On Sept. 1, 2022, the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints granted the nihil obstat to the cause of Jesuit Father Willie Doyle. With that declaration, the Church gave its approval for Father Willie’s life and virtues to be investigated with a view to possible beatification and canonization, miracles permitting. With this decree, Father Willie formally became “Servant of God.”
Father Willie is renowned as a heroic military chaplain, laying down his life to save two wounded soldiers at the Battle of Passchendaele on Aug. 16, 1917, during World War I. Before his military career, he was sought after as a retreat master and mission preacher. He was an able guide of souls and advocate for the lay retreat movement. An active life, vibrant personality and mischievous sense of humor hid an intense interior life, a life of penance and reparation, and long hours of prayer. When he was a Jesuit novice, Father Willie made an offering of life as a martyrdom, confident that Our Lady would obtain for him the grace of dying a Jesuit martyr. He remained faithful to that offering all his life and his death on the battlefield as a “martyr of charity” has been seen as the consummation of this oblation.
Given the extraordinary devotion to Father Willie throughout the world even today, over a century after his death, it is obvious that he strikes a chord with many. With that in view, and bearing that in mind, what three things can he teach us?
First of all, Father Willie’s life teaches us persistence in the spiritual life and encouragement not to lose heart. While Father Willie has the reputation for strength and tough mortification, he too had to face the ordinary weaknesses of our human nature and had to deal with failures, as well as successes. St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, found this an encouragement in his own life and offered Father Willie’s struggle as a reassurance to his spiritual children. Writing in “The Way,” St. Josemaría notes:
“We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter …; did take butter!’ May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy’” (“The Way,” No. 205).
As an Irishman, Father Willie loved butter — so much so that he tried to renounce it as a small penance. But he struggled. His tenacity even in this small task can offer us all a lesson to persevere in our living the Christian faith, in our prayer, our little penances and our practice of virtue, even when difficult. A fall today does not rule out a victory tomorrow, and God sees the attitude of the heart. St. Teresa of Calcutta, also an ardent devotee of Father Willie, once noted: God is not asking us to be successful, but faithful. We persist with confidence. Father Willie was faithful and, in the end, successful, but he never lost heart — he handed it over to God, “the Lord of battles,” to help him in his battles with himself.
Second, those who knew Father Willie often spoke of his good humor; he was very witty and could be mischievous. As a young Jesuit, he was known for his pranks. Even amid war, his sense of humor could not be quenched. A man of joy, he teaches us that joy is important for Christians — for it manifests our trust in God and the victory Jesus has won for us. Father Willie’s light-heartedness did not undermine the importance of reverence in faith but reinforced it through his joy. Joy is the hallmark of the saints, and in joyless times like ours, Christians must communicate this joy. As St. Peter notes about hope (1 Pt 3:15), our joy in a joyless age will offer us the opportunity to explain to the people of our time why we are joyful and offer a vision of hope and light.
Though he lived in a time of great division, Father Willie’s third lesson is the refusal to surrender to partisanship and to live Christ’s love for all. As a military chaplain, he shared the same pastoral concern for Catholics and Protestants, for the Allies and Germans. As he tended to his own soldiers who were dying, he brought his priestly ministry to those, not of our faith but children of our God, and to German prisoners of war, consoling them, contacting their families in Germany to let them know that their sons were alive and well. We live in a time when division seems to be the means of identifying ourselves — even within the Church, contrary to the Lord’s desire that we all be one. Father Willie sought to love all and bring God to all, and his example of non-partisanship is needed in our time.
Father Willie Doyle is indeed a man for our time, and he has much to teach us. As his cause begins, we have an opportunity to get to know him better, note what he teaches us, and find companionship in his company and his prayers.
Father John Hogan is postulator for the Cause of Canonization for Servant of God Father Willie Doyle, SJ. Learn more about Father Willie’s cause at williedoyle.org.