home on the outskirts of Dublin, four of seven children entered some form of religious life. Having been educated in both Ireland and England, Willie entered the Society of Jesus.
After long years of study, 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, and crowds flocked to him. Only after his death was the secret of such success revealed—penance.
When war broke out in 1914, Father Doyle volunteered immediately. After hours spent in the confessional, he understood his fellow man; and he also knew that, with thousands on their way to meet death, someone had to be with them, because, for many, this was going to be the definitive hour, with all lost or gained, for all eternity.
In 1915, with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he landed in France. From then on, he marched every mile alongside the soldiers—forgoing all privileges that his officer rank afforded him. This was his “flock,” and he was their “shepherd.” By the end, these battle-hardened soldiers would come to love their Padre. It was no surprise, as he suffered as much as they did. Through barbed wire, and in spite of bullets, shells, and gas, he sought out his “sheep” as they lay dying, often alone in muddied battle fields, bringing Viaticum.
Father Doyle was mentioned in dispatches and recommended for the United Kingdom’s highest award for gallantry: the Victoria Cross. He was passed over, deemed to have a triple disqualification: Irish, Catholic, and Jesuit. It was to make little difference. His eyes were on an altogether greater prize: the sanctity and the salvation of those placed in his care.
As if the dangers and privations of the Front were not enough, throughout it all Father Doyle continued with his own inner “war.” When possible, in those flooded, fetid trenches, the sounds of hell reverberating all around, the priest, with a pyx containing the Eucharist around his neck, spent hours on his knees adoring the Prince of Peace.
His letters home to his widowed father, both touching and inspiring, reveal the strain of it all, as on he marched through the bloodstained fields, with names later synonymous with suffering: Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele… Like his comrades, he was shot at, shelled, and gassed, narrowly missing being killed on numerous occasions, his only rest in the same rat-infested trenches. Despite his brother officers’ pleas, he refused to leave the Front, determined to be with his flock throughout this living hell.
On August 16, 1917, during the seemingly never-ending Passchendaele offensive, Father Doyle was in the dreaded “No-Man’s Land,” desperately trying to drag a wounded comrade back to safety. In so doing, he was blown to pieces by a German shell. Unlike the many to whom he had given a Christian burial, his remains were hastily interred in a makeshift communal grave, while all around the battle raged on.
It was claimed later that on the Western Front alone as many as 40,000 military personnel converted to the Catholic faith, due in no small part to the exemplary service of Catholic chaplains—men such as Father Willie Doyle.
Today, largely unknown in Ireland, and neglected by the Order he served in, at that desolate Flanders field the mortal remains of this forgotten hero await the only real recognition necessary:
“Come…you did it to one of the least of these my brethren…”
It would be impossible to publish a post about Fr Willie Doyle without recommending (once again) the wonderful blog, “REMEMBERING FR WILLIE DOYLE, SJ” run by Patrick Kenny. This is his (slightly adapted) article for today, 16th January:
Jesus knows I have only one wish in this world: to love Him and Him alone. For the rest He has carte blanche to do as He pleases in my regard. I just leave myself in His loving hands, and so have no anxiety or care, but great peace of soul.
Take, O Lord, and receive my liberty, my health and strength, my limbs, my flesh, my blood, my very life. Do with me just as You wish; I embrace all lovingly – sufferings, wounds, death if only it will glorify You one tiny bit.
COMMENT [from Pat Kenny] : The confident embrace of God’s will, even if this means suffering and difficulties, is the hallmark of high sanctity. In today’s quote, Fr Doyle shows us his complete acceptance of God’s will. Every time we say the Our Father, we express our willingness that God’s will be done on earth. Most of us think very little about what this means. So often we really mean that we want our will to be done; so often we can automatically assume that God’s will coincides nicely with our own. But it doesn’t always happen this way. Some of the most difficult moments in life occur when God’s will fundamentally differs from our own. In such circumstances we must learn to trust in God, and remember that He is a loving Father who directs everything to our ultimate good, even if it means suffering in the short term. Yes, this may be hard to accept, but we see the truth of this again and again in the lives of the saints. We see the serenity of victim souls like St Thérèse or St Gemma Galgani despite their illness; we see the cheerfulness of martyrs as they face death; we see the joy of St Francis or St Teresa or St John of the Cross as they embraced radical poverty. We see a particularly striking example of this in the life of the recently beatified Chiara Luce Badano who died at the age of 18 in 1990 from bone cancer. Her parents report that she went through a short struggle to accept the cross of cancer, but having once accepted it, she radiated peace and serenity. And of course we see the good humour of Fr Doyle himself so eloquently expressed in all of his letters sent home from the trenches. None of this is easy to do. It is certainly easy to write and to theorise about the life of the saints when all is going well, but it is surely more difficult to embrace God’s will with complete joy and abandonment when we truly face great difficulties. Yet that is what sanctity ultimately means. While we should not pretend that it is easily acquired, ultimately there is a peace to be found in abandoning ourselves into God’s loving hands. The challenge is to learn how to willingly find this abandonment and peace at all times of life, not just when we have run out of options and have no choice but to accept the finality of God’s will.
Fr Willie Doyle’s prayer is very similar to St Ignatius of Loyola’s:
Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.