INFLUENTIAL The Legion of Mary, founded by Frank Duff, is active in almost every country in the world.
Growing up in the Westport of the 1960s and 70s one did what was expected. We all became part of the whole. Church was central – Mass, confessions, sodality, devotions, Rosary, novenas and the weekly Legion of Mary meeting. One of the ‘Legion duties’ was delivering Catholic papers throughout the town. Over time, you knew who read what as you wandered door-to-door on Saturday mornings ‘to do the papers.’
We were unaware of Frank Duff, the devout Legion founder. He was no more than a name. The meetings were ordered and usually a bit too holy for young fellows, with prayers and extracts from the Handbook! (They now meet on Zoom – Tuesdays at 8pm.) The annual trip to Achill for young members was a must. Sardined into a car and dosed with sweets, ice cream and all kinds of treats we were happy out with Seán Staunton at the wheel of his brother Lol’s white Vauxhall Viva (if memory serves me well.)
Growing up we ‘grew out’ of the Legion as teenagers, cool dudes prancing across the 1970s airwaves. Regardless, in early November 1980, I was in the Holy Cross College choir in a Dublin church sitting alongside the coffin of Frank Duff. The founder of the Legion of Mary had died a few days beforehand. My spiritual director called him a saint.
Frank Duff was born in Dublin on June 7, 1889, the eldest of seven children. Thanks to an inheritance the family was well-off. Frank attended Blackrock College where he excelled at languages and was a great reader. He worked in the Civil Service.
A college sports injury affected his hearing all through his life. After he joined the Society of St Vincent de Paul he gained first-hand knowledge of inner city poverty, which affected him deeply. Hunger was a reality for many people in Dublin.
Spiritual hunger was another need that Frank Duff realised had to be sated. He took a deep interest in developing his own spiritual life, became a Pioneer, attended regular confession and daily Mass, prayed the Rosary daily, sought a spiritual director and went on retreats regularly.
The Treatise of St Louis Marie de Montfort on the True Devotion to Mary changed his life. Along with a group of Catholic women and Fr Michael Toher he founded the first praesidium of the Legion of Mary on September 7, 1921. It has just celebrated its centenary. It is ‘a lay apostolic organisation at the service of the Church, under ecclesiastical guidance. Its twofold purpose is the spiritual development of its members and advancing the reign of Christ through Our Lady.’ Frank Duff wrote (most of) the Legion Handbook – outlining the role of Mary, the Mother of God, in ‘the plan of redemption’ and also the role of lay people in the Church’s mission. The Legion is active in almost every country in the world with ‘nearly three million active members and many more auxiliary (praying) members.’
Many Legion members also engage in ‘Peregrinatio Pro Christo’, where they introduce people to the Catholic faith by home visitation, personal contact work on the streets and in other public meeting places, conversion work, presenting the Catholic faith especially to non-Catholics and the distribution of the Miraculous Medal. We marvelled, as young lads, at this ‘heroic bravery’ when we heard of older members going to London to knock on doors to speak about their faith.
Today, Frank Duff has the title of Servant of God. This places him on the path to sainthood – a long road, but he’s on it! The first step in the process will judge if Mr Duff’s life was one of heroic sanctity. ‘Favourable and unfavourable witnesses have to be interviewed and questioned under oath and his writings will have to be examined by theologians to check their fidelity to the faith and the moral teaching of the Church.’ During Frank Duff’s funeral Mass I managed to peel a hairline splinter of timber from the coffin as it rested alongside me. I kept it for years in my rosary purse until it faded away. Words from my then spiritual director often come back – ‘Everyone can be a saint …’