Frank Duff Involved People in Life of Church

Founder of Legion of Mary Remembered in Homily at Knock Shrine

Life of Church
Frank Duff - Legion of Mary, Ireland

“Frank Duff’s approach allowed him to involve people in the life of the Church in ways that were never done before.  We have much to learn from this” – Bishop Paul Dempsey

Those were the words of Bishop Paul Dempsy of Achonry in his September 26, 2021, homily or Mass celebrating the centenary of the Legion of Mary in the Basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland, Knock Shrine, Archdiocese of Tuam.


It is about 30 years ago when I was a seminarian and worked for a number of weeks in the Morning Star Hostel in Dublin, the hostel that serves the needs of homeless men.  It was there that I saw the spirituality of the Legion of Mary in action.  I participated in the daily tasks of serving meals, changing beds, mopping floors, and cleaning toilets.  The day was punctuated with moments of prayer, especially the rosary, reminding me that these menial tasks were all part of a bigger picture of service, directly in line with the Gospel call of Jesus to serve one another.  But there was another critical part of my time in the Morning Star and that was meeting the residents.  We hear of “the homeless” but we must never forget that “the homeless” is made up of individual people with life stories.  During my time there I had the privilege of hearing many of those life stories.  There were stories of pain, loss, loneliness, addiction, family breakup.  As I look back on the time I spent there I realize that the Legion, through its service of those in the hostel, was not only providing for the residents’ physical needs such as food and shelter, symbolized in the Gospel today as giving of a cup of water, the Legion was also providing a space for the residents’ stories to be heard, affording them the dignity and respect we are all entitled to as persons made in the image and likeness of God.  During my time there, I met members of the Legion who were committed to their faith and lived that faith in a profound way.  Today, as we celebrate the Centenary here in Knock, I give thanks for their witness and fidelity.

It was in that context of faith that Frank Duff gathered that small group of people around him in Dublin one hundred years ago.  He had a vision of lay participation in the life and mission of the Church.  Their role was to evangelize and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ under the protection of Our Lady.  They never could have realized on that first evening how that mission would grow and flourish over the following decades and reach the four corners of the globe.  Faith and trust were placed in the Lord and rest followed.  Frank Duff was laying the foundations and setting up a model for what was to become one of the central themes of the Second Vatican Council, that of lay participation in the life and mission of the Church, something we still have to fully realize in the life of the Church today.

As we celebrate the centenary of the Legion of Mary, I have been reflecting on what Frank Duff can teach us today in the Church as we grapple with many challenges in a changed and changing society.  What has emerged for me in this reflection are three central aspects of his life and ministry which offer us helpful pointers in the context we find ourselves today.

Firstly, Frank Duff was a man of discernment and in order to have a discerning heart, one must have a prayerful heart.  I do not believe that Frank Duff came up with the idea of the Legion in the blink of an eye.  He must have prayed and discerned where God was calling him.  That takes time, that takes faith, that takes trust.  Out of his prayerful discerning heart, the idea emerged to gather that small group together and the seeds of the Legion were sown.  Frank sowed the seeds, the Lord helped them to flourish.  That sense of discernment is critical today.  There’s a lot going on in the Church, it is easy to get somewhat lost in it all.  It is critical for us to have prayerful, discerning hearts.  This is central in Pope Francis’ ministry, and it will be central to the Synodal journey we are beginning in Ireland.  It is not about what we want, it is about what the Lord wants for His Church.  Frank Duff knew that.  He has a lot to teach us about that today.

Secondly, Frank Duff saw himself simply as an instrument in the Lord’s mission.  It was not his mission it was the Lord’s.  Sometimes I wonder if we think the Church is totally dependent on us.  We might find ourselves under the illusion that we are the ones in charge, we are not!  The Lord is in charge, we are only instruments that fit into his plan.  I hear a lot of pessimism about the Church at times, I am sure you have heard it too, maybe even participated in it; we hear constantly of how the numbers going to Mass have fallen, our connection with young people has weakened, the vocations crisis in Ireland is acute, the list goes on.  We sometimes think we are in the worst place the Church has ever been.  I am not naïve, I know we face major challenges, but so did Frank Duff.  When you think about the Ireland he set up the Legion in it was a divided nation, families were divided, the poverty was rife.  In the midst of this he got on with the mission, he was the instrument in the Lord’s hands, the Lord did the rest.  We have so much to learn from this.  Yes, we have challenges, yes, we have problems, but let us remember – as Saint Oscar Romero put it so clearly – “we are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.”  Saint Mother Teresa echoed this when she said the Lord calls us, “not to be successful, but to be faithful.”

Thirdly, at the heart of Frank Duff’s ministry was a sense of unity.  He wanted people in the Legion to be united in their call and mission.  There was no room for division.  This is critical and is critical in the Church today.  We get a clear message from Jesus in the Gospel today about this.  John sees someone whom he says is not one of them casting out devils and he wants to stop him.  But Jesus sees it differently.  Jesus says no, do not stop him for anyone who is not against us is for us.  In other words, John was rigid in his outlook, he was not open, his mind was closed, he lacked tolerance and imagination.  Jesus challenged this attitude, He encouraged a more open approach and encouraged John to see the situation differently.  This is a very powerful message.

One worrying trend emerging in the Church today is a sense of disunity.  There are polarised views.  Some in the Church want us to go back to the way things were decades, and in some cases centuries ago.  Others want the Church to change its Tradition and adapt its outlook in ways that it has never done before.  Some in the Church are openly critical of the present Pope whereas they decried any criticism of previous popes.  Pope Francis referred to this himself last week mentioning a large Television Network that constantly speaks ill of him.  I think if Frank Duff was to appear today, he would be appalled at such attitudes in the Church.  Frank Duff respected the rich tradition of the Church, but he was not rigid about it, he was open to doing new and radical things in an imaginative way.  In other words, he had a balanced approach that allowed him to involve people in the life of the Church in ways that were never done before.

We have much to learn from this.  We have such a rich tradition in the life of the Church that is so beautiful, but we must also be open to doing things in new ways with discerning hearts to allow new possibilities to emerge that in the past seemed impossible.  Pope Francis reminds us, ‘Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops.’  We need to be honest and examine our approach in the light of this.  Are we rigid, are we closed, are we lacking in tolerance like John, or do we see the bigger picture and are open to new possibilities like Jesus?  However, there is one encouraging aspect to all of this.  Despite the different approaches and emphasizes in the Church today under the broad headings of the conservative or liberal, the positive point is that we are unified in our love for the Church in its mission of proclaiming the Gospel.  Surely this is something positive and is a good place to focus.  We do not all have to agree, unity does not mean uniformity.  There is room for us all in the family that is the Church, we are called into communion!  So let us face these important questions together especially as we walk the synodal path.

As we celebrate the centenary of the Legion of Mary here in Knock, we are aware of the closeness of Frank Duff to Our Lady.  May Our Lady, that true disciple of Jesus, guide us to follow the example of Frank Duff.  That example is one of prayerful discernment, awareness that we are ministers, not messiahs, and that we are called to unity, not uniformity.