Tuesday, August 18, 2009

the horror, the horror...

With a more convoluted storyline than the most sordid Mexican telenovela, the cataclysmic unraveling of the Legion of Christ can only be described as a descent into lunacy.

The kind of madness that led Van Gogh to sever his ear while stalking Gauguin…

The detatchment from reality that allowed Munch to paint his hallucinatory ‘Scream’…

The denial and insanity that brought Colonel Kurtz to summarize his existence as “The horror, the horror”…

While investigators and journalists reveal new dimensions to Fr. Maciel’s long career as fraud and sexual predator daily, Vatican visitators try to discern fact from fiction in the Legion and the Legion’s leadership becomes ever more strident in its insistence that all is well and nothing should change.

The Secretary General is on a whirlwind tour of LC centers spinning the yarn that there is a basis to the Legion that was not invented by the disgraced Founder and was never contaminated by his web of secrecy and falsehood. The word ‘mystique’ – not charism or constitution – has become the new shibboleth in the hasty reinvention of the Legion. La mística is what makes the Legion what it is… that vague, undefinable air that sets us apart… that prototypical seal somehow impressed on the collective consciousness of the Legionaries that preserves our identity and defines our cause…

Because of its ‘mystique’, the Legion can and should remain untouched by the scandal of its Founder’s life, the glaring questions about its internal structure and operations as a religious congregation and the lethal virus of doubt and distrust spreading silently through the ranks of its members.

This latest discourse is as puzzling as it is disingenuous. A desperate effort in the eleventh hour to preserve the status quo, business as usual, “aquí no pasa nada”.

At the same time, a book recently distributed internally, ‘Cristo al Centro’, offers an anthology of Fr. Maciel’s writings and sayings – unindexed and sometimes slightly retouched – mixed with quotations from other, less dubious sources as a thinly disguised attempt to revindicate the Founder’s contribution to LC spirituality. Now we can quote the Founder without mentioning his name, read some of the things he said and wrote without that direct and oh-so-uncomfortable reference to his person. They’re already talking about revisiting the writings of Fr. Maciel some years down the road when all this ‘persecution’ has blown over…

The Superior General has just sent an eighteen page letter meant, apparently, to motivate and strengthen the LCs in these difficult times. The meandering missive never even names the problems that are rocking the congregation to its core and basically offers three bits of advice to its confused, anguished and frustrated priests: pray, don’t read the newspapers and trust the superiors.

Trust the superiors? Like we all trusted Fr. Maciel, our Superior General, for nearly 70 years?

If their end game is to retain power and conserve the organization founded to camouflage the double life of its disgraced Founder… perhaps our trust would be better invested elsewhere. Just a thought.

Some of the commentaries swirling around these days express the fear that the Vatican may not take the visitation to its ultimate consequences. That the Legion with its flagship seminaries, huge ordination groups and impressive works of apostolate must be preserved at all costs for the good of the Church. And that perhaps there is not the resolve to overturn stones that would reveal knowledge, complicity or benefits received by high ranking Church personalities as part of Fr. Maciel’s web of influence peddling and manipulation…

We can only hope and pray that the truth – full and unadulterated – will win the day in the end. The Legion is a shipwreck with many victims. Full disclosure, absolute transparency, a change in leadership, a General Chapter with strict Vatican oversight, a reformed constitution, the definitive eradication of all vestiges of Fr. Maciel’s personal imprint, and a heartfelt effort to help all those who have been hurt and betrayed are the lifeboat that will keep this surreal episode in the Church’s history from turning into an irredeemable tragedy.

Until then, the madness will continue and the Legion will persist in its denial and arrogance, turning into the exact opposite of what it claims to be.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

who stole my primerissima?


Today should be a primerissima.

You know, Misa con motetes… banderas… fusion entre comunidades… merienda cena.

But it’s quiet today at our centers. Nothing out of the ordinary. Business as usual: saving the world one lider at a time.

If the Pope were blessing a stone, we’d be hearing about it.

If the Mayor of Podunk were visiting an apostolic school, there’d be ‘chi-qui-ti bun-ba-di bin-bun-ba’ till the cows come home.

If Cardinal Doofratzit were having dinner with the community, the estudiantina would play Viva Espana! and La Malaguena into the wee hours of the morn.

Today is one of the most significant dates in the history of the Legion and… (crickets).


If anything, the orchestrated ignorance of the LCs, 3GF and RC members regarding the apostolic visitation of the congregation provides an eerie backlighting for the event itself. The members of the movement, clergy and laity, have been scarcely informed and left unprepared. A strategy of ingenuous smiles and simulated serenity is firmly in place. As if the Vatican appointed visitators will be so overwhelmed by the choreography that they’ll overlook the dark recesses of the plot and the hidden horrors of the screenplay.

