Monday, November 11, 2019

(237) Capt. Fr. Willie Doyle S.J., a Future Saint......Saving Souls in the Trenches of World War I

Capt. Fr. Willie Doyle S.J.: Chaplain of the 48th Brigade of the 16th Irish Division
       In all of our wars soldiers in combat need the saving grace, consolation, support, spiritual strength, Confession, and the Eucharist  that the Church provides.  And the Church is always there in the chaplains whose service is indispensable in the war effort.  “The chaplain is a noncombatant that stands as a sign of peace in the midst of war. They embrace the silence and are the space for God to speak when the air is filled with anger, disbelief, guilt and pain.”
In this series we have already examined the lives of four American chaplains of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam who received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for heroism on the battlefield beyond the call of duty.  

For this Veteran’s Day let us go back a little over 100 years to Ireland and World War I to examine the heroic life of Captain Fr. Willie Doyle, who served in the Army Chaplains' Department of the British Army as chaplain to the 48th Brigade of the 16th Irish Division.  He received the British Military Cross for his heroic bravery during the assault on the village of Ginchy.  He was passed over for the highest award, the Victorian Cross; being Catholic, Irish, and Jesuit in Protestant Great Britain didn’t help.

One of at least three books on the saintly life of Fr. Willie Doyle
Fr. Doyle was born in Dalkey, Ireland near Dublin, the youngest of seven children of Hugh and Christine Doyle in a middle class Christ centered home, really a domestic church that gave him a spirit of charity and love for the poor.  He would always find a coin to spare, food to give or a good deed to offer.  Three of the seven had religious vocations.  

       Incipient holiness can be seen in his boyhood diary:  “To do something great and heroic may never come, but I can make my life heroic by faithfully and daily putting my best effort into each duty as it comes round.”  At the same time he loved sports and enjoyed playing practical jokes on friends.

       Even as a child Willie Doyle had a passion for saving      souls by bringing them to Christ.  After all, the mission of the Church and its priests, as instruments of the great love and mercy of Jesus Christ, is to save souls and help us to get to Heaven with little or no time in Purgatory.  That’s what life is all about.  Nothing else matters, be it power, honor, wealth, or pleasure.
Willie was educated at Ratcliffe College, Leicester.  After reading the book by St. Alphonsus,  “Instructions and Consideration on the Religious State”, he was inspired to enter the priesthood and was ordained a priest in 1907 at the age of 30, after years of rigorous Jesuit training.  

His first assignment was serving for five years on the Jesuit mission staff that conducted parish missions.  In the midst of such an active apostolate, he maintained a fervent spiritual life of union with his Eucharistic Lord, offering himself as a victim for the salvation of souls, following the example of the Divine Victim.

       Father Doyle devoted his priestly ministry to serving the poor and forgotten. He often accompanied working men to and from work, preached retreats to priests and parish faithful, offered spiritual guidance, and even converted a prostitute.  He excelled as a preacher and confessor, thus attracting crowds to his parish missions.  Holiness attracts.  

     “He seemed to have a special gift for connecting with disaffected or wounded souls,” wrote Patrick Kenny in his book “To Raise the Fallen”, a selection of Father Doyle’s war letters, diary entries, prayers, and spiritual writings…. “In his diaries you can see, day after day, the resolutions that he made to try and be better tomorrow; sometimes he succeeded, and sometimes he didn’t.”.

       In 1915, World War I had already dragged on for a year.  Postponing his desire to be a missionary in Africa, Fr. Doyle followed the call to do his part as an army chaplain.  With thousands on their way to meet death, someone had to be with them and Fr. Willie stepped up. “The thought that at any moment I may be called to the front, perhaps to die”, he wrote, “has roused a great desire to do all I can while I have life...... I may not have long now to prove my love for Jesus”.  He suffered through many a brutal battle with his men……notably the Battles of Somme, Messines, and Passchendaele.
The wounded are treated behind the lines.
       World War I is characterized by trench warfare.  The soldiers would fire their weapons from trenches that would zigzag for miles.  They were as much as 10 ft. deep and 6 ft. wide.  Support trenches were much deeper and wider for some rest, treatment of the wounded, ammunition storage, etc.  

