On 4th September 2021, Bishop Paul McAleenan delivered the following homily during a Mass celebrating the centenary of the Legion of Mary, at Our Lady and St Joseph’s, Kingsland.
It is a pleasure to be with you today to celebrate this Mass. With the words, ‘The Legion of Mary’, very clear memories of my time as a member of the Legion come flooding back. I remember the parish hall where we assembled, the neatly arranged altar adorned with the Vexillum, which I couldn’t take my eyes off at my first meeting. At the top of the Vexillum is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who overshadowed Mary was the same Spirit who came upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Therefore, I was told, the Legion, though dedicated to Mary, is also apostolic, it goes out into the world.
I remember how carefully our weekly apostolic activities were arranged. I remember the Catena, the word means ‘chain’, each legionary being a link in this worldwide movement. That made a great impression upon me. And I remember the secret bag.
Every legionary knows that the object of the Legion is the sanctification of its members by devotion to Our Lady and with her advancing the reign of Christ. Being a sincere member of the Legion of Mary is a very formative experience.
As we celebrate this centenary and the achievement of the Legion of Mary over those years, we take to heart those words we had in the Book of Ecclesiasticus in our first reading. ‘We bless the God of all things, the doer of great deeds everywhere’. We are gathered to do this on this anniversary.
Another verse from Ecclesiasticus, chapter 44, reads, ‘let us praise illustrious men, our ancestors in their successive generations’. Our celebration would be incomplete without giving thanks for many outstanding legends of the Legion; Frank Duff its founder, Alfie Lambe, an envoy of the Legion in South America. He spent time in several countries before his death at the age of 26. We remember too an illustrious woman, Edel Quinn, another Legion envoy, who established many praesidia in East and Central Africa before her death at the age of 36.
When Frank Duff entered the hall at the Second Vatican Council, 2,500 Bishops rose to applaud him, recognising the profound contribution he had made to the mission of the Church by enabling and equipping lay people to participate in spreading the Gospel. That is an attractive aspect of the Legion, its dedication to act as a servant of the Church and of the parish. Organised as it is at a local level, all legionaries have the opportunity to participate in the Church’s mission.
Aware that the sainthood to which we are called could only be achieved by having a concern for our neighbours spiritual and social welfare, Frank Duff provided, through the Legion, a means through which all members of the Church could be sanctified.
Love of Mary in its fullest sense requires one to be apostolic. The Legion connects its devotion to Mary with evangelising action, loving Christ. It never confined devotion to prayer and pious practices only. Proclaiming Christ’s love for us, bringing Christ to the world in imitation of Mary, explains the Legion’s purpose. And so, Pope John XXIII said of the Legion of Mary that it ‘presents the true face of the Catholic Church’.
Every army needs leadership, tactics, encouragement and each member of the army needs equipment with which to arm themselves. The equipment of a legionary as you know is the rosary, not a weapon which causes injury but a means for bringing us close to Mary and Jesus. The rosary has kept the faith alive in so many places when there was no priest to celebrate Mass. It is the means by which we bring to life within ourselves that Spirit of Mary which wishes to serve Christ and present him to the world.
With each Ave we proclaim that Mary was full of grace. We can be full of many things, even full of ourselves. Mary was full of the love of God, within her there was room for nothing else. As the Apostles in the Upper Room, so Legionaries keep Mary’s company in prayer and outlook, that the Spirit which animates will inspire and direct.
Today we speak about outreach, the activities of the Legion for the last one hundred years perhaps did not enjoy that term but that is precisely what they did, visiting homes, prisons, hospitals, bringing hope. The pioneers of the Legion realised that there were many opportunities for lay Catholics to live their faith. Among the qualities of the Legion which are to be admired is that it was never a closed-in body, only for the select few. It deservedly has a reputation for inviting membership, making efforts to increase membership so that as many as possible could be involved in its mission.
When legionaries undertake their active work, they do so in pairs. That always reminds me of the first apostolic mission when Jesus sent the 72 disciples out, not individually but in pairs to support and encourage each other. Your work too is apostolic; it can never be undermined. You do not know the good you do; a word we speak inspired by the Holy Spirit can have an effect that we do not know about in this world, but has an impact on the life of another.
Our Lady, and Frank Duff and Alfie Lambe and Edel Quinn all knew they needed God. Having faith in him, allowing his will to be central in their lives, they became holy. They needed God; God also needed them. We too know we need God. We should reflect sometimes that God also needs us. How else will his grace, goodness and love reach those who need it?
There was a time when the Legion was the main, if not the only parish group through which lay Catholics could express their faith by prayer and also by particular structured activity. There are now many parish organisations, each is unique. It is acknowledged however that the Legion of Mary has a special and exalted place in the history of the Church. It has a particular role, encouraging the laity to unite with Mary and inform the world of her Son’s love for them.
As you celebrate these 100 years, I congratulate you and I thank you for all you do for your parish and the Church. May Mary, Mother of the Church, intercede for you and bring blessings, encouragement and enthusiasm to your Praesidium.