Guest ColumnistLegionary Chapter acknowledges deficiencies and looks to the future with revised charism

When it concluded on February 25, the Extraordinary General Chapter of the Legionaries of Christ, meeting in Rome to complete the drafting of new Constitutions and elect new leadership, issued eleven documents that represent the Congregation’s future. The Legionaries, once again autonomous, have emerged from a period of “examination and renewal” that began five years ago in 2009 with their public acknowledgment of their Founder’s scandalous double life and continued with an Apostolic Visitation (2009-10) and three and a half years of supervision under a Pontifical Delegate, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis (2010-14). The Constitutions, now awaiting Vatican approval, was the principal work of the Chapter, but these eleven communiqués and decrees, innovative in several respects, address generally a series of topics that widely concerned Legionaries during their self-examination and express the goals the Constitutions will legislate. The Chapter documents both apologize for past deficiencies and convey optimism for a productive future.

(The eleven documents, including a presentation letter and two attachments, comprising some 120 pages, have recently all been made available in English translation of their original Spanish here)

In its May 2010 report, the Visitation saw the “need to redefine the charism… preserving its true nucleus.” So most pressing on the Legionaries was to reformulate and to insist on the validity of their charism. The charism of a religious community, to use John Paul II’s words in Vita Consecrata (1996), expresses a “specific spirituality, that is, a concrete program of relations with God and one's surroundings, marked by specific spiritual emphases and choices of apostolate, which accentuate and re-present one or another aspect of the one mystery of Christ.” But, first, could a valid charism have been conveyed by a criminal Founder?

Yes, it was, the Chapter says: the Church has always distinguished between founder and foundational charism and, inerrant in its approval of religious orders, approved the Legionaries twice with official decreta laudis in 1965 under Paul VI and in 1983 under John Paul. The Legion exists and Benedict XVI wanted it to keep existing. Canon law requires an identity, lifestyle, and tradition, and those they have.

And so, “the Legion of Christ and its essential features do not have their ultimate origin in the person of the founder; they are a gift from God that the church has accepted, approved, and made her own, and which from that point on lives in the congregation and in its members… when talking about our foundational charism, we must not limit our consideration to the initial impulse from God, or how the founder embraced this grace in his life, but rather recognize that we are in the presence of a charism that has already been configured and institutionalized in the Church.”

Accordingly, the Legionaries declare their reformulated charism to be that of “forming apostles,” making “particularly present the mystery of Christ the Lord who gathers the apostles to himself, reveals to them the love in his heart, forms them, and sends them to help establish the Kingdom in the hearts of people and society.” They wish to form “Christian leaders at the service of the Church” and “to form a chain by means of which God’s grace will reach people’s hearts, families, and society.”

The congregation of Legionary priests now understands itself as a part of the larger Movement, Regnum Christi, all of whose members, whether men or women, lay or consecrated, married or ordained, religious and diocesan, share this same charism of forming apostles, according to their various states in life. “Each vocation expresses the shared charism in its own way… The complementarity of the different vocations” within the same charism “brings a unique evangelizing strength (especial fuerza evangelizadora) to the Movement.”

Past problems aside, many priests with sincere love and desire to serve the church comprise the Congregation. The Movement as a whole is “a help in evangelizing and a hope for the future.” As apostolic priorities they take working with families and young people, founding schools, and working with the poor. Sharing the grace of holiness of life with all members through baptism, Legionary priests will serve the Movement both in spiritual fatherhood and in accompaniment as brothers and sisters.
Canon law cannot currently accommodate this vision of the Movement and the “quest for an adequate canonical configuration” will continue. But, in the end, the fruitfulness of the mission depends “not on definitions or juridical instruments,” but on union with God.

While resisting the lure of materialism and managing risks to the vow and the virtue of poverty, Legionaries are called to evangelize both poor and rich: “While we value direct apostolic action towards those most in need, we also have in mind that we can reach a greater number of them and do them greater good by means of the action of many others… we are not forgetting that evangelizing social or economic leaders is not always easy, but it is part of our vocation to bring them to Christ and encourage them to know and put into practice the Social Doctrine of the Church, and in so doing to transform social structures in accordance with justice and charity.”

According to Legionary founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, Pius XII in 1946 inspired him to rename the “Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Sorrows” by citing the Vulgate Song of Songs to characterize the congregation as castrorum acies ordinata. The founder admired the discipline, strength, and effective cohesion of Roman imperial legionaries. The Visitation in 2010 had recognized the nucleus of the Legionary charism as “that of the militia Christi,” though one “not to be identified with the drive for efficiency at any cost,” and the Chapter confirms that “a militant character is part of [our] spiritual and human make-up… as the expression and fruit of a healthy tension (sana tensión) towards holiness and the establishment of the Kingdom.” However fraught the historical associations, the Legionaries declined to change their name as mere rebranding or “marketing strategy.” “In a certain way [the name] expresses the charism.” Legionaries hope someday for an affectionate, popular nickname like “Jesuit” or “Communion and Liberation” spontaneously to arise. But in the end, “the most important thing is the people who bear the name and the way in which they live.”

