Legion of Mary president Mary Murphy tells Ruadhán Jones about the Legion’s growth and desire to convert the world
The Legion of Mary’s beginnings were, as founder Frank Duff put it himself, quite inconspicuous. A small group including Duff gathered on September 7, 1921, in Myra House on Francis St, the date which marks the beginning of what is now the largest lay Catholic association, spanning 170 countries and 14 million members.
Duff never lacked ambition for the Legion, or for the laity. To anyone who would listen, he advocated for the lay association’s virtues and gave evidence of its progress in converting people to the Faith. As the Legion’s current president Mary Murphy explains, there was simply no other apostolic organisation when Duff founded the Legion.
“It is true to say that of course, there were many more religious people involved in the Church [in Ireland] at that time,” Ms Murphy continues. “And many didn’t see the need for an apostolic laity. However, Frank Duff was convinced of the role of the lay member, that through our Baptism all of us have a role to play in the Church and we are all part of the mystical body of Christ whose job it is to build the Church.”
Duff believed that it was the duty of an apostolic laity to fulfil Christ’s call to “make disciples of all nations” and hoped that, through Our Lady’s intercession, the Legion could bring the world and all its peoples to God.
Although his hopes were grand, the Legion’s approach is deceptively simple.
“The Legion is made up of two groups,” Ms Murphy begins. “We have the active members, who attend the weekly meeting and do apostolic work each week. The active members join the Legion of Mary in a praesidium. They commit to attending a weekly meeting and to undertake two hours of apostolic work each week, which is assigned at the meeting. The Legion is available for all forms of Catholic action, assigned to them by the local priest, with the one exception of giving material relief. Our sister organisation, the St Vincent De Paul society, that’s their apostolate. We’re involved more in promoting devotion to the Faith and encouraging people in the Faith and being available to people.”
The active members make up four million of the Legion’s membership, the other 10 million made up of auxiliaries, the praying members: “These are people who undertake to say the rosary daily and all the prayers on our Legion tesserae, which involves the rosary, what would be known to most people as the Magnificat – we call it the Catena – and we have a concluding prayer.
“They’re our prayers and auxiliary members undertake to say those prayers on a daily basis, and we have about 10 million of those throughout the world. Because we promote devotion to the rosary, we promote devotion to Our Lady of course, and we encourage people to advance in their faith.”
From its humble beginnings in Myra House, the Legion spread quickly through Ireland. The first place it opened outside Dublin was in Waterford, and it soon had roots down in every Irish diocese.
The first place it opened outside Dublin was in Waterford, and it soon had roots down in every Irish diocese.”
“We are in every diocese in Ireland, some much more advanced than others,” Ms Murphy says. “The cities you see, if you take Cork, Galway, Belfast, Derry, Tuam, all of those places would have very strong Legion membership at this time, along with Limerick, Wexford, Waterford; all the cities where you have a lot of population, would lend itself to that. But then in small rural areas, we also have large groups of members. We have Thurles, Tipperary, a lot of those places would have quite an amount of legionaries.”
The Legion are well placed to know and see the effects of the declining Catholic population in Ireland, priests and laity, and Ms Murphy believes the Legion has an especially important role to play in light of that decline.
“It’s the time of laity really, the Vatican council saw that when they invited Frank Duff to be a lay observer in 1965. They saw the role of the laity coming. Internationally, the Church has grown – in Ireland now we’re just going through a phase where we have less vocations.
“However, there is of course from the Legion quite a number of religious vocations. That’s ongoing still in the Church. If we continue to grow, please God, we’ll also help to fulfil that need for the Church. We always have a good number of people going to the Church and we’re always happy for that, always happy to give our best.”
The Legion president believes that the lay apostolate is needed everywhere, not just in Ireland, due to its personal approach: “For people to be having outreach, Frank Duff was very strong on the personal contact, reaching out to the individual. Very often when we think of lay people in the Church, we look at groups of people and crowds and all that. The idea of the Legion is that we’d reach out to each individual and that we’d uplift the individual soul. That would be our apostolate.”
Frank Duff was convinced of the role of the lay member, that through our Baptism all of us have a role to play in the Church”
While the Church is contracting in Ireland, the Legion have set themselves the challenge of expanding during their centenary year. The target they are aiming for is to gain 300 new members for Dublin.Mary Murphy pictured with the original legion altar, from their first meeting, September 7, 1921.
