I received an email earlier today from a reader who wondered why, as he put it, the Legion is a "hot-button" topic for me. It's a fair question; some readers may not realize I've written about the Legion before all of this year's revelations, and in any case I don't mind sharing where I'm coming from on this issue.
As I wrote back to my correspondent, I first knew people who had been involved with the Legion, some of whom had spent time in a Legion seminary, a little more than twenty years ago, when I was a college student. Prior to that time, if I'd thought of the Legion at all, I'd simply thought of them as one of the new young vibrant religious orders out there, who were challenging some of the erroneous thinking that had gotten hold of religious life after Vatican II, and who were reverting to such sound practices as traditional habits, older forms of prayers and devotions, and unwavering fidelity to the Church and the Pope.
But I started to hear some odd things from the people who had been involved, stories that didn't add up to the picture the Legion presented of itself to the world. There were stories of how ordinary, orthodox Catholic prayer books were confiscated from seminarians, and replaced with books reportedly written by Father Maciel. There was Father Maciel's title, "Nuestro Padre," (Our Father) a Spanish title for God Himself. Maciel's picture hung on the walls of the seminary; Maciel's letters were read aloud to the seminarians at meals, in place of writings from the saints, Scripture readings, or other ordinary sorts of spiritual material. There were minute rules governing everything from elaborate table manners to the parting of one's hair.
Besides all of that, though, there was an overwhelming amount of secrecy. The rule of charity meant, in practical reality, that one was never allowed to say anything negative about the Legion either within the Legion or without it. Anyone who had doubts about continuing on in the Legion was encouraged to suppress such doubts--all doubts were of the Enemy, who was trying to condemn not only the "failed Legionary" but all the souls that future priest would be responsible for. We now know that this environment where only positive things were allowed to be said or discussed helped Maciel greatly to cover up the irregularities and sins of his way of life, but even when none of us knew about that I thought this understanding of "charity," which forbade intellectual criticism of things that were not working well even among those who honestly wished the Legion success was extremely odd and likely counterproductive.
And the third leg of this wobbly three-legged stool was that no one, not even those still inside the Legion, could seem to say what being a Legionary priest (as opposed to a diocesan priest or Franciscan priest or Dominican priest, etc.) was supposed to be all about. There was a very long process from the time someone entered a seminary until he was ordained, for instance--but there didn't seem to be some cohesive, comprehensive program of education or study. There were Legion priests teaching in schools inside and outside America--but the order was not a teaching order. There were Legion priests helping out in various diocesan parishes--but the order was not tied to a diocese, and didn't always have good relationships in dioceses where it had a strong presence. There were Legion priests in the media--but they were not at all like the Daughters of St. Paul whose whole apostolate is communication. If you asked a Legion priest what the order's charism was, you were likely to get an enthusiastic statement about serving God through the Legion and the Movement (and, in those days, quite a bit thrown in about Father Maciel)--but nothing that could be distilled to a simple idea or a specific way of life. The Legion did a little of everything, most especially those things which increased the Legion; the charism could almost have been said to be, "To grow the Movement!" To grow it to do what? one might ask--but the answer would be condescension; growing God's great work of the Movement and the Legion was enough charism for anybody.
Did I perceive all of this, all at once? No. The accounts from people I knew, the growing sense that something just wasn't quite--right--with this order, the demonstrable focus on and adoration of Maciel in a way that really did seem unfitting for a man who was still very much alive, having these impressions reinforced whenever I did encounter the Legion or its apostolates--all of that took time. The stories I read on the Internet of people who had been quite badly treated by the Legion following their separation from either the Legion or Regnum Christi, and the stories of women who'd nearly lost their marriages over their involvement in Regnum Christi apostolates, added to the picture that was slowly being assembled, because in these stories I heard echoes of things people had told me, experiences they or their friends or family members had also had. A pattern was emerging, but it was not--back then--a clear picture.
The final piece of the puzzle was Maciel's "invitation" to a life of retirement and prayer, followed by his death and the revelation of the scandal that his life really had been. At that point, it all finally made sense: Maciel was neither a great holy man on a mission from God, nor an ordinary man whose vision for the Legion was more ambitious than his own talents allowed him to create. He was, instead, a charlatan and a fraud, a licentious liar who had more in common with the founder of a certain Hollywood-trendy science-fiction based religion than with any saintly Catholic founder of any Catholic religious order. The whole Legion was, at least from Maciel's likely perspective, a singularly successful con on a truly magnificent scale.
It is the rare con artist who can keep conning people after his death, but there are those still in the Legion and Regnum Christi who are being gulled, even now, into believing that Maciel meant well, that God (Who writes straight with crooked lines) still intended the founding of the Legion to build up the Movement--er, rather, His Kingdom--and that once the Legion rides the storm of the present unpleasantness it may be possible to place Nuestro Padre's pictures back on the wall here and there, and to speak approvingly of all the good he did, with a quick twist of the mouth to acknowledge the bad when that is necessary. Or, perhaps Rome will identify some other person as the founder and the source of the charism, so that instead of "Nuestro Padre" the Legion will learn to speak of "Nuestro Fundadores," which is so slight a change it will hardly be felt. Once that happens, the great work of God which is the Legion can continue to build up the Legion and grow the Movement so that every Catholic will come to see how necessary the Legion and the Movement are for living the truly best Catholic way of life...
If I could see massive signs of change from within the Legion at this point, if there were a humble acknowledgment coming from the present leadership that yes, indeed, there is a great deal about the Legion which is deeply flawed because of Maciel, that everything needs to be questioned and challenged, and that at the very least the insistence that the Legion and Regnum Christi provide anybody with a sure, easy path to holiness needs to go away, now--that would be one thing. But so long as what I see is quite the opposite, I'm going to be compelled to write about the Legion whenever news events make it a timely topic, if only so that other people who are trying to piece together the whole picture may begin to see it clearly; because I could not see it clearly myself, if others before me hadn't also spoken and written to share what they knew.