Like so many caught up in the conflict that came to be known as the Great War, Fr Willie Doyle was buried where he fell, without a marker, just another casualty among millions. He might have been forgotten; however, it proved not to be the case.

Before his death, he had requested that his private papers be burned. Thankfully, his wishes were ignored. The discovery of the papers, and their subsequent publication as part of a biography published in 1920, were a surprise to those who had known him.

After days spent giving retreats, hearing confessions and, above all, saying Holy Mass, his spiritual notebooks revealed another dimension of Fr Doyle. Hours were spent at night in long watches in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the sanctity of priests. Then there was the frequent use of the discipline (whip), immersion in cold lakes, and nocturnal, barefoot pilgrimages in reparation of sins. All this was hidden from view, but, importantly, with the knowing approval of the Jesuit’s spiritual director. And then there was his less dramatic daily “war” on self: for instance, the “Butter Tragedy” – some days butter on his toast, others not, just one example of a constant spirit of mortification in everyday matters.

The personal papers revealed an intense inner life that edified some. Others deemed his mortifications too harsh, his prayer life too extreme; and yet, this was a man with a reputation unlike that of any gloomy ascetic. He was a much loved, affable priest, a perpetual prankster. This paradox only seemed to deepen the mystery surrounding Fr Doyle.

Willie Doyle was born in Dublin on March 3, 1873. His parents were both well-to-do and devoutly religious. Four of their seven children entered some form of religious life. Having been educated in both Ireland and England, Willie entered the Society of Jesus.

Finally, he was ordained in 1907, and soon after was assigned to the Jesuit mission to parishes throughout the British Isles. From the start he excelled as preacher and confessor. Crowds flocked to him, but only after his death was the secret of his “success” revealed: penance.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection