Lately, I’ve been lazy. Slow to say yes. Lukewarm about my service to God. But I’m turning over a new leaf thanks to this book.
Patrick Kenny brings to us the story of an Irish priest who served as a chaplain and died in World War I, in his book, To Raise the Fallen, A section of the War Letters, Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J. In these weeks surrounding Memorial Day, this story joins the ranks of heroic memories which can inspire even the most lackadaisical Christians like me, to greater magnanimity. While compiled and commented by Patrick Kenny, the majority of this encouragement pours out of Fr. Willie’s own pen through affectionate letters written to his family.
In Persona Christi
The essence of his service in the army amounted to ushering people into heaven. He heard confessions before battle, anointed wounded soldiers, held the hands of the dying and buried the dead. He rushed to where the fighting was the worst because his desire was to bring the Church’s grace to the men before they breathed their last.
“It was not a pleasant prospect to run the gauntlet and skip through the bullets “made in Germany”, but what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench?”
His side by side presence in the midst of the most gruesome and bloody moments was truly felt as the presence of God. Even his enemies experienced Christ through him.
“Are they not children of the same loving savior who said: ‘Whatever you do to one of these my least ones you do it to me.’ I try to show them any little kindness I can…taking the boots from smashed and bleeding feet, or helping to dress their wounds … and more than once I have seen the eyes of these rough men fill with tears as I bent over them, or felt my hand squeezed in gratitude.”
He served at a time and place where people’s hearts were incredible open to the compassion of the Church. Perhaps it is similar in every wartime trench, even today. Or even in the trenches of our daily lives.
“We reap a good harvest with confessions every day … but there are many who, for one reason or another, cannot get away before going into the trenches, which nearly always means death for some poor fellows; we give them a general absolution. I do not think there can be a more comforting or soul-inspiring sight than to see a whole regiment go down up tin their knees to hear that wave of prayer go up to Heaven, as hundreds of voices repeat the Act of Contrition.”
Sense of Humor
As he writes to his father about exploding shells or rats sharing the soldiers’ sleeping quarters, his language makes me feel as if I had just conversed with jolly old St. Nick.
“Others standing around seemed paralyzed with fear, all save one sergeant, whose language was worthy of the occasion and rose to a noble height of sublimity.”
Honest about his shortcomings, even, perhaps, accepting and light about them, he is secure in his trust in God’s goodness and his witness gives the reader permission to do the same. He recognized God’s provenience and accepted each moment of life with the assurance that God was with him.
“My poor brave boys! They are lying now, out on the battle field; some in a little dug grave and blessed by their chaplain, who loves them all as if they were his own children.”
Such a model of love for those of us entrusted with others under our care! Not just willing and resolved but, desirous and cheerful to sacrifice. I’m in awe of how nimbly, he put out the hounds of self-gratification.
“Was it to be Mass or sleep? Nature said sleep, but grace won the day.”
“I was delighted to discover a tiny ammunition store which I speedily converted into a chapel, building an altar with the boxes…I was not sorry I could not stand up, as I was able for once to offer the holy sacrifice on my knees.”
Father Willie didn’t hold anything back from the Lord.
“The thought that at any moment I may be called to the front, perhaps to die, has roused a great desire to do all I can while I have life.”
And he did do all that he could. Loved by thousands, he laid down his life serving God’s people on the battlefield. His body was never found.
Patrick Kenny played his cards right in ordering the flow of Fr. Doyle’s writings. Just when the “story” part ends and our hero dies, Kenny pulls back the curtain on the prayer life which fueled this martyrdom. Twenty-four pages of journal entries previous to his wartime volunteering reveal a man passionately dedicated to our Lord. He intentionally shared in Christ’s sufferings and spent many moments in solitary contemplation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So that’s how he did it.
For Teens Too
I have personally been scribbling out a few books – mainly because I want to help my kids be able to experience a fiery prayer life. Patrick Kenny seems to have relieved me of my duties for in the end of the book, he compiled essential advice on the spiritual life, meditations and prayers which, after having been won over by Fr. Willie’s valiant and affable life, my teens would be eager to hear. This all-star Jesuit formation summarizes the essentials to a deep relationship with God. I hope that my husband and sons can read it together.
Thank you, Patrick Kenny, thank you for brining this man to us! Thank you for bringing me personally out of self-comfort and into the battlefield of love.
For all the brave men whom Fr. Willie anointed or buried, and for the good chaplain himself, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
Fr. Willie Doyle, pray for us!