Monsignor Doyle came to Holy Rosary parish after two years as a chaplain on the Western Front in WWI. He was reticent at first, speaking little and smiling less. Some of the parishioners said it was because he was haunted by things he had seen in the war, but others said he was just conscious of his Irish brogue. Either way, by the time I was serving Mass, his reticence had faded, and before mass, he would ask, “Are you ready?” as we lined up in the sacristy; and, after mass, if no one spilled wine during the Offetory, he might thank us for serving; but beyond that he remained more an imposing presence than a conversational opportunity. But he did come every year to the fireman’s Fourth of July celebration where he said the benediction, and he faithfully toured the livestock barns at the county fair, though he just smiled and shook his head when asked to bless a heifer or sow about to enter the judging ring.
His natural element was the altar; and when the stepped up to the pulpit, he had an authority that only WWI experiences and an Irish brogue could impart. His words carried a weight greater than encyclicals from the Vatican, and none of the sermons I heard carried more conviction than the Sunday he intoned, “Half the population between here and the Mississippi is Catholic, yet many choose to marry outside their faith. Are there too few Catholics to fall in love with? Doubtful. Are church laws regarding marriage to non-catholics unclear? Again, doubtful. Instead, an increasing number of your children are putting their souls at risk for want of patience and prayer, and by countenancing such behavior, you are changing this parish in ways we cannot predict. If it’s drowning you are after, don’t torment yourself with shallow water!”
Each of the Monsignor’s sermons contained one or two references like the “shallow water” warning– phrases which never quite fit, and that led to speculation throughout the week following the mass, much like Buddhists must debate the meaning of a koan they have just heard.
The source of those phrases was explained finally by an Irish priest who visited long enough in Darlington to hear three of the Monsignor’s sermons: “They’re just Irish sayings,” the priest explained, “and they have a relevance to him that doesn’t occur to you. If they get in the way of what he’s saying, bring it to his attention.” But no one did–no one wanted to change the sermons, particularly since they increasingly became one of the few constants over the years.
Catholics between the Mississippi and Darlington increasingly married non-catholics, which, as alarming as it first seemed, was eclipsed in shock value by the arrival of an assistant priest who quickly fell in love with a nun who taught third and fourth grade. They moved away, renounced their clerical vows, and stated their wedding vows, a sequence of events that must have shaken the Monsignor; for he had been guarding against winds of change from the direction of the Mississippi but had been flanked by something more detrimental to the traditions he had come to Darlington to uphold.