The Priest, the Battlefield and the Final Absolution

During World War I, on the Western Front alone, some estimate as many as 40,000 military personnel converted to the Catholic faith, due largely to witness of Catholic chaplains.

(photo: Public Domain)

Like so many caught up in the conflict that came to be known as the Great War, he was buried where he fell, without marker or tombstone, one more casualty among the millions.

If after his death the private papers — which he had asked to be burned — had lain undisturbed, then, almost certainly, he would have been forgotten by all except those closest to him. Instead, the discovery of his writings, and subsequent publication of Father William Doyle, S.J.: a spiritual study (1920) by Alfred O'Rahilly brought the priest’s inner life and his hunger for souls to the attention of an unsuspecting world.

Willie Doyle was born into a well-to-do Catholic family in Dublin on March 3, 1873. His upbringing on the outskirts of the city was outwardly idyllic; it was also charged with a devout religious faith. From this Christian home, four of the seven children were to enter religious life. After being educated in both Ireland and England, Willie entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained in 1907. Thereafter, he was assigned to the Jesuit mission to parishes throughout the British Isles. From the start, he excelled as a preacher and confessor, and the crowds flocked to hear and be converted. Only after his death was the secret of such success revealed, namely, penance.

Night watches in front of the Blessed Sacrament, frequent use of the Discipline, immersion in cold lakes, nocturnal barefoot pilgrimages — all hidden from view, but undertaken, importantly, with the approval of his spiritual director. Added to this was his daily “war” on self, a “war” that with its countless invocations turned his waking hours into a veritable litany of reparation and supplication to the Mercy of God.

When war broke out, Fr. Doyle volunteered immediately to go to the front as a military chaplain. With thousands dressed in khaki on their way to meet death, he knew that a priest had to be there with them, to accompany them in the definitive hour when all would be lost or gained, and for all eternity.

In 1915, Fr. Doyle landed in France with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. From then on, this new chaplain was to march every long mile to the Front alongside these men — forgoing all privileges that his officer rank afforded him. These soldiers and later other Irish battalions, were now his “flock,” and he had been chosen to be their “shepherd.” He would make sure that they had the sacraments as death stalked them. Tirelessly, he heard Confessions, said Holy Mass whenever, and wherever, he could. Often ignoring machine-gun fire, he got to the dying — to anoint and give Viaticum. He spent hours, mainly at night, ensuring that the dead had a Christian burial. He comforted the sick and wounded. Through it all, he had a ready smile for all who needed it. These battle-hardened, yet still fearful soldiers came to love him for just being with them — often only partially aware of the mysterious Presence that was mediated through this alter Christus.

For his bravery, evident to all who served with him, and which was frequently mentioned in dispatches, Father Doyle was awarded the Military Cross. As if the dangers and privations of the front were not enough, however, throughout these months he continued with his own inner “war.” When possible, in those flooded fetid trenches, with the sounds of Hell reverberating, he spent hours on his knees with the Blessed Sacrament in a pyx around his neck, all the while adoring the Prince of Peace while offering up reparation, especially for the sins of priests.

Of one Holy Mass at the Front, Fr. Doyle wrote this:

I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit box supported on 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 Him to give rest to their souls. … [This] Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead.

And so his battalion marched on through the bloodstained fields, with names now synonymous with suffering: the Somme, Passchendaele. Some of their experiences were too hideous to imagine, such as the night they walked over a field filled with fresh corpses. Still, their Padre was with them. And, like them, he too had been shot at, shelled and gassed. On many occasions he had almost been killed. His only rest, taken when possible, was like theirs, in the same rat-infested sodden trenches. Yet, despite his brother officers’ pleas to leave the Front, he, like the men he served, held to his post, determined to be with his “flock” to the bitter end.

That end came on Aug. 16, 1917 when, during the seemingly never-ending Passchendaele offensive, Fr. Doyle dodged gunfire in the dreaded No-Man’s Land. Whilst trying to drag a wounded comrade back to safety, the priest was blown to pieces by a German shell. Unlike the many to whom he had given a Christian burial, his remains were hastily interred in a makeshift communal plot whilst all around the battle raged on. The sound of shells exploding against the night sky and the cries of the wounded and maimed were to be his only Requiem.

Now, with the guns silenced, in an unmarked grave in Flanders, lies the body of Father Willie Doyle. It is there he waits for a very different Reveille to sound across those former battlefields. Then, when rising to meet the true Lord he served and for whom he gave his life, in the slain priest’s train shall surely follow many souls, not least his fallen comrades, some of whom saved by that final absolution.