FRANK DUFF: A Life Story
by Finola Kennedy
(Continuum, 2011, 288 pages, $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-44116-747-7. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Finola Kennedy has written a very absorbing book on Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, a figure whose significance and importance for the modern Church have not been sufficiently realised.
This is a very thorough biography, detailing in 25 chapters all aspects of Frank Duff's life, from his schooling to his long period of work as a civil servant, as well as his work in founding the Legion and the various apostolates which grew out of that involvement, including the Sancta Maria hostel for reformed prostitutes, and the Morning Star and Regina Caeli Hostels for homeless men and women respectively.
He was born in 1889, in Dublin, to parents who were civil servants, and showed early signs of a keen intellect. He attended the prestigious Blackrock College and then joined the Civil Service himself in 1908. He had wanted to go to university, but his father's ill health meant he had to become the family breadwinner.
In 1914 he joined the St Vincent de Paul Society and this was one of the formative influences regarding the approach he later adopted with the Legion of Mary. His membership of the SVP brought him face to face with the grinding poverty in the Dublin of that time and opened his eyes to the importance of Catholic social teaching.
In 1916, aged 27, he wrote a booklet entitled, Can we be Saints?, in which he expressed his belief that all Catholics are called to holiness, and the next year he came into contact with the Marian teaching of St Louis de Montfort in his True Devotion to Mary [available from Freedom Publishing]. This had a profound influence on him, to the extent that it changed the entire course of his life and led to the founding of the Legion in 1921.
Reflecting on the origins of the Legion in later life, Frank Duff saw its beginnings and growth as providential, and regarded the Blessed Virgin as its real founder in the sense that he was her instrument. The role of the priest in the Legion was central for Duff, who saw the need for a spiritual director for the basic Legionary unit, the Praesidium.
As Finola Kennedy shows in a number of chapters, his path after the founding of the Legion was far from easy, and he was actually marginalised for decades by the Dublin diocesan authorities. His view of the role of the laity was far in advance of what many in the Church were prepared to accept at the time, but he was vindicated by the teaching of Vatican II.
Amazingly, he was able to see Pius XI in Rome, in 1931, and explain the Legion to him, before he had even been granted an interview by his own bishop in Dublin!
Duff's basic idea for the Legion was to have a group of people, the Praesdium, under a priest as spiritual director, who would meet weekly and be given various good works to perform, with the proviso that they would have to report on those works at the next meeting.
The Legion of Mary began in Australia in 1932 and a network of praesidia developed quickly. This had followed the visit of Henry Bakker, parish priest of Ascot Vale, Victoria, to the Dublin International Eucharistic Congress in 1932. Here Fr Bakker met Frank Duff who explained the Legion system to him.
On his return to Melbourne he approached Archbishop Mannix and asked for permission to start a Legion branch in his own parish, which was given. By July 1944 there were over 600 branches of the Legion in Australia and New Zealand, with an active membership of over 5,000 and an auxiliary membership of 35,000.
The Legion would revitalise the Church in the Philippines, while there were to be many Legion martyrs in China when the communists came to power. The Legion also spread rapidly in Africa and South America, following the work of Edel Quinn and Alfie Lambe, who were sent as envoys to those continents.
Frank Duff was a visionary in the best sense of the word. Decades before Vatican II, he had laid out the essential point that the laity have a crucial role in building up the Church, the Body of Christ. He criticised a focus on an "individualistic" Christianity at the expense of a wider concern for one's neighbors.
In the 1950s, when to the outside observer, all might have seemed well in "Catholic" Ireland, Duff was realistic enough to see that this was mainly a matter of routine and lacked sufficiently deep roots. Subsequent events have shown, sadly, that he was right.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI invited Frank Duff to attend the Second Vatican Council as a lay observer, thus indicating the importance of his work in promoting the lay apostolate. At one of the Council sessions, Cardinal Heenan announced to the assembled bishops that the founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff, was present and they gave him a standing ovation. He also had a private audience with Paul VI, who expressed his thanks for his services to the Church and all that the Legion had done.
Frank Duff died on 7 November 1980, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. His Cause for canonisation was later introduced by Dublin's Archbishop Connell.
Finola Kennedy's well researched book should make Duff's life and legacy much better known and it is to be hoped that a revitalised Legion of Mary will be part of the new springtime in the Church that he foretold.
Donal Anthony Foley is the author of the recently published Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Visions or Religious Fraud? (Theotokos Books), and other books and booklets on Marian Apparitions. He maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk