MCNS Articles
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
  By Rob Doyle

The canonisation causes of holy men and women are not often successful. Thousands are begun with great excitement only to meet one too many hurdles, get bogged down in dubious miracle claims, or simply lose appeal.

So what happens to these heroic Catholics once venerated then forgotten? Perhaps they sit up in heaven, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the time when they are needed or discovered again, like the fabled King Arthur, ready to rise when his people face their greatest peril.

One such figure due a revival is Father William Doyle, a Jesuit military chaplain killed in the First World War.

The Irishman's exploits and writings were, at the beginning of the 20th century, famous the world over but at the beginning of the 21st, his cause is a dead duck, his teaching unknown to all but scholars and the elderly.

Yet his is a story that deserves to be told, shouted from the rooftops. In this age of war and rumours of war, of falling vocations and instant gratification, his voice is beginning to be heard again: a hero who points the way to holiness.

Father Doyle was born at Dalkey, Co Dublin on March, 3 1873, the youngest of seven children and son of a legal clerk. After education at, among other places, Stonyhurst College, he was ordained in 1907 and volunteered to serve as a chaplain on the outbreak of the Great War. He was appointed to the 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 16th (Irish) Division, in November 1915 and immediately saw action at the battle of Loos, ministering to soldiers dying from a poison gas attack with disregard for his own safety.

His bravery was mentioned in dispatches and he was put forward for a military cross, the first in a long-line of military decorations denied to him for technical or sectarian reasons. In fact when he eventually was awarded that medal, he sent it to his father, not having any use for honours.

His accounts of battle make extraordinary reading. In 1916 he recalls a miraculous survival when a bomb hit the trench he was in, killing or mortally wounding everyone but himself, and allowing him the chance to give absolution and anointment to all the victims.

In his diary from 1916, he gives a harrowing account of the fighting at Ginchy and Guillemont.

"The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud, and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot," he wrote. "It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we marched in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts. Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefield of some days previous. The wounded, at least I hope so, had all been removed, but the dead lay there stiff and stark with open staring eyes, just as they had fallen. Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality. Some lay as if they were sleeping quietly, others had died in agony or had had the life crushed out of them by mortal fear, while the whole ground, every foot, was littered with heads or limbs, or pieces of torn human bodies. In the bottom of one hole lay a British and a German soldier, locked in a deadly embrace, neither had any weapon but they had fought on to the bitter end. Another couple seemed to have realised that the horrible struggle was none of their making, and that they were both children of the same God; they had died hand-in-hand. A third face caught my eye, a tall, strikingly handsome young German, not more, I should say, than eighteen. He lay there calm and peaceful, with a smile of happiness on his face, as if he had had a glimpse of Heaven before he died. Ah, if only his poor mother could have seen her boy it would have soothed the pain of her broken heart."

This concern for his fellow man, whether comrade or enemy, Catholic or otherwise, shines through in his time on the front. Although at Stonyhurst he gained a reputation for stirring up anti-British feeling, on the battle field his only concern was helping his fellow man.

Fr Fergus O'Donoghue, Jesuit archivist at the Jesuit headquarters in Dublin, recalls hearing an Anglican bishop telling the story of Fr William approaching a wounded soldier who told him "I'm sorry I don't belong to your Church", to which Fr William replied "but you belong to my God" before giving him aid and spiritual comfort. During a war in which Anglican chaplains were kept away from the front line, it was the Catholics who became famous for their willingness to bring the Gospel to No-Man's Land, gaining dozens of converts and winning the respect of all faiths. Even the Ulster Presbyterian newspaper recorded Fr William's death with the words that there was "never a nobler soul" on the battlefields of France.

But the time spent in No-Man's Land could not continue indefinitely. On August 17, on Frezenberg Ridge during the the third battle of Ypres, Fr Willaim was with two other officers, dodging shells to try and bring a wounded men back behind allied lines, when he was blown to pieces after a direct hit.

Owing to the nature of the death, aged 44, there is no known grave for him but is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial (Panel 144 to 145).

He was awarded the Military Cross in January, 1917 though many were outraged that he did not win the Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire. He was also recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal but "disqualified" by virtue of his Irish birth and Catholic faith. In fact General Gough tried to blame the Irish for the failure of the attack, a fact that blackens his name to this day.

Fr William's story quickly gained popularity, especially after his brother, fellow Jesuit Charles, decided to ignore his sibling's final wish and handed his spiritual diaries to biographer Alfred O'Rahilly who published his life story in 1920 and watched as it was translated and sold across the world.

Meanwhile Fr William's pamphlets on vocation and suffering became widely read, especially his ahead-of-it's-time appeals for men to come forward as priests lest a lack of vocations damage the Church.

Fr William was a great advocate of denying and delaying wants and found it abhorrent that anyone should ever try and persuade young people from the priestly or religious life. He lived the life of an ascetic and found it hard to understand why others did not want to follow that path.

In Vocations he wrote: "It is a curious fact that although many pious and learned persons do not shrink from discouraging, in every possible way, aspirants to religious life, they seemingly scruple to give any help or encouragement. They unintentionally perhaps, but most effectually, extinguish the glowing enthusiasm of a youthful heart. Some even assume a terrible responsibility by deliberately turning away souls from the way into which the Master is calling them, forgetting the warning: 'It is I who have chosen you', never reflecting on the irretrievable harm they are causing by spoiling the work of God."

So what went wrong, why did this attractive charismatic Irish hero manage to fall by the wayside?

Fr O'Donoghue puts it down to a number of factors, not lest the Irish themselves.

"It is interesting how a devotion to a certain person can just cease and nobody is quite sure why," he told The Universe. "The nature of devotion has changed and his cause did not outlive these changes.

"Beatification is traditionally reserved for a local devotion and canonisation declares a person worthy of universal devotion. In fact, early beatifications were so informal, they occurred when the pope allowed a lamp to be hung in front of a shrine.

"There was an awful lot of work done on it in the early days, especially by Fr William's brother Charles, great hopes, and many cases of witness to prayers answered, but the cause is now silent. With the exception of a handful of people, devotion to him passed with a certain generation of people.

"It also has to be said that Irish people are not very good when it comes to promoting causes or organising these things for maximum effect. There's a type of spiritual dislocation in a way, that comes from a long tradition of priests trained in Rome discouraging local devotions."

One final reason that this remarkable man deserves a new audience is the testimony he gives to the horrors of war, descriptions of frontline that stand alongside the war poets in their chilling reality.

One of his last entries read thus: "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 tin supported by 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 to Him to give rest to their souls."

That so many victims of that unforgettable war went to meet their maker, absolved and marked with the last rites of the church should be reason enough to make Fr William Doyle an instant candidate for sainthood. Perhaps it is not too late for his cause to begin again.
Articles too lengthy to fit on the Irish Elk blog.

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