The following are extracts from a 1958 oration by Legion of Mary founder Frank Duff. Celebrating their centenary this September, the Legion is a lay organisation known for its mix of missionary work and Marian devotion. Briefly acting as private secretary to Michael Collins, Duff remains one of the leading theorists of both the Legion and 20th century Irish Catholicism. In the below speech Duff outlines initial hostility to the Legion as well as the organisation’s strategy for promoting a Christian and national revival.
The Origins of the Legion
At first there was quite a revulsion of feeling at it. Many were distressed, angry; they felt that a menace was being directed at the life of their beloved Society; that time-honoured ideas were being hurled overboard and that an unjustifiable revolution was being launched in the Legion.
To some extent those fears were allayed before the end of that Conference. They persisted in certain quarters. But where today, in the Legion, is there a trace of such dissent? Where life is expanding and seeking outlets, one must expect such situations.
New ideas insert themselves and develop, causing anxiety. Then they slip simply into their place and it is seen that they have filled an unperceived gap. Definitely there is in the Legion a principle of orderly growth, of design not our making, which is both touching and strengthening because it suggests the care of maternal power.
The Legion came into existence in the upper room at the end of the hall where we are gathered. The same statue of the Blessed Virgin which graced the first meeting stood before us. The first baby cry was a declaration of its dependence on our Blessed Mother. From that moment its attitude towards her was distinctive and, in a fashion, pierced the future. In June 1921 Pope Benedict XV had granted the Feast and Office of Our Lady, Mediatrix of all Graces.
It is remarkable that a few months later the infant Legion was building itself on that doctrine and with reasonable understanding of it. It was a true case of the duck entering into water and finding itself in its element. The word ‘Mediatrix’ was not used at that first meeting, nor until some time later when the legionaries learned of that Papal grant. But from the first moment they had the inner essence of it. They understood it in the perfect way of being able to put it into practice.
Out of that knowledge of her emerged that Legion scheme. The doctrine of the Mystical Body was only properly grasped as the result of trying to understand her. Then with the doctrine of the Mystical Body came all its light on the nature of the Church, the true basis of the apostolate, the function of the Sacramental system and prayer.
All of these ingredients go to make up what we call the life of the Legion. Mary our Mother still maintains that legionary fabric, and it will strengthen or weaken according to the Legion’s appreciation of her.
The Legion always realised that she was no mere devotion in the Church, but a necessary part of Christianity itself, conjoined to Our Lord and made by him a condition of the imparting of his grace. The De Ecclesia Decree, which is the first effort on the part of the Church to draw up a Constitution for 2 itself, affords an astounding endorsement of that Legion attitude in all its aspects
What is True Patriotism?
If this is fulfilment of duty to the Church and to one’s neighbour it is, likewise, patriotism. This word opens up before us unknown, uncharted territory, for what is true patriotism? There is no model of it in the world.
The nearest is the brand of self sacrifice and devotion which develops during a war. But this is motivated by hate more than by love, and appropriately it is directed towards destroying. So it is imperative that a correct model be somewhere provided.
This is doubly necessary having regard to the way in which the Modern State tends to widen its functions. Animated usually with the best intentions, it seeks to manipulate people’s minds. It moves more • and more towards thinking for each one, arranging his life in detail. By a creeping process it is appropriating to itself rights which Christianity has always regarded as belonging to the individual.
This could work out to a pure tyranny. The modern idea attributes to the ‘State’ a quasi-omnipotence. Governments honestly imagine that they have an unlimited power over the citizens. This could prove intolerable even if operated on lines of true democracy.
But often enough it is a case of the dictatorship of a few persons. This has all the colour of the menace described in that novel “1984”, which Big Brother looks into every room through a television apparatus and supervises everything for the twenty-four hours of the day.
It is towards something like that dismal position that the State idea is steadily slipping. More and more is being taken into its scope. Possibly this may result in providing for every material need. But analysed, such an improvement looks dangerously like a comfortable slavery. And inevitably that evolution will clash with the Catholic Church which ultimately has to insist on certain rights for the individual, believing that God has given those rights.
“From the useful institution which it was, the national State has become the threat to civilisation that it now undoubtedly is”. These words are not mine but Toynbee’s. That tendency towards taking over by the State is largely due to the passivity of the citizens. Having been taught no sense of responsibility in respect of the defects around them, they do nothing towards remedying them.
So it is inevitable that the State is forced to intervene in regard to the greater evils. Then the intervention and the inertia are both progressive. The citizen fades away into a cipher put into a computer which will decide what is to be done with him. If the people are shown a proper sense of responsibility, much of this would have been avoided and healthy communities would be the result.
