“A certain Roman Catholic chaplain...lies in a soldier’s grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battle field with bullets whining about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them absolution, walking with death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with reverence and a kind of awe until a shell burst near him and he was killed…they remember him as a saint - they speak his name with tears.”
These words were written by the renowned war correspondent Percival Philips in the Daily Express of August 22, 1917. The beloved chaplain was Fr Willie Doyle SJ, who was killed by a shell on August 16, 1917 while attempting to assist two officers stranded in ‘no man’s land’.
William Doyle was born on March 3, 1873 in Dalkey, Co. Dublin. Young Willie enjoyed all of the usual sports and pranks that were popular at that time. But there was something a little different about Willie. He had an unusual care for the servants in the family home, sometimes getting up before they were awake to wash the dishes or light the fire to save them the effort. As he grew he also sought out the local poor, often giving food and money to them or even decorating and painting their houses for free.
He entered the Jesuits in 1891. His 16 years formation included time teaching and working with students in both Belvedere College and Clongowes Wood College, where he was instrumental in founding both The Clongownian journal and the Clongowes Union.
His years of training were not plain sailing and were interspersed with periods spent at home due to ill-health, including a nervous breakdown which struck after a fire broke out in the novitiate. His story is ultimately one of remarkable transformation – from ill-health and a nervous breakdown to becoming a rock of strength for soldiers in the trenches who was universally admired for his courage and cheerfulness.
He was ordained a priest on July 28, 1907, coincidentally in the same ceremony as Blessed John Sullivan. His entire attitude towards life was summed up in the following note he wrote in his diary on that day: “My loving Jesus, on this the morning of my ordination to the priesthood, I wish to place in your Sacred Heart, in gratitude for all that you have done for me, the resolution from this day forward to go straight for holiness. My earnest wish and firm resolve is to strive with might and main to become a saint.”
He had ten years of life left when he wrote these words, and it would seem that every moment of those 10 years was dedicated to that determined pursuit of holiness.
Most of his priesthood was spent on the Jesuit mission team, preaching missions in parishes and giving retreats to religious communities. He often went to the ‘peripheries’ to seek those distanced from the Church. He was known to wait on the docks for sailors arriving into port late at night or to go out to meet factory workers on their way to work at dawn. He seems to have had a powerful effect on all he met.
One nun described him as “more like an angel than a man” whilst another, who asked him for a special blessing, was so struck by the experience that she claimed this blessing had a more powerful effect on her than all the retreats of her entire life and that “it was as if, like his master, virtue went forth from him”.
He was particularly devoted to helping ordinary workingmen and was a pioneer in this area. He struggled to establish a retreat house for workers, but due to a number of mishaps (including a newly acquired retreat house being burned down by suffragettes!) he did not live long enough to see this project come to fruition.
Fr Doyle was also a popular writer, and published pamphlets on priesthood and vocations that sold in the hundreds of thousands in the years after his death. He helped innumerable individuals to pursue their religious vocation, and established innovative fundraising schemes to help poorer boys afford seminary training. He also applied his great organisational and fundraising skills to the task of raising money for the African missions. He established an association to encourage holiness amongst priests, and was instrumental in founding the Poor Clare convent in Cork.
Fr Doyle first volunteered as chaplain in November 1914 and was accepted in November 1915. Despite his desire to volunteer, he found the departure hard. As he wrote in one letter: “Only in Heaven will you know how I have suffered all this week. It is all for him and I do not regret it; but he filled my cup of bitterness this evening when I left my darling old father. Thank God, at last I can say, I have given him all; or rather he has taken all from me. May his sweet will be done.”
As chaplain, Fr Doyle held the rank of captain. But despite the relative comforts he could have availed of, he was always to be found with his men, suffering along with them. As one Protestant officer noted: “Fr Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross and goes out to bury him and then begins all over again.”
Fr Doyle’s care for others cost him dearly at times. On one occasion, the medical doctor with whom he worked was sick, and there was no dry or warm spot for him to sleep in the dugout. Fr Doyle lay face down on the ground to allow the doctor to sleep on his back so that at least one of them could get some rest.
The duties of a chaplain involved administering the sacraments, especially hearing confessions and giving the last rites as well as burying the dead.
Some of Fr Doyle’s first hand descriptions of these activities are deeply moving. His letters indicate some of the trauma involved in burying the dead (or what was left of them) under enemy fire, and anointing the dying in their very last moments.
One especially moving account, recorded on August 10, 1917, shows how much the presence of the priest meant to these Irish soldiers: “He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: ‘Ah! Fr Doyle, Fr Doyle,’ he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give.
