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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Tuesday, March 11, 2003  
Battlefield saints

Chaplain William Doyle, SJ

While the Jesuit provincial in California reportedly has proposed a one-day strike on offering Mass should war commence in Iraq, not all Jesuits in years past have taken a similar view that earthly suffering should be met with a refusal to dispense the sacraments.

Rev. William Doyle, SJ, chaplain of the 16th Irish Division of the British Army in the First World War, killed at Ypres in 1917 after having run "all day hither and thither over the battlefield like an angel of mercy," is paid moving tribute at this site, which features excerpts from his battlefield diary.

By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God's angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice - but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten. Fr Doyle's diary: 11 October 1916 at the Somme

An attempt was made to advance Fr. Doyle's cause for canonization, but it did not last more than a generation or two, according to the site. From the accounts of his courage, his sacrifice for others, and his unfailing faith and kindness in the face of unspeakable horrors, it would seem a strong case could be made. (A note to any canon lawyers reading: How does one go about re-introducing a cause for sainthood?)

Naval Chaplain Joseph O'Callahan, SJ, was the first priest to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, given for his heroism following a kamikaze attack on his ship during the Second World War. The citation read:

For conspicious gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as chaplain on board the U.S.S. Franklin when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on 19 March 1945. A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lt. Comdr. O'Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in every-increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts despite the searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lt. Comdr. O'Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of the Franklin to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death to return their stricken ship to port.

The late Rev. William Leonard, SJ, left the Boston College faculty to serve three years as an Army chaplain in the jungles of New Guinea and in the Philippines during the Second World War. He wrote an account of his service in the 1995 book Where Thousands Fell. A reviewer writes:

While serving six months in New Guinea, Father Leonard undertakes the building of a chapel with an altar. The Finschhafen altar was made of materials found at hand and donated by soldiers of all faiths. The materials included a Jeep piston for the incense burner, missile and shell casings for candle holders and the legs of the altar and a cross carved from mahogany, a native wood of New Guinea. He wanted to represent three things: a Catholic altar, the ordnance battalion and the hardships the soldiers faced in the tropics.

After the war, the altar was transported back to Boston, and then found a home in the U.S. Army Chaplain Museum.

Father Leonard leaves Finschhafen to participate in the beachhead invasion of Lingayen in the Philippines. Armed only with a bola knife to dig foxholes, he accompanies the soldiers inland where they endure Japanese bombs and shelling.

Through the words of Father Leonard,
Where Thousands Fell pays tribute to all the chaplains who serve and die offering spiritual comfort to soldiers in war or peace.

Meantime, Rod Dreher's recent National Review cover piece on military chaplains gets two thumbs up from former chaplain Bill Cork.

Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th is paid tribute here, and Archbishop Philip Hannan, the Jumping Padre, here.


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