By Fr Shane Sullivan
Try to imagine it. August, 1917. Belgian Flanders. The bombs and bullets whistle and crack close overhead. Shells fall everywhere and relentlessly. The sound is deafening. Blood and bodies intermingle with the mud. Men slip and scramble everywhere, looking for cover, doing their duty, not knowing whether they will survive the day. Amidst all the horror a figure in rain-proofs kneels down and leans over a young soldier who has fallen. This figure prays and absolves him, offers him a word of encouragement and continues on to the next man near death. The man busying himself with God’s work among the dying is Fr. Willie Doyle, the Jesuit chaplain to the 8th Irish Fusiliers. He is a mighty instrument in the hand of God, bringing hope to the most hopeless of World War I’s battlefields. For us he is a man of heroic hope and sacrificial love. For his men he is light in the darkness.
Man of Hope
Of all the attributes of Fr. Doyle those who knew him most loved his cheerful bravery. Bravery like Fr. Doyle’s was rare, good-cheer was nearly unheard of. This was the world’s first modern war: tanks replaced cavalry, bombs became far more advanced and deadly, and the world first saw the horrors of chemical warfare. Some ten million young men died in battle, ground up in the awful machinery of war. The only explanation for Fr. Doyle’s spirit is that he was man of hope.
From the Catechism: “[hope] keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.” (CCC, 1818) Fr. Doyle’s letters home to his father and diary show again-and-again this eternal perspective. He once wrote:
One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ …I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of heaven for them.”
Death was not the end- not for the young men he anointed and absolved and not for him. In the midst of all that horror he was not overwhelmed. God’s light “shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5) Fr. Doyle’s hope lifted the spirits of the much younger soldiers.
Man of Sacrificial Love
Sustained by his rock-solid hope for heaven, Fr. Doyle was filled with a supernatural bravery. A soldier later recalled: “each time he came back across the field [to the trench] he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head and went again into the storm… he would not desert them [his boys] in their agony.” They were his boys. He looked over them with a fatherly affection and occasionally sorrow, knowing how many of them would never make the journey home. Heaven healed him of his fear.
He was remembered in the Glasgow Weekly News by no less than an Orangeman from Belfast who wrote, “He didn’t know the meaning of fear, and he didn’t know what bigotry was… He was as ready to risk his life to take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman as to assist men of his own faith and regiment.”
His love of God and the men were the priority- never himself. Once, after a gruelling day’s march he was faced with a choice: sleep or Mass. As he celebrated Mass that night, while his men slept around him, he was grateful for God’s good presence in such a hellish place. No doubt his men rested easier, grateful for a priest like him by their sides.
That God would raise up men like Fr. Doyle, priests like Fr. Doyle, men of enduring hope and sacrificial love let us pray!
For more on Fr. Doyle see “To Raise the Fallen” an insightful look at Fr. Doyle’s life, edited by Patrick Kenny.