Above and beyond the call of duty
Time to consider the canonisation of Fr Willie Doyle, asks Patrick Kenny
Fr William Doyle SJ. Photograph: fatherdoyle.com
Catholic priests have been the subject of bad press in recent decades, much of which has been self-inflicted. But the scandals of recent decades are only part of the story of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.
The church can only be truly understood when seen through the example of those who were faithful to it and who lived the values it proposes. Fr Willie Doyle, the Jesuit military chaplain who died 100 years ago this year, is one such figure.
One of the key tests for canonisation as a saint in the Catholic Church is that the candidate has lived a life of heroic virtue. This would seem to have been the case with Fr Doyle. The Gospel relates Jesus’s teaching that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another, and this is exactly what Fr Doyle did. And not just on the day he died rescuing wounded soldiers, but day after day during his nearly two years as military chaplain he knowingly risked his life to rescue wounded soldiers, to bring them the sacraments and to bury the dead with dignity.
Despite his infectious cheerfulness – a trait noted by everyone who crossed his path – he absolutely hated trench life. But he embraced it to be of service to others. In fact, the last note in his private diary written two weeks before his death stated that he willingly accepted all the sufferings of his life in the trenches in order to make up somehow for the sins of priests.
In this, as in many other ways, Fr Doyle was ahead of his time. He was an ecumenist before such notions were popular – he helped all soldiers irrespective of their religion and was greatly admired even by members of the Orange Order.
He also had a specific concern for ordinary working people at a time when the church was accused of being both too clerical and too attached to the professional classes. His care for the poor in his native Dalkey was noteworthy. He raised substantial sums of money for foreign missions and had decided to live in a leper colony if he survived the war. He was also something of a mystic, and those who met him knew there was something unique about him.
There was once a truly global groundswell of devotion to him. In fact, such diverse figures as Mother Teresa and Brendan Behan were among his admirers. Initial efforts towards his canonisation stalled around the 1960s, but interest in his life is now experiencing a rebirth as a new generation discovers him with fresh eyes.
Perhaps that is because his simplicity, generosity and heroism stand in such stark contrast to the popular narrative surrounding the priesthood today. And that is precisely why it may now be time to consider his case for canonisation, because by his life and by his death Fr Doyle shows us what a priest, and indeed what every Christian, should be.
Dr Patrick Kenny curates a website and blog dedicated to Fr Willie Doyle. www.fatherdoyle.com