Frank Duff – Founder

Frank Duff – June 7, 1889 – November 7, 1980

Founded the Legion of Mary on September 7, 1921

There are a couple of basic questions that we need to ask about Frank Duff and the process for the Cause of his beatification.

 Why do we want Frank Duff beatified?

What is the reason for spending so much time and energy on the Cause when there are so many other forms of apostolic work that might seem more urgent and necessary?  One reason is that the prayer and work involved in the process of beatification is itself a tremendous form of evangelization.  We are not simply eulogizing Frank Duff, but we wish to spread the message that he taught and lived.

What he stood for is what is important.

One pivotal purpose in the beatification of a man or woman is to make their message heard loudly throughout the Church.  We might get some idea why it is good to promote the beatification of men and women from the words of Frank Duff himself.  He writes:

“We must read the lives of the saints. God’s purpose in bringing about the canonization of saints was to 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.”

Evangelization is surely making the teaching of the Gospel and the Christian way of life visible and accessible to as many people as possible.

What are the main elements in his message and spirituality?

Let me stress just one or two points in his message.  The first published work of Frank Duff was the pamphlet entitled “Can We Be Saints?”  His answer was a resounding Yes.

Everyone, without exception, is made and called to be a saint and the means are readily accessible to all in the everyday living of the Catholic life.

That is their very first job – to try to be a saint.  If we are not really trying to be saints, then to that extent we are wasting the gift of our lives.  It is no good, he used to say, to ask men and women to be good, you have to ask them to be heroic.  He founded the Legion of Mary as a school of sanctity.

For nearly all his life, Frank lived in close, daily contact with the men and women who lived in the hostels he founded.  He cared for their material needs and tried to ease the profound pain at the heart of their lives.  But above all he wanted each one of them to go to Heaven and so he provided them with access to all the means that the Church offers them.  Frank looked up to each individual because he saw Christ in them.

I knew Mother Teresa reasonably well during my ten years in India and met her often at various places on my travels.  Frank Duff had the same regard and love of the poor that she possessed and above all wanted them to live and die in the state of sanctifying grace.

He wanted everyone, to be authentically holy.  In short, he believed with all his mind and heart in what the Second Vatican Council referred to as the universal call to holiness.

For Frank the universal call to holiness necessarily includes the universal call to evangelization or mission.  There is endless joy in being an instrument, with God’s grace, in bringing even one soul to Heaven.  Frank sought to bring all souls to Heaven or at least as many as possible.  I think it could be argued that his desire for the salvation of souls was the deepest thrust in his spirituality.

The salvation of souls dominates the life of every saint.  Frank found it difficult to imagine how you could save your own soul without seeking to save the souls of others.

The desire to save souls defines also the reason why he founded the Legion of Mary.  He adapted the prayer attributed to St. Francis Xavier for the Conversion of the Whole World as follows:

“O Lord all hearts are in Your hands.  You can bend as it pleases You the most obdurate and soften the most hardened.  Do that honor this day to the blood, merits, wounds, names and inflamed hearts of Your Beloved Son and His Most Holy Mother by granting the conversion of the whole world.  Nothing less, my God, nothing less, because of Mary, their Mother; because of Your might and Your mercy.

Frank Duff was great in the small things, and heroic in doing the commonplace, and his purpose in all things great and small was his immense desire to love God and to be an instrument with and through Mary and the Holy Spirit in the conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls.”

— Fr. Bede McGregor O.P.

His message is radically rooted in the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church.  This is why it is so important.

Early Years    

Francis Michael Duff was born on 7 June 1889.  He was the eldest of seven, two of whom died as children.  He attended both Belvedere and Blackrock Colleges and was a gifted student.  However, due to his father’s premature illness, money was in short supply and a university education was no longer an option.  Frank joined the Civil Service taking first place in the entrance examination. He was assigned to the Department of Finance, devised a system of calculus which was subsequently adopted by the Treasury in London.  He was a keen cyclist, played tennis and enjoyed a good social life.  He was invited by a colleague to join the St. Vincent de Paul Society and in October 1913 joined at the age of 24.  He was affected by the chasm he saw between the society he moved in and the poverty, hunger and squalor he witnessed.  He attended an enclosed retreat and was impressed by what he heard.  Accustomed to reading copiously he started reading more spiritual and theological books about God, and the saints.

Besides the physical needs of the people he encountered, Frank saw that many neglected the practice of the faith and needed encouragement.  In 1914, in parallel to this work with the St Vincent de Paul Society, Frank commenced his own personal apostolate visiting tenement houses where he received a kindly welcome.  Proselytism was rife in Dublin at the time.  SVP member, Joe Gabbett and some women set up an alternative food center for those in need.  Frank involved himself in this work.

Frank joined the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart.  In 1915 he joined the Third Order of the Carmelites and made the first of 49 pilgrimages to St Patrick’s Island Lough Derg.  In 1916 he wrote a booklet “Can We Be Saints”, his thesis being “in the heart of every right-thinking Catholic, God has implanted the desire to become a saint.”  That same year the Easter Rising took place and a turbulent period of history followed by the War of Independence in Ireland from 1917 to 1921.

In 1917 he found a second-hand copy of “True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary” by St Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, the contents of which he found difficult to come to terms with at first.  In 1919 he went to Mount Melleray Cistercian Abbey and read a book entitled “The Knowledge of Mary” by Fr. de Consilio, that opened up a new world for him.  It gave him a theological knowledge of Our Lady which was assumed in St Louis de Montfort’s book.

Frank Duff served in several Government departments until 1932 when he retired from the Civil Service to give his complete attention to the Legion of Mary, which, after the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, was expanding worldwide.