“No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”
Those words from the Gospel of John 15:13 are often used when people try to put into words the life and character of the Servant of God, Fr Wille Doyle SJ. After all, he did just that: laying down his life while making his way to minister to two Anglican soldiers from Ulster who had fallen during the Battle of Langemarck at Passchendaele, Belgium, one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the First World War.
Fr Doyle had insisted on lining up with the soldiers to go into the front line, placing himself as far forward as he could be with the doctor at the aid post so that men who were wounded could come back to the aid post for assistance.
Earlier during that fateful day, Fr Doyle and the army doctor were ordered to return to battalion headquarters, behind the fighting line, because of the danger. While he followed those orders, he could not settle once he returned; incredibly, he made the decision to return to the aid post despite the imminent danger.
That afternoon, he did what he had done previously on so many days, leaving the safety of the trenches, running across no man’s land to minister to the two men injured, in distress and trapped there. It didn’t matter that the two soldiers were not Catholic, Fr Willie saw himself as a shepherd to all.
On this day in 1917, on the 16th of August, this beloved chaplain was killed, devastating all who knew him. His body was never recovered. Global devotion to Fr Doyle would spread rapidly following the publication of his biography by his friend Professor Alfred O’Rahilly three years after his death in 1920, becoming a publishing sensation.
Fast forward more than 100 years and headlines were made last November, when the cause for Fr Doyle’s beatification and canonisation was opened in the diocese of Meath. The postulator for his cause is author and priest of the Diocese of Meath, Fr John Hogan – a man who possesses a wealth of knowledge and a tangible passion for Fr Doyle’s cause.
Fr Hogan was among those who founded the Fr Willie Doyle Association in 2020, which acts as the official petitioner to the Holy See for Willie’s cause.
The Association must prove that Willie lived a life of heroic virtue in order for the Pope to consider declaring him a Saint, this involves an in-depth examination of Willie’s life by numerous experts and the examination of two miracles attributed to his intercession. Fr Hogan gave the following interview to Gript to mark the anniversary of Fr. Willie Doyle’s death on the frontlines – on this day – 106 years ago.
Fr Hogan introduces Fr Willie Doyla as a man who has captured hearts right across the world by outlining the chaplain’s unconditional love for Christ and for those around him. He had a deep willingness to sacrifice himself, ever counting the cost to himself.
“Sacrifice was the hallmark of his life”, Fr Hogan notes, ‘ Fr Willie came to the understanding, even as a Jesuit novice, that he was called in some way to live a life of sacrifice.”
Willie was a tall man, 6 foot tall, well built even though his health was not always good, but he liked his food, a little too much as he often realised. A man of that size and that stature “had to embrace sacrifice” in order to bring himself under control and free to be a better man and a better priest.
“From a young age, he knew he had to perfect himself – and sort himself out, he knew his own weaknesses.”
Though we rarely hear about it in the biographies, for example, he had a temper which he had to bring under control, and also a sense of humour and a sense of playfulness, which, in his early years as a young man, some thought went too far, that too had to be curbed.
Fr Willie Doyle was born in Dalkey, Dublin, on 3 March 1873, the youngest of seven children. The Doyle’s were a deeply prayerful and devout family so Willie grew up surrounded by prayer. Like him, other family members discerned vocations to religious life.
His eldest brother Fred studied to be a diocesan priest; the brother closest to Willie in age, Charles, became a Jesuit priest; their sister May became a nun: Sister Benedicta with the Sisters of Mercy in Cork.
“His family was a very devout family,” Fr Hogan explains. “A faithful Catholic family, they would gather together for prayer each evening and read from religious books and the lives of the saints.” Willie learned the virtue of charity from his family: charity was a dimension of the family’s life, the Doyles had a great love for the poor, it was an essential part of their Catholic faith.”
With this influence, Willie, as a young boy had a natural inclination to think about others and their needs.“ He manifested great piety as a child and he was very charitable, carrying out charitable works for the poor in Dalkey, extraordinary work for one so young.”