“Recognizing the errors of the past” takes up much of the Chapter documents, together with aspirations for correction and requests for the new government to take up questions left unsettled.

The widely noticed Communiqué of January 20 (now Attachment 1 to the final set of documents) “conclusively” acknowledges, condemns, and apologizes for the sins of Fr. Maciel: sexual abuse of seminarians, concubinage with several women, illegitimate children whom he also abused sexually, misappropriation of money and religious authority, drug addiction, and stealing the literary work of others.

When the Vatican announced sanctions against Maciel in 2006, the wording was so charitable that the Legionaries corporately and Fr. Owen Kearns, Legionary publisher of the National Catholic Register at the time, were able to claim, plausibly to some, that the invitation “to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry” was in fact a refusal to sanction. Eight years later the Chapter addresses that misinterpretation -- Maciel’s behavior “merited the sanctions that …[were] justly imposed on him” -- and acknowledges with sadness the institutional silence and errors of judgment in dealing with the crisis.
Beyond the Founder himself, the Legion also examined, as the Visitation had required, the effects that Maciel’s personality and behavior had had on the life the congregation. They admit that they often gave “undue, universal value to Fr. Maciel’s directives and clung too much to them because of an inadequate understanding of the concept of founder and an excessive exaltation and uncritical way of considering his person.”

Under the previously approved Constitutions, Legionaries had as novices in training “submitted to trials especially those that demand the renunciation of their own judgment and will”; interpreted their religious vow of obedience as a “total surrender of judgment and will”; and additionally vowed never to criticize a superior and to inform on those that did. Benedict in 2007 set aside that private fourth vow and now consequently “we are learning how to share reflections and suggestions with our brothers and freely debate about any issue.” In future, “superiors… should be patient, humble, and sincerely open when [their subjects] express disagreements or criticisms, even if in an inadequate manner, trusting instead in their good intentions.”

The Visitation also required in particular review of Legionary formation and governance. The Chapter finds that Legionaries were providing candidates with inadequate vocational discernment and help with responsible and mature decision-making. They pressurized recruits “with a certain ‘rush’ to get immediate results” due to “a desire to grow too quickly.” Vocational recruitment became a priority beyond other forms of service. They accordingly got too many vocations too fast to treat them as individuals.

They resolve to develop a more personalized formation program and to train spiritual directors to know more psychology and be better able to guide discernment. The period covered by first vows will provisionally be increased to four years from three to allow more time for both candidates and superiors to know one another.

The Chapter also admits to Legionaries’ not “having ordinarily (ordinariamente) distinguished between superiors and spiritual directors” in their houses of formation. This situation was a serious violation of canon law, which requires careful distinction between internal and external forum and, of course, the confidentiality of the seal of the confessional. They have newfound respect for the internal forum: “We have sought to implement a clear separation between the ambit of the conscience (spiritual direction and confession), the internal forum, and the external forum (the guidance of the superior and religious discipline) in order better to guarantee the freedom and the confidentiality of each religious.”

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As for governance, the Chapter finds in the past both excessive centralization and fragmented authority, insufficient consultation, too infrequent rotation of leadership, and too much reliance on statistical reports distorted by pressure to inflate numbers. The new Constitutions aim better to interconnect authority at central, regional and local levels, bring about more consultation, and to assign personnel more appropriately and keep novices in training closer to home. Some powers are newly delegated to territorial directors, such as admission to novitiate, first profession, renewal of vows, and some aspects of education and common life.
Superiors are now expected to proceed according to law when confronting irregularity. Legionary governing documents will in future conform to universal ecclesiastical norms. Regulations to favor safe environments, already in place, are confirmed. Archives will be established as resource for the writing of objective history.

Superiors, however, will still to some degree hope to manage Legionaries’ access to news, even in the aftermath of superiors’ having controlled members’ knowledge of the Maciel scandal, some of whom informed themselves by surreptitiously surfing the web. “Superiors should communicate to the members of their community all that affects the life of the congregation and the community and all that helps foster a family spirit. For this reason, they should try and ensure, in as much as possible, that news regarding the congregation reach Legionaries through their superiors. Given the dynamism and immediacy of today’s means of communication, this will not be possible in certain circumstances and hence we invite all to accept these limits with realism and understanding.”

The Chapter notes deficiencies in Legionary apostolate: poor preparation, too much emphasis on the worldly concerns of prestige, institutional strength, and results at any price. Legionaries have acted independently of local bishops and ignored the pastoral plans and projects of the local church. This they will remedy.

