Allocutio at July 2017 Concilium Meeting by Fr. Bede McGregor OP
What is the Purpose of the Legion of Mary?
Sometimes I am asked by non-legionaries who are curious about the Legion: What is the specific purpose of the Legion? What does it do? What is its main focus or aim? Why precisely was it founded? Why as a priest are you so committed to the Legion? Basically I answer by saying that the purpose of the Legion is to help its members and as many other people as possible to become saints. That often elicits a bemused look or a wry smile as if to say that purpose is a bit impractical or unattainable, a kind of spiritual fantasising. Another way of responding to the questions is to say that the Legion helps to get its members into heaven and as many other people as possible. If you are not really and truly trying to enter heaven and bring others with you then you are truly in a very perilous situation and where do you think you are heading?
There can be no doubt that Frank Duff spent his whole life with the primary aim of becoming a Saint and helping others to become Saints too. As a young man he wrote a pamphlet with the title: ‘Can we be Saints?’ His answer was an emphatic Yes. His opening words are: ‘In the heart of every right-thinking Catholic, God has implanted the desire to become a Saint. Yet few make a serious attempt to realise this ambition. The cause of this is to a large extent discouragement, due to misunderstanding of what a Saint really is.’ Several times the Handbook states very bluntly and with unmistakeable conviction that the primary aim of the Legion is to make Saints or to assist its members to holiness. So we read for instance: ‘It should be brought home to members that their own holiness is not only the main object of the Legion but also the mainspring of the Legion’s work.’
Of course, many saints and spiritual writers say the same thing. Saint Teresa of Calcutta wrote: ‘Holiness is not something extraordinary; it is not the luxury of the few. Holiness is the simple duty of each one of us.’ The Handbook cites the solemn teaching of the Vatican Council 11: ‘All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love. All the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their own state of life.’ All reform and renewal of the Church and of course the Legion too must go back to this teaching on the universal call to holiness; to the truth that we are all created and called to be saints, that is to spend eternity with God in perfect happiness in heaven. But of course, the Church and the Legion are not only focussed on our life in the next world but on striving to be Saints while still in this world. It is striving to be saints in this world that precisely leads to be Saints in eternity. The new evangelisation needs Christians who make the striving for holiness the primary goal of their lives. Frank Duff writes in the Handbook: ‘But if as Father Faber says, one saint is worth a million ordinary Catholics; and if as Saint Teresa of Avila tells us, one soul, not a saint seeking sanctity, is more precious to God than thousands living common lives, how delightful then, the achievement of setting the first steps of many in the path that turns aside from the ordinary rut.’ In other words the specific goal of the Legion is to try and turn people from immersion in a soulless mediocrity to an authentic Christian way of life.
Let me give another answer to the question as to the fundamental purpose of the Legion. It comes from Cardinal Suenens: ‘The legion of Mary aims simply at the living of normal Catholicism. We say ‘normal’; we do not say ‘average’. In these days there is a tendency to think that the ‘normal’ Catholic is one who practices his religion altogether for his own sake without taking any active interest in the salvation of his brethren. To judge thus would be to caricature the real Catholic, and indeed Catholicism itself. Average Catholicism is not normal Catholicism. It would seem to be necessary to subject it to a close scrutiny, to a process of revision, this prevalent notion of ‘good Catholic’ or ‘practising Catholic’. One is not a Catholic if one falls below a certain apostolic minimum, and this indispensable minimum, on which will depend the Last Judgement, is not being reached by the mass of so-called practicing Catholics. Therein is a tragic situation; therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding.’
So far I have stressed the universal call to sanctity. Holiness is not only possible or even only probable but should be the normal flowering of an authentic Christian life. God has created us to be saints, he has died for us to be saints, he has given us the Gift of the Holy Spirit who is the primary cause of all holiness, he has given us his Triune Self in the Eucharist and the other Sacraments and he upholds us in every detail of our lives by his providence with a view to sainthood. But though we are chosen to be saints by God we do not necessarily choose to accept God’s invitation. We have been the gift of free will and need to cooperate with God’s lavish grace. I have hinted at the essential apostolic nature of a saintly life in the words of Cardinal Suenens. But I must leave to another time to reflect further on Frank Duff’s definition of holiness.. However, I must say that our Founder arrived at his understanding of sanctity by reading and studying and praying the lives of the Saints. He quotes 62 saints and blessed in the Handbook and must have been familiar with hundreds more through his daily recitation of the whole Divine Office for more than fifty years. He writes: ‘Well written lives of Saints provide a good introduction to the spiritual life. They provide a headline which would draw us on to goodness and heroism. Saints are the doctrines and practices of holiness made visible. If we frequent their company, we will soon imitate their qualities.’
Finally, I should say something on the role of Mary in becoming a Saint, especially in the context of the Legion. Mary is an essential part of holiness whenever and wherever it is found or sought. However, that too must wait for another time. Let me just end with a short quotation from Saint Augustine as found in the Handbook: ‘Mary is the mother of all the members of the Saviour, because by her charity she has cooperated in the birth of the faithful in the Church. Mary is the living mould of God, that is to say, it is in her alone that the God-Man was naturally formed without losing a feature, so to speak, of His Godhead; and it is in her alone that man can be properly and in a lifelike way turned into God, so far as human nature is capable of this by the grace of Jesus Christ.’