“He reminds me a bit of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who used to go out to the poor in Turin, and nobody knew about it. Willie, as a child, was doing the same sort of thing. There are stories of his visits to the houses of the poor on Dalkey Hill – now of course, the wealthy live in Dalkey but during his time, during the late 1800s, there were a lot of the poor people in the area. Willie would visit them and give him a little money, bring gifts and do a few chores around the house for the older people who lived there.”
Willie’s own call to religious life was not as he had originally anticipated. His elder brother, Fred, had been studying for the priesthood at the Irish College in Rome; he was ordained a deacon for the Archdiocese of Dublin and was due to be ordained a priest in March 1887. However, he took ill and died on the 10th March, just days before his ordination, a dreadful blow to his family.
“Willie was only about fourteen when Fred died”, Fr Hogan said, “But it led him to make a resolution: ‘My brother has died’, Willie thought to himself, ‘as he was going to be a priest for Dublin, I’m now going to replace him – I’ll be the priest that Fred wanted to be.’
Out of love for his brother, Willie decided to direct this vocation to the service of those his brother had hoped to serve.”
At this time, Willie was at Ratcliffe College, Leicestershire, for his secondary education. While his desire to take Fred’s place as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dublin remained fixed in the back of his mind, his closest sibling, Charles entered the Jesuits in March 1889.
It was during a visit to Charles at the Jesuit Novitiate in Rahan, Co Offaly, in the August of 1890, that he encountered the Jesuit way of life for the first time. Initially Willie was neither impressed with the life nor the surroundings.
During the visit, Charles asked him if he would consider joining the Jesuits, Willie replied that he absolutely would not. His brother, however, told him to think about it and gave him St Alphonsus Liguori’s book Instructions and Consideration on the Religious State. The book ended up inspiring Willie to lay aside his plans for diocesan priesthood to join the Jesuits; he entered the novitiate in Rahan in March 1891.
“Willie’s vocation was a very interesting one,” Fr Hogan explains. “He felt he was going to go in a particular direction out of love for his brother, but God said ‘No, I want you here – in the Jesuits’, and Willie obeyed – and of course, you can see the great life of providence that emerged from that.”
He made his first profession in 1893 after a two-year novitiate in Rahan. It was during his time in Rahan, in November 1892, that Willie had his faith and mental health tested, when a fire broke out in the novitiate.
“The fire didn’t do a huge amount of damage, but it triggered something in Willie and it led to a breakdown – whether it was a mental or nervous breakdown, we do not know, but Willie was asked to leave.”
Because there were so many vocations to the priesthood at that time, and because of the state of his mental health, some were of the opinion Willie was not suited to the Jesuit way of life. However, his novice master was so convinced that there was something good in Willie, he made the case for him to stay and persuaded the superiors. They let Willie take a short break and then come back to resume his formation, this was very rare decision for the congregation at the time.
“Remarkably, Willie never suffered from any mental illness or any psychological issues or breakdowns again,” Fr Hogan says.
“Later, it was noted that his psychological and mental strength on the battlefield was extraordinary. A healing took place in 1892 for Willie. In terms of mental health, he can speak to people today who suffer from mental and psychological illness.”
“He is almost a patron for those who suffer mentally — and a sign of hope, because, by the grace of God, and because of his own determination, he became so strong psychologically and, as a military chaplain, became a source of strength and encouragement to his soldiers in some of the most devastating moments of the war.”
Willie was ordained a priest on 28th July 1907, at Milltown Park, Dublin, in the same ceremony as his fellow Jesuit, Blessed John Sullivan. He took final vows as a Jesuit in 1909, and then started work on the Jesuit retreat and mission team for the Jesuits until he volunteered as a chaplain during the war.
As a priest he was aware of the importance of his ministry and indeed how it could be negatively affected by human weakness. He recognised that atonement had to be made for the sins committed by priests which could have a devastating effect on the others and on the Church – something which makes him all the more relevant for the Church today.
“He came to an understanding through his prayer life”, Fr Hogan notes, “that God was calling him to offer sacrifice for souls, particularly in reparation for the sins of priests. This is why part of his life was dedicated to offering reparation for the sins of priests through his own sacrifices and penances; he was acutely aware of the impact faithless and sinful priests have on the Church, on its members and its mission to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.”
