I am way overdue with a review I promised Nelly Ramirez of her book: "El Reino de Marcial Maciel: la vida oculta de la Legion y el Regnum Christi." ("The Kingdom of Marical Maciel: the hidden life of the Legion and Regnum Christi")
For twelve years Nelly was a full-time consecrated member of the Regnum Christi Movement, the branch of the Legionaries of Christ for lay people. She left the Regnum Christi after learning the sordid details of Fr. Marcial Maciel's double life and because she disagreed with the apparent unwillingness of Legionary Superiors to transparently deal with the revelations.
This morning, I read a review of the book by my former colleague in the Legion, Fr. James Farfaglia which served to jolt me into action. Fr. James is now pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, located in Corpus Christi. We have stayed in touch "virtually." He has written a couple of books and is a frequent contributor to www.catholic.org.
Nelly contacted me before she published her book and I've met with her in Mexico, subsequent to the publication. She is a charming young lady, quite shy and (at the time) still going through the difficult process of adjustment to lay life. I've seen her TV interviews and I've felt that she has been often quite "manipulated" by astute journalists in order to fuel harsh condemnations of her experience in Regnum Christi. I believe she published her book in order to promote honest reflection about the Legionary "phenomenon" with the commendable objective of "waking up" those Legionaries and Regnum Christi members who she believes remain in denial about the founder's life and works. This is an objective she clearly states in her Introduction.
Fr. James prefaces his review writing:
"Thousands of scandalized and disappointed former Legionaries of Christ, Regnum Christi members and generous benefactors are wondering what will happen to the shipwrecked religious order. In an explosive new book which has been rocking the news in Mexico, Nelly Ramírez Mota Velasco tells all in an objective and clear manner, free from any venom."Contrary to his opinion, I submit that Nelly's book is not "explosive," it has not "rocked the news" in Mexico, and it is most certainly not "a fast read" as he says in his review. Frankly, there is very little new information in the book. It has gained whatever traction it has among those who are aggressively opposed to the Legionaries of Christ and who do not support the Vatican's attempt to reform the congregation. I do agree that the author is not motivated by "venom," but when one reads the prologues which introduce her topic, and the context of many reviews, it seems quite clear that the author and her intentions have been well "used" by those with mostly an anti-Vatican agenda.
Like Fr. James, I too was a Legionary of Christ for some 20 years. I knew him when he was a novice in Connecticut; I documented my experience of those times in an autobiography "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and almost lost his mind."
Unlike Fr.James and Nelly, I knew Maciel well. Indeed I also got to know the Garza family quite well at about the time Fr. Luis Garza Medina was considering becoming a Legionary priest. Based on my own experience and the reactions to the Maciel scandal, my bias is that "El Reino de Marcial Maciel" contributes little - despite the author's state intentions - to understanding how Maciel managed to deceive and manipulate so many good people, including Fr. James and three Popes. In my opinion, this is the real issue with the scandal surrounding the Legion of Christ, especially for those of us who want to ensure that such deceit does not easily happen again.
"El Reino de Maciel" is not available in English. It is quite a "technical" read with detailed analysis of the Legion's approach to religious discipline and the practice of the evangelical counsels. It documents what I believe - as does Nelly - that the essential flaw in the Legion is a dysfunctional understanding of the virtue and vow of Obedience.
Granted the author was a consecrated member of "Regnum Christi" I hoped for a first hand description of the daily life and challenges experienced by consecrated women in the movement - an area that is shrouded in mystery even to most Legionary priests. Instead, Nelly focuses mostly on the Legionaries. She contributes very little information about her personal experiences and the feelings that must have plagued her as she went through the years of formation and subsequent apostolate. I have the abiding sensation that much of the Legion-related material was written by a Legionary "ghost writer." It reads more like a bureaucratic report with names and places well documented although there is not much substantial new information.
An analysis of the Legionary constitutions by a canon lawyer contributes little to the discussion, probably because there are no "explosive" findings. The Legion's essential structure was not so very different from similar congregations in the Catholic Church pre-Vatican Council. I suspect this fact is lost on many people not old enough to have known the religious priests, brothers and nuns who were such a part of the Catholic experience in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the Legionaries, their visits home were seriously restricted, their correspondence was monitored, they often could not stay overnight at their parent's homes, and their understanding of "poverty" (for instance) would be quite shocking to today's mindset. As a result of Vatican II they changed. The Legion did not, because, I think, Maciel realized that the "old" ways produced more vocations and presented the challenge young, idealistic people were seeking at the time. Worse yet, as his congregation expanded, the founding Legionaries understanding of the three religious vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience became "institutionally" distorted resulting in psychologically damaging behaviors and cult-like behavior.
Personally, I was most impacted and moved by some of the personal letters written by Maciel and presented in the Appendices of "El Reino de Maciel." Reading his prose again, in the light of what we now know, chilled my bones and rekindled unpleasant memories. I imagine that former Legionaries will have the same experience and may well find those last appendices the most interesting part of Nelly's book
In general, I think it fair to say the book is a tedious read and of interest mostly to those who still have a somewhat obsessive interest in the Legionary rules and regulations. Only someone who has very little knowledge of the facts, or who is looking for incendiary information to fan the flames of scandal, would find the contents "explosive." Persons not deeply interested in the theme and who might have a somewhat unbiased perspective will probably not have the steadfastness to peruse all the details.
Nelly discusses "Grupo Integer" and, again, provides names and places. I don't think she makes a strong case to suggest Fr. Garza's involvement is more than that of an astute business administrator who sought to organize the Legion's tangled web of assets to bring some order to Maciel's chaotic foundational model. The Catholic Church, as Jason Berry the intrepid New Orleans reporter again points out in his new book, has hardly been a model of transparent finances. Group Integer is easily portrayed as a convenient red herring which plays nicely into the hands of conspiracy theorists. It's certainly a new model for the financial management of a religious congregation and it's clearly not a "transparent" endeavor. Time and further investigation will tell if it is indeed an evil empire. There is not much in the author's expose to take us beyond anecdotal criticism of some of its operations.
Fr. James uses the title of his review to ask: "who is in really in charge of the Legionaries of Christ? I submit the answer to this very basic question is Pope Benedict. After an exhaustive investigation, the Pope appointed an oversight commission and sent his Delegate to the Legionaries. He explicitly says that he wants the Legion of Christ to succeed and he actively supports their reform. The process is not yet completed. But we know who is in charge. Hence, I continue to believe that the "problem" presented by the Maciel and Legionary phenomenon cuts close to the heart of the Catholic Church. In some way, all Catholics are involved and connected to this scandal. As Benedict said to reporters on his plane en route to his visit to Germany, "I can understand that in the face of such reports, people, especially those close to victims [of sex abuse], would say: 'This isn't my church anymore.' Then, in his homily at the Olympic Stadium he went on to say,
"To abide in Christ means ..., to abide in the Church as well. The whole communion of the faithful has been firmly incorporated into the vine, into Christ. In Christ we belong together. Within this communion he supports us, and at the same time all the members support one another. They stand firm together against the storm and they offer one another protection. Those who believe are not alone. We do not believe alone, but we believe with the whole Church.""Standing firm against the storm" and "offering one another protection" is not easily reconciled with the more rational reaction "This isn't my Church anymore." How we react to the Church's on-going intervention with the Legionaries of Christ is an interesting test of where we stand and a good gymnasium to flex our thinking.