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Shaking hands with a Prophet

HAVE you ever shaken hands with a prophet? If your idea of a prophet is one of those doom and gloom merchants from the Old Testament, then the answer is No, but if, like me, you have had the good fortune to meet a man of faith and vision then the answer could be Yes.

Many Irish people of my generation were fortunate enough to get to know Padre Pio, who was undoubtedly a prophetic witness to the Faith. However, it’s unlikely that they shook hands with him, due to the stigmata which he carried.

So, while I envy them their close association with such a saintly person, I content myself with the memory of the man I shook hands with back in the early 1960s.

I was working as a trainee journalist on The Irish Catholic when I was sent from the paper’s offices, which were then in Lower Gardiner Street, across to the Morning Star Hostel in North Brunswick Street. My mission was either to deliver a message to Frank Duff or to collect a message from him. At this remove, I’m not sure which, but it doesn’t matter – I was granted a few moments’ conversation with the founder of the Legion of Mary.

I had cycled across from Gardiner Street, and this must have made a good impression on that saintly man, for he was a keen cyclist himself. An unprepossessing figure, I have a clear recollection of him talking to me as I stood beside my bike, keen to be on my way.

The conversation was one-sided, as I had all the shyness of the adolescent and was also unaware of the true greatness of the man doing the talking. Some years later when I was more aware of his stature in Irish life, I wrote to him requesting an interview, but it somehow never materialised.

On that first brief meeting, though, Frank made a direct approach. “Have you thought of joining the Legion?” he asked.

It was a time for quick thinking. I thought of the pleasure I received from playing football and hurling, and how time spent on Legion work might militate against my ambitions in those sports.

“I have,” I responded, “but I won’t join until I am able to give it the time the work deserves to do it right.”

Frank didn’t argue the point, we shook hands and he waved me off. In Legion terms what he had done comes under the heading of ‘symbolic action’. He had planted the seed, and it blossomed at a later date.

In any vote for Irishman of the 20th century, Frank Duff would be near the top of the poll. He was a man of incredible vision, who had a wonderful effect on the lives of many people worldwide.

Like many people of vision, he was ahead of his time. His blueprint for the lay apostolate, which he laid down in the 1920s through his foundation of the Legion of Mary, only became official Church policy in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council at which he was an honoured observer.

Not so well known these days is his ecumenical work. With the Mercier Society and the Pillar of Fire Society, he reached out to Protestants and Jews respectively at a time when relations were not as cordial as they are now. In that regard, his work foreshadowed that of the Council again, although he had to stop it in the 1940s because of his failure to receive Hierarchical approval.

Seeing the need for Catholics to develop their Faith, and to be able to articulate its doctrines, he founded the Patrician movement. In hindsight, if the hierarchy had put their weight behind the Patricians we might not have the present lost generation of young people whose knowledge of the Faith leaves so much to be desired.

Back in the 1950s, of course, with the seminaries so full of students for the priesthood that the dioceses couldn’t accommodate them all, it was hard to see an end to the great days of the Church in Ireland. However, once again, Frank Duff’s prophetic words struck a note of caution.

In an address to the priests and students of Maynooth College in the mid-50s, he reminded them of the fate of the Church in France, where the Faith was lost in a country once known as the Daughter of the Church within a 15-year period. Don’t think the same can’t happen in Ireland, he warned. Prophetic words, as we have seen, over the past 20 years.

I’ll end on one further example of Frank Duff’s prophetic powers, and one that I heard during my tenure as a Legion officer in the 1960s. In the turmoil which followed the Second Vatican Council, he stated that the next great heresy would be the belief that “one religion is as good as another.”

The evidence is everywhere around us that this heresy has taken root, even in some quite surprising places. And it is intimately connected with the vocations crisis. In the past, Catholic boys and girls were convinced that theirs was the one, true Faith, and that there was a need to share this news with the rest of the world. Now, with the promotion of the ‘one religion as good as another’ heresy, the urgency to spread the Gospel has been dissipated.

It would be a good thing to pray to Frank Duff for enlightenment in our present troubles – in life, his fertile brain addressed many of the Church’s problems; in death, I’m sure his influence can be even greater.

© Seán Ryan, 2008

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