In a recent interview, a former member of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Thomas Berg, addressed both the strengths and weaknesses within the Legion as well as what must occur for it to move past the scandals of its founder.
Fr. Thomas Berg, now a priest of the Archdiocese of New York as well as director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, was interviewed by Sandro Magister this past Monday.
Fr. Berg discussed the Legion of Christ and the Apostolic Visitation of the order that begins today, July 15. The visits are taking place due to recent information regarding the “double life” of the Legion’s founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel.
Fr. Berg explained to CNA that he has decided to share his thoughts on the Legion now because there are “still a number of things which, in conscience, I believe should be said publicly. Now seemed to be the right time, and the interview offer looked like a proper venue.”
In the interview, Fr. Berg explained to Magister that he is hopeful for the Legion, now that the visitations have been announced. Though it will be difficult, he noted, “I believe it is possible that a majority of these wonderful men and women will rise to the occasion because they really do have a profound love for Christ in their hearts.”
The Legion of Christ consists of priests, called “Legionaries of Christ” and a lay movement, “Regnum Christi.”
Fr. Berg went on to suggest that the visitors appointed by the Vatican can “help the Legionaries engage in an honest and objective self-critique.” He expressed hope that the Legion can move beyond what he calls “group think” which has grown within their culture.
“That inability to see and honestly recognize the flaws and errors that so many people outside the Legion are able to see speaks volumes,” Berg noted. Once the Legion can see its errors, it can then begin to reform “itself from within.”
Berg noted that one of the issues that needs to be addressed within the Legion is a “mistaken understanding and living of the theological principle - in itself valid - that God's will is made manifest to the religious through his superior.”
He believes that the Legionary seminarian is led to a “hyper” dependence upon his superior for too many of his decisions.
Fr. Berg continued by explaining that this belief that the seminarian holds “entails rather an unhealthy suppression of personal freedom” and can occasionally be an “unhealthy” restriction on personal conscience.
“Furthermore,” Berg added, “Legionary norms regarding "reporting to," "informing," "communication with," and "dependence on" superiors constitute a system of control and conformity which now must be considered highly suspect given what we know about Fr. Maciel.”
This type of mentality, which “suspends reason in the obedience” encouraged the “cult of personality” to emerge which led to the development of Maciel’s persona, and allowed his “misdeeds” to remain hidden, he said.
“Granted, the primary motivation behind such living of obedience is the ideal of total ‘immolation’ of oneself for the love of Christ as embodied in the relentless living of all norms and indications of the superiors,” Berg explained.
While their motivation is “valid,” over time it has proven to become “problematic.”
Fr. Berg also noted a few items of concern that he hoped the apostolic visitors would look into such as why priests were meeting for a two-month retreat in Cotija, Michocan Mexico and why they are continuing to “engage in vocation work” at the present time.
One of Berg’s “deepest concerns” is that Legionary seminarians cannot adequately discern their vocation because they need a “complete presentation of the basic facts of Fr. Maciel's double life” and an “honest admission on the part of the major superiors of the Legion's errors.”
The Question of the Legion's Charism
A question of great relevance for members of Regnum Christi and the Legionaries “is the question of the charism,” the former Legionary priest noted.
He said there is a need for the Church to “reaffirm the validity of an institutional charism in the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi.” Berg believes that Regnum Christi members need to know if there “really was a genuine charism inspired by the Holy Spirit” that created the Legion and Regnum Christi, or whether the Church witnessed a “phenomenon of the Legion was rather God simply drawing much good out of a primarily human and deeply flawed enterprise.”
This issue, Berg said, “is very serious” and is “unprecedented in the history of the Church.” His hope is that the Holy See's visitors will find useful information that will assist the Church in discerning the authenticity of the Legion charism.
Looking toward the future, Fr. Berg acknowledged that docility must be the strength that the Legion must rely on to move forward. “If the Legion is true to its word, then the Church should be able to count on the docility of Legionaries and Regnum Christi members to embrace whatever is ultimately determined about them and their future.”
Berg said he believes that “The Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi are composed of hundreds of good, holy men and women of God” and prays that the Holy See will arrive at “proper discernment of the most adequate solution for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement.”
Finally, responding to the question of whether or not the Legion can survive without the “model” provided by Maciel, Fr. Berg placed his trust in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
“The Holy Spirit could surely raise up a group of Legionaries - cofounders who have disassociated themselves interiorly from Fr. Maciel - who, under the Spirit's inspiration, could provide model lives for future members and direct a new generation of Legionaries to draw from the rich treasure trove of religious spirituality which is the Church's patrimony.”
“This could also be transmitted to the Regnum Christi movement,” he concluded.