Apologetics: The Persuasive Power of Saints
Dr Patrick Kenny is a senior lecturer in the College of Business in Technological University Dublin.
He runs a blog about Fr Willie Doyle, www.fatherdoyle.com, and is the editor of
To Raise the Fallen: A Selection of the War Letters, Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Fr Willie Doyle SJ, published by Veritas in 2017
‘Godwin’s Law is an internet adage that states that the longer a controversial debate continues, the more likely it is that someone will be called a Nazi or compared to Hitler. It is the ultimate putdown, intended to silence the opposition.
There is a Catholic equivalent to Godwin’s Law: sooner or later any discussion of issues even marginally related to the Church will result in references to the abuse crisis. Even when they are not relevant, these arguments are deployed to silence any discussion from a Catholic perspective.
It goes without saying that abuses must be acknowledged, the survivors respected and cared for, and all steps taken to prevent future crimes. But more broadly, if we are to make any progress with evangelisation, the credibility of the Church has to be restored. It is not uncommon to encounter young people, with no meaningful personal experience of faith, who actually believe that the Church condones abuse or cruelty. Evangelisation will remain at a standstill if this is how Catholicism is perceived.
The answer to this is not to be found in some new strategic plan or marketing initiative. The answer is as old as the Gospel itself: holiness. The world has to be reminded of what it means to be a Catholic from the example of those who imitate Christ - the saints – and not from those who betrayed him, like Judas.
Pope Benedict, speaking with Italian priests in 2008, commented on this important role of the saints in apologetics:
To me art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. The arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere. On the other hand, if we look at the Saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light.
St Paul VI once wrote: Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. Even religious sceptics must admire the witness of St Damien of Molokai, who went half-way round the world to serve in a leper colony, knowing that it was almost inevitable that he too would contract the disease and die. Or the example of St Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to be executed by the Nazis if they allowed the father of a family to live. There are countless examples of men and women like this.
We have our own home-grown heroes in Ireland, even if they are not yet canonised. Consider the case of Fr Willie Doyle, the Irish Jesuit military chaplain who was born in Dublin in 1873, and who died as a martyr of charity in the First World War in August 1917. Following a life of remarkable generosity with God and with others, at the age of 41 Fr Doyle volunteered as a military chaplain. He was renowned for his courage under fire – again and again he would leave the relative safety of his trench and face the shells and bullets of ‘no man’s land’ to anoint a dying soldier or to drag him to safety. He noted in his diary that he could never imagine a priest hesitating, no matter the danger, to assist the dying. It was on one of those missions of charity to aid the wounded that he was finally struck by a shell and killed instantly. His body was never recovered.
Appropriately enough, the very last entry in his private diary, less than three weeks before his death, repeated a secret theme that inspired much of his priesthood and spiritual life: I have again offered myself to Jesus as his victim to do with me absolutely as he pleases … and will bear suffering, heat cold, etc. with joy … in reparation for the sins of priests.
The example of witnesses like Fr Doyle is needed in Ireland more than ever. There is no better antidote to the scepticism and hostility with which the Church is now greeted, than the example of one who was literally willing to be blown to pieces to save a soul or a life, and who did it all in reparation for the sins of priests.