The LC would almost certainly prefer to be left alone to work out its own solutions. The visitation is an embarassment and an undesired intromission into its private laboratory where truth and lies can be arbitrarily fabricated or erased through the alchemy of spin and secrecy.

But the LC is wretchedly incapable of curing itself.

Case in point: how can the LC continue at this present moment to ordain deacons and priests? How can it promote to religious profession the young novices that obliviously inch toward their vows? How can the Legion now so aggressively recruit new candidates to fill its vaunted houses of formation?

This is a point that Fr. Berg made in his recent interview and that many of us have marvelled at in private conversations.

Is not full knowledge a requisite for full and free consent? Could anyone validly commit their lives to serve as priest and religious in an institution about which they really know quite little because the truth has been systematically obfuscated and discarded?

Shouldn’t the LC at least wait until the visitation publishes its results – and we should all pray for an independent publication, free from LC filters and delays, if we hope to ever know the real findings and results – before herding more idealistic young men into its ranks?

The retort that present generations are less affected by the scandalous life and legacy of Fr. Maciel and so should progress unfettered by useless hindrances like ‘truth’ and ‘full disclosure’ is disingenuous at best. Every new candidate to the LC should know up front that he is entering the only existing religious order in the Catholic Church whose Founder was a sexual predator and a pathological liar who lived a double life during the sixty whatever years of the foundation. The parents of every new recruit should be carefully informed that their son or daughter is about to put their life and conscience in the hands of an institution that has had to disown its Founder because of accusations of sexual abuse (“more than 20, less than 100”), toss out all the writings and teachings that sustain his warped spirituality and now awaits with uncertainty a judgment on its future existence. They should also know that the men presently running the organization that will exercise full and unmitigated authority over their son or daughter were hand-picked by Fr. Maciel and swore personal allegiance to him at the last General Chapter.

Hey, folks, wake up!!! I mean this ain’t the Jesuits, the Dominicans or the Salesians you’re joining… we’re the LC!!!

If there were real transparency and full disclosure, who in their right mind would risk getting involved with the Legion of Christ right now?

I will take this a step further – and believe me, it has been a long, dark and painful journey to this point – and say: who among us, Legionaries of 20, 30, 40 years or more – being of sound mind and discerning conscience – would have endured even one minute of the teaching, preaching, discipline, spirituality, methodology, spiritual direction, ‘questions’, conferences or writings of Fr. Maciel had we known that at the very time he was hypnotizing us with his lies he was sexually abusing seminarians, fathering children, running around on the congregation’s dime, duping popes, cardinals, bishops and benefactors…

It was our ignorance that held the Legion together. The LC is founded, not on the supposed sanctity and inspiration and charism of its Founder, but on the gullible and impressionable idealism of his hapless followers.

We should be the first to decry the smoke and mirrors. We should be the most outraged by the falsehood and programmed ignorance that keep the LCs and 3GF subject to an illusory vocation. We should be the voices that the visitation hears and that make the hard changes possible.

And we definitely should have had a primerissima today…

Chi-qui-ti bun-ba-di bin-bun-ba.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Leave the bathwater. Take the cannoli.

An old friend popped in unexpectedly today. I dropped what I was doing and we went to lunch at a deli in the section of town they used to call ‘Little Italy’. Everyone says the city is not what it used to be, but you can still get good cannoli and sfogliatelle on Franklin Ave. if you know where to look.

We have mutual ties to the LC and this guy recently visited one of our large houses of formation in Europe. He asked the superior – also an old friend – how he was holding up, given all the pressure and uncertainty.

I held up my hand and said, “Wait, let me guess. He replied: Mucha paz y tranquilidad, gracias a Dios. Aquí y en toda la Legión se respira un gran aire de familia.“

My buddy smiled and shrugged. “Almost verbatim. How did you know?”

“Just a hunch.” I said as the waitress came with our drinks and sandwiches.


He asked me if I thought it possible to save the writings of Fr. Maciel. Many of them, he said, contain instruction and reflections that are, in and of themselves, good and useful. Many are simply his expression of elements of spirituality and religious life common to the universal Church. Why not keep what is good in his writings even if we must disown and distance ourselves from his person?

Why throw out the baby with the bathwater?

I answered with two analogies.

Adolph Hitler was a painter. Paintings of his have survived and even been auctioned off to collectors and historians in recent times. He painted landscapes. He painted the Blessed Virgin with the Christ Child. He fancied himself quite the accomplished artist.

