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The remarkable courage of the Jesuit who rescued souls on the WWI battlefields

Fr Willie Doyle SJ

Fr Willie Doyle was convinced the eternal fate of souls was at stake daily in the killing fields of WWI

In my last blog about the Jesuit priest and photographer, Fr Francis Browne, I quoted his words on learning of the death of his fellow army chaplain, Fr Willie Doyle SJ: “To his saintly advice and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything that I felt and did. May he rest in peace – it seems superfluous to pray for him.” The only reason not to pray for people when they die is when we are convinced that they have done their Purgatory on earth; in order words, that they are already in heaven. That this is very rare (despite the unthinking sentiments expressed at almost all modern funerals) is obvious. So who was Fr Willie Doyle to have earned such a singular accolade?

Like Francis Browne, he was sent as a chaplain to Irish soldiers in WWI, in his case to the 8th Battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Born in Dublin in 1873, and ordained in 1907 there appeared to be nothing unusual about the life of this devout and conscientious young Irish priest except what struck almost everyone who met him or knew him: the straightforward sanctity that seemed to radiate from him, both in his person and his writings.

To Raise the Fallen: A Selection of the War Letters, Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Fr Willie Doyle SJ, edited by Patrick Kenny (Ignatius/ Gracewing) now brings this most attractive of men to a wider readership. Doyle volunteered for the Front in November 1915 believing that the hardships involved would help him grow in holiness and give him a “unique opportunity to be of service to souls in danger.”

All those who witnessed his dedication and love for his men and his indefatigable energy, however frightful the circumstances, in bringing them the sacraments before they died – even burying them with his own hands afterwards on many occasions – have testified to Doyle’s courage under fire. They assumed he was fearless, little knowing his true state of mind, as Francis Browne described him: “He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise.”

Yet all this was concealed, especially in his letters home, mainly to his father to whom he was devoted and to whom he wrote cheerfully of the rats, the cold, the lack of sleep and food and always expressing in unaffected terms his love for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, his fasts on behalf of others’ spiritual state, his trust in the help of his guardian angel and so on.

What strikes one on reading this book is Doyle’s unswerving conviction that the eternal fate of souls was at stake daily in the killing fields of WWI, and that it was his privileged task to give sacramental hope to the dying men. “Don’t you agree with me that the consolations and real joys of my life far outweigh the hard things and privations?” he wrote in one letter. Being a chaplain “brought home vividly to me what a priest was and the wondrous power given him by God.”

In the private notebooks discovered and published after his death a constant theme emerges: that God had given him a special mission – to make reparation and do penance for the sins of priests. Today the failings of some members of the hierarchy are painfully evident; yet in Catholic Ireland before the Great War the need to do penance for his fellow priests was obvious to Fr Doyle.

Later saints, such as Josemaria Escriva and Teresa of Calcutta, were both influenced by reading an early biography of Doyle; both were impressed by his struggles to mortify himself in small things (such as denying himself butter on his bread). They knew, as he did, that great victories in self-control only come after innumerable smaller ones. An unnamed Sister of Mercy in the Convent of Mercy in Cobh, Cork recalled meeting him and remarked after his death, “He appeared to be in God’s presence even when conversing with people on indifferent topics, while his childlike humility and utter absence of self were most striking.”

Among Fr Doyle’s words of spiritual advice are included “No-one goes to heaven or hell alone”; that Confession is “the quickest means to holiness”; and that “There are 100,000 dying sinners every day to be rescued.” He had the perception and imagination to see reality for what it really is: not a placid routine of church-going alongside a comfortable accommodation with the world, but an urgent daily drama of life and death in which people might be lost or saved.

If it is superfluous to pray for Fr Willie Doyle it is certainly not so to pray to him; indeed the opposite. Interest in his cause for beatification is growing: may he intercede for priests and may lay people unite with him in praying for them in the troubling trench warfare of our own times.