The Real Challenge: Saving Souls

catenaConference to the Legion of Mary Catholic Youth ConferenceSunday, 30 August 2015 All Hallows College, Dublin

Many years ago a very wise Dominican Father gave me what he called a fundamental rule of preaching. «Never», he said, «go autobiographical». I have, I confess, broken the good Father’s rule, and this more than once, and so shall I break it again today. The year was, I think, 1963. I had been recruited into the Junior Legion of Mary in my home parish. The month of March came round, with the feast of the Annunciation of Our Lady, and our Junior Praesidium was invited to participate in the regional Acies ceremony.

The church was, as I recall, filled to capacity of Legionaries of all ages. Popular Catholicism had not yet suffered the assaults from within and from outside the Church that only a few years later would so contribute to its decline. Row by row, we went forward to the altar rail while a priest, vested in cotta and stole, made his away from one legionary to the next, holding in his hands that impressive symbol of the Legion’s mission, the vexillum. Placing one’s hands on the base of the vexillum, each one said: «I am all thine, my Queen and my Mother, and all that I have is thine».

6a2fe4e66bc99faa5feb9afaed3dd3c1Fifty–two years later, I am still experiencing the infusion of grace that came to me when, with all heart, I pronounced the prescribed words: «I am all thine, my Queen and my Mother, and all that I have is thine». I remember being inwardly seized by something powerful and life–changing: the grace of the Holy Spirit, I think, descending through Mary, the Mediatrix of all graces. The memory of that moment has never left me. The accidental details surrounding the event have become fuzzy with the passing years, but the substance of what happened in that moment remains, even now, vivid and actual. «I am all thine, my Queen and my Mother, and all that I have is thine».

underestimate the long–term effect of words uttered in response to an actual grace, a prompting of the Holy Spirit, a passing opportunity to say «yes» to God, like Mary, with Mary, through Mary. God takes such utterances seriously.  Our Lady receives them and holds them in her heart in view of the day when, we will find ourselves in need of the accumulated graces that have grown from the initial investment of ourselves.

Moments such as these, moments charged with grace, can determine the course of a lifetime. When one says to Mary, ««I am all thine, my Queen and my Mother, and all that I have is thine», everything changes; things impossible become possible; what is old becomes new; and what is new surpasses all that we deserve and desire. To give oneself to Mary is to give carte blanche to the Holy Spirit. To give oneself to Mary is to risk a stupendous adventure. To give oneself to Mary is to expose oneself, like Elijah on Mount Carmel, to a drenching rain. It is to open the doors and windows of one’s life to a mighty wind, like that of Pentecost. It is to find oneself with a tongue of fire over one’s head and with a mysterious burning in the heart. To all of these things, Frank Duff was no stranger, nor was Edel Quinn, nor was Alfie Lamb.

When one gives oneself to Mary, Mary draws one, quietly and almost imperceptibly into the grace of her mysteries — the very mysteries that we ponder in the Holy Rosary. We sang something enchanting in our Divine Office on the feast of the Assumption, August 15th: «In odorem unguentorum tuorum currimus — We run after thee, O Mary, drawn on by the fragrance of thy anointings». What are these fragrant anointings of Mary that the soul finds so irresistible? They are the manifold graces poured into Mary and, through Mary, poured into us by means of her mysteries. One cannot contemplate the mysteries of Mary, while quietly telling one’s beads, without picking up something of their fragrance, one whiff of which is enough to make want to share it with the world.

The pattern of the Catholic apostolate — every form and expression of outreach to souls — is given perfectly, sweetly, and for every age, in Mary and in the mysteries of her Rosary, beginning with the Annunciation and the Visitation.

What do we see in the Annunciation? Caryll Houselander saw a reed, perfectly hollow, all in readiness for the Breath of God that would pipe through its virginal emptiness the sound of the Word. Again, Caryll Houselander, looked at the Virgin of the Annunciation and saw a «bird’s nest built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird». She saw «the flowerlike chalice into which the purest water of humanity was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of love, and lifted up in sacrifice».

Looking at the Annunciation, we discover the beginning of every mission to souls: the impression of the Word of God. I never tire of looking at Blessed Angelico’s paintings of the Annunciation . . . if I could, I would bring them all here to you . . . or bring all of you to San Marco in Florence. Everything in Blessed Angelico’s depiction of the Virgin reveals her humble surrender to the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, her unconditional «Yes» to the impression of the Word. Mary is seated. The book of the Scriptures lies open in her lap. She is leaning forward in anticipation, listening, listening with every fibre of her being. Her hands are crossed over her breast: in receiving the Word, she already consents to the Cross and the «sword of sorrow» (Luke 2:35) that, according to old Simeon’s prophecy, will pierce her heart. The real challenge, the mission of saving souls begins here: not in much speaking, nor in much doing, but in the silence that allows one to hear the Word; in the littleness that allows one to receive the Word in all its vastness; in the anticipation that consents, ahead of time, to the Cross in whatever form it will take.

