This posting is an extended reply to a comment on an earlier post asking me about the different reactions to the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel.
There are many different takes on the current situation. First, let me say that most of my experiences with Fr. Maciel were positive. I was part of his “inner circle” at least for a number of years. During that time I had a lot of fun, learned a lot and was thrilled to be part of the “foundation.” My claim to fame was that I was the first Irish Legionary to set foot in Mexico. Things started to go south for me when I was transferred to New York in 1977. This transfer also coincided with the first General Chapter of the Legion which surprised me by tightening up our already strict rules.
To my mind several things affected our relationship with him. A certain number of the early Legionaries were chosen for their skills at public relations. Fr. Maciel seemed to enjoy our company and we enjoyed his. Hence, life with him was quite relaxed – strict compliance with the rules and regulations faded into the background. We lived the heady excitement of doing something important for the Church. The priests and brothers who formed this group were generally extraverted, self-confident and not “excessively” pious. We focused on getting the job done and we experienced directly the results of our success. I visited Cardinals and benefactors with him, traveled with him in small planes, served as his driver and go-to guy.
Meanwhile, another group spent most of their time and energy in houses of formation. It was almost as if they belonged to a different congregation. While it’s not fair to generalize, I would say they seemed to be to be very compliant, focused on the rules with not too much experience of the “outside” world. No doubt the first group tended to “scandalize” the second one – especially when we returned to the houses of formation.Later, others worked on the apostolate - but with little or no direct experience of the founder.
Personality differences played their role too. Some people don’t relate well to authority figures – they had difficulties with Maciel. I think if they were to have joined the army they too would have had problems. Fr. Maciel clearly had his favorites and was a master at manipulating each individual. No doubt most of us had disagreements or difficulties with him at some time – but none of us ever knew the “full story.” In hindsight, I know I was aware of several pieces of the puzzle of his life and others were aware of the same or different pieces. Most, if not all of us, had no notion of what was really going on. You truly had to live the experience of collaborating with him to understand what it was like. None of us had any reason to doubt his intentions. And it wasn’t just “us” – Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, business people and simple peasants all felt the same way.
I think it’s important to say that I did not always revere him as a “saint”. He was a superb leader who insisted we be loyal to Christ and the Church. At least in the early days, he never set himself up as an example to be followed. We did that. We repeated his stories, added a little exaggeration and in so doing we created the “myth”. People who hardly knew him heard our stories and followed our example of devoted loyalty. When I read of their experiences on “after RC blogs” I think I understand how many, who hardly knew Maciel, accepted him as a “saint”. That’s the image we were presented with by the first Legionaries and it is the image we passed on as part of our recruitment techniques. Hence I relate to their reactions upon discovering that the idol, to put it mildly, had feet of clay.
This is getting a bit long so let me come to a point. If the Vatican had made a more deliberate statement when they recommended a life of prayer and penance for Maciel and if this statement had been immediately communicated to all Legionaries, my guess is we would all have suffered less. I don’t know if Legionary leadership held back of their own volition or if they were instructed by the Vatican to do so. Either way, I think history will show that both the Vatican and the leadership did not move quickly enough.
Meanwhile, my peers tell me they are at now at peace with the awful truth and working on moving ahead with Vatican reforms. As one good priest said to me, “Jack when you were in the Legion, we were part of the Church militant. Now, I am part of a Church that is on her knees. And you know what? I am more comfortable in this Church.”
The younger American Legionary priests are more upset. They didn’t have the same personal experience of Maciel. Not only has the idol “feet of clay” but they feel they have been deceived by the delayed disclosure of the truth by their leaders. So you now have a mixture of generational issues, contrasting cultural approaches, religious beliefs and deeply personal reactions as we all grapple with the notion that the founder was a sociopath.
Like you, I think this is a time for compassion and mercy if the situation is to be resolved. I guess it’s not easy to talk of compassion when so many are still reeling from the hurt and deception. I’m not a betting man, but I don’t think the LC or RC will be shut down. For instance, in the US we have lots of alternatives to the LC schools. That is most definitely not the case in Mexico or in several other countries. Hence I think every effort will be made to separate all that is good in the movement from the perverted influence of the founder. Not an easy task – but it can be done with God’s help and our support for his Vicar and the good people who want to overcome evil by doing good.
Thanks for your comment – and, if you want the full breadth of my experience with Maciel and how we reacted to him, you should read my book!