John Paul II became Pope on October 1978. He was the first non-Italian Pope since 1522. No doubt he was influential in the fall of communism, both in his native Poland and in all of Europe. During his pontificate he visited 129 countries thus becoming one of the most traveled leaders in history. He wrote 14 Encyclicals dealing with faith, reason and morals. He beatified 1,340 people and canonized 483 saints, more than the combined total of prior Popes during the past five centuries.
He promoted new “movements” within the Church, including the Opus Dei, which he set up as a prelature. He canonized their founder, Josemaría Escrivá in 2002. He encouraged the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, the Neocatechumenal Way, and others. He is one of the most influential world leaders of the 20th century.
During the four years that I remained in the Legion, after John Paul’s election, I felt immensely proud of our new leader. However, from a personal perspective, those last four years as a Legionary were amongst the most difficult in my life. As a result, I probably did not “enjoy” the Pope’s firm leadership as much as I might have under different circumstances.
Before the Second Vatican Council, few priests were ever granted release from their vows. After the Council, the Catholic Church faced an increasing number of applications from priests for ‘laicization.’ When John Paul stated at the beginning of his Pontificate in 1978, in the strongest possible terms, that he intended to uphold the tradition, dating back 16 centuries, that priests must be celibate, he also reaffirmed that only the Vatican has the power to release a priest from his vows. Little did I think, at the time, that just four years later I would be requesting release from my vows
My take on Pope John Paul was influenced by the fact that he grew up in the persecuted church in Poland. As an Irishman I could relate to what seemed to be his understanding that the survival of the Church required the monolithic union of the faithful against the “outside” persecutor. Although it didn’t bother me, the new Pope didn’t seem particularly open to debate or discussion within the Church. That attitude fit right in with the culture of the Legion of Christ of which I was a member. Loyalty was more appreciated than intelligence or even pastoral skill. Some of the Pope’s critics have said his insistence on loyalty affected the quality of the Bishops and the clerical officials he appointed. He made it very clear he would be a forceful leader who would not tolerate dissent. The Legion and Fr. Maciel offered a perfect example of the unquestioning loyally he expected. The new Pope, an “outsider” to the Vatican bureaucracy seems to have trusted most those who overtly supported his approach. At the same time, he clearly did not trust voices of dissent.
During the time I studied in Rome, Paul VI was Pope. I had the privilege of meeting him on a couple of occasions when I worked for Cardinal Luigi Raimondi. Pope Paul impressed me as a very pastoral, caring person. After I left the Legion, I found out he received 32,357 requests from priests for laicization. Of these he granted 31,324 during his 15 years as Pope. During the first six months of John Paul II’s pontificate, the Vatican received more than 300 petitions for laicization from individual priests. He didn’t grant one.
Although I’ve never checked the facts, I’m sure many of those priests just walked away without seeking a formal dispensation, as they did in the pre-Vatican II years. Frustrated peers of mine, who left after me, did just that.
However, when I was close to my decision to leave – before going to Gabon in Central West Africa - I told Fr. Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries and my Superior General, I wouldn’t leave the Legion unless I could get a full dispensation. I recall telling him in Cheshire, CT I would’ve preferred remaining a priest even if I had to, “rot in some lunatic asylum as a result of a nervous breakdown.” He assured me my laicization wouldn’t be a problem, as he gave me his blessing to leave the Legion, and I began the process immediately on leaving Gabon. Although I eventually received my laicization and dispensation from vows, the process was marked by the renewed intransigence of the Vatican. I missed the pastoral approach of Pope Paul.
Perhaps too, John Paul’s enthusiastic leadership and demand for loyalty (which I applauded at the time) got in the way of his handling of the nascent clergy abuse scandal in the Church. In the case of Fr. Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries, I think it entirely possible that the Pope was not aware of the double life of his new-found Mexican friend. Was that because he didn’t want to know, made it difficult for others to tell him or because he assumed the loyal Maciel need to be protected from his “persecutors”?
We do know that Cardinal Ratzinger had a private audience with the Pope every Friday evening and also joined him for a luncheon discussion group every Tuesday. He says that he never had a “difference” in the strict sense of the word” with the Holy Father and that he “never refused the Pope anything.” (cfr. “Salt of the Earth” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.) When Cardianl Ratzinger realized what was going on, why did he not intervene directly with the Pope? Or, if he did, why did John Paul not choose to act?
When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope, he acted swiftly, though not decisively, against Fr. Maciel. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that, because once the scandal “broke” most of the media attention was given to the victims of Maciel’s sexual abuse. Rightly so, because they had been disbelieved for so long.
But there is a second, much larger group of people who were used and hurt by Maciel. These are the hundreds of Legionary priests, and thousands of committed, idealistic, conservative Catholics who believed, as I did, that Maciel was a holy priest, loyal to and supported by the Vatican, as he led us to Christ, in a Legion officially “approved” by the Catholic Church. He betrayed us all and turned out to be a sociopath who now – according to the Vatican - lived "a life entirely without scruples and authentic religious feeling."
The Pope just can’t throw these people “under the bus.” Those who clamor for the suppression of the Legion, I think, don’t understand the dimensions and pastoral complexities of the problem. So, I support the current Pope’s attempts to first try to reform the congregation and free it from the dysfunctional influence of the founder. It would help if the Legionaries themselves gave some public sense they abhor the damage done by the founder to his sexual victims and to the Church and express more forcefully their recognition of their need for “reform.” I still don’t get why it took the Vatican 13 years to intervene.