Legionaries who have been patiently hoping the process of reform will be successful are losing hope according to some inside sources. The perceived lack of urgency and transparency of the Apostolic Delegate Cardinal Velasio de Paolis and senior Legionary leadership resisting loss of control do little to allay the fears of those who have begun to doubt. Despite this, a few Legionaries have told me that they are still cautiously optimistic about the reform based on direct comments they have heard from the Vatican advisers. Meanwhile, the slow but steady exodus of Legionaries from the Congregation continues.
While on a very recent business trip out of the States, I had a chat with a well informed LC source. I mentioned my perception of the difficulties that many Legionaries might face as they transition to the diocesan clergy. My friend agreed and reported that several former Legionary priests are beginning to face serious adjustment issues in their new ministry. To be fair, my friend was not speaking of adjustment in the United States - and I should not have generalized our comments in my prior posting.
Meanwhile, a respected former Legionary who has (recently) transitioned to a major archdiocese in the United States wrote to me to offer a corrective to my "speculation" regarding ex-LC priests. I am happy to quote his comment:
"I'm in touch with most of the 27 or so Americans who have left since the '09 revelations and others of recent years. All seem to be happy, well adjusted diocesan priests doing really very good work. One or two have had a problem with a diocese, but I'd say those are not Legion related, but personal matters. In fact, I'd suggest a better thesis would be that ex-LCs make very good diocesan priests, for whatever reasons. I know that some folks like to think we are all in need of serious deprogramming and are dangerous until that gets done, but it is just not the case. In my diocese, ex-LC priests have been warmly embraced and given good ministerial opportunities. In another diocese, two were made pastors already. In another major city, several were welcomed there and are thriving."
Candidly, that is very good news. I have no reason to doubt the veracity or sincerity of my correspondent and I am genuinely happy for those good men who have managed the transition. In the light of the above mentioned “corrective” and the comments left on my last post, I’d like to offer some further clarification to my earlier remarks.
When I left the Legion in 1982, I believe that transition to the diocesan priesthood by ex-LCs was extremely rare and very difficult. Legionaries were trained to believe that we were specifically called to the Legion. There was no realistic space for a change of vocational plan. I've commented extensively on this in "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind." Furthermore, the Legion actively discouraged incardination into the diocesan clergy and, in cases that I know of, worked administratively to impede the process. Stories of how Frs. Cuena and Hermann (among the early defections) were not doing well outside the Legion abounded.
- During my time as a Legionary in New York, I spent most of my summers preaching to raise money for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. This meant that I visited dozens of parishes within a six hour drive of New York City, staying at the parish Rectories from Friday night through late Sunday afternoon. Some of the parishes were in big cities, others in summer resorts and in rural towns. My abiding memory is of the absence of community I experienced. By and large the priests did not eat together; they did not pray together, they seemed to spend most of their time isolated in their rooms (each with his own TV). Socializing took place with friends, not with other priests in their rectory. Despite the enormous flaws I saw in the Legion, I couldn’t imagine myself living such a “lonely” life.
- Some of my peers left the Legion shortly after me. Three of them worked in the same diocese albeit in different parishes. They shared my perception of diocesan life, but they adapted and survived (one out of three) by socializing and supporting each other. They were all shocked by their first experience of widespread alcoholism and homosexuality among their priest companions. (I’m not suggesting that this is the norm – but I remember how foreign all this seemed to us at the time.)
- For reasons I do not fully understand, “younger” Legionaries seem to be wired differently to those of my generation. This is often commented amongst my peers. Perhaps it is because they never actually knew Maciel and they bought the myth without any chance to validate it with his person? Maybe they were more mature when they entered; they were certainly more conservative than my group. I suspect that the rigor of academic training declined for some once the Legion controlled its own university. It’s possible that early “discipline” relaxed as the congregation expanded to different countries, allowing the internal culture to become more diverse. Hence it is possible that newer generations, less "integrated" by Maciel's standards (most especially in the US,) may find it easier to transition to the diocesan lifestyle.
- By and large, Legionaries are not trained for parish work. We were groomed for “high performance” ministries, with an emphasis on productivity over pastoral care. I don’t agree completely with those who suggest Legionaries consider themselves to be better trained or to be intellectually superior to other priests. We did consider ourselves to be more committed, more dedicated to the notion of giving every waking moment to Christ – a legacy of Maciel’s insistence on effectiveness. Many Legionaries work very effectively in the poverty and chaos of mission territory parishes; they have the support of Legionary communities and of peers who live the same rules and life style. In order to relate to diocesan clergy, in a new post-Legion assignment, I think many Legionaries would need to undergo a major adjustment in their “attitude.” The scandalous revelations of the double life of the founder which for some has served to get them in touch with "reality," will go a long way to helping them feel more empathy and understanding of their brother priests.
