A man for our times
The cause for the canonisation of Fr Willie Doyle SJ was formally launched in Christ the King cathedral Mullingar by the Bishop of Meath Most Rev Dr Thomas Denihan. The postulator for his cause Fr John Hogan, and the Irish Jesuit Provincial Fr Leonard Moloney joined the large congregation (including Fr Doyle’s family) who came for the Mass and launch at 4 pm on Sunday 20 November 2022.
Fr Doyle served as a chaplain during WW1 and lost his life on the battlefield in August 1917 as he tirelessly tended to the wounded and dying soldiers. So those in attendance also included the head chaplains to the Irish and British armies, along with Jesuits, the pupils, staff, and past pupils from the Jesuit schools, and from around the world, present and watching on webcam who had a special devotion to Fr Doyle.
Bishop Denihan noted in his homily that many of the themes of Pope Francis’ papacy were part of Father Doyle’s life: charity, generosity, bridge building, and brotherhood – themes developed in Fratelli Tutti. The Bishop also referenced one of the Pope’s most striking images for the Church. “After bringing a soldier to safety, Father Doyle returned to the line of fire and was killed ministering to others. Pope Francis talks of the Church being a ‘field hospital’, and it is an image that is appropriate here. Indeed, we are told that Father Doyle was nominated for the Victoria Cross for bravery but it was not granted due to he being, as an article in the Irish Times put it a few weeks ago, suffering from the three disadvantages of being Catholic, a Priest, and a Jesuit!”
Fr Doyle however had no such prejudice on the field, As Fr Leonard Moloney SJ noted in his short address, “He never asked what creed or class the young men were, what faith they had. He simply stayed with them, sharing communion, confession, or just his presence.” (Read full address below). And Bishop Denihan quoted another tribute to Father Doyle that came from a member of the Orange Order who said that ‘We could not possibly agree with his religious opinions, but we simply worshipped him for other things. He did not know the meaning of fear. He was as ready to risk his life to take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman as to assist men of his own faith and regiment.’
Fr Horgan referred Fr Doyle’s love and service of the German soldiers he encountered saying it was an example of universal charity. “Fr Willie can be seen as a servant of peace and reconciliation and a model of true ecumenism”.
Fr Horgan also said that in lots of ways, his life and witness were more relevant to people now than a century ago citing Fr Doyle’s psychological breakdown and recovery from it when he was young as a sign of hope for the many suffering with mental health issues today.
Fr Moloney thanked Bishop Deenihan for launching the canonization cause of Fr Willie Doyle SJ, adding “And I am grateful to Dr Pat Kenny, President of the Fr Willie Doyle association who has championed this cause which the Irish Jesuit Province is delighted to support with Fr John Hogan of the Meath diocese as the postulator. May their work be blessed.”
For his part, Pat Kenny said that since the news of his canonisation process was first announced, the association has received requests for material about Fr Willie from all around Ireland, Europe, and North and South America. “Many people, from all around the world, have written to us to ask for prayers for their healing through Fr Willie’s intercession.,” he said, adding that “It is evident that there is a strong affection for Fr Willie out there, and it is notable that young people are especially impressed with the witness of his life.”
To Love and to Serve unto Death
I am grateful to you all for this invitation to say a few words here in the Cathedral of Christ the King on this feast day of Christ the King. In the everyday world the meaning of the word King is familiar to us – the news of Prince Charles becoming King after the death of his mother was a global event.
But the Kingship of Christ is a very different thing from what our world understands. It is not Kingship as we know it. As we hear in today’s gospel in those last, dark hours of his life, Christ’s kingship remains an uncanny thing. His crown is made of thorns, his throne is the executioner’s cross. When he allows himself to be mocked tortured and bled dry, his kingship is not in suspension; it is being exercised. His utter self-emptying, his perfect sympathy with human suffering, is a kingly act., a divine act – God’s thoughts are not ours.
The war that Fr Willie Doyle served in as a chaplain was an imperialist war where rulers sent young men to their deaths to try and preserve their own earthly kingdoms. They were sacrificed on the altar of the greedy and the powerful. In Fr Willies own words from a letter of 5 August 1917, just days before his death at the battle of Passchendaele ( quoted in Dr Pat Kenny’s heartfelt book about Willie, To Raise the Fallen )
My poor brave boys, they are lying now out on the battlefield some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain who loves them all as if they were his own children; others still and stark with staring eyes hidden in a shell hole where they had crept to die, while perhaps in some far off thatched cabin an anxious mother sits listening for the well-known step and voice which will never gladden her ear again.
Fr Willie wanted to love and serve Jesus from an early age. And that desire spilled out in loving service of those young men, with no thought of his own wellbeing or survival. He never asked what creed or class they were, what faith they had, He simply stayed with them, sharing communion, confession or just his presence. As one report in the Daily Express of 1917 put it
He went forward and back over the battlefield with bullets whining about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them absolution, walking with death with a smile on his face. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place.
The life and death of Fr Willie Doyle is a stark shining witness to the radical and demanding call that our Christian faith makes of us. We tread different battlefields but are similarly charged to live by standards that the world does not value – to walk in solidarity with the poor, to give hospitality to the stranger and the migrant, to ensure justice and atonement for survivors of abuse, to visit the sick, to forgive our enemies – whoever they may be.
It’s a tough call, but people like Fr Willie Doyle can be our inspiration, and the gospel readings assure us that the radical kingship of Christ means that the Lord is with us all the way, in total solidarity with our human suffering, filling us with the grace and power of his love unto death.
So, I am very grateful to Bishop Deenihan for launching the canonization cause of Fr Willie Doyle SJ tonight and grateful to Dr Pat Kenny, who has championed Fr Willie’s cause which the Irish Jesuit Province is delighted to support with Fr John Hogan of the Meath diocese as the postulator. May their work be blessed. And may you all be blessed here as Fr Doyle said he was, on the bloody battlefield with, and I quote, a strange confident feeling of trust and security in the all-powerful protection of our Blessed Lord.
Fr Leonard Moloney SJ.
Irish Jesuit Provincial,
Sunday 20 November 2022.