“We’re working on that, and we certainly are getting people in. There is an interest among the younger people in coming into the Legion at this time. In the last year or so, especially since Covid, we have certainly noticed that quite a number of people are coming into the Legion membership. We’re hoping that we’ll make the 300 during our centenary year, and that that growth will be ongoing. People throughout the country will do the same, we’ll keep encouraging people,” Ms Murphy states.
The Church continues to grow globally, with Catholics making up roughly 17% of the world’s population. The Legion has taken part in and promoted that growth, with the Eucharistic Congress held in Ireland in 1932 proving a catalyst for its global spread.
“Following the spread of the Legion in Ireland then it went on and it started in Scotland,” Ms Murphy says. “Then gradually, it started in Nigeria in 1933, I think – the missionaries would have brought it. But the big springboard for the development of the Legion was the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, when many bishops from all over the world came, and many of them would have had a great need in their areas for people to be involved.
“They were at the forefront of the missionary time and they of course saw the potential of having local people involved in an organised way working in their parishes. And from the Eucharistic Congress of course, many of the bishops returned to their dioceses throughout the world and set about starting up the Legion.”
The cities you see, if you take Cork, Galway, Belfast, Derry, Tuam, all of those places would have very strong Legion membership at this time”
Over time, the Legion developed its own system for spreading its presence. The first of their ‘envoys’ – legionary ambassadors sent around the world to establish its presence – was Mary Duffy, who went to the United States in 1934.
“When she was leaving, Frank Duff said, ‘there goes our hope’,” says Ms Murphy, who was herself an envoy. “She was the first. To date we’ve had 95 legion envoys. The most notable of course were the Venerable Edel Quinn and the Servant of God Alfie Lambe.
“But in all there were 95 of us. And we would have gone to various countries and helped to establish the Legion in all those countries, and helped to motivate the local people into the apostolate. Their work continues today in different parts of the world and that’s a big way how the Legion grew, through the work of the envoys and extension workers.”
Ms Murphy’s term as an envoy was spent in Kenya from 1973 to 1976, following in the footsteps of Venerable Quinn.
Their work continues today in different parts of the world and that’s a big way how the Legion grew, through the work of the envoys and extension workers”
“I was there at a time when the British population and the Indian population were leaving East Africa, and it was a time really of the Africans coming into their own and taking over the leadership and that kind of thing,” she explains. “I was there to support them in that role, and then to go into areas where the Legion hadn’t yet progressed or whatever and to establish the Legion here.
“That work continues and I was very happy the other day to see in the minutes coming from Nairobi a reference to a priest up in Meru Diocese [in Kenya] translating the Legion Handbook into their language. I was smiling to myself, saying, before I came home, I set up the Legion there and here we are 40 years later, they’re translating the Handbook – so the work continues.”
One of Duff’s particular dreams was the conversion of Asia, with China receiving much of his attention. You can read about the Legion’s exploits in the great Eastern nation on page 30. Asia is now a stronghold for the Legion.
“In Korea, we have three senatus there and we have very many legionaries,” Ms Murphy says with pride. “When they were here at one time recently with us, they said that 10% of the population of Korea is Catholic and that 10% of that membership are legionaries.
“I know when I was at Rome for one of the ecclesial meetings, Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko said that when they were in the orient, they were absolutely amazed at the growth of the Legion there. In all countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, all those countries would have the Legion. India itself of course would have a strong legionary presence. They do assist, they sometimes would undertake visitation of the councils there on behalf of the concilium. They’re all part of us here, even though they’re far away from us. They’re very much part of us.”
There aren’t many countries left that the Legion doesn’t have a foothold in. Despite this, they have no intention on resting on their laurels.
“We’re in over 170 countries now,” Ms Murphy explains. “Our hope is always, where people are available of course, to expand. It depends at the time what resources we have and personnel to do this, because people have to give their time to go and to volunteer. It comes in different phases… Sometimes people give time, but they may prefer to go indoor here at our hostels. But then people who would like maybe to be a bit more adventurous and to spread out into the deep, they head to the bush or wherever – it’s great.”
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