Father Willie Doyle (aka William Doyle, S.J.) served as a heroic military chaplain in WWI, after facing a crippling nervous breakdown and PTSD in his early priestly life. He also secretly performed many acts of reparation and penance for the sins of bad priests, as an important part of his own spiritual life. He died saving two Protestant soldiers, at the cost of his own life.
So obviously this is relevant to modern Catholics.
Despite much devotion to his memory, and even many reported miracles, his cause was not taken up at the time by the Jesuit order, probably because his service in the UK army as an Irishman was deemed too controversial. This too is relevant today, sadly.
The Father Willie Doyle Association was just given ecclesiastical approval in Ireland. You can read a good article about him here, as well as watch an EWTN interview about him.
There’s a recent biography that uses his private papers in depth. There’s also an older biography by Alfred O’Rahilly, which is available to read on Hathitrust.
O’Rahilly was a personal friend of Doyle’s. He was also a pretty interesting guy himself. He started out as a Jesuit novice, but discerned his way out. His field was physics, and he was a college professor at the University of Cork who wrote a “controversial” book on electromagnetics. (Basically, he ended up on the losing side by opposing Maxwell and Einstein, but no idea if the book was well-argued otherwise.) He advocated Irish independence, and was imprisoned for it briefly in 1921. He co-wrote a draft constitution, and served briefly in the new Irish Dail (Congress/Parliament). He became president of the University of Cork in later years. He was also a devout Catholic who had a close relationship with his nun sister, and eventually he went back to the Jesuits and became a priest after his wife died.
Yup, he’s the sibling of the Irish language/literature O’Rahillys, Thomas Francis O’Rahilly and Cecile O’Rahilly. (And this is not surprising, as they descended from a filidh family.)
But back to Doyle….
Doyle came from a well-to-do family, and his father was an official in Dublin’s High Court. They had several servants and did a lot of entertaining. But Willie was an unusually thoughtful and kind kid, and had a habit of sneaking into the kitchen in the early morning after big dinner events (since his parents didn’t make the maids do all the dishes before going to bed), and doing all the dishes himself.
- He was handy and observant, since this wasn’t part of his chores.
- Holy crud, he must have been quiet and sneaky. Especially with six other kids in the house.
- He got himself up early. Really early.
One of the maids remembered fondly how he helped her settle into the house, carrying her things when she arrived, showing her how to do various tasks that she had never been taught to do, and also doing several tasks himself that she had forgotten, so that she wouldn’t get into trouble.
Needless to say, this was not what usually happened in houses with servants!
Also, while still a kid, he made it his business to know all the poor people in the area, and to help them out however he could, either with money or with offers of help. On one occasion, he managed to get all the materials to clean and whitewash all the walls of an old lady’s entire house, and then finished by scrubbing all her floors. He got home a little late, but his servant friends knew all about it and made sure he didn’t miss dinner.
But he also was a fun guy to spend time with, which was why people liked him; he did his charity lightly, and didn’t make people feel bad. He was their friend, so of course he would help them. He played cricket and other sports, and he also played piano and banjo.
His dream during his Jesuit novitiate, though, was to do missionary work and become a martyr, to the point that he secretly wrote out a pledge (using his own blood for ink!) to die for Christ and the Virgin Mary. (Which is super emo, of course, but also really really manly and cool. I mean, if you can’t be young and idealistic when you’re setting out in life and discerning, when can you be edgy and idealistic?)
And it turns out that God took him up on it, so the whole crazy Irish blood oath thing must have pleased Him! It reminds me a lot of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s dream as a kid. (And apparently St. Margaret Mary Alacoque did the same thing as a young novice, so Doyle was imitating one of his heroines. Maybe that makes it a crazy French blood oath instead! Heh!)
He was sent to several Jesuit-run schools, where he was assigned to ride herd on the kids. Just as he had been able to get to know everyone in his little town, he apparently managed to know all the boys, help them, and organize all kinds of fun and enrichment, despite lack of time and money and his own chronic ill health. His cheerfulness and sense of humor carried everything, and the toboggan he had built at Stonyhurst was apparently famous among the kids.