- As I’ve mentioned above, successful transition to diocesan life in the United States is definitely possible. I think that far less options are available to former Legionaries living in non-English speaking countries. Mexico is a perfect example. The transition to diocesan life there I would think is nigh impossible for a man with Legionary training. When former Legionaries have consulted me about transition, I’ve suggested that they be careful about the diocese they choose to seek admittance to. And I think they do better if they can manage to relocate to a parish close to their original home. Family closeness can provide invaluable support for men undergoing dramatic change and who are leaving their “Legionary family” for the first time. Legionaries who joined the Congregation after high school or college will probably fare better than those who have been members since they were 10 or 11 years old. How “easy” can it be for a man who has lived the Legionary lifestyle from the time he was 10 till he is 26 or 27 to transition to the diocesan clergy?
- In many parishes, Legionaries can find downright “hostility” towards the model of Legionary priesthood. They will encounter pastors, colleagues, and fellow religious men and women who do not like them, their style, and their perceived “attitude”. All Legionaries have been trained in Rome; their experience of liturgical celebration is based on the Vatican and the rules and norms of the Legion. They are not comfortable with the normal messiness of mundane parish life. Many of us who left the Legion were amazed to discover our levels of emotional immaturity. We had to learn to accept ourselves as flawed human beings and to put aside our perpetual, obsessive, quest for perfection. It is not easy for everyone to leave a regulated life of rules where every waking moment is planned to embrace the entrepreneurial life of a pastor without the support of a religious community. Many former LCs have gravitated towards work with Hispanic parishioners where they find a familiar sense of piety and shared cultural values.
- Legionaries are also trained in a disciplined life of prayer. They have their own private chapels no matter how small the Legionary residence. They are used to weekly spiritual direction and confession. They are used to giving an account of their every action. They judge their effectiveness based on the number and quality of their recruits to Regnum Christi and to their seminaries. The vestments they use for liturgical services are perfectly uniform, simple, and elegant. They may not be “friends” with their peers but they do not need to explain themselves or their intentions to them. They feel like they belong to something greater than themselves. Most of them, unconsciously and without malice, have had experience of living a life of ambivalent morals. They preach charity, humility, evangelical simplicity. Then they no longer communicate with their brothers who leave the congregation, they disassociate from their families, they focus on the wealthy and powerful and – often – they project an image of pride and superiority. They felt called to be “co-founders” creating institutes of higher learning, missions, family ministry, and fundraising amongst the elite. If they felt called to diocesan life, I don’t think they would have joined the Legion in the first place.
- Unlike diocesan priests, Legionaries have professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a religious congregation, called to emulate the life of Christ though the practice of the evangelical counsels. Along the way the healthy ones may have realized that their overall understanding of obedience has been psychologically dysfunctional. Maciel introduced an unhealthy, misogynistic notion of chastity wherein women were the source of temptation. Poverty meant using everything necessary and owning nothing. Moving on from this slightly deformed experience of religious life to the “non-religious” world of a diocese is of course possible. But it is not necessarily easy.
- Finally, Legionaries that I know who have made successful transitions went through periods of great rebellion concerning their former life. They began to – understandably – obsess about the cult-like aspects of their former congregation. Some found therapy to be necessary and beneficial. Add to this the trauma of the revelations about the founder – the resentment, the anger, (hopefully) empathy for the victims of his sexual abuse, and a pervasive sense of loss and guilt. For those who choose to leave, at this stage, those sentiments must be compounded by a further sense of resentment towards some of their companions, the major superiors and the Vatican itself. If the reforms were more quickly implemented then they might not have felt the need to leave. It is easy to empathize with their feelings and the loneliness they must feel as they jump from the ship (built by a man condemned by the Vatican), abandoning their companion sailors who may forever judge their motivations.
Offhand, I can easily count more than a dozen former peers of mine who have transitioned successfully to the diocesan clergy. All of them are based in the United States and Ireland. They seem to be happy and to live fulfilling lives. Because of the factors I have mentioned above, I still think the transition is a daunting task. It’s probably easier in the US (lots of different dioceses to choose from) and perhaps in Ireland where they can be close to family.
I suppose the moral of the story is that we, parishioners, ought to be reaching out to our clergy to offer them our appreciation, thanks, and support. Being a priest today is no easy task. From a human perspective it is already a lonely and challenging life. Frankly, I don’t think most of our clergy – including Legionaries – get enough human support from their congregations which are quick to judge them, criticizing their sermons (often with very good reason!), the size of their automobiles and their lifestyles. If any of what I have written above is true, Legionary priests who chose to seek incardination in our dioceses will need all the support they can get. Conversely, they also have a lot to offer.