Community life suffered, the result of activist, on-the-road Legionaries treating it as an obstacle to the mission. The Legionary regimen fostered not friendship, but the idea that one should open his heart only to his superior. They now disavow the regulation of life down to the smallest details.

In the interest of fostering amity, the Chapter revises the stricture on particular friendships, something traditional in congregations both to encourage universal charity and discourage homosexuality. “In a community setting, there can be, humanly speaking, difficult relationships, which ought to be welcomed with ‘crucified love’ In other cases, however, a deeper, more gratifying relationship will evolve which, elevated by grace and supernatural charity, develops into the Christian friendship of a consecrated person.  It is therefore possible to have companions we know better than others, with whom we get along better and consult more easily—without this relationship ever excluding anyone else.”  

The Chapter recognizes an arid formalism in Legionary spirituality of the past and admits to having resisted Conciliar priorities for prayer and liturgy: liturgical prayer first, then contemplation, then acts of piety. Resolutions for improvement include reducing the number of the acts of piety and learning to assess them in terms of union with God and not as ends in themselves, to leave more space for personal prayer and contemplation, and to expand concelebration of Mass beyond feast days to Sundays and other days. They resolve to make the Church’s prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, more relevant to the whole congregation by opening it to all the brothers (who are not required as are by law the ordained) and by inviting priests to pray it more often in community.

The writings of Fr. Maciel have been central to Legionary spiritual reading and hard for many to give up. As prominent Legionary Fr. John Bartunek said in January, “A lot of the fathers fed their hunger for spiritual reading with the writings of the founder. Today, a lot of these guys are doing great work and are spiritually mature priests, and they ask, ‘How can we say it's all trash?’” The Chapter nevertheless asks that there be spiritual reading drawn more widely from tradition and Magisterium.
The Legion is now heavily in debt, the Chapter says, due to imprudent, “disordered and unbalanced” expansion, and poor financial planning and control, an aspect of the vocational “rush.” Running schools is expensive and the scandal came simultaneously with the worldwide economic downturn. The debt, however, is “manageable, considering the income and the assets of the congregation as a whole.”

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In response, the Legion will be working toward self-sustainability, better integration of financial planning at general, territorial, and local levels, and economizing: eliminating unnecessary travel, curbing desire for the latest equipment and accoutrements, and being careful to undertake new projects. They have in fact consolidated and sold off many of their properties: merging the territories of Germany and France and Atlanta and New York; separating Rome from the territory of Italy; closing apostolic schools (the Legionary term for high school or minor seminaries) in California, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil; closing novitiates in Ireland and Canada; closing the humanities school in Salamanca in Spain; and closing the theology school in Thornwood, New York.

These documents are of course written with the blandness of theological bureaucratese. “Increase our patrimony” means “raise money by fundraising.” “Our apostolic charism at times brings us to work with people in environments of economic abundance” means “God calls us to evangelize the rich.” Legionaries should be “always respecting the donor’s intention” for money they receive. It would have broken canon law had they ever done otherwise.

The founder is acknowledged as guilty of “the arbitrary use… of material goods,” but an Economic Affairs Commission, headed by Msgr. Mario Marchesi, one of the Delegate’s commissioners who investigated Legionary financial affairs, found no “embezzlements or other irregularities in the fiscal actions that were reviewed.” At the same time, the Chapter acknowledges that there was pressure that “brought [some Legionaries] to slacken in the diligence with which they live the vow of poverty by managing funds apart from legitimate superiors and administrators” and there were some canonical provisions “for the administration of ecclesiastical goods… which at times we have not applied with precision and constancy.” The delicacy of euphemism makes it uncertain just what financial impropriety is being admitted to here.

While the Legion is again autonomous under new leadership, the Chapter emphasized that the reform is ongoing and that, aside from approving the draft of the new Constitutions, its achievement is only provisional. “We are committed to continuing this process of renewal and conversion humbly.” The Delegate’s assessment that the Legion is now “cured and cleaned” and the words of newly elected Legionary General Director Fr. Eduardo Robles Gil in an inaugural interview, “we want things to go back to normal,” must be understood in that light.

The goals articulated by the Chapter documents remain to be fleshed out in a new Ratio institutionis, “the formation program inspired by a particular charism” (as Vita consecrata defines it), due within three years, and Ratio studiorum, the academic program, after that.

The Chapter tasked the new government with such things as developing further necessary financial and administrative guidelines, planning for financial self-sustainability, developing funds for elderly and sick members, and revising the Legionary manual of liturgy, manual of practical exams, and prayer book.

Most importantly, the “quest for an adequate canonical configuration” for Regnum Christi continues, that is, a solution to the question in canon law of how to incorporate an institute that includes so variously so many states of life. Perhaps the canonical configuration of Opus Dei will provide some sort of parallel there.

