Archbishop Martin launches biography of “Frank Duff – a Life Story”

29 Jun 2011


28 June 2011

Address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the launch of the biography
“Frank Duff – a Life Story” by Finola Kennedy, in Blackrock College, Dublin

Obviously you are expecting me to introduce this book with some comments on Frank Duff.  However, I cannot begin without first of all saying something about the author of this remarkable biography.  This is an extraordinarily well-researched book.  Finola Kennedy has carried out admirable and meticulous research on Frank Duff as a person, as a civil servant, as the Founder of the Legion of Mary, as someone who reflected on the social and ecclesiastical situation of his time.  She has carried out research on the life of the Church in Ireland, about the Vatican Council and its effects on the Irish Church.  She has shed important light on the difficult relationship that Frank Duff had with the ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland, especially those in Archbishop’s House in Dublin.

Every section of the book, as we move regularly from the personal, to the professional, to the faith life of Frank Duff, is researched thoroughly and in detail and yet the book flows in an attractive narrative which never gets bogged down in the details.  I find it a truly fascinating example of exacting biographical research and I would like genuinely to congratulate Mrs Kennedy on this work.

Frank Duff was an extraordinary person, a man very hard to fit into any conventional categories.  He was a traditional Catholic who had no fear in speaking in very frank terms to ecclesiastical authority.  He was a person absolutely loyal to the Church, but in no way a “yes man”.  He never gave up when he had asked to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, for the first time in March 1927 and was eventually received eight years later in January 1935. (That makes me look good!).

He found it impossible for years to get an Imprimatur in Dublin for the Legion Handbook and at the same time he established excellent relations with Church leaders elsewhere. He was received by Pope Pius XI and his Secretary of State Pacelli before being received by his own Archbishop, and yet he never used his influence to force the hand of his own Archbishop of Dublin.

Frank was someone who had deep insights into the situation of the Church in Ireland.  He noted a fear on the part of the Church authorities of trusting the insights of lay people.  At the same time he felt that trust in lay people should also be accompanied by intense formation of lay people in spirituality and in theology.  His ideas on the role of the laity were progressive and indeed revolutionary.  Yet Frank’s entire life style as a person was far from that of revolution or publicity seeking, but one of immense humility and total dedication.  The book is rightly entitled: Frank Duff – A Life Story. There was now dichotomy between faith and life in the personal story of Frank Duff.

There is no way in which one cannot be saddened by the small-mindedness of some of the Church authorities in Dublin towards Frank Duff, while at the same time noting that Frank was sustained in his work in founding the Legion of Mary by another group of Dublin priests. The diocesan authorities saw the Legion as a work for women; their fear of Legion groups formed of men alone, was surpassed only of their fear of mixed groups.

The small mindedness of part of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Dublin should be a lesson to all in the Church of how easy it can be to become trapped in a narrow vision.  We all – conservative or liberals – have to be aware of the constant danger of becoming fearfully or arrogantly trapped in our own little world.  There is something wrong with a faith which does not inspire freedom.  Faith always requires courage and abandonment.

And yet again Frank, a pioneer and protagonist of the role of lay persons in the Church, was in no way one to play down the essential role of the priest and of ecclesiastic authority.  On more than one occasion in the face of apparent rejection, Frank professed his absolute respect for the decision of ecclesiastical authority, to the point of even being willing to abandon his project of the Legion of Mary were it to be judged on the wrong track.  The priest Spiritual Director was always to be an essential figure in every Legion activity.

Frank had a special care for the poor, curiously something that he shared with Archbishop Byrne who had spent nearly twenty years as a Curate in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, a parish marked by harsh poverty. Both Frank and Archbishop Byrne had a similar concern for the plight of single mothers living in near squalor in Dublin’s inner city.   Frank had an absolutely clear concern that the single mother, no matter what her situation and background, should be able, where possible, to keep her baby and he single-mindedly did everything he could to ensure that the children would not end up in industrial schools, including providing child care while the mothers managed to get some work to sustain themselves.

