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The century’s greatest Irishman unveiled

A prayer card featuring Frank Duff

This year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Legion of Mary, a lay apostolate whose members – “legionaries” – actively commit themselves to the spiritual welfare of their neighbours. Begun in Dublin in 1921 by a group of like-minded friends who were already involved with the Society of St Vincent de Paul and in helping alcoholics through the Pioneer movement, it was a civil servant, Frank Duff, who formed it into its distinctive apostolic endeavour.

To commemorate the anniversary Dr Finola Kennedy, a lecturer at University College Dublin, has written a new biography of Duff. Duff himself always avoided publicity, maintaining that Our Lady was the real founder of the Legion. Others might observe that she made a wise choice of her human instrument. Duff brought all the analytical skills he employed in his professional life, together with a deep and original spirituality, to the organisation and spreading of the Legion.

Four decades after that auspicious Dublin meeting, and after many struggles to convince the suspicious Irish clergy that a dedicated laity was there to support rather than undermine them, his prophetic understanding of the role of the laity received rightful recognition when he was given a standing ovation from the assembled bishops at the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council on September 14 1965. Duff was attending as an auditor and Dr Kennedy writes that it was an unforgettable moment: “The thanks of the Universal Church to the pioneer of the lay apostolate.”

She tells me she was asked twice by Fr Bede McGregor OP, postulator of Duff’s Cause, before she agreed to embark on the biography.

“My husband warned me not to touch it,” she laughs. “He said it would wear me out.”

The project took four years and involved digesting a mass of material. Duff chose not to travel the world in establishing the Legion overseas. He preferred to stay quietly in Dublin, formulating the spirit of his apostolate in the Legion’s handbook and dealing with its affairs through a prodigious amount of correspondence, keeping drafts of everything he wrote. According to Dr Kennedy he often said: “Never believe others can’t do something well or better than yourself.” He had great faith in ordinary people. Indeed, as his biographer emphasises, he believed that faith inspires ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

What would Duff have made of Ireland today, with its few vocations, scandals of abuse and high levels of lapsation? Dr Kennedy says he would not have been surprised, reminding me that as early as 1948 he had written insightfully: “An inert laity is only two generations removed from non-practice. Non-practice is only two generations away from non-belief.” In the 1950s Duff had said that “in Ireland we were thrown back on a caricature of Christianity”.

What would be his remedy for the present situation? She replies: “It would centre on everyone playing their part, utilising Legion membership as a catalyst where possible.” So what had made Duff, raised in the over-clerical atmosphere of early 20th century Ireland, recognise the importance of a committed lay apostolate?
“A friend had given him St Louis de Montfort’s work on the rosary and devotion to Mary. He read it half a dozen times before understanding ‘the book was true’. Through de Montfort he came to see the crucial role of Our Lady in salvation history. He always attributed the success of the Legion to her motherly guidance.”

I mention that the late Pope John Paul II was similarly influenced by St Louis de Montfort, taking the saint’s motto “Totus Tuus” for his own. Dr Kennedy has utilised it as her motto in her book. “It seemed appropriate,” she says. Duff, she points out, was “also attracted to the writings of John Henry Newman, not only regarding the role of the laity in the Church, but also regarding the role of Mary. His confessor, Fr Michael Browne SJ, was steeped in Newman.”

Like Newman, she tells me, “he understood that knowledge is not the same as virtue and the imparting of knowledge to the laity is distinct from the creation of an apostolic laity,” Duff had strong words for the results of this misguided policy: “We have been pouring knowledge into children in Ireland and it has only come out as Dead Sea fruit to an alarming extent.”

What most impressed her about Duff’s personality when she was writing her biography?

“That he took quite literally the injunction that what we do to another person we do to Christ.” For him the phrase “the Mystical Body” was not just a theological concept; it meant that every member of the Church has a vital role to perform in building it up. When starting the Legion he had been highly influenced by an uneducated cobbler, Joseph Gabbett, who was rescuing alcoholics. “Duff learnt from him what it meant to be apostolic.” I am reminded again of John Paul II who, as a student, had been encouraged by a tailor in Kraków to study St John of the Cross.

I tell Dr Kennedy that reading her book I was struck by Duff’s original response to the social ills of Dublin, which he described as “one gigantic tenement district”. The early work of the Legion centred on helping prostitutes to leave the streets. Duff also challenged other prejudices of those times, establishing a hostel to enable unmarried mothers bond with and raise their children.

I remark that I was impressed to read that he had strenuously opposed “shovelling” illegitimate children into Ireland’s industrial schools. Now universally condemned, they were then thought of as the rightly punitive solution to a social and moral disorder. She agrees, adding that his practical compassion extended to another ostracised group, the homosexual community. Persecuted by the police and debarred from normal social outlets, Duff arranged a welcoming venue where they could socialise without fear. “This was an amazing thing to do in those days,” she comments.

What kind of work does the Legion engage in today? Dr Kennedy says legionaries still visit homes and hospitals and engage in parish activities. Their hostel work for the marginalised also continues, as does their work with prostitutes. But was the Legion, with its emphasis on the power of the rosary and devotion to Our Lady, not considered rather old-fashioned after Vatican II?

“It declined among those who saw it as old-fashioned, but it also bloomed among those who recognised it as providing a mechanism to turn Vatican II into a reality.”

Despite her initial reluctance to undertake the biography Dr Kennedy sees a “providential thread” in her acceptance. “Frank Duff was my godfather,” she tells me. So what are her personal memories of him? She laughs again. “He would never fudge the truth. When I once complained to him about the demands of my young family [she has six children] he told me: ‘Life isn’t a holiday excursion, you know.’”

She adds: “When he was talking to you, you were the only person who mattered”, and describes once glimpsing Duff at a crowded funeral, sitting in an obscure corner with a boy who had hydrocephalus and cupping his ear to catch what the child said, quite oblivious to everyone else.

Today the Legion of Mary has over four million active members and 10 million auxiliary members in over 170 countries, still following their founder’s counsel that “we are all called to be saints”.

At Frank Duff’s funeral on November 7 1980 there were three archbishops, 10 bishops and 35 priests. The chief concelebrant, Cardinal O’Fiaich, described Duff as “a man of personal charm, self-effacing modesty, absolute integrity and unshakeable courage”. He also called Duff “the Irishman of the century”.

The Cause of this unassuming man, who dressed in the sober suit of a civil servant, yet who had personally met five popes, is well-established. Dr Kennedy’s insightful testimony will, I hope, give it extra impetus. She tells me that her abiding memory of her godfather is once noticing him at an important function in Dublin’s pro-cathedral. He was sitting unobserved in the back pews and she asked him why he was not at the front with the other luminaries: “I’m happier down here,” he replied simply. The words of the Gospel come into my mind: “Those who are last will be first…”

Frank Duff: a Life Story by Finola Kennedy, is published by Continuum, priced £14.99