Frank Duff - Biography

The following is a review of the latest book on the life of the founder of the Legion of Mary - Frank Duff, published recently. This article also features in the Legion of Mary Christmas newsletter sent to Cobh parishioners now living abroad.

Cobh, December 2011

Dear friends,

We wish you the blessings of the season of Advent as we anticipate the season of Christmas 2011.

In the coming year 2012 we eagerly await the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, which will be forever etched into the history and consciousness of Cobh, and which will no doubt receive widespread international publicity in April.
As we look back on 2011, however, significant milestones were also commemorated. This past year marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the voluntary lay organisation, the Legion of Mary, by the Dublin man, Frank Duff on September 7th, 1921. A new book on his life and mission has recently been published by Continuum Books, entitled ‘Frank Duff, A life Story’ by Finola Kennedy (see picture). While it is true to say that ‘a prophet is never recognised in his own country’, at his death in 1980, Frank Duff was described by then Cardinal Tomás O Fiaich as the ‘Irishman of the century’.

The new book is a thoroughly enlightening and well-researched book, helped by the fact that Duff’s 30,000 letters have now been painstakingly digitally formatted and catalogued - a work of three years - making research all that easier. Unlike previous biographies, this one puts flesh and blood on the man and his work, without the pious gloss to be found in other previous biographies. You can read how Frank was an outstanding public servant and his grievances at being overlooked for promotion to which he was entitled, to his concern for the financial well-being of his family, his familiarity with Michael Collins and WT Cosgrave, as well as many of the leading lights in the emerging Free State.

Frank Duff was a man ahead of his times. His concern for the poor shines through. His early membership of the St Vincent de Paul Society led to his concern for the spiritual welfare of those being proselytised by soup kitchens. He was prophetic, when at the very first meeting on that night in September 1921, he said to the ladies present that their gathering would be the template for a worldwide organisation. At present in 2011, the Legion boasts 4 million active members and 10 million auxiliary members worldwide in 170 countries. No other Irish organisation of any kind can make the claims of the Legion for its universal acceptance within decades of its foundation.

A pivotal event in the spread of the Legion after a quiet decade in the 1920s was the International Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin in 1932. The 80th anniversary of this event is of course being marked by another Congress- the 50th of the kind - in Dublin in June 2012. It was in that year of 1932 that the word of the Legion spread from Dublin through contacts made at the Congress to many mission lands and within a short few years the Legion grew with dazzling speed at the behest of Irish missionaries, through Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many Chinese Legionaries were imprisoned or executed in the 1940s and 1950s for their persistence in Legion membership, and their refusal to renounce their Catholic faith.

The work of the Legion could be summed up as the performing of the spiritual works of mercy under the banner of Mary, ‘so that’, in the words of the Legion Standing Instruction, ‘the person of Our Lord is once again seen and served by Mary, His Mother.’ The Legion is a highly stylised organisation, whose hierarchical structure is modelled on the Roman Legion. It stresses efficiency and unity of purpose as the hallmarks of its organisation. The attendance at a weekly meeting, lasting no longer than 1½ hours and the striving towards performance of heroic apostolic work for 2 hours each week, are the two defining characteristics of the life of the member, who is known as a ‘legionary’. But behind the ‘body’ of work and meeting, is the soul-work, that is the sanctification of every member, to imitate the humble servant that Mary also was, to place one’s talents at Her service, and at the service of Her Son, to bring the wayward back to the right path, and to strengthen the faith of those in the fold.

The Legion has been variously criticised in certain quarters for its high level of organisation, with the jibe of ‘inflexibility’, or that its spirituality in its Legion Handbook is eccentric and ‘excessively Marian’, or that its members lack a certain sophistication in theological matters. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Legion members work in a master-and-apprentice system, and learn by doing. Frank Duff’s philosophy was one of Christianity with its ‘sleeves-rolled-up’. Furthermore, the astonishing success in so short a time meant that the Legion of Mary was an idea ‘whose time had come’. It was firmly established before the Church, in its official documents caught up, 40 years after Frank Duff, on the idea that the Church exists to be missionary by its very nature, and that by virtue of baptism every Catholic is called to be apostolic. Frank always believed that no matter what one’s background, anyone could become a member of the Legion, and from the beginning Legion membership miraculously circumvented any clash of social background, race, colour or caste.

Legion work is courageous and challenging. Frank and his early fellow-legionaries overcame obstacles ‘where angels feared to tread’ and successfully closed down a well-established red-light district in Dublin known as the ‘Monto’, with many girls trapped in prostitution, finding a new life, and in most instances, new careers and marriage, and ultimately with their dignity and self-respect restored to them. With sheer tenacity and firmness of vision and faith the early Legion challenged and continue to see the solution to many social problems at their previously overlooked spiritual roots. From the outset some Dublin diocesan clergy were appalled at the apostolic work of lay people and felt undermined in their understanding of what constituted acceptable respective roles of clergy and lay faithful.

Frank Duff was also head of his time in ecumenical matters organising gatherings with prominent Protestants and Jews, which were graciously received by those faiths. He was castigated by the formidable Dublin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid for this at the time, who also gave Frank a hard time in delaying to give the Imprimatur to the second edition of the handbook, hampering the work of the Legion worldwide where new translations and printings were urgently needed.

Duff was not afraid to tackle the most distressing social problems, with the setting up of hostels for homeless men and women. He was prescient in condemning the practises in Magdalene laundries and other work-houses, and opposed the separation of unwed mothers from their children.

If you want a cracking read for Christmas, then I heartily recommend
‘Frank Duff, A life Story’ by Finola Kennedy, Available online for €10 from
Happy Christmas 2011, Fr John McCarthy CC Cobh Parish
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