But he wasn’t content with himself, even though he was popular with kids and warmly approved by his co-workers and superiors. He constantly criticized himself, but also planned and executed his own betterment as a scholar and believer. That’s probably the secret of his vast energy — he didn’t just brood; he did something about it. He also ended up finding a way to intensify his prayer life without taking away from his time for work and study — making a Holy Hour. This helped him a lot, and he warmly recommended it to others.
There’s lots more to his short but busy life, so check out the biographies. The O’Rahilly book is very insightful about the Old School way that Jesuits used to form novices, and about Ignatian spirituality in general (as well as how Doyle applied it). Good stuff, which will be useful when the current-year Jesuit silliness passes away and is forgotten.
Through prayer, voluntary self-denial and suffering, and constant dedication, he found himself able to get a sense that he could pour God’s grace out of him as if he were a cup, onto people in great need and trouble. And apparently people felt this themselves.
(I suspect this is what happens when a charismatic or charming person gets very deep into God, making himself a holy conduit, just as singers and performers find things not of themselves mysteriously pouring out onto those who need them. It’s a gift for others’ good, but it has to be cultivated by hard work on oneself.)
Although his work in missions and in preaching retreats was greatly praised, he was constantly tormented by depression and stage fright. (Which is interesting, since he was naturally so social.) But it really is hard work to expose your heart in front of an audience like that… and honestly, one suspects that Satan did not like Fr. Doyle doing such work, and helping out souls en masse.
Fr. Doyle was a big advocate of encouraging lay adults who worked for a living to come to retreats and re-examine their lives. I suspect that this is also something we need today. He wanted to institute retreat houses for this purpose… but the one house that was acquired in Ireland for this, during his lifetime, was burned down by suffragette arson! (Yup, UK and Irish suffragettes were freaking terrorists, unlike US suffragettes who were mostly sane and law-abiding. And Republican.)
The O’Rahilly book also explains the origins of the “pagan babies” remarks that one often hears. There was a French charity called the Association of the Holy Childhood, which was dedicated to saving abandoned babies in pagan countries, baptizing them, educating them, and finding them adoptive Christian homes or raising them to adulthood. In Ireland and other countries, this charity was enthusiastically supported by people of all ages. UNICEF and other secular charities seem to have taken over, while the old groups that cared about “pagan babies” are mocked.
Fr. Doyle wrote two popular and effective pamphlets during his lifetime, one called Vocations and the other Shall I Be a Priest? Obviously this led to a lot of contacts with people interested in priesthood and the religious life. Doyle did not just advise them; he did his best to find homes for anybody he thought had a real religious vocation. He even found American convents that would receive a girl with a prosthetic wooden leg, and another girl with a paralyzed hand. (This was unusual, because monastic life was rigorous; those who were ill or disabled could rarely stand up to all the work and harsh conditions.)
Doyle suggested that it would be a good idea for people to “adopt” a prospective priest, brother, sister, nun, etc., by donating money to pay their extra expenses. This would remove obstacles to vocations. There are some charities today which help pay off student debts for such people, which is a similar idea.
Doyle liked to occasionally look for God’s will not just by random opening of the Bible, but even by random opening of devotional books! And O’Rahilly defends this, as being part of the long Christian devotional tradition of seeking God’s will by opening oneself to Providence, through what only looks like chance. Obviously you have to be prudent about this kind of thing, but it’s not superstitious when done in the right way, with prayer. (And it does fit into Celtic traditions of spirituality, yuppers.)
Doyle’s spirituality was dedicated to a lot of different things, but he particularly took trouble to pray before the Blessed Sacrament (even and especially when it was “dry Adoration,” without particular feelings), and to say thousands of mini-prayers every day. (“Aspirations” is what they are called — one line prayers, which can easily be said mentally as one wishes.) One of his many favorites was “Blessed be God for all things,” which seems to have been associated with his Little Way of dealing with disappointments and physical illness. Eventually this seems to have evolved into quick re-orientation of his thoughts toward God, so that basically he was always praying and recalling God’s presence, even while working hard and fully paying attention to others. Counting stuff like that is not great for people whom it would worry and strain; but Doyle seems to have found it satisfying, like playing a casual videogame. It’s all in the individual personality.
I could keep writing. O’Rahilly’s book is very rich, and the Doyle Association’s website and blog are full of good things.