His sacrifices, however, made him strong, Fr Hogan explains:
“In his life and through his writings, we can see he felt called at certain times to make vows to God to live a life of sacrifice, one which would go on to bear fruit, not just for himself spiritually but in other ways. His life of penance, of prayer and fasting, actually bore fruit in that year and a half when he was in the trenches. When it came to the deep privations of the trenches, they didn’t affect him in the same way they affected others. He had a strength; and not just a physical strength, but an extraordinary spiritual strength, which allowed him to respond to the needs of the soldiers and the needs of the captured soldiers – he ministered to prisoners of war too – with an extraordinary pastoral zeal and kindness.”
This meant he became a source of encouragement for those around him, so much so that following his death, the first devotees of Fr Willie Doyle were the soldiers to whom he had ministered.
They were engulfed in deep anguish as they tried to come to terms with his death, but he had edified them, so they turned to him in prayer and felt that his presence remained with them and he was praying for them.
“It was only later,” Fr Hogan explains, “when O’Rahilly’s biography was written, that devotion among the laity began, and it really took off.”
‘HE WAS DIFFERENT – HE HAD A SENSE OF JOY’
“Those who knew Willie absolutely loved him because he was different; he was so human and saintly. He was Irish so he had that quirky sense of humour that is common to us Irish. He had this incredible joy – a mysterious joy that was so natural to him. This joy could transform those around him, even in the trenches with the soldiers. No matter what he was suffering and enduring, this joy and his wonderful personality, the craic and his wit, could turn things around.
“In his war letters, written to his father at home in Dalkey, he writes about his encounters with the rats in the trenches, for example, not only did he make little of them, but turned his encounters into comic interludes in what was a living hell. Freezing and hungry in the trenches, he still found incidents to brighten up the misery and provide his father with some amusement to ease his fears for his son at the Front.
“He had a great personality, a fantastic sense of humour. He could be mischievous and there are stories from his early life in particular where he used to carry out various pranks, though they didn’t always endear him to his superiors,” Fr Hogan laughs.
Willie’s personality made him shine among others, though he always sought to remain humble. While his readiness to sacrifice himself for others was one important aspect of who he was (and is an important aspect of his cause for sainthood), there were so many layers to Willie. He also was vibrant and mischievous and cheerful, Fr Hogan explains:
“When you read the letters he wrote, particularly his war letters, his personality jumps out of the pages – which can be quite a rare thing when it comes to writing. I often compare him with St Teresa of Avila: when you read her writings, her personality too emerges in what she wrote, so to read her, and to read Willie, is a way of meeting them on a personal level.
”To read St Teresa is to experience her and her personality, to get to know her and to come to love her –it’s the same with Fr Willie: when you read his letters, you get to meet him and get insights into his character.”
Fr Hogan ventures that maybe some people didn’t quite understand Willie’s sense of humour. In fact, he reveals when Willie’s cause was initially suggested in the 1930s, it was not opened because, among some perceived objections, some of those who had known Willie in his early life remarked that his sense of humour was not what it should have been for a Jesuit. “They expected a Saint to be someone who very serious and perhaps even stern, which Willie wasn’t.”
“Of course, in his youthfulness, Willie could overdo it at times”, Fr Hogan said. “One day in the community recreation room, spying a Jesuit known for his very serious nature absorbed in reading his newspaper, Willie felt things needed to be livened up. He put a lit match to the bottom of the newspaper and the whole thing went up in flames to the poor Jesuit’s consternation. Willie was disciplined for that, it was a dangerous prank, but it does show his mischievous side.”
One of Fr Hogan’s favourite stories comes from Willie’s time at the novitiate in Rahan. Willie’s bedroom was situated at the top of the building, and one particular day as the brothers and priests were out walking at the front of the house getting fresh air, Willie opened his window and was talking and laughing with the other men.
Given his mischievous nature, he hatched another prank to entertain the brothers. Sensing a shadow being cast over them, the men looked up and saw what looked a like a human form plummeting from the top window of the building causing immediate alarm that Willie had jumped out of the window. But when the object landed on the ground, they discovered that Willie had taken a pillow, dressed it up in his cassock and hurled it out the window.