Impression and expression constitute the divinely ordered pattern apart from which souls cannot be reached, or touched, or changed, or lifted up, or healed, or restored to beauty, or opened to the splendour of the truth. With Mary, we begin to receive the impression of the Word when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit prompts us to say, «Be it done unto me according to Thy Word» (Luke 1:38). With Mary, we begin to give expression to the Word of God when, again, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we «rise up and go forth in haste» to say «My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour» (Luke 1:46).

In the life of the Legionary and, indeed, in the life of any Christian, there can be no expression of the Word without there first being a deep and lasting impression of the Word. Nemo dat quod non habet. One cannot give what one doesn’t have. If you want to give, begin by receiving. If you would receive, hold yourself very still beneath the outstretched hands of Mary, the Mediatrix of all graces. You will receive; and you will receive more than enough to give, and give, and keep on giving, «good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over» (Luke 6:38). 

On May 11, 2007, at the canonisation of a Brazilian Franciscan, Pope Benedict XVI uttered a momentous sentence:

There is no fruit of grace in the history of salvation that does not have as its necessary instrument the mediation of Our Lady.

This truth the Legion of Mary has always taught and lived. It needs, nonethless, to be brought home to each of us. Where Mary is present, nothing will be lacking. Where Mary is sought first, all the rest will be given besides. The initial impression — Christ in us — comes through Mary; the highest and most efficacious expression — Christ in us — comes through Mary.

The mission to souls begins from above; the mission begins in eternity; the mission begins in God and descends from God.

As the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted , above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.  (Isaias 55:9–11)

The proto–mission is the sending forth of the Word from the Father’s bosom into Mary’s virginal womb. So perfect, so intense, so real was this impression of the Word, first in Mary’s mind, and heart, that in her womb the Word became flesh. With the Son of God hidden in her womb, with His Heart beating beneath her heart, Mary rises up and hastens to the great encounter prepared for her by God. Saint John Paul writes of this mysterious encounter:

When, at the Visitation, Mary bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a ‹tabernacle›– the first ‹tabernacle› in history – in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light as it were through the eyes and the voice of Mary. (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, art. 55)

Visibly, Our Lady’s encounter was with Elizabeth; invisibly, it was the encounter of the Bridegroom with His friend; the encounter of Him who will baptize «in the Holy Ghost and fire» (Matthew 3:11) with him who will baptize with water; the encounter of «the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world» (Apocalypse 13:8) with the son of Zachary, priest of the Old Temple.

Mary opens her mouth to greet Elizabeth. A greeting in the mouth of the Mother of God is no little thing: «grace is poured abroad on her lips» (Psalm 44:3). A greeting in the mouth of a Legionary is no less a thing. A legionary is Mary’s emissary; he greets the soul in front of him in the grace of Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth. Such a greeting — even when it meets, at first, with closed doors, closed hearts, and the condescending irony of one putting up with a little madness — such a greeting, I say, bears within it the seeds of graces that, in due time and under the right conditions, will sprout, and flower, and bear fruit. You cannot save a soul whom you haven’t taken the time to greet. Would that we had the time today to go through the Bible and highlight all the greetings, the salutations, in which grace was secretly at work. There is a sense in which all of salvation history is a mysterious tale of greetings.

There are, I fear, in some Catholic circles, zealous types who give the impression of being perpetually in attack mode. Such people are, of course, earnest, sincere, doctrinally correct, and committed to the all the worthiest causes. They are also a bit frightening and grim, wound–up too tightly for their own good, and lacking in two essential apostolic virtues: epikeia and eutrapelia. The mission is to win souls, not to alienate them. Epikeia is the virtue by which tempers zeal with patience, and seriousness with good cheer.  Eutrapelia is the virtue of wholesome playfulness. One cannot save souls without first winning them, and one will not win them without first making oneself, in some way, and as best one can, winsome. Saint Philip Neri was winsome. Saint Francis de Sales was winsome. Saint Thérèse was winsome. Dublin’s own Blessed Columba Marmion was winsome.

