Patrick Kenny’s excellent new account of the once renowned Fr Willie Doyle, is to be warmly welcomed, more especially for making accessible the great man’s prayerful reflections. It is well that the present generation should learn about the heroic military chaplain and his determination to live out his Christianity in every day of his life.
Fr Willie Doyle was born in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, on March 3, 1873. He was educated by the Rosminian Fathers in Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire in England. Influenced by his older brother Charlie, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1891. He was ordained in Milltown Park on July 28, 1907.
Fr Doyle was appointed as a member of a team given the task of conducting missions and retreats in the houses of religious and in parishes. To this end he and his colleagues went throughout Ireland and to parts of England, Scotland and Wales.
His commitment to the work was recognised and he was in strong demand to direct retreats, especially in convents. Recognising that urban labourers were in great need of spiritual direction, he proposed that a special retreat house be opened in Dublin to cater for the needs of the working classes. He also wrote several best-selling pamphlets, including Retreats for Working Men: Why not in Ireland? (1909) and Shall I be a Priest? (1915).
At the outbreak of World War I he volunteered to serve as a military chaplain and was posted to the Royal Irish Fusiliers of the 16th (Irish) Division. Commissioned as a captain, he arrived in France early in 1916.
He was present at the battles of the Somme, Messines Ridge and Passchendaele and was tireless in venturing out under fire to minister to the wounded and the dying, to assist in carrying the wounded to the first-aid stations and in burying the dead. In his diaries he vividly described the horrors of the battle fields.
His commanding officers recommended that he be honoured with the various medals bestowed by the British army for valour, including the Victoria Cross. While assisting wounded comrades between the two front lines at the third battle of Ypres, he was killed on August 16, 1917. His body was never recovered.
Fr Doyle’s dedication and heroism did not go unnoticed. A war correspondent described in the Daily Express of August 22, 1917 how: “He went forward and back over the battlefield 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.”
Major-General Hickie, OC of the 16th (Irish) Division, wrote: “Fr Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who ever fought or worked out here.”
News of Fr Doyle’s untimely death was received with widespread regret in Ireland where he was well-known, as a result of the many years he spent conducting missions and retreats in parishes and religious houses.
During his time as a Jesuit, Alfred O’Rahilly was acquainted with Fr Doyle and greatly admired him. At his sister’s request, O’Rahilly began a brief memoir of him.
Not long after, a collection of spiritual journals and personal reflections, which Fr Doyle had written for his own use and guidance and which in normal circumstances would have been destroyed, became available.
These were given to O’Rahilly by Fr Doyle’s brother, Fr Charlie Doyle, SJ. The material formed the most valuable portion of Fr William Doyle, SJ: A Spiritual Study (1920). The book went through multiple editions and was translated into a number of European languages.
As a result of the biography by O’Rahilly, Fr Doyle became a focus of popular devotion in Dublin and elsewhere. In August 1938 the cause for his canonisation was formally proposed.
Not long afterwards, however, it was dropped, seemingly because of unease with Fr Doyle’s more bizarre and extreme penitential exercises.