“When they looked up to the window, there was Willie Doyle hanging over the ledge, creased up laughing, some saw the hilarity of it, others did not. There was certainly imprudence in that – but Willie was young, he would have been 18 or 19 at the time, but it gives you an insight into this sense of humour Willie had that he never lost,” Fr Hogan says.
“Those who knew in later life knew Willie to be a man of great humour and a few pranks, but he had matured, and his mischievousness was balanced and prudent, though still infectious.”
THE PROSTITUTE ON DEATH ROW
When he was ordained a priest, Willie had his heart set on becoming a missionary priest in the Congo and had even begun learning Congolese. However, his superior told him he would be preaching missions and giving retreats on the Jesuit Mission team.
“During this time, between 1909 and 1915,” Fr Hogan explains, “he did the most extraordinary work in Ireland and Britain. He touched souls andconverted many people doing this work.” One of the most touching stories conveying the depth of the impact Willie had on others came from this period of his life. It was a story of an encounter with prostitutes in England which Fr Doyle later recalled to nuns he knew.
Fr Hogan details:
“Early on in his life as a missioner, Willie was giving a retreat at a particular place in England. After the evening session, he was heading back to the rectory where he was staying when he saw the ladies of the night standing at a street corner. He went up to the women, and with the gentlest voice, said, ‘Ladies go home. Don’t hurt Jesus anymore’ – and he then continued on his way.
“A number of years later, he was giving a retreat here in Ireland when he received a telegram from the provincial who told him to come immediately. He wondered if he was in trouble, you didn’t get called to the provincial quite so urgently unless you were in some kind of trouble.
“When Willie arrived, the provincial told him he had received a letter from the Governor of a prison in England who wanted Willie to go there immediately, someone has asked for him. The person was on death row.
“Willie got the next boat to England, and when he arrived at the prison, the Governor told him that there was a lady there who had been found guilty of murder and was due to be hanged the next morning. “She asked for you, we had to find you,” Willie was told. He said that was fine, and he went into the cell.
“When Willie met the woman, he didn’t know her. She told him the story of how she had been one of the prostitutes he had spoken to on the street some years before. What he had said, and how it said it, had always stayed with her, and now she was going to be hanged, she really needed to see him.
“Willie spent time with her, she wasn’t a Catholic but she now wanted to be received into the Church before she died. He heard her confession, baptised her and received. He obtained permission to say Mass in her cell and gave her first communion. Finally, he anointed her, and he was there with her right up to the moment when she was taken to be hanged.”
This is just one of the many stories from Willie’s life, which gives a powerful insight into his ministry and the effect that he had on others, particularly on those who were troubled or had had difficult lives.
“He had a gift of being able to discern how he was to respond to each person in the situation that they were in”, Fr Hogan explains. “ He was very gentle but sometimes he was challenging. He had this gift of being able to see where a person was, and then knew how to touch their hearts.”
“All it took for that woman, for instance, were gentle words which remained with her for years. He had a real pastoral gift which is why he is a great model for priests. That gift without doubt came from the natural ability he had, but also from his intense prayer life: because he was so united with God in his life, he allowed God to guide him in his caring for people. He didn’t always have success, but he did achieve success in the most extraordinary ways.”
HIS PROMISE TO OUR LADY
A key moment in Willie’s life took place on the 1st May 1893. At the time, he was a novice in Rahan, and it was a couple of months prior to his first profession. Fr Hogan explains how Willie made an offering of his life to Our Lady, written in his blood. He promised that he would give everything to live a life of martyrdom – knowing that Our Lady would obtain for him the grace of dying as a Jesuit martyr.
“This is offering was important; it’s perhaps the most important part of his whole spiritual life, in terms of how he lived his life and how he died and helps us understand him. This offering – we call it his Oblation, also helps us understand the nature of his sanctity, and is a major element in the presentation of his cause. In terms of his reaching out to others, it just shows us the life of martyrdom Willie was willing to embrace, a dying to himself in order to live for others: that is at the heart of his life and his faith.
“This offering was half-composed in his own blood, as was a tradition at the time, though it seems strange to us today. Though his body is lost among the war dead, two first class relics of Willie remain in existence – a lock of his hair, and this offering to Our Lady written in his blood.”
