Fr Willie Doyle, pastor to the wounded, troubled and despairing

Fr Willie Doyle, pastor to the wounded, troubled and despairing Fr William Doyle
Father William Doyle, A Year’s Thoughts

edited by Alfred O’Rahilly (Te Deum Press, $US16.95 /€19.95)

This is a useful collection of prayerful reflections from the pen of Fr William Doyle, a spiritual leader who touched many souls during his career as a retreat-giver and for a long time after.

A Jesuit priest and military chaplain, he was born at Dalkey, Co. Dublin, on March 3, 1873. He was educated by the Rosminian Fathers at Ratcliffe College in Leicester City, England; joined the Society of Jesus in 1891 and was ordained in 1907.

Following his ordination, Fr Doyle spent nine years conducting retreats in religious houses and parishes throughout Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he volunteered to serve as a military chaplain and was posted to the Eighth Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Sixteenth (Irish) Division.


Soon after arriving in France, he gained a reputation for bravery. Present at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross for his assistance to casualties. He was killed in Flanders on August 16, 1917, while attending the dying and wounded at the fourth battle of Ypres. He was recommended posthumously for both the Victoria Cross and the DSO.

Among the ordinary soldiers, Catholic chaplains were greatly respected and admired as they always went forward to give the last rites when they could, sharing the risk the Tommies themselves underwent.

News of his untimely death was received with widespread regret and sorrow in Ireland where he was well-known because of the many years he spent conducting missions and retreats in parishes and religious houses.

Among those grieving was Alfred O’Rahilly. He was a year younger than Fr Doyle; he had also been a member of the Society of Jesus, though he had departed from it before he was due to be ordained. He had been a friend and admirer of Fr Doyle and he set out to write a biography of his hero.

Not long after he had begun this work a collection of spiritual journals and personal recollections, which Fr Doyle had written for his own use and guidance and which in normal circumstances would have been destroyed, became available. Those were given to Mr O’Rahilly by Fr Doyle’s brother, Fr Charles Doyle, SJ. This material formed the greater and most valuable portion of the resultant book.

Fr William Doyle, SJ: A Spiritual Study was enormously popular. It went through numerous editions and was translated into German and French. As a result of Mr O’Rahilly’s biography, Fr Doyle became the focus of popular devotion throughout Ireland, particularly in Dublin. For a period, he was even elevated to the status of an Irish icon by his generation. Later, in August 1938, the cause for his canonisation was proposed and the relevant documentation was sent to Rome.


In response to the request of readers of his biography of Fr Doyle, Mr O’Rahilly compiled A Year’s Thoughts from Fr Doyle’s letters, diaries and retreat notes. This was first published in 1930 and has now been reissued by a new Catholic press in the USA.

The pieces quoted have the unmistakable stamp of Ignatian spirituality. There are recuring themes such as the importance of dedication to duty, cheerfulness, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Christ’s Mercy, the necessity of prayer, agere contra (pushing back against the world and its temptations), the role of Mary in the spiritual life, the heroism of the saints and the ‘last things’.

The chief merit of this publication is that it is a collection of the profound thoughts – at one and the same time inspiring and practical – of a totally committed follower of Christ. It may also help, or so admirers of Fr Willie hope, bring forward again his cause for sainthood.

A blog about Fr Doyle at is curated by Patrick Kenny, who is the editor of To Raise the Fallen, a collection of Fr Doyle’s war letters and spiritual writings, published by Veritas.