One of a collection of the Stories of FR WILLIE DOYLE, SJ, the saintly Irish Jesuit and military chaplain and once a member of the Central Council of the PTAA, who was killed while ministering to the soldiers in August 1917 during World War 1.
During the Mission I heard, accidentally, of two men who had been away from the sacraments for forty and fifty-two years respectively. One was a hopeless case, the other in desperation, upon whom missioner after missioner had tried his hand in vain. Clearly, no ordinary course of action would do here; so Our Lord, having, as I said, accidentally made known these poor souls known to me, put a thought into my head.
I went to the church and, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, I had a straight talk with the Sacred Heart. “Look here, dear Lord,” I said. ‘You have promised to give priests the power to touch the hardest hearts. I am going to take you literally at Your word. If You will soften these two hard nuts, I will never doubt this promise again. For nothing will convert them but a miracle of grace.”
Somehow I felt that the battle was already won and that, through the Sacred Heart was going to give me the happiness of reconciling these poor souls, and the work of conversion was to be all His. I set out with great confidence to visit number one, an old Papal Zouave. I was not prepared for what followed. I had been told he had no religion and no faith. To my question, was he attending the Mission, came the startling answer, “Father, for the past few days I have been thinking seriously of it.”
“Will you come to confession?” I asked, for I saw it was now or never. He agreed. We shook hands and I left him with that promise given. After the sermon that evening, I heard confessions and waited for X, but he never arrived, as I half expected. Dinner-hour next day saw us together again.
“I kept my word, Father,” he said, “I was at the sermon, but fear seized my heart and I ran out of the church.” Poor fellow, I felt a great pity for him, but he had to face the music.
“Come now, down on your marrow bones,” I said. I quickly ran him through his confession, gave him Absolution, and left the old fellow sobbing like a child, with sorrow and joy, beside his bed. Someone else’s eyes were not too dry either as I walked away. The next day, X made his Easter Duty before the seventeen-hundred people who filled the church. That evening when I came out to preach, I found my friend sitting prominently inside the altar rails, which had been reserved for the ‘quality’, glorious in his Sunday best, with flaming red tie and a flower in his buttonhole. It was his own idea of reparation, and surely an acceptable one to the merciful and loving Heart of Jesus.
I need not say that this visible sign of God’s goodness gave me great courage and confidence in tackling number two, and I wanted it, judging from what I had heard. I went down to his house one night and was met at the door by a sour old man, who made no secret of the fact that I was a most unwelcome visitor - I was not wanted, and the sooner I took my departure the better.
Fearful and trembling slightly, I entered the house somehow, while he left the door wide open, that I might lose no time in leaving. I sat down uninvited; my friend stood and glared at me disapprovingly. The very helplessness of my case appealed to me, for I felt that all human power was out of the question here and that even the Sacred Heart had a hard task tackling this beauty.
I found he was a well-read man, who had travelled a great deal and had lived in Sheffield, a city I knew well. I was at home immediately. We talked about Sheffield for an hour, and though he did not sit down, I sensed that he was thawing, for ‘Sir’ was added to his laconic, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, which eventually reached ‘Your Reverence’ once.
As I left him, he actually said, ‘God bless you,’ – his first prayer, I supposed, for years. Though there had been no talk about religion, I went home, glad, thinking I had done well. How little I suspected that the devil was also hard at work and that my troubles had not yet begun.
I could not reach him again until Sunday - the closing day of the mission. I found the old man crouching over the fire and looked fifty times as dark and fierce as before. What had happened? I had not long to wait for the answer.
“You brought me bad luck with your visit!” he cried. “I returned to my work to find I had been sacked for no reason, and I have nothing before me now except starvation or the workhouse.” Then came the usual tirade against God, the rich, etc.
My heart sank, for if his heart was hard before, he was hopeless now. Yet I was glad of the change that had taken place, for this would be a real triumph of the Sacred Heart. I soon realised, however, that everything I said only angered him more, and yet something told me that if I let him slip now, he might never get the chance of salvation again. Talk about playing a twenty pound salmon in the river, it was nothing to the tussle with that poor soul! It was only when it was all over that I realised what a strain it had been, for I felt quite sick.
I could say only one prayer, “Lord, please remember Your promise”. I was almost in despair, for it seemed I was doing more harm than good. He was becoming more insulting and openly told me to leave him alone.
“You are not the first,” he sneered, “who has tried this game, and you won’t succeed where others have failed. I have made up my mind and it is too late to change now; I will die as I have lived. I know as well as you do that I will go to hell, but that’s my business; leave me alone!” That was the darkest hour.
I could only think of the promise of the Sacred Heart - ‘I will give priests the power to stir the hardest of hearts’- and this was a hard heart, God knew. “Lord, remember your promise,” was all I could say. Suddenly, grace struck him. He turned to me and said quietly, “I will tell you what has kept me out of the church so long.”
He had magnified the importance of a trifling situation and had pictured all sorts of obligations, which he could not face. A few words of explanation cleared all difficulty away. “You have lifted an enormous weight off my mind,” he said.
The rest was easy. He promised to come to confession. I offered to hear him there and then, but he said he would sooner do it like a man, and would be at the church at nine, following the closing of the mission.
Nine came, half past, and there was no sign of him. Then a girl came to me, saying Mr Z has been walking up and down the square for the past half hour.’ It was the devil’s last effort. I went out and took the poor fellow by the arm when he told me he was unable to set foot in the church. Our talk did not last long, the burdens of fifty years fell from his soul, and Holy Communion received the following morning sealed his reconciliation with Almighty God. The Sacred Heart had kept His promise.