Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thoughts on the Legion of Christ

Back during the Jubilee Year in 2000, I had my first encounter with the Legionaries of Christ while I was studying in Europe. One of their priests, Fr. Patrick Murphy L.C., and two brothers at the time, Brother Jonathan (now Fr. Jonathan Morris L.C. who appears as a religious correspondent for FOX News from time to time) and Brother Sebastian, provided spiritual direction to our group of college students. I was very impressed with their orthodoxy and charisma. Our group visited the Legion seminary in Rome and had the opportunity and honor, or so we thought at the time, of meeting the legendary Fr. Marcial Maciel who had founded the order in the 1940s. The young Legionaries had such an awestruck reverence for the man. It was really quite moving. We imagined ourselves in the presence of a truly holy man, a veritable Ignatius of Loyola or Francis of Assisi. I remember thinking there was a spiritual aura about the man. Consequently, I returned home from Europe full of zeal and fervor for the faith, not to mention an unshakable confidence in the Legion. When my Confirmation sponsor, a Jesuit priest, and my mother voiced concern about the Legion, I brushed aside their criticism as being simply misinformed or excessively protective, and advocated for the Legion as a priestly order akin to what the Jesuits used to be. This was hurtful to the priest, as I intended, and I greatly regret those words to this day. That should have been the first sign that something was amiss with the Legion, or at least its founder.

At any rate, later that year the Legionaries invited some Sewanee students to attend a retreat on a houseboat in Kentucky. It was a very spiritually rewarding experience for me. Shortly thereafter some brothers stopped in Sewanee on their way to Atlanta and urged me to drop out of Sewanee and join their novitiate in Cheshire. I declined for financial and personal reasons. I didn’t mind their aggressive approach. Quite to the contrary, I felt honored as a matter of fact, and this really spurred me on to contemplate a priestly vocation. I wasn’t sure about the Legionaries, as I had grown up under the influence of the Jesuits and Basilians, so I went on a spiritual retreat with the Jesuits at Grand Coteau in Louisiana over Thanksgiving. After much prayer, I did not hear God’s call to the priesthood, but I was really glad that I had given it serious thought because Holy Mother Church needs good men to serve the faithful. My positive view of the Legion had not been tarnished yet either. I held them in very high regard.

I put thoughts of the Legion behind me, however, as I entered the workforce as a teacher at St. Thomas in 2002. I didn’t really think of the priesthood much any more, and there weren’t any Legionaries in close proximity to my place of work or parish, so there was no opportunity for further involvement with the order. It was with much dismay that I began to hear gossip about possible scandalous behavior linked to Fr. Maciel. These whispers seemed justified, if not proved, by Pope Benedict XVI’s disciplining of the cleric in 2006. Then there came more and more revelations of his double life after his death in 2008. Finally, this past year, there was an apostolic visit of the order by senior Vatican officials to address what must be done about the order given the emergent truths about its founder.

Frankly, I grew rather disillusioned with the Legion of Christ as these events unfolded. It made me review and reflect upon my prior experience in Europe in a different light. I still think that the priests I met were stellar men of the cloth. Fr. Morris and Fr. Murphy are outstanding priests. Moreover, I am sure that there are many other great priests and seminarians in the order. I do think, though, that the reverence for Fr. Maciel was misplaced and there really was a perverse cult of personality at play in the order. This cultish reverence for a Bunburyist, such as Fr. Maciel, infected other aspects of the order. Many of the order’s practices have come under heavy scrutiny and rightly so. Perhaps they were too aggressive in retrospect. Thank God, I wasn’t so imprudent as to abandon my education to join the priesthood for the wrong reasons under the spell of a man who has been utterly discredited and shamed. Others have written eloquently about the suppression of individuality and the almost cookie cutter cloning process that takes place at religious centers, such as the one at Cheshire, that I might have attended.

I don’t feel the need to rag further on the Legion, though, because as I said before, there are many noble men working for the order. I think they deserve a great deal of prayer. These are men whose lives still possess great value and whose vocations are likely genuine. They have much to give, but they need direction and guidance. I’m not sure if dismantling the order is the right thing to do, but they do need a drastic overhaul and perhaps a reworking of their fundamental charism and bureaucratic infrastructure. They need to rethink what it means to be a Legionary of Christ without reference to Fr. Maciel in any way whatsoever. In other words, they should focus on being a foot soldier for Christ and should cast off the broken image of a broken man. If they can do that, then they have a real future in Holy Mother Church. If not, the order should sadly be dissolved and its members incorporated into other religious orders or individual dioceses.

In closing, God bless the Legion of Christ and God help Fr. Macial Maciel, for Christ died for him, too.

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