Frank had a sense of the importance of voluntarism.  The Legion was to be a mirror of the love of Christ which is always marked by gratuitous self-giving. This at times led to a criticism of lack of professionalism in managing some establishments of the Legion. Curiously those who came to remedy the reported deficiencies of Frank’s institutions, ended up not in recommending their closure but rather that they receive adequate funding so that they could continue to carry out their work.

Frank saw the strengths and the weaknesses of the Church in Ireland.  He stressed the need for education in the faith and clearly recognised the inadequacies of the structures of faith formation.   He was acutely aware, decades ago, how the institutional structure of the Catholic Church in Ireland which outwardly appeared so robust, in fact had within itself an innate debilitating factor, namely: the lack of faith formation of lay men and women.

The current debate about the future of Irish education and the place of religious education in schools and regarding Church patronage cannot be separated – from a Church perspective – from the broad question of what the role of a Catholic school really is.   I see very little point in being the Patron of Catholic Schools which are not truly Catholic.  Catholic does not mean sectarian.  But a Catholic school is more than just an ethos; it is more than just a school where attractive First Communion and Confirmation services are celebrated.   Unless a Catholic school exists within a faith community of parents who are themselves rooted in a broader believing and practicing faith community, then that school will be Catholic in name alone.

The role of the Church in education is destined to change in the coming years in order to respect the different preferences that exist among parents.  I am pleased to see the work that is being done by the government’s Forum on Patronage.  I have no fear of plurality in school patronage where parents desire it.  I believe that the plurality desired by parents is greater than some think.  That said, I believe that the Catholic school retains its particular place which must be fostered.  But the Catholic school will not survive isolated from a faith community.  There is no way today that the school alone will be able to foster a truly Catholic faith unless there are solid bonds between school, parents and parish community.  The faith of the child and of the young person will only develop where there is an integrated relation between all three.  It is unfair to expect teachers to take on responsibilities which go beyond their capacity and indeed their duty.

We need our parishes to become centres of formation in the faith and I would hope that perhaps, in the years to come, the Legion of Mary could be in the vanguard in the formation of a new generation of trained, yet voluntary catechists, who would place themselves at the service of parishes to make them truly places of faith education.  Our young people need not just formal religious education in schools but also an introduction into the life of the Church, both in its sacramental life and in the commitment to live out the faith in whatever one’s state of life may be.    I find it fascinating to see the interaction between Frank Duff and many leading figures in Irish politics and society and culture.  Theirs is a discussion unashamedly about faith, but very much in the mode of the faith of lay Christians.

Frank Duff was greeted with an ovation when he first entered into the hall of Vatican II in Saint Peter’s Basilica.  He would have been greeted by so many bishops from around the world who would have been indebted to the Legion of Mary as a fundamental element in the formation of the Christian communities in mission countries and indeed in a special way in countries where the faith experienced persecution.

Frank Duff was a man misunderstood.  A humble man, yet in no way obsequious, rather a formidable challenger even of authority.  I do not think that anyone will be offended if I were to say that Frank Duff was stubborn, in the better sense of that word.  He could be stubborn because in all his work he never put himself in the foreground.  His stubbornness was not about advancing the name or the person of Frank Duff, but of following what was right in spreading the message of Jesus Christ wherever in the world.  His Marian spirituality was firmly rooted in the Magnificat: humility and a sense of vocation belonged together.

Frank had no difficulty is becoming immersed in the task of spreading Christ’s message through encountering and engaging with representatives of other Christian faiths and also of the Jewish community.  His own faith was strong.

Frank apparently called the 1932 Eucharistic Congress the Epiphany of the Legion of Mary.  The remarkable expansion of the Legion across the world became particularly evident in the number of those who came from around the world to the Legion Headquarters either to get to know the Legion or to say thanks for the gift of the Legion.  Hopefully the coming Eucharistic Congress in Dublin will be an occasion to bring new dynamism to the contribution of the Legion of Mary to the Church in new and different times.  That, I believe, is how Frank would look at the opportunities of the Eucharistic Congress.  May those who read Finola Kennedy’s book be challenged to think in the same vein.


Further Information Annette O Donnell 087 8143462