Story Credit: Alive! Br. Steven Hackett OP
The Second Vatican Council, opened in Rome on 11 November 1962 by Pope John XXIII, continued until 8 December 1965, when it closed under Pope Paul VI.
Bishops from every part of the globe took part, many of them famous names, most of them unknown outside their own territory.
In August 1965 an Irishman was appointed as a lay auditor to the Council, the first Irish layman ever to have been invited to sit in on Council sessions.
Aged 76 at the time, he had “some misgivings” about going to Rome, given the state of his health. At Easter, in danger of death, he had received the anointing of the sick. But he was determined to be there.
At the moment when he arrived in St Peter’s Basilica, where the Council meetings were taking place, Cardinal John Heenan of Westminster was addressing the assembly.
He observed the Dublin man quietly slipping into his seat. At once the Cardinal interrupted what he was saying to announce that Frank Duff had arrived.
Immediately, and as one, the 2,500 bishops rose to their feet to give the Irishman a warm and prolonged ovation.
“It was an unforgettable moment,” wrote Cardinal Suenens, later, “the thanks of the universal Church to the pioneer of the lay apostolate.”
Though he would never accept the title, Frank Duff was, in fact, the founder of the Legion of Mary, the only global organisation ever established by an Irishman, and probably Ireland’s greatest contribution to the universal Church.
Born on 7 June 1889 in Dublin, Frank entered the civil service after leaving school.
In 1913, aged 24, he joined the St Vincent de Paul Society. Until then, he said, he was “a very casual Catholic. I wouldn’t miss Mass, but that’s all you could say about it.”
From this point his religious commitment began to grow, particularly under the influence of an uneducated shoemaker, Joseph Gabbett, a recovering alcoholic.
Gabbett had developed his own apostolate to Dublin’s poor and Duff was drawn into it more and more.
“I was incredibly captivated by Gabbett, because I had never met anyone like him,” he wrote. In particular, Gabbett’s devotion to the Mother of God made a deep impression on him.
About this time he began to recite the rosary each day, and during Lent in 1914 he began to take part in daily Mass, a practice he continued until the end of his life.
A couple of years later he began a League of Daily Mass, enlisting others who promised to attend Mass each day. A register from that time contains more than 1,000 names, most of them inscribed by Duff himself.
By this time too, prayer and spiritual reading were taking up more of his time, increasing his dedication to his work with the poor.
It was, however, his discovery of True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, by St Louis Marie de Montfort, that was to change his life.
Some members of the St VdeP would sit around after the weekly meeting discussing various topics. One week the topic was the True Devotion.
Duff tried to read the treatise half a dozen times, but couldn’t take it. Then came “the sudden realisation that the book was true.”
In the summer of 1921, now aged 32, Frank was among a group of Pioneers who organised a meeting to discuss the True Devotion. The meeting took place in mid-August.
From this meeting a number of Pioneers, including six women, decided to begin visiting the patients in a local hospital for the poor.
This led to the forming of an association which placed itself under the patronage of Our Lady of Mercy. On Wednesday 7 September, at a meeting attended by Duff and the local curate, officers for the group were appointed.
Mrs Elizabeth Kirwan, aged 64 and the only woman of mature years, became the president, and the meeting followed the general pattern of a St VdeP meeting.
In time this would be recognised as the first meeting of what would later be called the Legion of Mary. The group expanded rapidly to 70 members and it was decided in July 1922 to begin a second group.
In November 1925, when a new title for the organisation was being discussed, Duff suggested that the name not have a national tag as the organisation might expand more widely than Ireland.
The Legion of Mary was Duff’s suggestion, and though there was some resistance to it, the name was finally chosen and would, in time, become famous through the whole world.