Father Willie Doyle, World War I military chaplain, deserves sainthood cause, Irish group says

Father Willie Doyle, S.J. Father Willie Doyle, S.J.

Father Willie Doyle, S.J. was an Irish priest whose heroic sacrifices as a military chaplain during World War I were much admired in the last century. Now a lay group has launched with the goal of reviving his canonization cause and to spread awareness about the priest.

“Willie Doyle is a very compelling figure,” Patrick Kenny, president of the Ireland-based Father Willie Doyle Association, said March 11. “His attractive personality, asnd his love for God and for others, shines through all of his writings, especially the diaries and letters he wrote during the war.”

“He is also a tremendously relevant figure for the Church today, especially in Ireland,” Kenny said. “By offering his life to save wounded Anglican soldiers he became an ecumenical martyr of charity and is an icon of reconciliation and unity in the midst of religious and political division. He explicitly offered his life to God in reparation for the sins of priests; this offering has a greater resonance with us now than it did at the time of his death.”

The Father Willie Doyle Association launched last week. It will publish materials about Doyle and organize events and talks to raise awareness about his life. It is working towards Doyle’s canonization, with the approval of the Irish Jesuit Province and the Bishop of Meath. It is a private association of the faithful under canon law.

Doyle was born March 3, 1873 in Dalkey in County Dublin. He was the youngest of seven children in a deeply devout family that made sure to care for their less fortunate neighbors. As a young boy, he would often bring food and money to poor neighbors and clean and paint their houses, according to his biography on the Doyle association website.

In 1891 he entered the Society of Jesus in County Meath. As a new priest at various assignments around Ireland, he focused on outreach towards workers and their families.

With the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered as a military chaplain for the 8th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers of the 16th Irish Division of the British Army. He served from late 1915 through his death on Aug. 16, 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium. He died at the age of 44 while rescuing two Anglican soldiers from Ulster.

He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at the Battle of the Somme and a divisional merit award for bravery during a poison gas attack. He was nominated for both the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross, the latter being the most prestigious military honor in the British armed forces.

Doyle’s later bravery came despite a major nervous breakdown as a Jesuit novice when his novitiate building suffered a major fire.

“Yet, 20 years later, he was admired by all who met him as a rock of courage in the trenches of World War I,” the Doyle association said. “His example is one of hope for many.”

The Willie Doyle Association said Doyle’s diaries show “the intensity of his prayer, his intense personal austerity, and his dogged pursuit of holiness.”

“His heroism on the field of battle was the fruit of that earlier daily pursuit of holiness in little things,” the association said.

Kenny, the Doyle association head, has edited the book “To Raise the Fallen: A selection of the war letters, prayers and spiritual writings of Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J.” It was published in Ireland by Veritas in 2017 and in the U.S. by Ignatius Press in 2018.

“We want to reach out to as many people as possible, everywhere in the world, and tell  

them about this remarkable priest’s life, and we need as much spiritual and material help as we can get,” said Kenny. “We want the heroic Fr. Willie Doyle to be among the new Saints of Ireland.”

Religious devotion to the priest was strong after his death. By the early 1930s over 50,000 letters attesting to personal devotion were received by Church authorities, and 6,000 of these reported healings and favors through his intercession. Several canonized saints had a devotion to Doyle, including

Teresa of Calcutta, Josemaria Escriva, Alberto Hurtado, and Rafael Arnaiz Baron.

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In the 1930s, there was serious consideration to open his cause for canonization but this was delayed.

The Father Willie Doyle Association has asked for prayers for miracles through Doyle’s intercession. It asks for backers of Doyle’s cause to join the association and to spread awareness of his life and spirituality.

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