14 May 2011

'I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.' Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A

Landscape with a Herd, by Charles Émile Jacque, painted 1872 [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible, used in Philippines and USA)

Gospel John 10:1-10 (NAB)

Jesus said:

“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”


Today is called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday' and it is also the 48th World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

When I was in boys’ kindergarten Sister Stanislaus, an Irish Sister of Charity and our principal, often spoke to us about Fr Willie Doyle SJ (above), who grew up in Dalkey, a beautiful village by the sea south of Dublin. The stories she told us about him probably had a part in the gradual awakening of my awareness that God was calling me to be a missionary priest. He died on 16 August 1917 in the Battle of Ypres (Ieper), Belgium, while serving in the Great War as a chaplain in the British Army. The landscape in Belgium where he served was very similar to that in the painting above. Just recently I came across a website named Remembering Fr William Doyle SJ, which gives readings most days from his diaries and letters. Recently it featured a letter he wrote his father a few months before his death, giving more details of an incident that happened in April 1916. I have highlighted parts of the letter, which for me goes to the heart of what it means to be a priest, to be a ‘Good Shepherd’ as Jesus was, someone coming to young soldiers in their late teens and early twenties but now on the point of painful death, assuring them in the name of Jesus ‘that they might have life and have it more abundantly’.

Here is Father Doyle's letter to his own father. I have added emphases.

I have never told you the whole story of that memorable April morning or the repetition of it the following day, or how when I was lying on the stretcher going to ‘peg out,’ as the doctor believed, God gave me back my strength and energy in a way which was nothing short of a miracle, to help many a poor fellow to die in peace and perhaps to open the gates of heaven to not a few.

I had come through the three attacks without ill results, though having been unexpectedly caught by the last one, as I was anointing a dying man and did not see the poisonous fumes coming, I had swallowed some of the gas before I could get my helmet on. It was nothing very serious, but left me rather weak and washy. There was little time to think of that, for wounded and dying were lying all along the trenches, and I was the only priest on that section at the time.

The fumes had quite blown away, but a good deal of the gas, being of a heavy nature, had sunk down to the bottom of the trench and gathered under the duck-boards or wooden flooring. It was impossible to do one’s work with the gas helmet on, and so as I knelt down to absolve or anoint man after man for the greater part of that day, I had to inhale the chlorine fumes till I had nearly enough gas in my poor inside to inflate a German sausage balloon.

I did not then know that when a man is gassed his only chance (and a poor one at that) is to lie perfectly still to give the heart a chance of fighting its foe. In happy ignorance of my real state, I covered mile after mile of those trenches until at last in the evening, when the work was done, I was able to rejoin my battalion in a village close to the Line.

It was only then I began to realise that I felt ‘rotten bad’ as schoolboys say. I remember the doctor, who was a great friend of mine, feeling my pulse and shaking his head as he put me lying in a corner of the shattered house, and then he sat beside me for hours with a kindness I can never forget. He told me afterwards he was sure I was a ‘gone coon’ but at the moment I did not care much. Then I fell asleep only to be rudely awakened at four next morning by the crash of guns and the dreaded bugle call ‘gas alarm, gas alarm.’ The Germans had launched a second attack, fiercer than the first. It did not take long to make up my mind what to do — who would hesitate at such a moment, when the Reaper Death was busy? — and before I reached the trenches I had anointed a number of poor fellows who had struggled back after being gassed and had fallen dying by the roadside.’

The harvest that day was a big one, for there had been bloody fighting all along the Front. Many a man died happy in the thought that the priest’s hand had been raised in absolution over his head and the Holy Oils’ anointing had given pardon to those senses which he had used to offend the Almighty. It was a long, hard day, a day of heart rending sights, with the consolation of good work done in spite of the deadly fumes, and I reached my billet wet and muddy, pretty nearly worn out, but perfectly well, with not the slightest ill effect from what I had gone through, nor have I felt any since. Surely God has been good to me. That was not the first of His many favours, nor has it been the last.

On paper every man with a helmet was as safe as I was from gas poisoning. But now it is evident many of the men despised the ‘old German gas,’ some did not bother putting on their helmets, others had torn theirs, and others like myself had thrown them aside or lost them. From early morning till late at night I worked my way from trench to trench single handed the first day, with three regiments to look after, and could get no help. Many men died before I could reach them; others seemed just to live till I anointed them, and were gone before I passed back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony: the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe; while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.

I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leant down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.

Fr William Doyle SJ

The next video gives a glimpse of the horrors of the Five Battles of Ypres. Father Doyle died in the Third.

A programme on Irish Television about Fr William Doyle SJ
The original video I used has 'disappeared' and I have replaced it with this one.

I have highlighted some parts.

William Joseph Gabriel Doyle was born in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, in Ireland on March 3, 1873. He was the youngest of seven children, four boys and three girls, out of which two boys became Jesuits, another died a few days before his priestly ordination and one of the three girls became a Sister of Mercy: four vocations out of seven children.

He entered the Jesuit Novitiate at the age of 18 after reading St. Alphonsus’ book Instructions and Consideration on the Religious State. Soon after his ordination in 1907, his superiors appointed him on the mission staff for five years. From 1908 to 1915, he gave no less than 152 missions and retreats. His fame as preacher, confessor and spiritual director spread wide and far, and he had a special gift to hunt out the most hardened and neglected sinners and to bring them back with him to the church for confession.

In the midst of such an active apostolate, he maintained a fervent spiritual life of union with his Eucharistic Lord, offering himself as a victim for the salvation of souls with the Divine Victim.

He was finally appointed during World War I chaplain of the 16th Irish Division, serving with 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 6th Royal Irish Rifles and the 7th Royal Irish Rifles. Having fulfilled his priestly duties in an outstanding fashion for almost two years, he was killed in the Battle of Ypres on August 16, 1917, having run ‘all day hither and thither over the battlefield like an angel of mercy’. This good shepherd truly gave his life for his sheep.

Fr Doyle’s body was never recovered.

My maternal grandmother’s brother, Corporal Laurence Dowd, died in the same battle ten days before Father Doyle’s death. I wonder if this great priest was with him before he died. I located my great-uncle’s grave in September 2001 in the cemetery above. Many bodies of soldiers who died in the First World War were never recovered and many that were could not be identified.

At my great-uncle's grave, September 2001

You can find Pope Benedict's Message for the 48th World Day of Prayer for Vocations here. Here is an extract, with my emphases.

It is a challenging and uplifting invitation that Jesus addresses to those to whom he says: “Follow me!”. He invites them to become his friends, to listen attentively to his word and to live with him. He teaches them complete commitment to God and to the extension of his kingdom in accordance with the law of the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit ” (Jn 12:24). He invites them to leave behind their own narrow agenda and their notions of self-fulfilment in order to immerse themselves in another will, the will of God, and to be guided by it. He gives them an experience of fraternity, one born of that total openness to God (cf. Mt 12:49-50) which becomes the hallmark of the community of Jesus: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).

Father Willie Doyle lived this joyfully.


While preparing this I came across a ballad, The Dublin Fusiliers, sung by Irish singer Johnny McEvoy, which mentions Fr Willie Doyle. It's the only song I've ever heard that tells something of the story of a military chaplain.

1 comment:

Fr Seán Coyle said...

A friend in the USA included this comment in an email she sent as a response to this post:

I found today's entry particularly moving, especially with Johnny McEvoy's tribute song to the Dublin Fusiliers. It can seem impossible to avoid getting sucked into the perpetual, often senseless motion of this postmodern world, leaving no time or energy for the simple awareness of being, being human and what that calls forth in us. Your blogs are doing a fine job of inviting into that space.