Like Fr van der Lugt, Fr William Doyle made the ultimate sacrifice

I wrote a blog for April 7 on the woes of the priesthood: isolated, overworked, derided by society and so on. That is one side of the coin, certainly. But there is another side, a side that shows the heroic meaning of the word “Father.” When we think of this word we generally think of fathers of human families, men who provide for and protect their wives and children. St Joseph, husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus, is the supreme example in this respect (he was especially loved by Pope John XXIII who chose to add his name in the Canon of the Mass.)

Yesterday I happened to discover the story of Fr Willie Doyle, a WWI chaplain, whose life is recounted in a CTS booklet (priced £2.50), in commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Years ago, I recall reading Robert Graves’s autobiography Goodbye to All That. A throw-away remark he makes in this book always stayed with me: that the RC padres in the trenches were the bravest of all the military chaplains.

Perhaps he had Fr Willie Doyle in mind. An Irish Jesuit, Fr Doyle was killed by an exploding German shell on the battlefield of Passchendaele on 16 August 1917 as he was dragging a wounded man away from the scene of the carnage. It is clear from Fr Doyle’s personal writings, found after his death, that he lived for the priesthood and for the men he served; his one aim was to bring them the consolation of the Sacraments, notably Mass and the last sacraments when they were in danger of death, with absolutely no regard for his own safety. They were his spiritual children and he, their spiritual father, would remain with them to the end. There are many instances during the war, of men, horribly wounded, who said, as one soldier did in Doyle’s testimony, “Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now.” Doyle wrote, “I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said “Behold the Man” when he showed our Lord to the people.”

A more recent example of priestly fatherhood and incidental heroism comes from the current Syrian civil war and has been related in the Herald for 11 April. It concerns another Jesuit priest, Fr Frans van der Lugt, a Dutchman, recently beaten and then shot twice in the head, as he chose to remain with his flock in the besieged city of Homs. He had the chance to escape, just as his fellow Jesuit, Fr Doyle, was not called upon to rescue wounded soldiers, thus exposing himself to immediate danger. The Herald’s account quotes Lord Alton of Liverpool who stated that Fr van der Lugt “joins a long list of Jesuit martyrs who have sacrificed their lives, truly believing that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”

This is true – but there is more to be said. Fr van der Lugt laid down his life for his spiritual family, not just his friends. My brother, who works for L’Arche, an international organisation started by Jean Vanier, where adults with learning disabilities live alongside their carers and share a common life, has written to me to say that Fr van der Lugt had co-founded “L’Arche Al-Ard” in Syria as long ago as 1990. He forwarded me a report from the L’Arche archives which describes “a spiritual centre outside Homs where children and young people with intellectual disabilities lived and were able to work the land.” An Arabic-speaker and a trained psychotherapist, Fr van der Lugt – who regularly baked bread for the starving people of Homs – understood the simple dignity of practical work.

Patrick Fontaine, L’Arche international leader, recalls that “Abouna Frans (Father Frans) was the instigator of the creation of L’Arche in Damascus. For a long time he was the Community’s priest…In his role as celebrant he would do his utmost o disappear, preferring to highlight Ruba, Gaby and Youssef’s gifts of prophecy…as well as the gifts of all the assistants and board members, who he would invite each year to a long and countless walking retreat in the Syrian desert…He was loved like a spiritual mentor, a father, a brother.”

Reading this, Fr van der Lugt’s sacrifice fell into place in my mind: what father would abandon his children, especially those most vulnerable and with special needs, children who trusted him in all their simplicity and capacity for love? And what priest, as a good pastor, would abandon his flock?
Instead of focusing on a pessimistic survey of the priesthood in the UK, I think it is more important to celebrate the generosity and self-service of our priests, our spiritual fathers, and remember the names of men like Fr Willie Doyle and, in a more recent tragic conflict, Fr Frans van der Lugt.