On the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 20, 2022, the bishop of Meath, Ireland, Tom Deenihan, officially opened the canonization cause of an Irish Jesuit, William S.J. Speaking at the opening ceremony in Mullingar County Westmeath, Bishop Deenihan said:
When bridge builders are scarce, nationality, creed and political belief to him were secondary and subservient to being a child of God. Indeed, one can see so many of the themes of Pope Francis’ papacy in Doyle’s life: charity, generosity, bridge building and brotherhood—Fratelli tutti.
Willie, as he was known, was born in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, on March 3, 1873, to an affluent Catholic family. As a boy, Father Doyle was educated in Ratcliffe College in Leicester; after school, he considered his options for the priesthood. Devotion was encouraged in the home; Father Doyle and his two older brothers pursued the priesthood and an older sister became a nun. Father Doyle’s older brother, Charlie, had already entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Tullabeg, County Offaly. At the invitation of his brother, Willie Doyle went to see the novitiate, and his first response to Jesuit life was not positive, telling his brother he would “never come back to this hole.” Upon departing Tullabeg, he was given a book on religious life by St. Alphonsus Liguori. After reading this book, Willie changed his mind and entered the Society in 1891.
Father Doyle was popular among students, who appreciated his humor. But his Jesuit colleagues, who were often the butt of his jokes, were less enthusiastic.
His Jesuit vocation was almost cut short by a fire that took place at the novitiate. The event traumatized Father Doyle, causing him to have a nervous breakdown and return home to his family. Such an event would have normally spelled doom for a religious vocation, but Father Doyle was encouraged to re-enter the novitiate after a period of recuperation. Before ordination, Father Doyle worked in two Jesuit schools, Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College. His time in both schools had a positive impact on the students’ lives, and his legacy continues to this day in the form of the Clongowes Past Pupils Union, the Clongowes annual musical and the Old Clongowegian magazine.
Father Doyle loved practical jokes, and those around him had mixed opinions about his antics. He was popular among students, who appreciated his humor. But his Jesuit colleagues, who were often the butt of his jokes, were less enthusiastic. One of his recorded gags involved dressing up a mannequin as a priest and pushing it out a window, leading those watching to think that he himself had an accident.
A life for others
Despite his humor, Father Doyle lived a rigorous life of penance. This was something he took on personally but was not something he ever forced on others. To those who met him day to day, they generally only encountered his good humor. But it is from his spiritual writings that we know about the harsh treatments he put himself through.
From his earliest days, Father Doyle lived his life for others. He was born into a privileged family and had access to many of the finer things life had to offer. Despite this, he had a great interest in assisting those in need. As a boy, he would get up early in the morning and complete work typically done by his family’s domestic staff. When he was given money for candy, he would seek out people in need and give the money to them.
Father Doyle’s life was marked by his love for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. He knew the transformative power of this retreat and wished to make it more widely available to lay people. Until then, it had been almost exclusively available to priests and vowed religious. Had the First World War not happened, Father Doyle may have continued this work. His life changed when he became a chaplain with the British Army in 1915.
While narrow nationalism fanned the fires of war, Father Doyle often paid as much attention to wounded German soldiers as he did to those on his own side.
While narrow nationalism fanned the fires of war, Father Doyle often paid as much attention to wounded German soldiers as he did to those on his own side. He would visit German prisoners of war, and he volunteered to write letters to their families to let them know how their sons were faring in captivity. Father Doyle’s time in the trenches set him apart and made him a hero among the soldiers he served alongside. He lived in the trenches with the soldiers, sharing in their daily life and enduring the hardships that marked the horrific nature of trench warfare.
At a time of marked religious tensions in Irish history, Father Doyle also pioneered ecumenical relationships. He became a particular favorite of Protestant soldiers who came to hold him in high regard. His death in 1917 came when he wandered onto the battlefield to save wounded Protestant soldiers. His death was mourned by both Protestants and Catholics. A Protestant soldier writing of his death noted:
God never made a nobler soul. Father Doyle was a good deal amongst us. We could not possibly agree with his religious opinions, but we simply worshiped him for other things. He didn’t know the meaning of fear, and he did not know what bigotry was. He was as ready to risk his life and take a drop of water to a wounded [Protestant soldier] as to assist men of his own faith and regiment.
Father Doyle left instructions for his spiritual diaries to be destroyed upon his death. Instead, they were saved and became the basis for a large and best-selling biography, written in the 1920s, by Professor Alfred O’Rahilly. It inspired future saints like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the founder of Opus Dei, Josemaria Escrivá.
While calls for Father Doyle’s canonization began soon after his death, the Irish province of the Society of Jesus decided not to back the cause, preferring to put their efforts and money behind the cause of now-Blessed John Sullivan, a contemporary of Father Doyle’s.
But in 2020, a group of lay faithful pursued the cause, and it was opened in cooperation with the Irish Jesuit province and Diocese of Meath. According to the group’s official website, Father Doyle “laid down his life as a martyr of charity on 16 August 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele.” More than a century later, he is remembered for his practical jokes, yes, but even more for his efforts to save and comfort both British and German, Catholic and Protestant, without fear or favor.