From The Gospel of John (2003) Directed by Philip Saville. Jesus played by Henry Ian Cusick; narrator, Christopher Plummer.
[Today’s gospel runs from 1:31 to 2:54]
Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)
Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)
Gospel John 6:51-58 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, Canada)
Jesus said to the crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Mass in the Trenches, The Great War (1914-18)
During his homily in St Peter’s Basilica on 26 April this year at the ordination Mass of 19 new priests Pope Francis said: Indeed, in being configured to Christ the eternal High Priest, and joined to the priesthood of their Bishop, they will be consecrated as true priests of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd God’s people, to preside at worship, and especially to celebrate the Lord’s Sacrifice.
In using the words ‘being configured to Christ’ Pope Francis was echoing what both St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI taught.
Pope Francis also spoke to the young men of the importance of being ministers of God’s mercy, especially through the Sacrament of Penance and the Sacrament of the Sick: Through the Sacrament of Penance you forgive sins in the name of Christ and the Church. And I, in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord and of his Spouse, the Holy Church, ask you all to never tire of being merciful. You are in the confessional to forgive, not to condemn! Imitate the Father who never tires of forgiving. With Chrism oil you will comfort the sick; in celebrating the sacred rites and raising up the prayer of praise and supplication at various hours of the day, you will become the voice of the People of God and of all humanity.
Sometimes being configured to Christ can mean for a priest that, like Jesus himself, he is called to the extent of living those same words in his own life, The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. One such priest was Fr William Doyle SJ whose 98th death anniversary is observed this Sunday.
Fr William Doyle SJ
3 March 1873 – 16 August 1917
I am grateful to Pat Kenny, owner of the blog Remembering Fr William Doyle SJ for the information below.
Here is an account of the death of Fr Doyle, which took place in Belgium during the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as The Third Battle of Ypres, from the biography by Alfred O’Rahilly, a university professor who later became a priest:
Fr. Doyle had been engaged from early morning in the front line, cheering and consoling his men, and attending to the many wounded. Soon after 3 p.m. he made his way back to the Regimental Aid Post which was in charge of a Corporal Raitt, the doctor having gone back to the rear some hours before. Whilst here word came in that an officer of the Dublins [editor’s note: Royal Dublin Fusiliers, known as the ‘Dubs’] had been badly hit, and was lying out in an exposed position. Fr. Doyle at once decided to go out to him, and left the Aid Post with his runner, Private Mclnespie, and a Lieutenant Grant. Some twenty minutes later, at about a quarter to four, Mclnespie staggered into the Aid Post and fell down in a state of collapse from shell shock. Corporal Raitt went to his assistance and after considerable difficulty managed to revive him. His first words on coming back to consciousness were: “Fr. Doyle has been killed!” Then bit by bit the whole story was told. Fr. Doyle had found the wounded officer lying far out in a shell crater. He crawled out to him, absolved and anointed him, and then, half dragging, half carrying the dying man, managed to get him within the line. Three officers came up at this moment, and Mclnespie was sent for some water. This he got and was handing it to Fr. Doyle when a shell burst in the midst of the group, killing Fr. Doyle and the three officers instantaneously, and hurling Mclnespie violently to the ground. Later in the day some of the Dublins when retiring came across the bodies of all four. Recognising Fr. Doyle, they placed him and a Private Meehan, whom they were carrying back dead, behind a portion of the Frezenberg Redoubt and covered the bodies with sods and stones.
Stretcher bearers, Passchendaele [Wikipedia]
Christmas Midnight Mass 1916
O’Rahilly gives an account of the last Christmas Midnight Mass that Fr Doyle would celebrate, an account that shows the Irish Jesuit carrying out two of the responsibilities that Pope Francis spoke about in his homily above to those he was about to ordain: especially to celebrate the Lord’s Sacrifice and Through the Sacrament of Penance . . . to never tire of being merciful.
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 [editor’s note: where the Jesuit church in Dublin is located] 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. ‘We miss you sorely, Father, in the battalion’, he said, ‘we do be always talking about you’. Then in a tone of great confidence: ‘Look, Father, there isn’t a man who wouldn’t give the whole of the world, if he had it, for your little toe! That’s the truth’. The poor fellow meant well, but ‘the stuff that would not scratch his throat’ certainly helped his imagination and eloquence.
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.”
The Mass itself was a great success and brought consolation and spiritual peace to many a war-weary exile. This is what Fr. Doyle says:
“I sang the Mass, the girls’ choir doing the needful. One of the Tommies [editor’s note: ‘Tommy’ was the generic nickname for the ordinary British soldier], 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.”
Royal Irish Rifles in trench at the Somme, France, July 1916 [Wikipedia]
Six days before he was killed Fr Doyle wrote to his father about an incident in which he carried out another priestly responsibility mentioned by Pope Francis in his homily: With Chrism oil you will comfort the sick.
A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee But never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. Thank God, Father, he said, I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium? The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. I am much better now and easier, God bless you, he said, as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: Ah! Fr. Doyle, Fr. Doyle, he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now. 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.
In the afternoon, while going my rounds, I was forced to take shelter in the dug-out of a young officer belonging to another regiment. For nearly two hours I was a prisoner and found out he was a Catholic from Dublin, and had been married just a month. Was this a chance visit, or did God send me there to prepare him for death, for I had not long left the spot when a shell burst and killed him? I carried his body out the next day and buried him in a shell hole, and once again I blessed that protecting Hand which had shielded me from his fate.
The trench warfare of World War I was a form of hell, where evil was present. But Jesus Christ the Risen Lord was present there too – and recognised by so many soldiers, particularly at the moment of death, through the presence of priests such as Fr Willie Doyle SJ, whose inspiring life I first learned about in kindergarten in the late 1940s. In celebrating Mass, in hearing confessions, in anointing dying soldiers, in burying those who had died in battle, priests were bringing hope and light, the hope and light that is Jesus himself, into the midst of an awful darkness. And in some cases these priests were called to be configured literally to the dying Christ so that they could say: the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Today please pray for all priests, without whom we could not have the Bread of Life.