Legion of Mary Founded Years Before ‘New Movements’

Parishes and Movements Series, Part 5

HIGHLAND, N.Y. — Before she joined the Legion of Mary, Maureen Breslin had benefited from the good works of the parish-based group, though she didn’t know it at the time.

When her husband was suffering from terminal cancer last year, members of the Legion at her parish, St. Augustine’s in Highland, N.Y., had visited him in the hospital. After he died in November 2004, Breslin, a mother of two young children, was grieving and despondent. Her pastor, Father Larry Paolicelli, recommended that she join the Legion of Mary group he had just begun at the parish.

“I came to my first meeting and they read the minutes from the last meeting, which included a report from two Legion members who had visited my husband before he died,” Breslin recalled. “I never knew this had happened, and I was so moved to the heart that these two people who were strangers to me at the time would visit my husband and pray the Rosary with him. I knew then that I was meant to be a part of the Legion.”

She now heads up the parish’s Junior Legion of Mary for young people, which has grown quickly to 24 enthusiastic members, including her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

Over the past year, Breslin says, she has received more than she has given.

“The Legion has sustained me since my husband died,” she said. “It got me through a very rough time, when I didn’t know how I would go forward. Every time I went out to do a good work with the Legion, I was lifted up in spirit and humbled by the grace of God. It helped me to see God’s hand in my life and the life of my family.”

Father Paolicelli, who has been pastor of the Highland parish for more than two years, told the Register that Breslin’s experience is a powerful, but not unusual, example of what the Legion of Mary can do in the lives of members.

“As the Legion handbook states at the beginning, the primary purpose of the Legion is the sanctification of its members,” he said. “All of our meetings, prayers and apostolic outreach is geared toward making our members holy, and through them, spreading that holiness through the parish and then to the larger community. That is the Legion way, and it has been working in the Church for many, many years.”

The Legion of Mary is often grouped with the “new ecclesial movements” welcomed and blessed by Pope John Paul II as part of the New Evangelization, though it was founded in Ireland in 1921, 40 years before the Second Vatican Council.

In fact, Legion founder Frank Duff, whose cause for sainthood has been opened, attended the council as one of the few lay auditors and received an ovation from the council fathers for his pioneering work with the lay apostolate.

From a humble start in Dublin, where Duff and his first members visited prisoners and worked with abandoned women, the Legion has grown to a worldwide organization with some 3 million active members and many more praying, or auxiliary, members.

Pentecost Gathering

On Pentecost this year, Pope Benedict XVI will meet with members of new ecclesial movements from around the world. The Register is looking at how these movements help parishes.

Pope John Paul II also gathered members of renewal movements on Pentecost 1998. He also addressed the relationship between parishes and new movements in his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America:

“One way of renewing parishes, especially urgent for parishes in large cities, might be to consider the parish as a community of communities and movements,” he wrote. “It seems timely therefore to form ecclesial communities and groups of a size that allows for true human relationships. This will make it possible to live communion more intensely, ensuring that it is fostered not only ad intra, but also with the parish communities to which such groups belong, and with the entire diocesan and universal Church.

“In such a human context, it will be easier to gather to hear the word of God, to reflect on the range of human problems in the light of this word, and gradually to make responsible decisions inspired by the all-embracing love of Christ,” the Pope wrote. “The institution of the parish, thus renewed, can be the source of great hope. It can gather people in community, assist family life, overcome the sense of anonymity, welcome people and help them to be involved in their neighborhood and in society. In this way, every parish, and especially city parishes, can nowadays promote a more person-centered evangelization and better cooperate with other social, educational and community work.”

Duff fashioned the organization on the Roman military with a chain of authority, using Latin names, to stress that laypeople are members of the Church militant, fighting through spiritual and corporal means against sin and the devil. Thus, the parish praesidium reports to the larger curia, which reports to the regional senatus, which reports to the international headquarters in Dublin.

Heart of Work

The heart of the Legion is the handbook — a Duff masterpiece of Scriptural quotations, writings of the saints and common sense based on his study of human nature — which every member is required to read, follow and take to heart. Active membership requires attendance at a weekly hour-long meeting and at least two hours of apostolic activity based on the corporal works of mercy. The group’s adopted patron is St. Louis Marie de Montfort, whose motto “To Jesus through Mary” informs all Legion activities.

Brian Collins, president of the praesidium, who has been a St. Augustine parishioner since 1970, said the Legion has changed the life of the parish and his own life.

“It was pretty active here before the Legion was started, but a lot of the activities were social or service in nature. The Legion of Mary is more spiritual, and it has opened up a new spiritual avenue for so many people.”

Collins, 60, admitted that he did not have a great devotion to Mary before joining the Legion in 2004. Now he prays the Legion prayers and Rosary every day with his wife, who is an auxiliary member.

“I prayed the Rosary maybe once a month, if that, but now praying the Rosary every day has brought me closer to Jesus. When you meditate on the mysteries, you are constantly living through the life of Christ.”

In its first annual report, the group listed 505 door-to-door visitations to non-parishioners in the area, 140 nursing home visits and 48 prayer vigils outside a nearby Planned Parenthood business, among other works.

“The door-to-door visits were the most intimidating for our members, because we had never done anything like it,” Collins said. “But Father Larry encouraged us to do it in a non-threatening way that made us comfortable, and now there are a number of people we visited who have come back to church.”

Known as “the Legion of Mary priest” throughout the New York Archdiocese, Father Paolicelli has formed a Legion group wherever he has been assigned. When he taught religion at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, he formed students in a Junior Legion and was spiritual director for the Legion’s New York Senatus. He formed an adult group at St. Mary’s in Katonah, N.Y., and now as pastor of St. Augustine’s, he is making the adult and junior groups the model for all parish works.

“The key is that we do everything under the mantle of Mary and in the spirit of her Son,” said Father Paolicelli. “The Legion offers laypeople the chance to get involved in the works of the Church, to develop an active prayer life and to get regular spiritual direction from a priest during the weekly meetings. It’s a complete package, and I consider it vital to my work as a priest.”

He added, “It really anticipated Vatican II in terms of forming an active and involved laity that works with the pastor to build up the Church and the community.”

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.


At a Glance

Movement: The Legion of Mary, www.legion-of-mary.ie

Founding: Frank Duff, an Irish layman, founded the Legion in 1921. The primary purpose of the Legion is the sanctification of its members.

Character: Duff fashioned the organization on the Roman military with a chain of authority, using Latin names, to stress that laypeople are members of the Church militant, fighting through spiritual and corporal means against sin and the devil.

How it fits in: Members belong to a parish praesidium, which reports to a larger curia, which reports to the regional senatus, which reports to the international headquarters in Dublin.

Acclaim: “Yours is an eminently Marian spirituality, not only because the Legion glories in carrying Mary’s name as its unfurled banner, but above all because it bases its methods of spirituality and apostolate on the dynamic principle of union with Mary, on the truth of the intimate participation of the Virgin Mary in the plan of salvation,” said Pope John Paul II in an address to Italian Legionaires in 1982. “In other words you intend to render your service to every person, who is the image of Christ, with the spirit and the solicitude of Mary.”

Pope Benedict XVI: “The local Churches and the movements are notseparate realities, but rather both constitute the living structure of the Church.” — Address to German bishops at the closing of World Youth Day in Cologne in August 2005