How Father Willie Doyle Saved Souls on the Battlefield
BOOK PICK: To Raise the Fallen
TO RAISE THE FALLEN
A Selection of War Letters, Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Fr. Willie Doyle SJ
Compiled and edited by Patrick Kenny
Ignatius Press, 2018
200 pages, $17.95 ($15.26 online)
The remarkable, moving and timeless story of heroic Father Willie Doyle, a Jesuit and military chaplain from Dublin who died near the end of World War I, arrives in time for the 100th anniversary of the celebration of Armistice Day in Europe Nov. 11. But this is much more than a war story, as various chapters in To Raise the Fallen quickly prove.
The first chapter, “Letters From the Front,” recounts Father Doyle’s experiences in that war. The second shares his personal “The War Within.” The third shares “Spiritual Advice” for everyone in their personal struggles for holiness. Because the Jesuit priest was also a noted retreat master and spiritual director — he’d receive a dozen letters a day asking for spiritual guidance — this major section alone is worth the book.
Most all of Father Doyle’s experiences are told in his own words because he was a voluminous writer; he penned everything from detailed notes to descriptive letters to published short works.
Starting with the first chapter on his daily experiences in the war, this tireless chaplain takes readers into the heart of the fighting and the middle of the trenches to give readers a vivid picture of what life was like, from the horrors of that war to the poignancy of saving souls. He entered the British army as a chaplain in 1914; and days after his 10th anniversary of ordination in August 1917, he died in a bomb blast while helping men on the battlefield. He died being what he always wanted to become throughout his life — a martyr for charity, as he said.
“We are having desperate work these days,” he noted before embarking for France. “The good God is simply pouring out his grace on these poor fellows and reconciling them before they die. It has to be quick, no time for ‘trimmings.’ I have positively a pain in my arm giving Absolution and Communions in the morning. I was able to manage exposition all day last Sunday, which brought in many erring sheep.”
As a youngster from a middle-class family, he was always mindful of the ordinary workingman and understood the great mission of reaching out to ordinary laypeople. From then on to his time on the battlefield, everything about him made a lasting impression on everyone who came in contact with him.
This book will do the same for readers. Patrick Kenny, who compiled and edited this book, brings this quality out vividly in his biographical introduction.
Something else comes to the forefront, too. Despite the often-horrendous conditions — deep mud and rain, burying the dead, unending shelling and gas attacks — the chaplain’s letters bring us visions of the hope and even joy soldiers going into battle, and those terribly wounded and dying, would have as he helped, absolved and anointed them.
The incidents are both heart-wrenching and in a sense uplifting, to vicariously “watch” him bring spiritual and physical comfort to countless soldiers. As he noted: “The extreme unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased … bodily pain.”
So many times he himself was saved from being killed or badly wounded by what he called “nothing short of a miracle,” as he attributed one particular incident to “Our Blessed Lord’s company and protection” because of the Hosts he was carrying.
Father Doyle’s vivid prose draws readers into the heartrending scenes.
He recounted the feast of Corpus Christi: “I thought of the many processions of the Blessed Sacrament which were being held at that moment all over the world. Surely there never was a stranger one than mine that day, as I carried the God of Consolation in my unworthy arms over the blood-stained battlefield. There was no music to welcome his coming, save the scream of a passing shell; the flowers that strewed his path were the broken, bleeding bodies of those for whom he had once died; and the only altar of repose he could find was the heart of one who was working for him alone, striving in a feeble way to make him some return for all his love and goodness.”
Despite the oppressive conditions, he maintained an irrepressible cheerfulness and humor that uplifted the men. “I feel that when I get home I shall be absolutely miserable because everything will be so clean and dry and comfortable,” he wrote. “Perhaps some kind friend will pour a bucket or two of water over my bed occasionally to keep me in good spirits.”
“The War Within” chapter highlights personal spiritual notes that Father Doyle had written were to be destroyed after he died. His superiors thought otherwise. These thoughts showcase an unknown life of long penances, hardship and prayer — a special calling from God — particularly in reparation for the sins of priests.
The 41-page chapter on “Spiritual Advice” is a standout, with its alphabetically arranged short counsels and guidance for the ordinary person to grow spiritually, rallying points of simple guidance on how to become saints.
“‘Oh my God, I will never complain.’ You will get to heaven by keeping this one resolution, ‘Never complain.’”
Bonus features include an excerpt from his pamphlet titled, “Vocations,” which was published hundreds of thousands of times and reportedly accounted for many vocations.
At one time, there was a movement to canonize Father Doyle. Perhaps that can be revived.
Father Doyle’s wise spiritual counsel continues to echo. As his “Spiritual Advice” indicates, “Each succeeding hour brings with it some allotted task, yet in the faithful performance of these trifling acts of our everyday lives lies the secret of true sanctity.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.