Homily of Bishop Denis Brennan in St Aidan’s Cathedral marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Legion of Mary
Today we remember a remarkable man and the amazing contribution he made to the life of the church, the life of our country and indeed the life of our world.
Frank Duff was born in 1889 and died in 1980. In the intervening years he was a pivotal figure, not only in religious circles but also in the evolution of modern Ireland as a friend of Michael Collins, W T Cosgrave and Eamonn de Valera.
The Irish Times described Frank Duff as “the founder of the largest international association that has originated in Ireland.”
The Legion of Mary has an estimated four million adult members together with ten million auxiliary members in one hundred and seventy countries. Legionaries are active in almost every diocese of the Catholic Church.
Take Brazil for example, in 2010 it had over 400,000 active Legionaries, South Korea 300,000. The estimate for Africa alone is around one million.
As Frank Duff himself said the Legion was not a thought-out project, it was something that happened. “Nobody sat down at the beginning and put on paper what the Legion was intended to be …. the history of the Legion has that character of one step leading to another.”
As Frank Duff’s latest biographer Finola Kennedy has written, “In this hidden, almost accidental manner, the Legion of Mary was born. It came into existence as a parish-based organisation.”
In the Handbook, the Legion of Mary is described simply as an organisation of lay Catholics “at the disposal of the bishop of the diocese and the parish priest for any and every form of social service and Catholic Action which these authorities may deem suitable to Legionaries and useful for the welfare of the Church.”
The Legion impulse is based on the basic Christian duty of serving one’s neighbour. Duff liked the description of a Christian by a French spiritual writer as “someone who cares for his or her fellow people.”
Over his long life, Duff saw Church history in the making and played a considerable part in shaping it. Despite having some difficulties in the Archdiocese of Dublin, Duff was a welcome visitor in Rome.
In 1931 he met with Pope Pius XI and in 1979 he had breakfast with John-Paul II in the Pope’s kitchen in the Vatican Gardens. He attended the Second Vatican Council and caused quite a stir when he entered St Peter’s Basilica.
The late Caardinal Suenens of Brussels describes the moment. As Frank entered Cardinal Heenan of Westminsiter was speaking. The Cardinal recognised the founder of the Legion and introduced him to the assembled bishops.
The “2,500 bishops rose and gave him a warm and moving ovation. It was an unforgettable moment; the thanks of the universal church to the pioneer of the lay apostolate.”
The mobilisation of the lay apostolate was recognised and encouraged at the Second Vatican Council years after Frank Duff had effectively mobilized the laity in practice.
In the 1950’s Catholic Ireland seemed secure and strong but Frank Duff saw things differently. He wrote in relation to those years, “Religion has become routine …. a terrible conservatism exercises sway …. an inert laity is only two generations removed from non-practice, non-practice is only two generations away from non-belief.”
Prophetic stuff indeed! In 1965, 447 priests were ordained in Ireland, in 2010 that number had dropped to 11. A survey conducted in 2009 showed that for every 20 priests who retire or die in Ireland there is only one replacement.
That statistic is beginning to change the shape of ministry at the moment and I believe it will accelerate the change in the immediate future.
The earliest Legionaries were all women, men joined in 1927. What is not often realised is that the Legion grew out of the meetings and activities of the Pioneer Movement. According to Duff himself a hospital visitation report was the catalyst for the start of what would become the Legion.
We often say in life that we stand on each other’s shoulders, we build on what has gone before. So if we press the rewind button on the Legion we end up here in Enniscorthy.
If Fr James Cullen had not become involved in Temperance work as a member of the House of Missions in Enniscorthy, he probably would not have founded the Pioneer Movement later in life as a Jesuit priest. Would that have meant that the spark which ignited the Legion idea at a Pioneer Meeting in Dublin in 1921 would never have happened? It’s an interesting thought!
The worldwide spread of the Legion has been phenomenal, nobody could have imagined that what began in a back room of Myra House in 1921 in a poor part of Dublin would go global.
In the way of providence one of the factors which gave the Legion global reach was the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. Catholics came to Dublin from all parts of the globe for the congress and one of the ideas many of them brought back to their parishes and dioceses was the idea of starting a branch of the Legion of Mary.
This gathering spread the Legion idea to the ends of the earth. Nuns were also great ambassadors of the Legion and Frank Duff used this network of religious very effectively.
So the fledgling movement spread its wings … first branch outside Ireland was in Scotland, then England, France, Mexico, USA, India, Ceylon, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, West Indies, Africa, Latin America.
One of the factors which has contributed to the success and spread of the Legion was the fact that Duff was emphatic on the question of racial and social integration, there was to be no racial or social distinction of any kind in the ranks of the Legion.
This became a hall mark of the Legion and any Legion group around the world might include a mix of men and women, and people from all social and racial backgrounds.
It would not be possible to speak about the Legion of Mary in Enniscorthy without mentioning Edel Quinn. Edel was confirmed in this cathedral in 1918. In 1936 she was appointed Legion envoy to East Africa. For the next eight years, despite being in poor health she laboured heroically to establish the Legion in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania.
In 1994, Pope John-Paul II declared Edel Quinn “Venerable” and the cause of her beatification is ongoing.
Frank Duff did not look for signs and wonders in people. He was a great admirer of the ordinary and saw the Legion in that way. He wrote, “The Legion life is not a unique life, and it is not a heroic life; it is common Catholicity as God intended it, and as the church sees it, nothing more.”
A priest fiend caputured this quality of Frank in a simple sentence, “The most striking thing about him was that he was not striking. He crept into your mind.”
Today, as we mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Legion of Mary, we give thanks that the Servant of God Frank Duff, through the influence of the organisation he founded, has crept into so many people’s minds and hearts, at home and abroad.