Provisional, experimental norms for the consolidation of the whole Movement of Regnum Christ and the self-governance of its branches were approved earlier by the Delegate and issued as a Provisional Framework on March 19. The Chapter acknowledges that in the past, the Legionaries did not sufficiently “appreciate or promote the individual vocation of each member” of Regnum Christi or share responsibility for the apostolate. Under the new norms, they will respect decision-making in the lay branches of the Movement. Further dialogue will further illuminate the vocation to Regnum Christi and each state of life in it.

(Documents relating to the “Provisional Framework of Cooperation for the mission of Regnum Christi” are available in English translation here)

Other challenges also remain. The Legionaries emerge from a time of “pain and confusion,” “loss of zeal,” and “mutual distrust,” in which many left the congregation. Victims of a spiritual charlatan, they “hope[d] against all hope” that their sense of vocation was not in vain, while developing “a thirst for prayer” that remains a good fruit of the sorrows. The remarkable extensiveness and severity of their apology argues for the sincerity of their conversion.

They do admit to a lot in the Chapter documents, including serious violations of canon law. If still seeing themselves as a congregation that produced “exemplary religious” and good priests who “live a love for the Church, a sense of obedience, self-denial, availability, and apostolic zeal” and “combine an adequate intellectual formation with a careful human formation,” simultaneously, by their own admission in these documents, they were a congregation that used people instrumentally, did not know friendship or how to discuss and debate issues respectfully, rejected Conciliar priorities in prayer and liturgy, practiced empty externalism that inspired both dissipation and an activism that vindicated itself with statistics and prestige, disrespected the freedom of candidates in discernment in the rush to get results, broke canon law in their seminaries by violating the internal forum, mishandled and imprudently spent money, sidestepped the authority of local bishops, and mindlessly adulated their founder.

They admit, in short, what critics had accused them of over the decades and they were as could have been expected from their having revered and imitated a founder who led “a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning,” as the Visitation found. A certain cultishness, the uncritical exaltation of the person of a founder and all these consequences of it, secretly flourished even within a new religious movement under Vatican approval.

“We asked ourselves how to fit several elements together that could seem contradictory.” As the reform continues, the Legion will need to resolve opposites (or, to put it another way, animate paradoxes). How have they redefined a charism that the Church already possessed? If “the future will require continual conversions of heart and mind,” how will they preserve their traditions and simultaneously convert away from them? If their heritage is mixed, will it be hard to keep what is sound and jettison what is not? Who will guarantee the permanence of the conversion?

The Legionaries have laid claim to a charism so innovative that canon law cannot yet accommodate it and so flexible as to include priests religious and secular, consecrated, and laity, in both contemplation and active evangelizing, in apostolic work with both rich and poor, both on-the-road and in community. It is also a charism that was conveyed from God by an unholy founder.

Legionaries and Delegate could have plotted another less complicated route to the future. The congregation could have been refounded or the first Legionary or Regnum Christi members could have been recognized as the true conveyers of the charism or some other solution could have been found. But, so committed still in some ways to the person of Fr. Maciel, the Legionaries choose to stake their future on the understanding that they possess a charism already institutionalized by the church and totally distinct from its source.

Pope Benedict and Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the current Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, have endorsed this approach to the Legionary reform, but not all will agree that it is “in line with common doctrine,” as the Chapter claims. The Legion may have the “vocation and identity” required by canon 587 but canon 578 still holds that “all must observe faithfully the mind and designs of the founders regarding the nature, purpose, spirit, and character of an institute…” Vita consecrata requires, among other things, “fidelity to the inspiration of the founders and foundresses,” who embodied the Spirit’s gift, though most every reference to founders in that Exhortation can in fact sustain the Legionaries’ notion of a disembodied charism.
The divergence of opinion was vividly on view on March 9 in an episode of the Irish Television (RTE) religious documentary series “Would you believe?” about the conclusion of the Chapter and the Irish contribution to Legionary history. As Fr. Owen Kearns, an Irish Legionary closely associated with the redefinition of the charism, put it, “We believe that God did use a seriously flawed criminal, a sociopath, if you want to put it like that, an abuser, and through him set up this, such that when we met it, we knew, this is from God.” As Genevieve Kineke, author of The Authentic Catholic Woman and Life after RC blogger, was edited to respond: “That’s not how the Holy Spirit works.”

Observing how the Legionaries will go on to lead their institutional life will help settle the engrossing theological questions as to whether a valid charism can be communicated by an unworthy founder and, more generally, whether the Church is inerrant in its approval of religious institutes. Time will tell whether the Legionaries’ creative approach to charism will prove a good foundation on which to win back the trust of the Church. They have proven so far at least that they are gifted with the charism of survival.

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