Frank Duff and a centenary well worth celebrating

We have marked a fair few milestones in 100 years of modern Irish history these last few years. From the 1918 Elections to military repression – from Treaties to partition – to be followed by the whole tragic narrative of the Civil War. The tidal rush towards establishing a sovereign, independent Ireland that would enable our destiny, to make a unique contribution to the governance of the nations of the world. Well, recent history has put that on hold.

In the midst of this remembrance of revolution and war, of momentous global events foretold by Our Blessed Lady at Fatima in 1917 – in the Dublin of ‘Strumpet City, of seething politics and cultural upheaval across the Island – a few individuals stand the test of time. They stand out as counter- cultural, while living out, and leaving behind them, an enduring legacy for good.

On September 7th 2021 we celebrate the foundation of the Legion of Mary, the life work of Frank Duff who, with a few sound women, founded a wholly unique global force for good. It is a pivotal centenary for Ireland, and for many countries particularly in the developing world.

Our jaded culture judges the importance of individuals by the ‘noise’ they make, their wealth, status and column inches in the media. That passes – and very quickly. It is no measure of the calibre of their legacy or how they have helped build up the lives of others.

The Legion of Mary is a lay apostolic community, at the service of the Church. It now has about 4 million active members in over 170 countries – there is nothing close to that in any other organisation in Ireland. A multiple of that number support its work. Below the radar, its work of visitation and evangelisation goes on, after week after week – so does it’s pioneering faith-driven social work:  a leaven for great good at a time when faith, and the celebration of our faith, is under systemic attack.

Frank Duff was born in 1889 in a solid and supportive family of seven. Fionnuala Kennedy’s superb biography – ” Frank Duff : a Life Story” – provides a fascinating insight into his family background, his siblings and his early life. You know yourself, the growing family, education – the different paths for expressing, and living out, faith and taking responsibility. Frank was close to his family. The importance of formation of children cannot be overstated, precisely so that each one becomes the unique and unrepeatable individuals created in the image of God.

Frank Duff’s life work straddled much of  20th century Ireland. His life and legacy continues to light up our own quietly. He was respected by Popes, by Presidents and politicians . None of that ever impressed, or deflected him, though it certainly helped the work to which he was committed. It was a by-product of what is the most important reality : the eternal dimension of a life well lived. That is at the heart of what Christianity offers to the world. It’s only when we look at the inequalities in our world of ‘trillions’, at the devastation of lives claimed by the pandemic–and, the unbearably hard part of people going home to God without  the consolation of family and Priest–that the eternal dimension of our lives becomes more than just words. Our medics, nursing and allied health professionals have that instinctual understanding, notwithstanding our bleak political culture. Frank Duff was motivated by this eternal dimension.

He knew the granular details of the lives of ordinary men and women. He was a man rooted in the practicalities of day to day living, the all too obvious struggles of parents and  children, single people and single mothers. Yet he had this extraordinary vision of what people, all of us, are capable of with the right leadership.

The lack of authentic ‘Leadership’  is something that speaks to today’s Ireland. We are beset by fears, uncertainties about tomorrow and a sense of loss – and of something missing, and exiled. Faith, through which we have an intuition something lost, is being exiled. And our society, our country, is losing out.

Leadership has been well defined as  “humility, with fierce resolve”. Leadership is lived, not preached or taught. To me, the single greatest example of Frank Duff’s counter-cultural leadership was the trust he invested in a galaxy of young women embarking as ‘Legion Envoys’ to three continents in the 1930/ 40’s. There were, of course, young men as well, like Alfie Lamb, commissioned to South America. These were seriously hazardous assignments, especially in those times. Frank Duff backed them up to the hilt. This was as far removed from todays ‘politics of empowerment’ as you can get. Those women were coming from a different place, and their legacy to the countries to which they went was transformational.

Foremost was Edel Quinn; a bright and attractive young woman who had been hospitalised with TB in Newtownmountkennedy. Edel was a young woman with lots of options. She chose to commit her life to Our Blessed Lady through work of the Legion. In her short life – she died in Nairobi in 1944 – she accomplished more, and made a greater impact on the people of African countries, than any Ambassador before or since. Fionnuala Kennedy quotes from her final and very moving letter to Frank Duff, as she sailed out from Dublin, knowing there would be no coming back: “I would like you to remember always, whatever happens, that you gave me the opportunity of going. I realise it is a privilege and also that only you persisted I, personally, would never have been sent. I am glad you let me go. Others will be glad later.” See what I mean?

The Legion of Mary was the means through which Frank Duff and the Legion reached out to the ‘hole in the soul’ of Ireland at the time. These included the devastating problems of women in prostitution in Dublin’s inner city. Way ahead of his time, he gave them respect. For those with children, he provided accommodation so that they could build a worthwhile independent life. He founded the Morning Star Hostel for homeless men. It’s home to the residents and its a pretty humbling place to visit: stability, order, purpose – all of it hinged on prayer, lighting up the lives of residents and volunteers.

Frank Duff saw right through  state policy at that time of pushing young lads into so-called “Industrial Schools”. He saw that kids who had already little going for them deserved better than that – and told the Government so, in no uncertain terms.

To define all this, and more, as “Social Justice” misses the mark.  Frank Duff didn’t do vague aspirational stuff. When he talked about ‘Social Justice’ it was firmly  tethered to the Gospel mission to our ‘neighbours’, on the margins. The Legion takes seriously the instruction of Christ to “seek first the Kingdom of God, and all things will be given to you”.  Part of the genius of Frank Duff was to understand that the two are inextricably bound up.

Its a funny thing about contemporary Ireland, the absence of any Government acknowledgement of just how vital a part prayer plays in our lives and in the heartbeat of the nation. The closure of our Churches and at the cancellation of First Holy Communion and Confirmation, with all that this means to children and extended families and the renewal of the country, is the single most obvious indicator of a country ill at ease with its shiny ‘new’ secular identify.

There are men and women who live out service to others quietly and anonymously. The Legion does it quietly and anonymously too, but in the strength of ‘Community’, looking to “reassemble without the loss of any one” in the world to come.

Frank Duff’s vision went wider still. He saw its apostolic works, embracing every facet of national life including innovative economics and regeneration. He did not do politics. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s right down to today when one might have expected the Legion to campaign on the big social issues, they chose a different way to witness to these same values. The reasoning I guess is that when individual people are more aware of their own Christian vocation, they bring that same transformation into their politics and into the life of the nation. Respect to those politicians who have the courage to do so today, outside of the tyranny of the ‘ mainstream’. Frank Duff had very insightful and innovative ideas on ‘practical patriotism’, he was, of course, dead right in describing patriotism as a practical matter. In working through his economic initiatives for this practical patriotism, with all the rigour you might expect of a former senior civil servant, Frank Duff steered clear of the shallows of both of politics and of the dangers of conflating nationalism with the institutional church. He lived out the mission of the Legion, set out in his greatest legacy, the ‘Handbook’ of the Legion of Mary. A stunningly insightful template for life and living that parallels, and reinforces, the great Jordan Peterson’s Rules of Life.

There is so much to celebrate about the centenary of the founding of the Legion of Mary, in Dublin on September 7. There will be lots of members visiting Dublin and the places where the great work began. There will be Masses and prayers for those back home in Africa and across the world and for the work of the Legion into the future.

A world-wide Novena begins on August 5th, culminating on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated by Christians across the world on September 8th. It’s a centenary worth celebrating.

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