     The conditions were terrible……cold, dampness, rats, bugs, smelly, mud, dirt, frequent shelling, etc.  Each side had its trenches, separated by 50 – 250 yards of territory called “No Man’s Land”.  Each side would take turns in charging the opposing line of trenches and being mowed down by machine gun fire.  Much of the war was a brutal stalemate with little change in the lines.  It was a war of attrition.

A British officer leads a charge over the top of the trench.
        In Battle.  In his time as a military chaplain, he carried out his priestly duties, serving his “poor brave boys” by offering Mass, hearing confessions, spiritual guidance, companionship, physical assistance, giving the last rites, comforting the shell shocked, the sick, and the dying, and raising spirits.  

       It didn’t matter if they were Catholic or Protestant; he wanted to be next to the men in the trenches. Through shelling and gas attacks, Fr. Willie often ventured into “no man’s land’ to drag the wounded back to safety, administered last rites, and even buried the men who didn’t survive.  During the Battle of Loos he was caught in a German gas attack and his heroic conduct was mentioned in dispatches.

        His self mortifications in reparation were thought to be too harsh, his prayer life too extreme.  In his free time, Fr. Doyle would spend hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the sanctification of priests.  In the trenches he would have his private adoration with the Eucharist inside a pyx around his neck.  

    Nevertheless, he was a much loved, affable priest, constantly joking around.  Fr. Doyle loved his men dearly and they in turn loved him; he was their shepherd.  His goal was their sanctity and salvation.  Fr. Willie refused to leave the front for rest and recuperation.  He had to be with his men.

During the Battle of Langemarck, Chaplain Willie ventured out into no man’s land to rescue a trapped and wounded soldier.  After many close shaves on the Western Front, Fr. Willie Doyle was hit by a German shell while doing this heroic work of mercy on 16 August 1917 at the age of 44.  Fr Doyle's body never recovered was buried in a makeshift communal grave where he fell…….without marker or tombstone, but he is commemorated at Tyne Cot with a memorial.  A stained glass window in St Finnian's Church, Dromin, Co Louth Ireland honors his memory.

Fr. Willie’s last diary entry indicates his strength of faith amid battle: “I will try to take all that happens, no matter from whom it comes, as sent to me by Jesus and will bear suffering, heat, cold, etc., with joy as part of my immolation in reparation for the sins of priests.  From this day I shall try bravely to bear all little pains in this spirit.” Apparently, even Catholic Ireland a century ago had its share of holy priests, good priests, and bad priests.  

The future saint’s heroism and holiness are evident in his many letters, diaries, and papers in the Jesuit archives on Leeson Street in Dublin.  It was claimed later that on the Western Front alone as many as 40,000 soldiers converted to the Catholic faith, due in no small part to the exemplary service of Catholic chaplains—men such as Father Willie Doyle.

Within 12 years of his death, the Jesuit order received more than 6,000 reports of alleged favors through his intercession……more than 50 from India, more than 70 from Africa, more than 100 from Australia, and almost 2,000 from every single state in the USA.  A few months ago, EWTN published a video documentary/drama which can be obtained from  

After being hit hard by the horrendous Clergy Abuse Scandal, may all Americans and Irish recognize that there are more priests in the mold of Fr. Willie Doyle than the few who betrayed God, their flock, and their holy vocation.  The prime targets of the underworld are families and priests.  May we join the heroic priests in eternity, who gave their all, in praying for our priests here on earth who are sometimes weaker than we are.  The world urgently needs holy priests to help us on our journeys to eternity.
APPENDIX - A short history of World War I. - A more detailed summary of World War I. - Causes and Timeline of World War I. - Thoughts of Fr. Willie Doyle for each day of the year,his life, his writings, etc. -  Lanz, Rachel “Father Willie Doyle: World War I’s Forgotten ‘Martyr of Charity’……..Looking back at the legacy of a military chaplain”.  National Catholic Register, November 10, 2018.

Hynes, Sam; “A Soldiers Tale” – gives a good idea of life in the trenches. – overall documentary of World War I. – Interview of Patrick Kenney, author of the book “To Raise the Fallen” on EWTN’s “Bookmark”. -  Another interview of Patrick Kenney, author of the book “To Raise the Fallen” on “EWTN Live”. – the trailer of the movie, “Bravery Under Fire” – Fr. Willie Doyle on Irish Television.

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