Most of the graver problems are due to maladjustment of some kind, and would yield to principles of self-help and Christian behaviour. So there is no need for the individual to forfeit his rights to the State in order to be able to live. But this is a truth which must be practically demonstrated.
This is of such importance that God will help if we but play our part. The lack of a model in this particular case results disastrously in the absence of any idea as to what patriotism is. In the case of flying, for instance, the correct theory was present long before the practical model was attained. People understood what flying meant.
They knew its laws and indeed everything. about it. The one thing missing was an engine which could lift more than its own weight. The moment the internal combustion engine was discovered, the problem of flight was solved; all the laws and principles were ready. The usual procedure is that the idea precedes the working model, and eventually the model emerges. But it is different in that case of patriotism where there has been neither the proper idea nor the working model.
Then what is patriotism? What are its basis, motives, scope? This degree of uncertainty declares it to be an unknown quantity.
It will be understood either as:
a) That wartime formula; or as
b) A sentimental conception without rational roots. As such it will be seen as a mere rivalry and rejected by sensible people; or as
c) A device for exploiting people.
Doctor Sam Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. Therein lies the extreme importance of True Devotion to the Nation. It is the practical working model which teaches us the correct theory of Christian patriotism and shows how it is to be applied. If it can be made to prevail, it would usher in a revolution infinitely greater than that produced by the discovery of the steam engine or electricity or atomic science, because it is in the superior moral order.
One helping circumstance is that everybody is at least in a hazy way searching for such a thing; nobody is satisfied with those common conceptions of nationhood.
For all its defects Ireland is in this matter the best off by reason of its having Faith. If we could ameliorate our position in a worthy and striking way, we would secure imitation for the world which seems to be wheezing to death in terrible convulsions.
We would qualify as that Nation visualised in the Handbook of the Legion of Mary which solved its problems and as a matter of automatic consequence attracts the other nations to learn from it. Moreover, and more important, it would afford convincing evidence as to the power of Christianity, so much derided today as an obsolete superstition.
Ireland. Let us be frank about it: there is nothing in the country which could be described as national idealism. There is a poor realisation of duty or service of the community.
It would be a great mistake to think that our problems are mainly economic. Actually there is much money flowing, hundreds of millions of borrowed money among it. It is difficult to get labour. There is much drinking and misconduct. There is insufficient public spirit. There is a determined and partly unnecessary emigration.
There are jobs available but the people are determined to go. Patriotism should be showing itself in some sort of dutifulness towards one’s country, at the very least in a willingness to stay in it. But that is not in evidence. Some aspects resemble anarchy.
Definitely there is at work a malady, which, if it is to be cured, will kill us spiritually and probably nationally. – A group of us have just come back from a short trip which involved the staying in a different place every night.
I would not say that it evidenced a consoling religious position. In two of the places eleven people were at Holy Communion in the morning, of whom we were seven. In another at Sunday’s Mass the priest appealed that everyone should go at least monthly to Holy Communion, and he pleaded that people be not ashamed of being seen going to the altar rails! This in the era of daily Communion!
That rural inadequacy compares badly with the Adjutorian degree which the Legion is proposing to the people, namely, daily Mass, Holy Communion, Rosary and the saying of an office. With backing, that programme could be made to sweep Ireland.
In those localities one felt that the life of religion had reached an irreducible minimum, and. that it is not presenting the true face elf Christianity. If there are any idealistic impulses stirring in those communities, these are not derived from religion. Nor are those places capable of withstanding a moral or religious attack.
Yet they are leisured, nothing stirring in the early part of the day, and thus affording scope for the Adjutorians, the Patricians, etc. The Patricians is a positive necessity; it is an efficient way of teaching the adults their religion. Need I add that there are no praesidia in those places? All that sounds bad.
But we are far from being the only victims of a misunderstood civilisation. All the other countries are suffering similarly, or far worse. In a recent issue the London Times published a survey of conditions on the English countryside.
It shows a like unsavoury stagnation, but deprived of the religious note which at least we have. Beer, weekly bingo, and a discontent with one’s surroundings: these constitute a fine formula for the warping of human material. A better order does not spring up of itself.
There must be some force.to animate it. But not all such forces are good. For instance, a Communist cell would be an energising influence. It would be a bad one, but it would certainly set things moving in various ways. It would start every sort of hare; plans to reform, schemes for taking over the property of the “rich”, promises to give something to everybody. And somewhere in the picture would be the weaning of people from that enemy of progress, religion!
