04 August 2017

'I was able for once to offer the Holy Sacrifice on my knees.' Sunday Reflections, The Transfiguration, Year A

Transfiguration of Christ, Paolo Veronese [Web Gallery of Art]

As the Feast of the Transfiguration is a feast of the Lord  it is celebrated today instead of the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Father Willie Doyle SJ, in a letter, writes about the Mass he celebrated on Monday 6 August 1917 in the trenches during the Third Battle of Ypres, Belgium, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
For once getting out of bed was an easy, in fact, delightful task, for I was stiff and sore from my night’s rest. My first task was to look round and see what were the possibilities for Mass. As all the dug-outs were occupied if not destroyed or flooded, I was delighted to discover a tiny ammunition store which I speedily converted into a chapel, building an altar with the boxes. The fact that it barely held myself did not signify as I had no server and had to be both priest and acolyte, and in a way I was not sorry I could not stand up, as I was able for once to offer the Holy Sacrifice on my knees.
It is strange that out here a desire I have long cherished should be gratified, viz. : to be able to celebrate alone, taking as much time as I wished without inconveniencing anyone. I read long ago in the Acts of the Martyrs of a captive priest, chained to the floor of the Coliseum, offering up the Mass on the altar of his own bare breast, but apart from that, Mass that morning must have been a strange one in the eyes of God's angels, and I trust not unacceptable to Him

British trench, Battle of the Somme, 1916
One keeping watch while the others sleep [Wikipedia]

It is clear that Fr Doyle, an Irish Jesuit who had volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the British army during the Great War (1914-1918) and who was assigned to Irish regiments - the whole of Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom - had a profound sense of the presence of God as he celebrated Mass in the tiniest of spaces in a trench unfit for human habitation. He had a deep sense of being graced by God with a deep inner silence despite the noise of shells being fired by both the German and British armies. It was, in a sense, a Transfiguration moment for him.

Peter, James and John got a brief glimpse of the divinity of Jesus Christ when he took them up the mountain. It was a grace for the present and for the future. This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! It was a grace from God the Father that gave them the courage to preach the Gospel after Pentecost and, for Peter and James, to lay down their lives for the it.

Stretcher bearers, Passchendaele, August 1917 [Wikipedia]
Fr Willie Doyle was more than familiar with scenes such as that in the photo above. He spent much of his days and nights trying to reach wounded and dying soldiers, sometimes including Germans, in order to anoint and give them absolution, to speak a last word of comfort, to assure them that God was not absent from the hell that the First World War was. More than three million soldiers died and more than eight million were wounded in the fighting on the Western Front, of which the Battle of Passchendaele was part, between 1914 and 1918.

One of those who died was my great-uncle, Corporal Lawrence Dowd, an older half-brother of my maternal grandmother, Annie Dowd Collins. He was killed on the day that Father Doyle celebrated Mass in his trench and that he wrote about above, the feast of the Transfiguration, and in the same area. So this Sunday is the 100th anniversary of his death. I do not know if Uncle Larry and Father Willie ever met but my uncle must have known who this heroic priest was as he was known and loved by all the Irish soldiers, Catholic and Protestant, fighting in Flanders.

Fr William Doyle SJ (3 March 1874 - 16 August 1917)

Fr Doyle was killed ten days after my great-uncle. To Raise the Fallen, compiled and edited by Patrick Kenny  and very recently published by Veritas, describes what happened: The precise details surrounding Fr Doyle's death are unclear. But at some time in the late afternoon of 16 August 1917, a group of soldiers led by Lieutenants Marlow and Green got into trouble beyond the front line, and Fr Doyle ran to assist them. It seems that Fr Doyle and the two officers were about to take shelter when they were hit by a German shell and killed. His body was never recovered.

Mass in an Austrian military hospital, 1916 [Wikipedia]

Sir Percival Philips, a war correspondent, wrote in the Daily Express (London) in August 1917: The Orangemen (members of a Protestant organisation, mainly in what is now Northern Ireland) will not forget a certain Roman Catholic chaplain who lies in  a soldier's grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battle field with bullets whining about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them absolution, walking with death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with reverence and a kind of awe until a shell burst near him and he was killed. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place. Each time he came back across the field he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head and went again into the storm. He had been with his boys at Ginchy and through other times of stress, and he would not desert them in their agony. They remember him as a saint - they speak his name with tears. (To Raise the Fallen, page 187).

To the hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place - and to wounded and dying Germans he encountered - Fr Doyle's presence was something of a 'Transfiguration experience'. Through this brave Catholic priest they saw something of the divinity of a loving God, that loving God that he had experienced so many times in unexpected ways and places, the loving God whose presence he was so conscious of as he celebrated Mass on his knees in a muddy hole in a trench ten days before his death.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear we can see flashes of God's divinity in the actions of those around us, sometimes in the midst of tragedy, of evil, sometimes in the midst of very ordinary events of daily life, sometimes in the midst of joyful circumstances. May God open our eyes and ears to those flashes of his divinity.

At the grave of my Great-uncle Lawrence Dowd in Potijze Chateau Cemetery, Ieper, Belgium, September 2001. Uncle Larry, my maternal grandmother's older half-brother, was killed on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 1917. I was the first relative to visit his grave, in September 2001.


gemma j. paras said...

Wonderful story about a wonderful soul, Fr. Sean. Fr. Doyle's saintly acts are an inspiration to so many.

jerome Robinson said...

Thanks Father for this. Let's really publicise Fr Doyle's life. I first saw it in a second hand shop in Armagh in 1971 ! He is a real bridge between England and Ireland, and helped both traditions in the horror of the trenches. The fact that the book is being published by a mainstream Irish Catholic publisher in Dublin is a big step forward, especially as he embodies all the old Traditional Catholic spirit,practice and belief so sadly collapsing around us.