“As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the last sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. ‘Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now.’ I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said ‘behold the man’ when he showed our Lord to the people.”
Like all chaplains, when he was in the trenches Fr Doyle had to say Mass wherever he could. His description of one Mass at the Battle of the Somme is deeply evocative: “By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit box supported on two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned.
“Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of sacrifice — but every man was dead!
“Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of battles, their creator and their judge, and prayed him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.”
But the horrors of suffering, death and war did not alter his cheerful disposition, or his life-long love of practical jokes and stories. Practically every letter contains a variety of interesting anecdotes and witticisms that suggest a joyful spirit in the midst of woe.
One such example will suffice. On one occasion he was in Amettes in France. He describes part of the church there in these terms: “At the bottom of the same church is a mortuary slab, which reads as follows: ‘Erected by Monsieur X in honour of his dear wife Marie who lived 79 years, four months, six days. They were married 55 years, nine months, two days, seven hours. RIP’.
There is nothing like being accurate, but possibly this unfortunate man wanted to record that he had so much of his Purgatory already done!”
Fr Doyle sought to serve all he met, Catholic and Protestant alike. On one occasion a wounded Protestant soldier who he was helping told him “Father, I don’t belong to your flock” to which Fr Doyle responded “No, but you belong to my God”.
Fr Doyle was killed in the Battle of Passchendeale, and was present during several other important battles, including the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Messines during which nearly one million pounds of explosives were detonated under the German trenches. The explosion, which at that time was the largest ever created by man, could be heard as far away as London.
His first-hand accounts of what he experienced during these and other major battles – far too long to recount here – make for riveting reading. He was awarded the 16th (Irish) Division Parchment of Merit for bravery during a gas attack in April 1916, awarded the Military Cross for his bravery at the Somme, and nominated for both the Distinguished Service Order and Victoria Cross. There is some controversy surrounding the refusal of the Victoria Cross, with some suggestion that his Catholicism, and the fact that he was a Jesuit priest, were barriers to his receiving this award.
The precise details surrounding Fr Doyle’s death are unclear. But at some time in the late afternoon of August 16, 1917, a group of soldiers led by Second Lieutenants Marlow and Green got into trouble beyond the front line, and Fr Doyle ran to assist them. It seems that Fr Doyle and the two officers were about to take shelter when they were hit by a German shell and killed. His body was never located.
Fr Doyle’s death was a stunning loss to his men. A month after his death, fellow Jesuit chaplain Fr John Delany met some of the 16th Division. In a letter to the Jesuit Provincial in Ireland he said that the soldiers “were full of Fr Doyle and his exploits. How grieved they are at their sad loss nobody can tell unless they speak to them personally. He seemed to have gripped them all, individually as well as collectively”.
But it wasn’t his fruitful apostolic life or war-time heroics that made Fr Doyle truly famous. Back in his room in Dublin were several boxes of letters and private diaries with a note asking that they be destroyed in case of death. However, many extracts were published in a bestselling biography written in the 1920s.
These private documents, which were never meant to be read by others, revealed accounts of entire nights spent in prayer, accompanied by what could be interpreted as mystical experiences and intense penances (for which he had approval from his superiors) which are reminiscent of those of the great saints of history.
He felt called to a life of hardship, especially offered up in reparation for the sins of priests. His diaries record his daily struggles to “go straight for holiness” as he promised on the day of his ordination, and reveal the process of inner transformation that created the hero of the trenches.
His interior life was such a revelation precisely because nobody who knew him suspected that this exuberantly joyful and healthy man was so physically hard on himself. But despite his hidden personal hardship, his advice to others was always one of moderation and devotion to work and the duties of ones state in life.
He has been admired by several saints, including the Jesuit St Alberto Hurtado from Chile, St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, and Mother Teresa, who adopted some of his spiritual practices. Even Brendan Behan was an admirer, praising the example of Fr Doyle in his own writings.
Devotion to Fr Doyle seems to have flourished in the first half of the last century, and by the 1930s there were more than 6,000 favours attributed to his intercession from every corner of the world and every walk of life. Devotion to him is growing again as a new generation discovers him online and in a variety of new publications.
Fr Doyle is an important witness to Christ’s message that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others. By his life, and especially by his death, Fr Doyle shows us how we should live and love as Christians. His witness is needed more than ever at this time of criticism and scepticism about Catholicism and the priesthood. 100 years after his death, the time may now have come to consider his cause for canonisation.
Patrick Kenny curates a blog about Fr Doyle at www.fatherdoyle.com and is the editor of To Raise the Fallen, a collection of Fr Doyle’s war letters and spiritual writings, published by Veritas.