Mass for the Centenary of the Legion of Mary, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, 25 September 2021

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Dear friends

As we mark this blessed centenary celebration we return to Dublin, almost exactly one hundred years ago, to Myra House on Francis Street, owned by the Society of St Vincent de Paul. There, as you well know, on the 7th September 1921, in the top back room, the Servant of God, Frank Duff, gathered together a group of Catholic women and a local priest to form the first praesidium of the Legion of Mary. A lay spiritual apostolate began which remains at the forefront of missionary discipleship today, devoted to the Mother of the Lord Jesus, evangelising and putting His love into action towards the weakest and the poorest.

You, my dear brothers and sisters, together with millions of legionaries and auxiliary members in virtually every Diocese of the universal Church, are the living legacy of that beautiful and prophetic beginning. You continue to be what Pope St John Paul II called ‘a Christian inspiration in the modern world.’ (Address to Italian Legionaries, 30 Oct 1982). And how our world needs to be inspired by Christ.

In this centenary year we give thanks to God for the work of the Legion of Mary. Through faithfulness and dedication, the wonders of the Lord have been proclaimed; the lowly have been raised up; the starving have been filled with good things; and all of this always to the honour and glory of God’s Holy name.

Born in 1889, Frank Duff was a remarkable man of faith; a disciple with a heart and mind for mission, for the poor, the suffering, and the destitute. In 1913, aged 24, he joined the SVP, convinced that the words of the Lord Jesus demand a personal response: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.’ Frank knew that faith in Christ requires action, motivated by a loving concern for the others, especially those forgotten, abandoned or neglected, those impoverished spiritually and materially.

Frank believed and taught what is commonly referred to as the universal call to holiness. ‘In the heart of every right-thinking Catholic,’ he wrote ‘God has implanted the desire to become a saint.’ (Can we be Saints? 1916) At the request of Pope St Paul VI, Frank was honoured with an invitation to attend the Second Vatican Council. There, the Bishops affirmed what Frank himself knew to be true: ‘… that all of Christ’s faithful, no matter what their rank or station, have a vocation to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity.’ (Lumen Gentium, 40) The call to holiness, to be a saint, includes everyone without any exceptions. ‘Sanctity,’ taught the Second Vatican Council, ‘results in the promotion of a more humane way of life…’ (LG 40)

But what does this call to holiness mean? The Council Fathers explained it like this: holiness, they said, means following in Christ’s footsteps. It means being moulded into His likeness. It means being attentive to the will of the Father in all things. It means being wholeheartedly devoted to the Glory of God and to the service of one’s neighbour, always holding these in unity. (cf LG 40) ‘If we cannot love the brother or sister whom we can see,’ says St John the Evangelist, ‘how can we ever hope to love God whom we cannot see?’ (cf 1 Jn 40:20)

A significant moment came in 1917 when Frank read St Louis de Montfort’s book True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pope St John Paul II commented that reading this book marked a ‘turning point’ in his own life. Many years before him, the same was true for Frank. It changed his life and it provided the spiritual foundation for the Legion. ‘If…we establish solid devotion to our Blessed Lady,’ wrote St Louis, ‘it is only to establish more perfectly devotion to Jesus Christ.’ (62) Devotion to Our Lady offers what St Louis’ called ‘an easy and secure means for finding Jesus Christ.’ (62) This is what authentic Christianity has always taught. To proclaim the Gospel without Mary is incomplete. Mary only ever leads us more closely to her Son. Again, for St Louis, she is ‘a means of finding Jesus Christ perfectly, of loving Him tenderly, [and] of serving Him faithfully.’ (62) For Frank, there could be no better guide and example towards holiness than Our Lady, the Blessed Mother of Our Saviour.

It was at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee where Our Lady spoke words that enshrine her place as the Hodegetria – the Greek word, used in iconography, for Mary who points the way to Christ. Hodos is the Greek word for ‘way.’ In so many icons Our Lady is shown looking out at us, but pointing towards Christ. She draws us in to meet her Son. ‘Do whatever He tells you,’ she told the servants at the wedding. And this remains her message today.

When the Lord Jesus says ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 13:34), Our Blessed Lady echoes ‘do whatever He tells you.’ When Our Lord says whenever you hold a banquet, make sure you invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind, those who cannot repay you, (cf. Lk 14:12-14) Our Lady says ‘do whatever He tells you.’ When the Lord Jesus says for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me,’ (Mt 25: 35-36) Our Lady says ‘do whatever He tells you.’

The great St Augustine reminds us that the Virgin Mary did the Father’s will, ‘she who believed in faith, conceived in faith and was chosen so that, through her, salvation could be born for us.’ (Sermon 72A.7) But St Augustine also recalls the astonishing truth that it is a greater thing for Mary to have been a disciple of Christ than to have been His Mother. (cf. Sermon 72A.7) This means we each have something profoundly in common with the Mother of Our Lord. Before she conceived Our Lord in her womb, Our Lady conceived Him by faith in her heart. She is gloriously, and uniquely, the Mother of the Redeemer; but she shares with us in the gift of discipleship. Mary is the perfect disciple, the model for the Church’s faith and for every Christian. She teaches us to say ‘yes’ to the Lord Jesus, not just once, but over and over again, especially when we are presented with the daily opportunity to love others through Christ-like selfless service.

In Christ’s life, mission, passion, and resurrection, we are shown and taught the will of His Father in heaven. From this comes an incredible consequence. By seeking to follow God’s will, we too can experience a relationship with Christ like the relationship He has with His Mother. She, the first disciple, points the way. Like her, and with her, we too say ‘thy will be done,’ let your will be accomplished in me.

Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven,’ says the Lord ‘is my brother, sister and mother.’ Considering this Gospel, St Gregory the Great poses a question: How can someone become the Mother of Christ? He replies that someone can become Christ’s mother if they bring the Lord’s love to life in their neighbour. (cf. Homilies 3.2) We do the Father’s will, we become like His Blessed Mother, when our gift of Christ’s love brings life and hope to others. This has been the great mission of the Legion of Mary for the past century.

Dear friends, let us ‘remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm and look forward to the future with confidence [because] ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.’ (Heb 13:8)’ (NMI 1) Above the door of Myra House in Dublin today there is a plaque which reads: ‘In this house the Legion of Mary began life on the seventh of September 1921. Thanks be given to Jesus and Mary for all that has followed.’ Thanks indeed for all that has followed, and thanks, in anticipation, through the Lord Jesus and His Blessed Mother, for all the gifts and graces to come.

Let us step forward in faith, taking to heart Our Lady’s words: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’