Never was a creature more winsome than the Mother of God. This was the experience of Elizabeth:

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:41–44)

We must, I think, once and for all, put aside expectations that fifty or sixty years ago would have been reasonable in Catholic Ireland. God, for instance, meant something. People would have heard of the Holy Trinity. Children could identify Jesus and His Blessed Mother. The Blessed Sacrament inspired reverence and awe: the doffed cap and the bended knee. Notions from the catechism were not altogether forgotten, even by the not–particularly–devout.  When in the face of total ignorance of the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith, when, in the face of vice, or immorality, or impiety, our faces register shock, horror, and dismay, we rather resemble, I fear, that poor chap in the Gospel who thanked God that he was not like the rest of men (cf. Luke 18:11).

The spirit of the Legion of Mary is altogether something else. It is nothing less than the spirit of Mary herself whose greeting at the gate unleashed a joy so penetrating that it caused a baby in the womb to leap for joy.

To give oneself to Mary in her Legion is to take on a challenge that hasn’t changed since that fair spring day when Mary «rising up . . . went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda, and . . . entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth» (Luke 1:39–40): the challenge of saving souls — one soul at a time.

The spirit of the Legion of Mary is in her Magnificat: undiluted praise and a joy in God that falls upon thirsting souls like dew from heaven. The Magnificat is Mary’s overture to souls whom the world’s empty promises have left disillusioned, bitter, and hopeless.

•Mary comes in and says, «Are you then in need of great things? He that is mighty has done great things to me, and holy is His name». •Mary comes in and says, «Are you miserable? For every misery of yours there is mercy in abundance, for His mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear Him». •Mary comes in and says, «Are you as helpless as you are hopeless? Are you without power, influence, and connections? He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble». •Mary comes in and says, «Are you empty inside, aching for whatever will fill the void, hungering for good things, and incapable of Identifying what is lacking? He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away». •Mary comes in and says, «Have you been rejected, cast aside, snubbed, analysed, categorised, and pronounced unsalvageable? «He hath received (suscepit — the Latin word here means to take up into one’s arms in the way a father lifts up his little child) Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy».

There is something very grand — heady stuff — about wanting to launch a new crusade for the re–conversion of Ireland, the re–evangelisation of Europe, the conquest of the world for Christ. Great saints in every age, set ablaze by the Holy Spirit, have spoken of vast missionary enterprises, and rightly so, for the command of the Lord remains: «Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature» (Mark 16:15). This command of the Lord, unchanging, urgent, and compelling, admits — no requires — a diversity of responses, and these responses are themselves given by the Holy Spirit with a richness, and a diversity, and an opportuneness suited to every age, and culture, and place, and condition. And this, dear friends, is where the Legion of Mary comes in offering the hope and consolation of the Magnificat to one soul at a time.

Frank DuffThe particular grace of the Legion of Mary lies, precisely, in its adaptability to the needs of souls. The structures of the Legion, so carefully designed by Frank Duff, and transmitted by successive generations of Legionaries, are of proven value because they preserve, and foster, and deploy as many forms of approach as there are souls to be reached. Frank Duff was, as you know, never afraid of launching new initiatives. I am thinking of the Mercier Society for Protestants, and of The Pillar of Fire for Jews. Frank Duff was not afraid to extend the hand of friendship to neglected souls, to outcasts, to transgressors, and to a vast array of comic and tragic figures living outside any recognizable margins of Catholic life. When last I read his life story, I took away from it the certainty that if even one soul manifested a particular need, a need for God that was not being met by any existing organism in the Church, Frank Duff would have thrown himself headlong into inventing and carrying out whatever form of the apostolate that one soul required.

In the end, souls who have heard Mary’s greeting from your lips, souls who have heard Mary’s message in your rendition of her Magnificat, souls who have allowed Mary to cross the threshold of their homes and placed themselves, even for a moment, beneath her ourstretched hands, will come to the sacraments of the Church. In some cases, the sacraments may be a thrilling new discovery; in other cases, the sacraments will be rediscovered. In every case, in the sacraments souls will meet Christ.

There is a text of Saint Ambrose that has followed me throughout my life. It articulates, I think, the real objective of the Legion Mary in saving souls by bring them to the sacraments. Saint Ambrose says:

Face to face, thou hast made thyself known to me, O Christ; I have found thee in thy sacraments.

Today, more than ever before, the mission of the Legion of Mary is to save souls by bringing them face–to–face with Christ in the sacraments. Grace will perfect the work begun. Grace will do all the rest. Where Mary is present in the beginning, grace will never be lacking along the way, nor in the end, for where Mary is, there too is the Church, and where the Church is, there is Christ. «And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace» (John 1:16).