That stirring, that animating must be done. But it must be approached on correct lines, that is, for Christian ends and out of Christian motives. My formula for that animating principle would not exactly constitute a sixty-four dollar question, because you all know the answer.
It is a well-worked Praesidium. I do not suggest that the Legion is the only animating principle. But it is the only large-scale, recognised one which carries the religious motive to its full logical conclusion.
It does not base its apostolate on a vague appeal to Christian humanitarianism which could mean absolutely nothing. Even unbelievers constantly have that word ‘Christian’ on their lips. The Legion proposes as motive power the doctrine of the Mystical Body in all its detail, including, of course, Our Lady.
This doctrine obliges us to think in terms of every person in each place and of all aspects of life there, cultural, economic, recreational and of development in every sense. Commonly the absence of unemployment is regarded as denoting prosperity, so that the people do not bestir themselves towards development.
That apparent prosperity is fictitious because those places are providing for their children by the simple method of emigrating them. The resulting position is the opposite to true prosperity. For a community, like a family, should normally provide for itsi children. This can only be done by a continuous development of industry in all its forms.
All this must not amount to selfish localism. It must be expansive. People solving their problems in a small country place must at the same time be thinking of the whole country. More than that, there should be a holy internationalism.
Organising Against Subversion
There is also a primary psychological consideration to be reckoned with. Man is not meant to be alone. In the individual resides an extraordinary quality of helplessness. It must be supplemented if he is to be made effective even in the mildest degree. This defectiveness is at its greatest in the moral order. But the gaining of a helper makes all the difference. A few working together stimulate each other on to courage and conquest. As a special exemplification of this I again give the case of Communism. A handful of them can take possession of and control a nation.
They accomplish this by binding themselves together in a tight, single-minded unity, and then by striking at any unity outside themselves. Thereby they throw the population into individual isolation and consequent helplessness.
The mechanism for this is universal spying and fear. No one has any real communication with others and therefore cannot lean on them, is afraid even to express his thoughts to another. That effected, the highly organised few can do what they like. It is because they correctly recognise in the Legion a counter principle that Communism fears the Legion.
The Legion works for religion instead of against it, for unity instead of division; exhibits the.martyr-spirit instead of weakly yielding. True, the Legion cannot avail of the Communist mechanism of secrecy, spying and fear, but love and grace will outweigh those things. If a sufficient number be induced to assert themselves, it becomes impossible to suppress a whole people like a flock of sheep.
In what way is the foregoing applicable to a merely nominal Christian community? Suppose a Communist cell to be operating there. It would not have the power to force its will by direct action. In these circumstances it would not sail under its true colours. It would work with supreme effectiveness by creating a wrong atmosphere, one of cynicism, quiet pressure, jeering at any sort of idealism, at patriotism as a narrow, outmoded sentiment; at religion as a superstition which has been disproved by science; and so forth.
Religion can be put completely on the defensive in places like those previously pointed to where there is no praesidium, no Patricians, and where the people are ashamed to be seen going to Holy Communion!
Surely there is some malign activity there! I do not say that Communism is at the bottom of all those rotten attitudes. There are other agencies. It is a matter of life and death that we organise on proper lines.
The Praesidium is the perfect stimulant for that. It brings .together persons on a basis which more or less excludes really unworthy elements, that is, it summons them to prayer and disagreeable tasks. Then it educates them in the full Christian philosophy, doctrinal and practical. Soon they understand each other and this is the beginning of action.
They realise, too, that their ideas are held by many in the community. In this feeling of unity lies strength. If that Praesidium works faithfully according to its principles, it can accomplish good. Better still, it can enable good to overpower evil.
Definitely there is some moral force in the Legion which make it effective in dealing with the cynical, materialistic and falsely intellectual brigades. It commands a hearing for its views and it expounds its spirituality and idealism without timidity or human respect. We do not find the legionaries ashamed to be seen going to Holy Communion!
But I repeat that without the Praesidium those same compelling and essential ideas would be submerged by all that cynicism and mockery and materialism which exercise a withering effect on the mediocre Catholic. It goes without saying, however, that the Praesidium must be given its chance by leadership and encouragement. I think that the place without some form of organisation equivalent to the Legion is in peril.
For there is no doubt that the materialistic arid evil aspects are gaining ground. If the Legion were to be eliminated at a stroke, I believe that the effect on Ireland would be like the breaking of the dykes which protect low-lying land, that is, the oncome of a deluge. In the second place, I contend that the proper working of the Legion would cause good to prevail and would lead on to a Christian order .