The Legion of Christ is not yet back on its feet, but signs are coming from Rome that a slow and certain renewal is taking place.
The religious congregation founded by Father Marcial Maciel in 1941 in Mexico City is known for its regimented brand of Catholicism and enthusiastic evangelization. After decades of building a large and respected international presence, the Legion has been reeling in recent years from revelations of its founder's "double life” — including grave sexual and financial abuses.
Next month, the Legion will begin a new phase in its ongoing rehabilitation under the watchful eyes of Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, a Vatican delegate specially appointed last July by Pope Benedict XVI.
February will see the launch of a series of detailed “community reflections,” in Legion communities, the congregation’s Rome-based spokesman, Father Andres Schoggl, told CNA on Jan. 5.
Fr. Schoggl said a commission appointed by Cardinal De Paolis is now preparing procedures and thematic introductions for these community-wide self-reflections, which he said will be "the core activity of the revision process."
The consultations are expected to go on for a period of several years, he added.
“The main short term goal is the active and constructive participation of all Legionaries in this renewal process,” Fr. Schoggl said.
Throughout the last year, Legion communities have been implementing reforms to address concerns about the Legion’s internal governance, and to safeguard against possible sexual abuse, among other issues.
Since the appointment of Cardinal De Paolis, information about the process of renewal has been scarce.
In an Oct. 19 letter, Cardinal De Paolis told the Legionaries that every one of them should be involved and take responsibility for the task. He said the renewal process will take "at least two or three years, or even more."
In December 2010, he appointed a commission to revise the congregation's constitutions.
Although it is a difficult time for the Legion, Fr. Schoggl said it is also "a time of great opportunity."
They are "moving forward on the way of renewal," he said, although he admitted it has taken time to recover from the "shock" and "quite traumatic experience" of their founder's double life.
"It is not an easy time, but by and large the congregation is sound – as Pope Benedict put it – and the Legionaries are ready to face the challenges."
The Legion has the opportunity to take a "deep, thorough look" at themselves and how they carry out their ministry, he said. Guided by the Pope and Cardinal De Paolis, they will be "changing what needs to be changed," the Legion spokesman said.
According to published reports, some Legion members believe these potential changes are coming about too slowly.
Critics point to the fact that the committee appointed by Cardinal De Paolis includes four Legionaries who were close confidants of the now disgraced Fr. Maciel.
True renewal, these critics charge, will only come if the Cardinal “make heads roll" in the upper echelons of the Legion hierarchy, according to a report by Sandro Magister, editor of the Rome-based website www.chiesa.espressonline.it.
Magister said that Cardinal De Paolis "knows where he's going" while he moves "at the snail's pace typical of the Roman curia, in which he is a perfect example of the old school ways." He predicted that more drastic changes would be seen in the hierarchy by Easter.
One of the heads Magister predicts will "roll," is that of Legion director general, Father Alvaro Corcuera, who recently published a set of guidelines that were aimed at removing the face of Fr. Maciel from the congregation.
The Legion's Rome spokesman explained that Fr. Corcuera's guidelines confirmed an already standard practice in the congregation.
He said leaders and members have been battling Fr. Maciel's memory for some time now.
In 2004, the Vatican began investigations into repeated allegations by former Legion seminarians of misconduct by the founder. After the inquiries into the charges made against Fr. Maciel were completed, Pope Benedict XVI made the rare call in 2006 to banish him to a life of seclusion and prayer.
Fr. Maciel died in 2008, two years ago this month. But the investigations were far from over.
An internal investigation carried out by the Legion in 2009 revealed that their charismatic founder had sexually abused seminarians and fathered several children. An official Vatican investigation, called an “apostolic visitation,” began in the same year to examine the state of the congregation he founded.
At its conclusion on May 1, 2010, the Holy See rebuked the "very grave and objectively immoral actions of Father Maciel” that “in some cases constitute real crimes and manifest a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning."
"Today," said Fr. Schoggl, "there is not a single Legionnaire who thinks that we can relate to our founder as if nothing had happened. On the other hand, this is not about artificially re-writing our history or re-inventing what the life and the mission of this congregation is all about."
He said that they are "moving on, together, with much mutual respect and attentive discernment of the spiritual patrimony of our congregation."
Further steps include a visitation of the consecrated members of the Legion's lay movement, Regnum Christi. Archbishop Ricardo Blazquez of Valladolid, Spain will begin carrying out on-site visits this month for that effort.
The consecrated men and women "view this as a time of great opportunity to improve how they live out their commitment to the Church," said the spokesman.
Another sign of new life came on Christmas Eve when 61 deacons were ordained to the priesthood in Rome. Men who experienced the rise and fall of the Legion through more than a decade of formation made their permanent vows to the priesthood and the congregation.
Fr. Schoggl said "their total commitment to the congregation at this point of our history is still a strong sign of hope."
While they have slowed, new vocations are far from drying up completely. The Legion had 143 young men enter first-year formation internationally in 2010, just 19 fewer than in 2009.
"Realistically speaking," said Fr. Schoggl, "we will not be able to maintain our growth rate of the last two decades, but I am confident that also in the future many young men will follow Christ and serve the Church in our congregation."
2011 promises to be one of great change for the Legion under Cardinal De Paolis' direction. It is also a milestone for the congregation, which is observing the 70th anniversary of its foundation.
At the anniversary Mass in Rome on Jan. 3, Fr. Schoggl witnessed "a lot of gratitude and confidence" in the congregation. Cardinal De Paolis presided over the Mass during which he reminded them that a congregation's foundation is a gift of God for the Church.
"Yes, at this stage of our life we need purification and renewal, but," remembered Fr. Schoggl, "he also told us that this process will strengthen us and will lead us to fulfill our mission in the Church in a better way."