Fr Hugh S. Thwaites SJ was raised as an Anglican in England and served in the British Army during World War II. He was received into the Church on a troopship on his way to Singapore. Captured by the Japanese, he spent three-and-a-half-years in captivity. After the war, he entered the Jesuits and was ordained a priest in 1954. His main work has been with young people from ethnic minorities in deprived parts of London. He is now retired but occasionally gives retreats and talks.
Fr Thwaites' article first appeared in the 'Homiletic and Pastoral Review' and has been slightly shortened.
There are at least ten reasons why parishes should consider introducing the Legion of Mary.
1. A main reason for introducing the Legion of Mary into a parish is that it would please Our Lady. If it did no more than that, it would be enough. To give pleasure to the Mother of God is worth every effort. Most of Our Lady's children are now away from the narrow path that leads to salvation. They are away from their Mother and are not happy.
Our Lady has the heart of a mother who longs to have her children around her. Searching for these lost children of hers is precisely the work of the Legion of Mary; its main work has always been to look for the lost sheep of Jesus Christ, and the priest who starts it up in his parish will soon find his blessing on its work.
2. Another reason for bringing the Legion into a parish is that it could prove the turning point in the lives of many unhappy individuals. People who are living a merely human life cannot possibly be entirely happy.
The Legion of Mary is an instrument God has already used to draw millions to a Catholic life - to the faith, if they were not Catholics, and back to the sacraments if they were. Only those who have spent years of their life estranged from God can know what a consolation it is to be once again back in the Church, living the life of grace.
3. A third reason for bringing the Legion of Mary into a parish is that it will sanctify those who join it. How can those people become saints who spend their evenings simply interesting or amusing themselves? The Legion makes many demands on its members. Maybe they will soon regret that they were so foolish as to join it.
But in their better moments they will realise that it has brought them to an intimacy with God and with Our Lady that they never knew before.
4. A fourth reason for having the Legion in a parish is that it will sanctify the parish priest. He has a duty to sanctify his parishioners, and here are these good people coming to him week after week, looking for advice on how to serve God better, how to love Our Lady more. They are looking for spiritual direction. What he says to them in his three-minute allocution (they use the old Roman terminology to help keep the international flavour) will be furthered by the action of the Holy Spirit.
Before his eyes, his parishioners will grow in zeal and in their desire to serve God, and this in turn will serve to increase his own zeal for souls. In that connection although the Legion meeting lasts and hour-and-a-half - maybe less, but never more - if the priest does not have that time to give them, it would be sufficient for him to stay ten minutes; in that time he could give his little allocution and listen to any important matter that had come up and needed his prompt attention.
5. Also, God has made him pastor and shepherd, not just of the Catholics living in his parish but of every living soul within its boundaries, of whatever religion. Without active legionaries in his parish he can legitimately excuse himself from caring for them all on the grounds that he cannot possibly knock on every single door in his parish area.
But legionaries could do this for him. 'Door to door visitation' is their mode of operation. Then, at the weekly meeting, they pass on to their parish priest the names and addresses of those who would like to speak to him.
The introduction of the Legion of Mary into a parish always increases the Mass attendance and while the prospect of his Catholics behaving like Jehovah Witnesses and knocking on every door in the parish can fill the parish priest with alarm, eighty years of experience have shown that it works.
The visiting legionaries show the friendly welcoming face of the Catholic Church and many a lonely soul has been most grateful for the friendly legionaries who have called and accepted a cup of tea and stayed for a chat. For many, this has been the first step of their return to God.
6. A sixth reason for having the Legion in a parish is that it gives the parish the missionary dimension that every parish should have.
I used to have lunch every week with a really fine priest, Canon George Telford, and one day he said that he thanked God for having the Legion in his parish - 'At least there's someone in the parish doing apostolic work.' He was chaplain to the hospital, chairman of the school Governors, on various committees and so on, and most of the time he was just tied to his desk. He reckoned that but for the Legionaries his parishioners would be badly neglected. As it was, he felt he was still in touch with them.
7. A seventh reason is that without the Legion of Mary there seems to be no hope whatever of bringing the entire world to accept Christ as their Saviour. There are indeed millions who believe in him but many more millions who do not. Yet it is plain that Our Lord wants the whole world to come to know and love him. That means all Catholics who can, should be involved.
