Legion of Mary (Knock)
28 September 2014 – Legion of Mary Pilgrimage to Knock
(26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)
On the 14th of September 1965, just 49 years ago, Frank Duff quietly entered and took his place as an auditor at the final session of the 2nd Vatican Council. Cardinal Heenan of Westminister was speaking at the time, spotted him entering and immediately announced his arrival to the assembly. Cardinal Suenens described what happened then: “the 2500 bishops rose to give him a warm and moving ovation. It was an unforgettable moment: the thanks of the universal church to the pioneer of the lay apostolate.”
For the past couple of years the church has been celebrating the golden jubilee of that same great Council. We have been returning to the Council documents. There has been much talk of its impact, or lack of impact. There is assessment and re-assessment of all that has happened, or not happened, in the church in the past 50 years in the light of the Council. There has been much talk especially of the spirit of the Council.
If we want to define the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, then we don’t need to look beyond this extraordinary moment: the Bishops of the church spontaneously rising in unison to joyfully applaud this modest lay man who had founded the Legion in the early twenties, and had firmly guided it in 1965 for over 40 years.
This spontaneous event speaks more loudly the central practical insight recovered by the Council, and extensively teased out in its documents. It was an insight already being realised and thriving in more than half the dioceses of the world in the persons of the ordinary men and women of the Legion of Mary: the insight that the Church of Jesus Christ is the people of God, all together equally called to be apostles, and united together, clergy and laity, in being apostolic. The recovery of the fundamental centrality of Baptism and of the gift it is and call that is in it: we all, from least to greatest, have an apostolate, different but equal. No wonder the bishops of the world rose up as one to applaud this man who was so much at the origin of the now widespread but largely hidden movement, the Legion of Mary. And no member receiving a cent in payment. And no member seeking recognition of any worldly sort. And every member working for Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church, missionaries of the mercy and love of God in action. Gladly obedient to Mary’s last word in the Gospel: ‘Do whatever He tells you’.
Pope St. John Paul the Second in 1979 said here in Knock that ‘Every generation is like a new continent to be won for Christ’. That is more true today that it ever was 35 or 50 years ago. We could do no better in facing the enormous challenges for faith and church in Ireland today that to look again at the whole story of the Legion of Mary and at the insights and organisational genius of the Servant of God, Frank Duff. Whatever else, taking up the challenge of the now sainted John Paul 2 must be done together as people of God, priests, religious and people all together, joyfully and in unison, like that great assembly of Council Fathers were in St Peter’s on that September day 49 years.
Pope Francis has captured the attention of the world in our own day. Isn’t it because his whole person, his every word and particularly his every gesture and action exudes joy and love for all humanity?
The hope of God is that the joy of the Gospel is what you and I and every baptised person will exude and incarnate for the world just as Jesus did. Many years before the Council, Frank Duff and his Legionaries were inspiring men and women, regardless of their station, with his affirmation that every Christian is nothing less than another Christ for his or her own time.
That affirmation, that vision of the human person, is what inspired and continues to inspire Legionaries to go out freely and voluntarily to meet others and with great joy to bring them the Good News, the Good News that they themselves have become: Jesus Christ alive in us for our times. That’s why Edel Quinn, Alfie Lamb, and Frank Duff himself, are recognised now by the church as Servants of God, and will soon, we pray, be beatified and eventually canonised as Saints of the Church. However, we already know many people in the Legion of Mary who are gone to God and are no doubt with him in heaven.
In my own first years as a priest, I became (I can’t remember how) Spiritual Director to a Praesidium of men who used to run a night shelter for homeless men in the city of Galway. I look back now on this small group of totally dedicated and very ordinary men, most of whom had already been a lifetime in the Legion. I have rarely met such unassuming fidelity. At the time they put me to shame and hopefully knocked out of me some of the, until then unconscious, arrogance of youth and education. Week in, week out, they manned that shelter, night after night, giving roof and bed and a bit of warmth and welcome and acceptance to these desolate, down at heel, forgotten men. They would give three, four, even five nights some weeks, whatever was necessary. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, homeless and you sheltered me’. To serve these men, regarded as brothers, was to serve Jesus. And the last thing any of those unassuming Legion men would want would be for me to name them now, or ever, in public. No notice whatsoever. What necessary witness in this crazy age of celebrity! I have no doubt they have heard the Master’s voice: ‘Come you whom my Father has blessed…’ and I ask them to be praying with us now, and for us…
It is in living out our call to be simply people of God that we become like Christ. Actions speak louder than words. That’s the message of today’s Gospel. They speak what we ourselves are, as well as the love we bear to all people and our joy in their existence. The psalms tell us that “the Lord takes delight in his people”. How deeply people need us to take delight in them. And without us, how can they ever know the Lord’s delight? I speak especially of people whose lives have been damaged by circumstances or suffering or being ignored.
In the Gospel today we find Jesus saying, “I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the Kingdom of God before you.” And St. Paul in the second reading tells us “always consider the other person to be better than yourself.” No exceptions note. That’s precisely the message the true Legionary brings to the person he or she goes out to meet. That’s what it is to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Remember the joy of Elizabeth at Mary’s visit.
Later on in that second reading, St. Paul describes what Jesus actually did: “He emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave… He became as men and women are, and he was humbler yet, even to accepting death… on a cross.”
He emptied himself. He came out of himself into our life, in every condition, even when that condition is at its most awful and abominable, into the lowliest depths of our humanity… in order that we might be lifted up and discover his delight in us.
There is no virtue in “upward mobility”. The traffic is all the other way with those who choose to be apostles, who take their baptism seriously, who simply love Jesus.
We are here in Knock because Mary came here in 1879 in the pouring rain. She came quietly, in silence and without fuss. She is still here. That’s why we come. The people here were in dire straits in 1879. For Mary the movement was downward in every sense – downward mobility, if we want to adapt the world’s way of putting things – but all of this lest we forget the simple truth that the Lord is with us always regardless of circumstance. She brought with her to Knock the Lamb of God, the sacrificial victim, Jesus her Son, the Saviour. He who emptied himself for us and who will do so now again with us and through us in the Eucharist we are about to celebrate.
All of this so that our hope be renewed, so we would remember we are his beloved sons and daughters and because he wants us to determine again to go out from here and to be his mind and his heart, his hands and his body, his people, for the world, the people of 2014.
The apostolate is everything. We are that apostolate. As individual men and women… and together.