Homily of Archbishop Dermot Farrell at the Mass for the Centenary of the Foundation of the Legion of Mary
Church of St Nicholas of Myra, Francis Street,
Friday, 3rd September 2021
I am delighted to celebrate this Mass to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Legion of Mary, here in Dublin, by Frank Duff on 7th September 1921. Little was it realised at the time that the small group that he founded would spread its wings all over the world. The Legion of Mary grew out of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Frank Duff saw the need within the need. His vision was to offer concrete ways for Catholic laypeople to live out the gospel of Jesus, its call and its mission in the contemporary world, supported by prayer, friendship, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, under the patronage and protection of the Mary, who herself had been so open to the message of the angel, that Word who took flesh in her. Of course, Frank Duff saw that this could not happen in a vacuum. Consequently, the purpose of the Legion of Mary is twofold: the spiritual growth and development of its members, and the witness to and service of the kingdom of God.
It was an apostolate that grew phenomenally after its foundation, helped in no small way the conviction and zeal of its earliest members, and the Legion’s profile in the Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin in 1932, a mere decade after its foundation. There was a wonderful idealism in Frank Duff which prevented him from being blown off course, despite persistent opposition he experienced from ecclesiastical authority.
Frank Duff, a man ahead of this time, could be described as prophetic in the true Christian sense of that word: someone sensitive to the call of God and utterly dedicated to God’s will (see Luke 1:38). He translated his prophetic perspective of the universal call to holiness into a vibrant lay movement. Looking at the history of the Legion one can see how closely it mirrored Saint Luke’s portrait of the call of Mary—the Annunciation—which is first and foremost God’s call of a prophet (see Luke 1:26–38).
The meeting between Mary and the Angel of the Lord as recounted by St Luke is very real and in the form of a frank dialogue. Faith is built on dialogue and grows through dialogue. Listen to Mary and her son in this evening’s Gospel: there is dialogue and maybe not the easiest of dialogues. Like Mary throughout the gospels, Frank Duff entrusted himself to the word of God and let himself be led by God’s call. He was willing to cooperate with the divine will, although he in no way knew its contours or deepest purposes. In imitation of Mary at the time of the Annunciation, he declared himself the “servant” of the Lord. He spoke his “yes”, and without that “yes” it is unlikely we would be celebrating today. In order to act through us, God almost always needs our human response. In this way the mystery and power of God takes flesh in us again and again. If Frank Duff did great things, was it not the Lord who had done them for him? (see Luke 1:49).
In the dialogue with God, Mary expressed her surprise, fears and doubts. “How can this be?” But she heard the voice of God who told her, “do not be afraid.” Frank Duff encountered great opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. He was not distraught by or angry at the lack of response from some ecclesiastical authorities. He was received by Pope Pius XI and his Secretary of State Pacelli before being received by his own Archbishop. He was received by Archbishop Byrne eight years after he first sought an appointment! While Frank Duff spoke candidly and he persevered, which are key elements of the Christian way of life, he was not inhibited, impatient or negative regarding the prevarication.
In her dialogue with God’s angel—which is actually a window into her prayer (and ours)—she is given and welcomes God’s promise, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”, Mary entrusts herself to His word, and says her yes. Likewise, Frank Duff abandoned himself to the Lord, and took a step forward with his initiative. He trusted that the Lord was with the Legion as its story unfolded.
The fourth stage in the annunciation story is the embrace of the mission “Behold, the Servant of the Lord.” Mary, like her Son, takes up the call and mission of God’s prophet. Frank Duff took up the same call to evangelise and to witness to the Kingdom of God, that is to say, a body formed by those who participate in him, who share his relationship to the Father. Frank Duff discovered in the encounter with God that his life was to be at the service of a larger project, to become a servant in the development of the future God offers to all his creatures.
He perceived the need on two levels: that of spirituality and the loving care that is shown to those on the margins of society. This prophetic sign of a great humanity and the spiritual dimension are inseparable. “By loving your neighbour you gain the sight of God; by loving your neighbour you purify your eye for seeing God” (St Augustine, Treatise on St John, 17, 8). We see the same care in the compassionate request of Mary to Jesus in this evening’s gospel: “They have no wine.” (John 2:3).
The charitable dimension had to be addressed at the level of the heart. The organ for seeing God is the heart. The Church’s charitable work is guided by faith, that is by trust in God and what God is doing. This is much more than an ideology or some vague project aimed at improving the world (see Deus Caritas Est, 33). Unlike worldly stratagems, the Legion cannot aim at solving all problems but must trust in the way of Jesus, in prayer which sustains us in our service of others (see Deus Caritas Est, 36). It was the love urging him on (see 2 Cor 5:14), a love nourished by an encounter with Christ, enlivened by Mary’s faith, deepened by prayer, that taught Frank Duff to do what he could and rely on God for the rest.