Obviously, a woman with several children to be fed and washed and got into bed cannot and should not be an active legionary. She could be an 'auxiliary member', helping by her prayers. But perhaps her husband could be an active legionary. She will know where he is, and his heroic self sacrifice will send a powerful message to the children.
8. An eighth reason for having the Legion of Mary is that it awakens priestly or religious vocations which are lying dormant. I can think of eight priests and a nursing Sister who got their vocation through the Legion of Mary. Apart from one, who had formerly been an Anglican monk, I do not think any of them would ever have given their lives to God.
But as one of them put it later, a few months in the Legion of Mary taught him that there were better things he could do with his life than build tunnels and oil platforms. He had been a brilliant civil engineering student and now he is doing great work for the Catholic Church.
9. Another reason for having the Legion of Mary is that because it brings together a group of Catholics who have come to work for Our Lady, a marvellously friendly Catholic atmosphere soon grows up. There was a student praesidium (that is a working unit) which yielded six marriages.
The priest used to recruit girls by saying, 'If you want to meet really good Catholic young men, come and join our Legion.' And he would recruit the lads by saying, 'If you want to meet some really lovely Catholic girls, come and join our Legion.' It sounds a bit Jesuitical, but they all enjoyed it.
This friendly Catholic atmosphere is just what we priests sometimes need. After a weary day spent with pagans and lapsed Catholics and Catholics who just aren't interested in what we have to offer, we can relax in the family of our legionaries. They all believe what we believe. They all love God and Our Lady. They are our children, our family.
So although, to begin with, the Legion of Mary seems to take up too much of our time, if only we persevere with it we will find it immensely rewarding. It wins souls for Christ that we could never have reached on our own.
10. Lastly, the Legion of Mary has another activity besides parish visiting which I have found very valuable. It may run the monthly discussion groups which they call Patrician meetings. This is a highly structured affair and is for Catholics only. It lasts two hours, and the priest needs to be present. This sounds like an enormous waste of our precious time, but I think it well worth the sacrifice. Here is how it is run.
A subject is chosen: one of the sacraments or ten commandments or articles of the Creed - I reckon that the whole of our faith could be covered adequately in twenty sessions.
First, someone gives an opening talk on the subject - about five minutes would be plenty. It need not be researched, and if it contains heresy, no harm is done. This wakes people up, and anyhow the purpose of the opening talk is only to focus people's minds.
Then, as soon as the speaker stops talking, other people can get up and have their say and correct any errors they think they have heard. There needs to be a president there to keep order, otherwise things could get out of hand.
This back and forth discussion, all on the subject chosen, goes on for an hour from the start of the meeting. During this time the matter has been broken up into small pieces, with every sort of popular error put up and shot down, and all involved able to enjoy hearing their own voice and airing their own views. Meanwhile the priest has kept his mouth shut and made notes.
One hour from the start of the meeting, there is a 15-minute break for coffee and biscuits. Then, and this is the hub of the whole meeting, the priest has the floor to himself for fifteen minutes. During the preceding hour he has been making notes of errors or good points that have been made, and now he can set out straight Catholic doctrine. He corrects the popular errors that people hear all the time in the media, and gives them the traditional teaching of the Church.
Then the back and forth discussion continues, leaving five minutes at the end to decide next month's subject. As a result of this, those Catholics involved gain an accurate grasp of the topic under discussion.
My edition of the Catechism of the Council of Trent has a long foreword by two Dominicans, and they make the point that a main reason for the rapid spread of the Reformation was the frightful ignorance of the faith among the laity. I would say that it is just as bad today.
I remember once at a Patrician meeting, in the general discussion at the end I said, 'After all, Christ was God,' and a white-haired old lady protested, 'He was the Son of God. You can't say he was God.' Just as in Luther's time, Catholics today are appallingly ignorant of their faith. In the Patrician meeting, one single article of the faith is discussed back and forth, and the priest is able to correct the errors and stress the truths that have emerged, so that finally all who were there are accurately instructed on that one point of doctrine.
Finally, I would say that any priest engaged in pastoral work would do well to invite the Legion of Mary into his parish. Our apostolate seems to move up into a higher gear when we get the laity on the job. Three or four legionaries are enough to start with, but we have to be careful not to recruit the parish busybody. Our Lady knows how to turn ordinary good, humble Catholics into wonderful apostles for the extension of her Son's Kingdom. And frankly, their zeal can sometimes put us priests to shame.