On 7 September 1921, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Lloyd George, called a meeting of the Cabinet of the United Kingdom in the Scottish Highland city of Inverness to discuss what an independent Ireland’s relationship with the British Empire would be like.
The King, George V, had expressed his horror and reprisal at government-sanctioned killings of Irish Nationalists who were fighting for the dream of an independent Ireland and was putting pressure on the Prime Minister to find a solution to the ongoing Anglo-Irish problem. Perhaps King George V was also feeling the rumbles of revolution and anxious about the recent falls of other monarchies around the world at that time. His Russian cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been assassinated in 1917; he had to rescue the former Emperor Charles I of Austria and now he was worried that he may have to send similar aid to his cousins Prince Andrew and his wife Princess Alice of Greece and Denmark.
While the Prime Minister and his cabinet were contemplating how best to solve this diplomatic concern under the patronage of the King, another meeting was taking place in Dublin. Under the patronage of the heavenly Queen, this gathering involved a young man named Frank Duff who, together with 15 fellow young people and a priest, were meeting to discern how best to live out their baptismal vocation in the midst of their difficult times.
Hearing the call to respond to the growing spiritual poverty in their city, they invoked the Holy Spirit, recited the Rosary and began meeting weekly and actively going to the peripheries to bring the Good News in pairs – starting with the Dublin Union Hospital and the crime riddled, red-light district of Dublin. Some historians may argue that the Anglo-Irish problem faced by the Prime Minister has not yet been solved. Perhaps if the Cabinet of the United Kingdom had prayed the Rosary first, they too may have had more luck finding a peaceful, longer lasting solution.
What became known as the Legion of Mary this year celebrates a century of its ongoing work under Our Lady’s care. Since those early days, the initial formula of prayer in common, weekly meetings and going where the Gospel needs to be heard and seen in order to bring God’s beloved children back home has continued. The Legion continues to stand under Our Lady’s banner and provide a shining example of the lay apostolate in over 1,900 dioceses and 170 countries around the world, praised by popes and adorned with martyrs, especially in China and Africa.
What happened on the evening of 7 September 1921 in Myra House on Francis Street, Dublin, may not seem so unusual to us today but at the time it was revolutionary. The Legion and its idea of an active, lay-run, Catholic apostolate with men and women working together was met with some initial suspicion until Pope Pius XI firmly praised it in 1933 saying,
We give a very special blessing to this holy work - the legion of Mary. Its name protrays high and holy things ... The Blessed Virgin is mother of the Redeemer and of us all. She co-operates in our Redemption, for it was under the Cross that she became our mother … I pray for you that you may exercise still more earnestly that apostolate of prayer and work to which you have set your hands. So doing, God will make you, too, co-operators in the Redemption. This is the best of all ways in which to show your gratitude to the Redeemer.’
At the time, the apostolate was thought to be the job of the clergy. Frank Duff (now a Servant of God, the first step in the process towards sainthood) saw the entire body of Christ called to live out their baptismal call in an organised structure, supported by fraternity and with a distinctly Marian spirituality. Until the Second Vatican Council’s Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem in 1965, the idea perhaps seemed too strange to many people sitting in the pews that they too were called to sanctify, evangelise and restore the world to Christ.
Even in the preparation of this vital Council document, the Legion provided its aid. Frank Duff had attended the Council as an observer, and the Council Fathers requested copies of his Legion of Mary Handbook in every available language at the time to assist them in their task (only 36 languages were available). Now the Handbook can be found all over the world in more than 125 different languages.
Melbourne has a long history with the Legion. There is Magnificat House located in North Melbourne which since 1874 has been witness to the lives of colonial premiers, a temperance entertainment establishment, the gatherings of the Salvation Army, the all-night vigils of the first organised Pentecostal gathering, the meetings of Socialists and the gatherings of the Eureka Youth League which drew artists, writers, dancers, filmmakers, jazz enthusiasts and athletes. Now it finds itself slowly soaked for 30 years with the prayers of the Legion, standing as a witness to the prayers and meetings of the Senatus, a bookstore and the various events organised there. Seeing itself as part of the Body of Christ, the Legion has continuously been in contact and supported other Catholic groups, such as the Pioneer Total Abstinence Society and Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary which its members are encouraged to join.
Melbourne Catholics would be familiar with the steady presence of the local praesidium (committee/group) in our home parishes and missions. There the Legion finds a familiar, local face in those faithful members daily praying the Tessera and carrying on its apostolic work. Perhaps you’ve seen their meetings in the parish calendar and found comfort in knowing you could always turn to them for prayers and support in times of difficulty. That local face of the Legion was encountered at their Piety Stalls for desperate, last minute, First Holy Communion gifts, or perhaps those book barrows in the church foyer where you picked up a spiritual book that helped in those dark nights. Others carry memories of statue visitations to local homes and kindly visits to those in need or the door-to-door apostolate in the parish that brought someone back to the Church and the Sacraments.
The Legion is known for being very structured, and this enables it to rise to meet the needs of today. What Covid restrictions could not permit, online platforms such as Zoom have enabled. In the Mother of Divine Grace, Epping Praesidium, Caroline and the Legionaries organised their weekly meetings on Zoom and embarked on an outreach to those stuck at home. If people could not come to the Legion in parishes and Magnificat House, the Legion would come to them. What blossomed was a dedicated digital outreach – sessions for the Rosary and novenas for various needs on Zoom, a daily online gathering for a group working through Fr Calloway’s 33-day Consecration to St Joseph. The Legion has thus kept its faithful weekly meetings and opened up a new digital apostolate, all the while remaining true to the same Gospel impulse and calling that a young Frank Duff and his contemporaries felt in 1921.
Earlier this year, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli invited us to “take the way of the Gospel” in the midst of these changing and challenging times. The invitation is to dream of what we could do together and how we can re-frame our communities to better enable us to become who Christ has called, commissioned and sent us out to be. Perhaps we can draw wisdom from the generations of faithful Legionaries of Mary on how we can all answer the call to live out our baptismal vocation in this place and time, anointed by the Holy Spirit and sent to proclaim the Kingdom of God to all nations.
Melbourne Catholic28 February 2024
Christian Bergmann26 February 2024