Will war chaplain Willie Doyle be Ireland’s next saint?

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

Ireland’s Father William Doyle, SJ, is one step closer to sainthood. Bishop Thomas Deenihan of the Diocese of Meath announced his intention Oct. 27 to open the Jesuit’s cause for beatification and canonization.

Doyle was an Irish military chaplain for the British Army who served heroically on the battlefields of World War I and died trying to rescue two Protestant soldiers.

“We’re obviously very delighted, but also very grateful,” Patrick Kenny, president of the Father Willie Doyle Association, told CNA Oct. 31. “We’re very grateful to the bishop, very grateful to the Irish Jesuit province that has supported us, and very grateful for God’s providence that this is the moment when Father Doyle’s cause is being introduced.”

The association seeks to raise awareness about Doyle and promote his cause for sainthood.

“One of the standard characteristics of Father Willie’s personality was his joy,” Kenny said. “What’s interesting is, while he himself lived a very austere and very mortified life, very few people knew about that. On the surface, as far as everyone knew, he was a very, very joyful man and he was actually renowned for his practical jokes.”

Doyle’s admirers have noted the special role of prayer and penance in his life: the priest’s diaries show he offered his mortifications and sufferings to God in reparation for the sins of priests.

Bishop Deenihan’s decree said Doyle’s sainthood cause has the “unanimous consent” of the Irish bishops’ conference and approval from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. The request to open the cause came from Father John Hogan, who has been named postulator of the cause.

“His example is one of hope for many,” Hogan said in an Oct. 27 statement from the Doyle association. “I am privileged to act as postulator for Fr. Willie’s cause and look forward to helping to make him a new saint for the Jesuits and a new saint for Ireland.”

Doyle was born March 3, 1873, in Dalkey, a southeastern suburb of Dublin. He was the youngest of seven children in a 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. After ordination to the priesthood in 1907, he had various assignments around Ireland in which he focused on outreach to 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 until his death in 1917.

He became known for his efforts to minister to the dead and dying while suffering with the soldiers in the trenches. On one occasion, when a medical doctor had fallen ill and had no warm or dry spot to sleep in, Doyle laid facedown in the dugout they shared so the doctor could sleep on his back.

Doyle died on Aug. 16, 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium while trying to rescue two Anglican soldiers from Ulster, in the north of Ireland.

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.

Kenny noted that the priest who went on to be known for courage and heroism had “a complete nervous breakdown” at the age of 20 when his novitiate caught on fire.

“It had a big effect upon him. And he was healed from that,” Kenny said. “We see him 20 years later as this hero in the war that people flocked to. He was so courageous, but he was also so serene in the midst of the dangers of war. This, I think, is a very attractive part of his personality for us today. He shows us that this kind of healing and transformation is possible.”

The cause for Doyle’s beatification and canonization will be formally opened with a Nov. 20 Mass at Christ the King Cathedral in Mullingar, County Westmeath, the seat of the Diocese of Meath.

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Bishop Deenihan’s decree stressed the “serious responsibility” of any decision on Doyle’s beatification cause. He invited anyone aware of “any matters relating to the reputation of holiness” of Doyle, positive or negative, to submit them to the bishop or to the postulator of the cause. The decree invites anyone in possession of Doyle’s writings, including diaries, letters, and manuscripts, to submit them to the postulator.

The investigation process will include diocesan tribunals, theological review, and efforts to evaluate any reports from the faithful.

Kenny said the Doyle association will work to advance the sainthood cause by giving talks, distributing prayer cards, and raising funds to support the case.

Because a Church-approved miracle is often necessary for beatification, the association is especially encouraging people to pray for the intercession of Doyle if they have particularly sick friends or family members or are sick themselves.

“Pray to Father Willie for a miracle and healing,” Kenny said.

Kenny said that devotion to Doyle was “very much a global phenomenon” after the priest’s death.

By the early 1930s, more than 50,000 letters attesting to his personal devotion were received by Church authorities. Of these, 6,000 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. In the 1930s, there was serious consideration given to opening his cause for canonization, but this was delayed.

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For Kenny, the fact that Doyle died while trying to save two non-Catholic soldiers helps make him “an icon of peace and reconciliation on an island that for a long time has been divided between Catholics and Protestants. There’s been division between Ireland and England, too, and here’s a man that spans all those divides.”

Hogan, the cause’s postulator, said that St. Oliver Plunkett is the only Irish person to have been canonized in the last 500 years.

“Ireland has many great candidates for sainthood, and Father Willie Doyle is one of the most fascinating of all. His attractive personality and his love for God and for others shines through his writings,” Hogan said. “He is also a tremendously relevant figure for the Church today, especially in Ireland.”

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