Witness and teacher of Marian spirituality, Frank Duff was the founder of a lay apostolic organization at the service of the Church, now spread over five continents: the Legion of Mary. Witness and teacher, not so much by his doctrinal writings, which are few in number, but by the forceful and original way he understood and evaluated the apostolic dynamism of genuine devotion to Mary. Witness and teacher, by his missionary continuity of the works of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, ie. The Treatise on the True Devotion to Mary. Duff initially challenged Montfort’s spirituality, and then he found the truth and inspiration in it for action that would make him one of the major Marian figures of the Church of the 20th century.
The Life of Frank Duff
Born in Dublin on June 7, 1889, Frank Duff was the eldest of seven children to John Duff and Susan Freehill. His father and his mother were both civil servants in the British Civil Service and both were quite keen intellects. They were a well to do family because Frank’s grand-uncle, who had emigrated during the 1847 famine, and made a fortune in America, left it to John Duff’s father. Frank’s grandfather was a school-teacher and used the money to acquire a large library of books which in turn were passed on to John and of course to which Frank had access as he grew up.
At Blackrock College in Dublin, Frank was an excellent student. Frank excelled in languages and modern literature. Although a good sportsman, Frank was shy when it came to drama or any form of oratory. He had the misfortune of being hit behind the ear by a cricket ball during these years which impaired his hearing for the rest of his life–and which was a great cross to him.
Frank’s life was not without its share of tragedy. During his school years, both Frank and his father caught typhoid. Frank recovered but his father was forced to retire through ill-health at the age of 42 on only a partial pension. Susan, his mother had already left work to raise her family. Frank thus became the bread-winner of the family as soon as he left school in 1907. He too joined the civil service. Two of his sisters died in childhood. And, while his two other sisters, financed by Frank, studied to become doctors, one of them too became sickly and had to remain at home with the family. Frank soon became a respected man in the civil service. He possessed a keen intellect, a strong sense of discipline and a good sense of humor.
Brilliant, religious, modest and efficient!
Frank grew in wisdom and knowledge in his faith too at this time. He loved to read and he devoured book after book on the lives of the saints. He was faithful to Mass and to his rosary and often visited a church while he was young, but it was not until he joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1913 at the age of 24 that his faith took a new turn.
Normally a high-society man, Frank was now exposed to the real poverty of Dublin of that time. Many who lived in tenement squalor were forced to attend soup kitchens for sustenance and some of the natural consequences of abject poverty, alcoholism and prostitution were rife in Dublin. In 1916, aged 27, he published his first pamphlet “Can we be Saints?” In it he expressed one of the strongest convictions of his life, namely, that all without exception are called to be saints and that through our Catholic faith we have available all the means necessary to attain this.
In 1917 he discovered the Treatise of St Louis Marie de Montfort on the True Devotion to Mary, a work which changed his life completely. On September 7, 1921, Frank Duff founded the Legion of Mary. This is a lay apostolic organization at the service of the Church, under ecclesiastical guidance. Its twofold purpose is the spiritual development of its members and advancing the reign of Christ through Our Lady.
The Spirituality of Frank Duff
Having joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1913, the following Lent of 1914, Frank decided to go to Mass every day but was not satisfied to stop at Easter Sunday and continued his daily attendance at Mass thereafter. Frank attended his first enclosed retreat in 1913 with the SVP and was deeply moved by it. He subsequently organized two retreats every year and made his annual retreat in Mount Mellary every year for 48 years until he was unable to make the journey.
Frank himself writing to Pope Paul VI in 1964 was able to say that from 1914 he never failed to miss his daily rosary. Spiritual reading was an important part of his every day life as has already been mentioned but he coupled this with regular confession and spiritual direction. From 1915 to 1922, Fr. Robert Bradshaw tells us that Frank used to spend 4 hours every day in prayer. He used to make a lunch-time holy hour while at work, and all this time he was under the direction of a Jesuit priest by the name of Fr. Michael Brown.
Cause for beatification
The official petition to introduce the cause for the beatification of Mr. Duff was accepted and signed by his grace Archbishop Desmond Connell in July 1996.
Frank Duff is now known under the title Servant of God. One of the major stages in the process for a person to be declared a saint is the verification of heroic sanctity by means of a detailed investigation through the appropriate office in Rome formalized by the issue of a solemn decree. The person may then be said to be a Venerable–which means to be regarded with awe, e.g. Edel Quinn. The next step requires an authentic and irrefutable miracle (or two) in order to declare the venerable as blessed. Finally, canonization itself is a declaration by the Pope that a deceased person is raised to the full honors of the altar, that is, a saint. Two miracles credited to the beatus are usually required before canonization to attest the heroic virtue of the saint. Where, beatification allows veneration of the blessed, canonization requires it. The canonization is usually celebrated at St Peter’s.