Sanctity under fire: Fr. Willie Doyle and the rest of us

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 22, 2019 | In Reviews

Sometimes we benefit from practical examples of how to grow in holiness. That’s why we turn to the lives of the saints. But one drawback is that so many of those who are canonized followed particular paths of life to which the vast majority of us are not called. A gap in understanding arises between the commitment represented by an extraordinary vocation, on the one hand, and the spiritual dispositions and hard-won habits which are the keys to holiness, on the other.

I found this gap bridged neatly in the life of William Doyle, SJ, who wanted to offer his whole life to Christ and who died while courageously ministering to Allied troops in World War I. There was a time when Fr. Doyle was widely known for both his heroism and his spiritual advice. He was influential in the lives of such persons as St. Josemaria Escrivá, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and the Nobel Prize-winning author, Sigrid Undset. Today, sadly, this remarkable priest has been largely forgotten.

Even as a boy in Ireland, Willie Doyle felt a call to sacrifice continually for Christ. But by his own admission he found this far easier in the saying than in the doing. He later developed a profound desire for martyrdom or, more precisely, a martyrdom occasioned by acts of charity to which he was determined to commit himself. But he recognized in himself a practical reluctance to grow into such a goal. He kept at it, however, and his opportunity came as a chaplain on the battlefield through his unflinching spiritual service to the mostly Irish soldiers under his care.

Despite his own fears and the efforts of superior officers to dissuade him, Fr. Doyle consistently ran into the trenches to hear confessions, anoint the injured, and later to ensure proper burial, even in the midst of heavy enemy fire. His calm presence in the most shocking circumstances was enough to calm the men and cheer them in the performance of their duties. Though he frequently cheated death (and was noted widely for it), it is no surprise that he was killed by a German shell while running to assist a group of soldiers who had gotten pinned down near the front line.

A pattern of self-denial

Fr. Doyle was already in his early forties when World War I erupted. His battlefield exploits were preceded by a way of life in which he strove over many years to welcome discomfort of every kind, rather than clinging to what he enjoyed—whether in food, sleep, companions, recreation or work. He found this an ongoing struggle. From his personal notebooks, we have a telling entry from his mid-thirties, while on retreat two years after he had been ordained a priest:

Over and over again I say, “My God, I will become a saint since you ask it.” But there is no progress, no real effort. The truth is, I am afraid of the sacrifice, afraid of doing what God wants; and I delude myself into thinking I am doing God’s will and satisfying him by an empty promise. What an abuse of grace! [107]

Over time, however, reliance on grace become Willie’s hallmark. For this reason, he was a beloved retreat master and spiritual director, and his writings on vocations (all vocations) were distributed through multiple editions and hundreds of thousands of copies—all before he ever saw a physical battle zone.

What Fr. Doyle was able to do was translate the commitment to holiness into the realities of everyday life. In passages reminiscent of St. Thérèse’s “little way” and Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence, Doyle recorded gems like these:

  • “We do not mind what God does with us so long as it more or less fits in with our own wishes; but when his will clashes with ours, we begin to see the difficulty of the prayer, ‘Not my will but thine be done.’” (135-6)
  • “Going against self! Not in one thing or in two, but in all things where a free choice is left us. These little words contain the life-story of the saints, as they are the weapon that gained the victory which gave them heaven.” (136-7)
  • “A devotion which does not consist in any special form of prayer…is devotion to the Holy Spirit of God…. He is ever whispering what we ought to do and what we ought not to do. When we are deliberately deaf to his voice…we grieve instead of honouring the Holy Spirit of God. So let us often say: ‘Come, O Holy Ghost, into my heart and make me holy…’.” (137)
  • “There is one thing we need never be afraid of, namely, that the devil will ever tempt us to be humble. He may delude us in the practice of other virtues…. But we need never be in doubt as to whether it would be better to humble ourselves or not. There can be no doubt about it. It is always safe to do so.” (138)
  • And finally there is this:

Making my meditation before the picture of the Curé of Ars, he seemed to say to me with an interior voice: “The secret of my life was that I lived for the moment. I did not say, ‘I must pray here for the next hour’, but only ‘for this moment’. I did not say, ‘I have a hundred confessions to hear’, but looked upon this one as the first and last. I did not say, ‘I must deny myself everything and always’, but only ‘just this once’. By this means I was able always to do everything perfectly, quietly, and in great peace. Try and live this life of the present moment.” [154]

Though he ended up being what we might call “hard on himself”, Fr. Doyle was painfully aware that he progressed only by slow degrees. Full of this self-awareness, he was always gentle with penitents and practical in his spiritual advice.

After his death, the comments of a Protestant soldier from Belfast stand out among many testimonies to his greatness. “God never made a nobler soul,” he wrote. “Many a time I have seen him walk beside a stretcher trying to console a wounded man, with bullets flying around him, and shells bursting every few yards” (205). As in war, so in peace: This was Willie Doyle’s closeness to those in spiritual need. This was his martyrdom of charity to sinners.

Surely this same spirit is the key to his spiritual counsel as well. There can be no more fitting epitaph than his own advice for our spiritual growth:

I am truly glad you are looking to the perfection of your daily actions; it is the simplest, yet perhaps hardest, way of sanctification, with little fear of deception. It is the certain following of Christ: “He hath done all things well.” (Mark 7:37) [132]

For more: See Patrick Kenny’s To Raise the Fallen, a selection of war letters, prayers, and spiritual writings of Fr. Willie Doyle, SJ, newly published in 2017 in Ireland, and reprinted a few months ago by Ignatius Press. My page references are to this edition. Ignatius also sells an EWTN “original docudrama” (DVD) on Fr. Doyle: Bravery Under Fire.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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