The Legion of Mary is a lay apostolic movement at the service of the Church. The theology and spirituality of the Legion centres around the idea of Mary as Mediatrix of All Graces. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a laywoman and his first disciple. In Mary, we can see that at the centre of Christianity there are not merely ideas, but lives, real lives. Everything about her reminds us that God’s heart is close to the poor, the weary and the oppressed. Like her son, she embodies the mission of the Church: to bring us home to the God who is already with us.
The heart of the spirituality of the Legion of Mary lies the conviction that the Christian is baptized into this mission of the Church. The core values of the Legion draw their inspiration from the mystical body—that we are all one in Christ, the trust that is the faith of Mary, that all are called to live a life in the Holy Spirit, and what we might term today a faith that is proactive.
Like John the Baptist—the one who prepared the way of the Lord—Frank Duff realized, ahead of his contemporaries that every Christian is called to the apostolic dimension of our faith. It was only with the Second Vatican Council that the laity began to regain their rightful place in the Church. From its foundation in 1921 the Legion was carrying out the mission of the Church as was proposed by the Second Vatican Council. That vision and its energy has also come at a price: precisely, because it was ahead of its time in so many ways, and because it could welcome the Council’s engagement with the world in so many ways, it frequently left itself off the hook for the ongoing need for aggiornamento and renewal that have become vital in the 65 years since the Second Vatican Council. The vision of Pope Saint John XXIII, Pope Saint Paul VI, Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis calls us to the constant and ongoing renewal of the Church and its structures. This is difficult work, but it is vital if we are to proclaim the gospel in an ever-changing and increasingly fragile world.
Across the developing world, the Legion was significant in organizing the apostolate of the laity, particularly in the early twentieth century. This was the case in Africa—and we remember the gentle witness of Edel Quinn; it played a crucial role in the Columban mission to China—providing a natural extension of that mission, with Legionaries bringing dynamism and dedication of the rapidly growing Church in China. Many of them endured persecution and imprisonment. That zeal for the gospel must always burn at the heart of the Church. The living and animated faith for which you pray in the Catena is the heart of an engaged and committed discipleship. Is it not also at the heart of the deeper vocation to religious life in all its forms?
In a world that is often hostile to the values and vision proclaimed Christ: in particular, concern for the little ones, and their hope and dignity, the Legion Apostolate continues to be relevant as a necessary tool for evangelization. Those who have never heard of the living Christ are told of him, the sick are consoled, those who have lapsed are encouraged. From Mary, the Church—all the baptized—learn the compassion, tenderness, and the care that every person desires. As Pope Francis indicates at the end of Evangelii Gaudium, “There is a Marian ‘style’ to the Church’s work of evangelisation. Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again” ((§288).
The Legion of Mary in Dublin still has a strength about it that it may not have in other parts of Ireland. Why? Because from the start the Legion in Dublin tackled serious social and pastoral problems which other groups shied away from. They had an apostolate to prostitutes, for instance and set up the Morning Star hostel for the homeless. In contemporary Ireland, the apostolic work of Legionaries can have formidable consequences—if lived with authenticity, gentleness, and courage—at the social, political, cultural and economic levels. The values of the gospel are not just ideas; they are radical actions on behalf of the poor, the homeless and the refugees and migrants.
As anyone who is pastorally engaged knows, we live in a rapidly changing world, and in a pastoral and ecclesial situation that changes before our eyes. We cannot evangelise the past; we can only bring the Good News of Christ to our today and our tomorrow. This is the perennial mission of the Church. As long ago as 1943, in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII put it like this:
Let bishops favour and support those pious associations whose aim it is to distribute copies of the Scriptures, especially of the Gospels, among the faithful, and to procure by every means that in Christian families the Scriptures be read with piety and devotion. (§26)
His call that the word—to which Mary responded—be made available to all the Church still rings out today. It was taken up by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum, and by Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini. If the Legion wants to continue to evangelise in this new time, might it not embrace this call which is so much at heart of the Church’s mission? It can be done by promoting Scripture study groups, by praying with Scripture, by Lectio Divina, and in so many other ways. Perhaps it is here that Legionaries from Milan, or from across South American have so much to offer. What a wonderful return that would be for the work of Alfie Lambe: “They go out, they go out full of tears carrying seed for the sowing: they come back, they come back, full of song carrying their sheaves” as it says in the Psalm (126:6). As Pope Pius suggested, might you give families a copy of one of the Gospels and support people in reading and praying the word.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540–604) who became pope on this day in 590. An extraordinary pastor and teacher of the faith, he would still say, “many things in the Sacred Writings, which I was unable to understand on my own, I came to grasp while in the presence of my brothers and sisters” [In Ezechielem, II, 2, 1. (PL 76, 948–949)]. What better gift (see 1 Cor 12:4–11) might the Legion of the 21st century give to the Church than this service of God’s word, the Word which took flesh in Mary, the Word who is our life and who brings new life—our daily bread.