Faith Matters

Vatican screening for film about Irish war hero priest Fr Willie Doyle

A film telling the amazing story of an Irish Jesuit who joined the British army as a First World War chaplain is being shown in the Vatican

Bravery Under Fire, which tells the story of British army chaplain Fr Willie Doyle, is being shown at the Vatican next week. The Irish Jesuit is played by Brian Milligan in the film

A film telling the extraordinary story of an Irish priest who died as a British army chaplain in the First World War is to be given a special screening at the Vatican next week.

Bravery Under Fire, directed by Co Down film-maker Campbell Miller, vividly depicts how Jesuit Fr Willie Doyle, who served in the 16th Irish Division, repeatedly risked his own life to save others - including enemy German soldiers - during some of the war's bloodiest battles.

Fr Doyle routinely ignored the advice of his superiors and disregarded his own safety by repeatedly going into No Man's Land to drag injured soldiers to safety as well as administer the Last Rites.

He died in 1917 while ministering to the fallen at Passchendaele in Belgium.

Mr Miller said next Friday's Vatican screening to senior clergy and Catholic leaders was a fitting tribute to Fr Doyle.

"I got to know and understand Fr Willie Doyle very well over time working on Bravery Under Fire, as did our wonderful cast and crew," he said.

"He was a man of incredible courage and bravery under fire.

"His selflessness and humanity towards his fellow man was astonishing and we found it very humbling to bring the story to life in a film - so now to take it to Rome does justice to Fr Willie and his fallen comrades."

Mr Miller said "men of all faith and none were consoled by his love and compassion in their darkest and most terrifying moments".

The film was produced by EWTN, the world's largest religious media network, and premiered in August.

Mr Miller said he took on the project, which was filmed in Ireland, London and Belgium, because he believes that Fr Doyle is a forgotten hero.

"While other soldiers have got the Victoria Cross for showing one act of bravery, Fr Doyle performed miraculous acts of bravery each day he was on the front line," he said.

"In this secular age there is a lot to be learned from his actions."

Fr Doyle was born in Dalkey, trained in England and worked in Scotland - a varied background that helped set the stage for his decision to join the British army, when he was 42 years old, as a Catholic chaplain after the outbreak of the First World War.

Soldiers wanted to be in Fr Doyle's dugout because it appeared to them that no-one who fought near him was killed.

However, that changed in August 1917 - he ventured on to the Flanders battlefield at Passchendaele to rescue two men, and was caught in a mortar attack.

"Ironically for a man who sought Christian burial for battlefield casualties he lost his own life trying to save others and his body was never recovered," said Mr Miller.

"He was revered by soldiers in the Irish 16th Division but also by the men in the largely Protestant 36th Division."

Fr Doyle was awarded a military cross for his actions, and recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross.

He was also proposed for canonisation in 1938, though this was not followed through.

This may be reconsidered, following Pope Francis's decision that Catholics who freely accepted a certain and premature death for the good of others may indeed be candidates for sainthood.

Fr Doyle's letters to his father - preserved by the Irish Jesuits - certainly suggest that the priest knew that a sudden and violent death was a real possibility.

"For the Vatican showing the assembled guest list we feel does justice to the memory of Fr Willie Doyle," said Mr Miller.

Bravery Under Fire was filmed on location in Ireland and Belgium with trench scenes painstakingly recreated and filmed in the depths of winter to attempt to replicate the harrowing conditions on the front line.

"We can only imagine the horror experienced as Fr Doyle ministered in the mud, decay, destruction and terror of unexploded shells and incoming fire," said Mr Miller.

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