“If one of two has to suffer, why shouldn’t you be the one?” Hard words perhaps. But surely our families and our communities would be transformed if everyone embraced them. It may seem impossible to live by these words, but their author made a pretty good attempt at it.
Fr Willie Doyle SJ was born in March 1873 in Dalkey, Co Dublin. He entered the Jesuits in 1891. Following periods of study abroad, and periods of work in Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College, he was ordained in July 1907 alongside blessed John Sullivan.
Most of his priesthood was spent on the Jesuit mission and retreats team, where he acquired a formidable reputation as a preacher and spiritual guide.
He seems to have been one of those people who had a profound – and sometimes life-changing – impact on those he met, especially those who found themselves alienated from the church.
In November 1915 he was appointed military chaplain to the 16th (Irish) Division. He was loved by his men, Catholic and Protestant alike, precisely because he lived alongside them, sharing their burdens. He provided spiritual and moral support, comforted the dying and buried the dead.
As one Protestant officer noted: “Fr Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross and goes out to bury him and then begins all over again.”
Front line courage
He was renowned for his courage, and was often to be found beyond the front line, seeking out those in danger, comforting them as they faced death or dragging them to safety if they could be saved.
He was present at several crucial battles, including the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Messines Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele. His first-hand accounts of these battles, recorded in his long letters home, are valuable eye-witness testimony to the experiences of the Irish in the first World War.
He was killed on August 16th, 1917, at the Battle of Passchendaele, while rescuing wounded soldiers. He was mourned by all, irrespective of religion. Maj Gen William Hickie of the 16th (Irish) Division proclaimed him to be "one of the bravest men who fought or worked out here" and that he "appeared to know no fatigue – he never knew fear".
Much has, rightfully, been written about Fr Doyle’s courage. But his letters show that he was personally very familiar with fear, although he managed to overcome it. His famous courage was underpinned by his deep faith, combined with an outstanding generosity with God and with others.
Fr Doyle’s entire life was marked by this profound generosity – from his care for the local poor as a boy (including giving away his very first shilling) up to the ultimate sacrifice of his life 100 years ago.
But there are two particular examples of generosity (from many) that bookend his life and shine a light on his character.
At Christmas time, the Doyle family traditionally gave gifts to the local poor, who lined up outside their house for this purpose. Willie and his older brother Charlie used to polish the coins destined for the poor, making them shine like new. A seemingly insignificant and hidden act of little practical consequence.
Yet behind this simple act was a touching desire to recognise the dignity of the poor who sought their help.
The second example, near the end of his life, was more dramatic. Fr Doyle worked alongside a medical doctor in the trenches. One night the doctor was unwell. The dugout was damp and there were no beds or blankets to lie on.
Fr Doyle insisted that the doctor needed rest and had to get better for the sake of the soldiers, so he lay face down on the damp ground and insisted that the doctor sleep on his back, so at least one of them would have the opportunity of a little rest. I imagine he reasoned that, if one of two had to suffer, why shouldn’t he be the one?
At a time of critical scepticism about Christianity and the priesthood, the example of this priest’s radical generosity stands as a necessary corrective.
- Dr Patrick Kenny is editor of To Raise the Fallen: A selection of the war letters, prayers and spiritual writings of Fr Willie Doyle SJ, published by Veritas