25 December 2012

A Midnight Mass during the Great War in 1916

Adoration of the Shepherds, El Greco, painted 1596-1600 (Web Gallery of Art)

Fr William Doyle SJ (3 March 1873 - 16 August 1917)

Remembering Fr William Doyle SJ is an inspiring blog worth exploring. My kindergarten principal in Stanhope St, Dublin, Sr Margaret Stanislaus, was for ever talking to us about two priests, Fr Damien de Veuster SsCc, a Belgian, now St Damien of Molokai, and Fr Willie Doyle SJ, a Dubliner who died in Belgium during the Great War (1914-1918).

The posts in the blog usually feature an extract from writings of Father Doyle, very often letters he wrote from the trenches, or from Father William Doyle SJ by Professor Alfred O'Rahilly, who later became a priest.

Here are extracts from yesterday's post describing Father Willie's last Christmas on earth.

Christmas itself Fr. Doyle had the good luck of spending in billets. He got permission from General Hickie to have Midnight Mass for his men in the Convent. The chapel was a fine large one, as in pre-war times over three hundred boarders and orphans were resident in the Convent; and by opening folding-doors the refectory was added to the chapel and thus doubled the available room. An hour before Mass every inch of space was filled, even inside the altar rails and in the corridor, while numbers had to remain in the open. Word had in fact gone round about the Mass, and men from other battalions came to hear it, some having walked several miles from another village. Before the Mass there was strenuous Confession-work. “We were kept hard at work hearing confessions all the evening till nine o’clock” writes Fr. Doyle, “the sort of Confessions you would like, the real serious business, no nonsense and no trimmings. As I was leaving the village church, a big soldier stopped me to know, like our Gardiner Street friend, ‘if the Fathers would be sittin’ any more that night.’  He was soon polished off, poor chap, and then insisted on escorting me home. He was one of my old boys, and having had a couple of glasses of beer — ‘It wouldn’t scratch the back of your throat, Father, that French stuff’ — was in the mood to be complimentary . . . 

I reached the Convent a bit tired, intending to have a rest before Mass, but found a string of the boys awaiting my arrival, determined that they at least would not be left out in the cold. I was kept hard at it hearing Confessions till the stroke of twelve and seldom had a more fruitful or consoling couple of hours’ work, the love of the little Babe of Bethlehem softening hearts which all the terrors of war had failed to touch.”

Father Doyle described his experience:

“I sang the Mass, the girls’ choir doing the needful. One of the Tommies, from Dolphin’s Barn, sang the Adeste beautifully with just a touch of the sweet Dublin accent to remind us of home, sweet home, the whole congregation joining in the chorus. It was a curious contrast: the chapel packed with men and officers, almost strangely quiet and reverent (the nuns were particularly struck by this), praying and singing most devoutly, while the big tears ran down many a rough cheek: outside the cannon boomed and the machine-guns spat out a hail of lead: peace and good will — hatred and bloodshed!
“It was a Midnight Mass none of us will ever forget. A good 500 men came to Holy Communion, so that I was more than rewarded for my work.”
What comes through is Father Willie's great zeal, especially for the sacrament of confession, and his love for the men he served, with a strong flavour of a sense of humour that shows an understanding of human nature, especially in the midst of danger.
Yesterday I featured the Christmas Truce along parts of the Western Front in 1914. I found this extract from a French movie inspired by that in which a German soldier walks across No Man's Land singing Adeste Fideles. I can't remember not knowing this great Christmas hymn and have always preferred the original Latin. Father Willie was clearly touched by hearing the Adeste sung by a 'Tommy' (the generic nickname for the ordinary soldier in the British army) with just the touch of the sweet Dublin accent. (Not too many, including Dubliners themselves, of which I'm proudly one, would describe what we call the real Dublin accent as 'sweet'! Father Willie himself, being from a middle-class family, would have had a somewhat different Dublin accent). Perhaps Father Willie was unwittingly expressing his loneliness being far away from home and caught up in the horror of war.  
The subtitles in this video are Korean. That, and the fact that a Mexican singer, Rolando Villazón, now a French citizen, plays a German soldier singing a Christmas hymn in Latin, one known to soldiers on both sides of that awful war, symbolises the truth in the last line of the song Christmas in the Trenches, 'And on each end of the rifle we're the same'.
(With Father Willie's gentle sense of understanding of the Irish soldier with the couple of glasses of beer, that French stuff that wouldn't scratch the back of your throat, we can forgive the singer's mispronunciation of 'adoremus', which he pronounces 'adoramus'!)

I'm not sure if Father Willie was familiar with this traditional carol in Irish Gaelic, Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil, To That Night in Bethlehen.

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