Fr Hogan continues: “The extraordinary thing about him was that he remained faithful to this offering throughout his life. A lot of young people make great resolutions, this is especially true of those entering religious life, but as life progresses and there are hard knocks, or maybe people get too comfortable, you can forget about the commitments you made earlier in your life. But Willie never did. He was as intense in that offering on the last day of his life as he was when he first made it.
“That offering also sheds light on the providence of his life,” he says. “It helps to explain what happened at the end of Willie’s life, and his death at the age of 44.
“When he went to war, he went to serve the young men; he knew many of them were going to die in the most horrific ways. He wanted to be there to minister to them, to prepare them for death. But he was also aware, particularly so in the last months of his life, that the sacrifice he made was going to be fulfilled there on the battlefield. He was not scared; such was his life of prayer, he was completely immersed in God.
“He had an extraordinary life of devotion, and he spend many hours in prayer before the Eucharist. Even when a military chaplain, when he should have been getting some rest, Willie was praying before the Blessed Sacrament. If there was a chapel near where he was serving, his spare moments were spent there.
“He did night vigils: many hours at night praying before the Blessed Sacrament, of failing, praying on the battlefield – he had permission to carry the Blessed Sacrament around his neck. He brought the Lord with him onto the battlefield as he was tending to the fallen.
“Being so immersed in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus strengthened him and that became his strength. Perhaps in the future, God willing, if his cause is successful, I hope he will be seen as a Eucharistic Saint.”
As noted above, Willie’s body was never recovered after his death; this could be seen as a human tragedy. No one knows if or where he is buried – perhaps a cruel irony when we think of how Willie spent many of his nights as chaplain in the pitch dark on the battlefield burying the dead. (He had learned the funeral service off my heart, so that he could recite it for the dead without needing light). But, Fr Hogan suggests, the way Willie died reflects the providence of God in his life:
“I don’t think he will be found. The providence of God featured a lot in his life, and I think he would be happy with where his body is now. He lies with the men he gave his life to serve. He is with them, and on the last day, the day of resurrection he will rise with them. When we speak about sacrifice, his death is part of the sacrifice which forms Willie’s total gift. His body lies among the forgotten, you could say, and he wanted to be among the most forgotten to show them that they too are loved, to bring them to Christ.
“There is something so beautiful about that, because so many people are forgotten. How many people out there are missing, and we may never find out where they are? And there is Willie – he is lost too. Here is a man who will be a Saint, with the help of God, and yet in a human sense, he is among the lost.”
‘HE HAS THE IRISH VIRTUES’
For Willie to be made a Saint, two miracles are necessary. One miracle is needed for Willie to be declared Blessed, and a second so that he can be canonised a Saint. One of Fr John Hogan’s roles as Postulator for his cause is to call on people to pray for miracles and follow up on reports of favours received through Willie’s intercession.
“I’m appealing to people to pray to Willie – including those who are seriously or terminally ill – give them to Willie and pray to Willie. Since his death, there have been over 6,000 claims of favours, and there are miracles among them, so he is a powerful advocate with God. I would ask people to please join us in prayer, these prayers will be much appreciated.”
The impact for Irish people in gaining a new saint in Fr Willie would be huge, Fr Hogan says.
“The wonderful thing is that Willie has come from Ireland. The Church in Ireland, as we know, has had a difficult number of years.
“There are good people out there who are suffering and are disillusioned; they have lost confidence. Yet here we have a man who comes from our people, and who has the best of what it means to be Irish. He has the Irish virtues: that generosity, that sense of humour, that goodness and concern for others, that has always been identified in our people. In Willie Doyle, those Irish features have been united in a life of the most extraordinary faith and heroism.
“Willie Doyle came from our land. He is the best of who we are as a people and who we are as Christians. I think if, God willing, Willie is beatified and then canonised, it will be a good moment for the Church. Because he offers us something we can aspire to. Here is a good news story; here is a good priest who gave his life for others, literally, on the battlefield, as well as in his whole life of service.
“Though Willie is of Ireland, he does not stay in Ireland, because his life, and his influence and his relevance is universal. I believe that in Fr Willie, if the cause is successful, Ireland will not get a new Saint for Ireland, but we give a new Saint to the whole world.”
You can find out more about the Fr Willie Doyle Association at williedoyle.org.