Father Willie Doyle’s Spiritual Legacy Highlighted by New Association

Father Willie was a victim soul who offered his life in reparation for the sins of priests. More than ever, Ireland is recognizing the holiness of the Jesuit military chaplain.

L to R: Dublin-based president of the Father Willie Doyle Association Patrick Kenny stands in front of the childhood home of Father Doyle in Dalkey, County Dublin, Ireland. Jesuit Father Doyle died ministering to solider on the World War I battlefield.
L to R: Dublin-based president of the Father Willie Doyle Association Patrick Kenny stands in front of the childhood home of Father Doyle in Dalkey, County Dublin, Ireland. Jesuit Father Doyle died ministering to solider on the World War I battlefield. (photo: Courtesy of Patrick Kenney)

Jesuit Father William Doyle died in 1917 ministering as a military chaplain during the First World War. However, after his heroic service and death in the trenches, his private papers, which he had asked to be burned, revealed a yet more hidden portrait of holiness. 


This month a new association, Father Willie Doyle Association, has been granted episcopal approval to promote the Irish Jesuit’s life and witness. The Register spoke to the Dublin-based president of the association, Patrick Kenny, editor of To Raise the Fallen: A Selection of the War Letters, Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J.


What relevance does Father Willie have for Catholics today? 

Strangely, Father Willie’s life may have even greater relevance for Catholics today than it had 100 years ago when he died. There are, of course, lessons about holiness, prayer and virtue that we find in the lives of all saints and holy men and women. But I think there are three distinct messages that his life has for us at this moment in history.


Firstly, we see a remarkable transformation and healing in Father Willie’s life. When he was a 19-year-old novice, his novitiate building went on fire. Along with all of the other novices, Willie was caught up in the fire and had to evacuate the building and try to extinguish the fire. But the experience left a serious mark on him. The records indicate that he had “a complete nervous breakdown,” and he had to leave the Jesuits for a period to recuperate at home. In some respects, it was remarkable that he was allowed back into the Jesuits. Two decades later, he volunteered as a chaplain in the First World War and was renowned by all who met him for his calm courage in the face of danger — from nervous breakdown to war hero, an amazing transformation. For that reason, he is a great sign of hope for today. We live in an age that is afflicted with worry; so many young people suffer from depression and anxiety. Father Willie is a model and intercessor for those who struggle in this area.


Secondly, Father Willie is an icon of peace and unity. He not only took care of the Irish soldiers in the war, but also extended his pastoral care towards German prisoners. He was also particularly loved by Protestant soldiers, and, in fact, he died while rescuing two wounded Protestant soldiers. An Irish chaplain in the British army, he died as an ecumenical martyr of charity and is a symbol of political and religious unity in a time of division.


Perhaps most importantly, Father Willie was a victim soul who offered his life in reparation for the sins of priests. It was a theme that kept recurring in his spiritual diaries; in fact, the very last thing he wrote in his diary, on the 10th anniversary of his ordination, was that he offered his life and sufferings in the war as a victim of reparation for the sins of priests. Two weeks later, he was dead. We are much more aware now of the need for this reparation than Catholics were 100 years ago. In the life of Father Willie, we see a man who loved as Christ did, laying down his life for others, not just for humanitarian motives, but also explicitly as a victim soul. His example touches even those who are skeptical about religion and about priests.


What does he have to teach us about holiness? 

If I was to sum up Father Willie’s spirituality, I would say it was a combination of a traditional Jesuit approach to asceticism and the battle to overcome our weakness and grow in the love of God through rigorous self-examination, combined with the spiritual childhood and attitude of trust and confidence of St. Thérèse. This is no surprise: Referring to St. Ignatius, he described himself as the “soldier son of a soldier saint,” but also had a great love of St Thérèse (who was born just a few weeks before he was); on visiting her grave on one occasion, he said: “Kneeling at the grave of the Little Flower I gave myself into her hands to guide and to make me a saint.” I think we can see many signs of Thérèse’s influence in his spirit.


Obviously, he was a man of prayer. He descried it as the “key to sanctity.” He was a man of self-denial. While he practiced harsh penances on occasion, he also practiced self-denial in little things, for example, giving up butter on his bread. Writing on this theme he said, “Big sacrifices do not come very often, and generally we are too cowardly to make them when they do. But little ones are as plentiful as blackberries in September, and stiffen the moral courage, by the constant repetition of them, to do, in the end, even heroic things …”


Finally, Father Willie was also a man of joy, cheerfulness and practical jokes, even in the face of danger. On this theme, he wrote: “Keep smiling. It is a grand thing to cultivate a smile. Keep the corners of your mouth up. … The devil loves nothing better than a gloomy soul; it is his plaything.”


Some have said his penances were extreme. Is that true? 

It is certainly true that Father Willie practiced quite severe acts of personal penance. However, these were always private, and we know of them only because his diaries were published after his death, contrary to his own wishes. Crucially, he had permission from his confessor and superiors for this life of personal asceticism, and he never encouraged others to adopt his own harsh practices. His asceticism prepared him for the horrors of the war: The hero of the trenches emerged from Father Willie’s life of ascetical training. 


What is the purpose of the Father Willie Doyle Association? 

The Father Willie Doyle Association acts as a vehicle to spread awareness of Father Willie’s life and spiritual message. The association has also constituted itself as the official actor for any future canonization cause. This is the first time a lay initiative of this nature has been formed to promote an Irish canonization cause.


And what difference does episcopal approval make? 

The Father Willie Doyle Association has the competence to petition a bishop to open Father Willie’s canonization cause and promote it. The association is a private association of the faithful approved by Bishop Tom Deenihan, the bishop of Meath. Importantly, the association has the support of both the Irish Jesuits and the superior general of the Jesuits and is working closely with the Jesuit general postulator in Rome. 


Was his cause ever opened? And if not, why not? 

By the early 1930s, the Irish Jesuits received more than 50,000 letters from all around the world enquiring about a cause, and more than 6,000 of these letters alleged favors and healings through his intercession. Yet Father Willie’s cause was never opened. 


At a politically sensitive time Father Willie was an Irishman in the British army. Furthermore, there was no unanimity amongst the Jesuits on the merits of his cause. In 1940, the Jesuit authorities in Rome wrote that “when work on [his] cause is resumed … it will be an answer to the expectations and desires of everybody.” Perhaps that moment has arrived. 


What difference would it make if his cause was opened? 

Telling the story of a saint is an act of evangelization and of apologetics. Father Willie is a compelling witness to the power and the challenge of the Gospel. Opening his cause would bring greater attention to his story, bringing much good and much joy to many souls. I think proposing a model like Father Willie is also important for the Church in Ireland, which has suffered much in recent decades. His life is also a model of generous priestly service that can inspire young men to follow in his footsteps. 


How did you come across Father Willie Doyle? 

A good friend of mine recommended that I read the original biography of Father Willie written by Alfred O’Rahilly. I hunted down a copy of the book and was stunned by it. I was instantly struck by what I read about Father Willie’s apostolic and spiritual life. I read many books, particularly biographies of saints. No other book ever affected me so strongly. Over time, I have encountered many other people, from different countries and speaking different languages, who have had the same experience. I was amazed on learning that Father Willie’s cause had not been opened, but I have never once doubted that that day will come, sooner or later. 


What does he mean to you? 

Like he is to many people, Father Willie is first and foremost a great friend, and I believe I have experienced his help in many ways. But he is not always a comfortable friend! Like the good Jesuit he was, he encourages us to give more and to be more. His personality and temperament were very different to mine, but I see in him an example of generosity that challenges and encourages me at the same time.