Hitler is not remembered for his art. He is forever engraved upon the collective memory of humankind as arguably the least human, most deranged and criminal mass murderer of modern times. That is who he was.

To say, ‘let’s forget who he was and hang his paintings in the rectory’ would be disingenuous, offensive and repugnant to even the most lenient of critics.

One cannot separate the art from the artist. BECAUSE OF WHO HE WAS, Hitler’s Madonna and Child becomes a particularly blasphemous mockery of the Virgin, Christ and all the sacred artwork that has tried to represent the Holy Mother and her Son throughout time.

Analogy number two: in the Gospel narration of the temptations of Jesus, Satan quotes Sacred Scripture in the hopes of inducing the Savior to sin.

By itself, Scripture is a holy and valuable guide. On the lips of the Adversary it becomes a singularly vile and devious hex, a sacrilegious manipulation that reeks of evil and desperation.

Fr. Maciel was neither Satan nor Hitler and analogies take us only so far.

But while Fr. Maciel masqueraded as the saintly founder, the admirable priest, apostle and ‘suffering servant of Yahweh’ that all the LCs sought to emulate in their own vocation, his writings were veritable treasures that we meditated and quoted, memorized and preached.

Once we found out who he truly was, those same writings have turned into the cruelest of jokes, a most unholy parody of true spirituality and religious tradition, a sacrilegious satire that should make us all ashamed of having once proudly called ourselves ‘co-founders’.

The bathwater dissolved whatever baby there was long, long ago.
So throw it out with no regrets.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the Baptist, the Curè

The Nativity of John the Baptist caught one of our more perspicacious early Mass-goers by surprise this morning. She is training to become an extraordinary minister of communion and has, as a side effect, grown entranced by our liturgical calendar.

As I locked the aged maple doors of the church, she turned back and asked me why we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist when, to the best of her observation, other saints are celebrated on their death... or, as I prefer, exit to reality.

John’s importance as a sign of messianic fulfillment and his role as the Precursor, last prophet of the Old Covenant, has traditionally been recognized as equal or greater than his importance as saint and martyr. His birth and his death prefigure the Christ who enters the stage of humanity barely a step behind him.

John the Baptist is not your garden variety holy man.

Pope Benedict chose the birth date of another John, also unique in his sainthood, to initiate what he is calling ‘a year for priests’.

The letter he wrote, outlining his purpose for this timely and urgent celebration of the priesthood, is a fitting point of departure for what will be a year’s worth of meditation on our identity and mission as priests.

I read the letter slowly and could not help but recall, as one who flips through the pages of a scrap book, the different episodes of my own journey that have been as dramatic and, at times, as commonplace as anyone blessed with this unusual vocation.

The past eight months have been particularly trying – in ways unpredicted – because of the unraveling of the Legion of Christ and the increased demands of my ministry: the administration of four struggling city parishes, the latest of which, is barely awaking from a long and dark hibernation...

Never have I felt so surpassed by my circumstances, so utterly befuddled by the twists and turns of fate, so acutely aware that a priest is one who relinquishes the reins of his life to Another...

Both Johns have something to teach me this year.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

more than words

There was a time when it was severely frowned upon to refer to writers other than the Founder in our preaching, spiritual exercises and private reading. We were instructed to quote him often, to dedicate certain meditations to his person, virtue and vocation. We were to read his letters during adoration and as part of the liturgy of the hours. We were to engage in studies of our own spirituality much like Jesuits have studied Ignatius and Salesians have studied Don Bosco.

Now? Not so much.

For those of us who have lived through it, it is nothing less than mind-boggling.

Recalling the years and years of our lives as LCs during which EVERYTHING was centered on the person of Fr. Maciel now feels like trying to remember the hallucinations of a distant psychotic episode.

Every word, every gesture, every commentary, every scrap of paper scribbled on by ‘the Boss’ was a treasure, an unforgettable connection between the inspired, saintly Founder and his intrepid, although still imperfect, co-founders.

For a long time the most piercing motivation the superiors could give us to live with greater fidelity the infinite rules and regulations of the order was: “Think of how Nuestro Padre suffers with even the slightest infidelity of his co-founders!

He was our ideal... the true “legionario tipo” that we all so ardently aspired to imitate.

I cringe to think of it now.

Those same green books that I so dutifully worked my way through, volume after volume, taking time to memorize favorite passages and copy special phrases into my own spiritual journal... now make me physically nauseous when I try to read their pages.

A letter from the early 80’s encouraging a LC priest to be ‘authentic’, to open himself entirely to the Legion through his superiors, to never wear ‘masks’ and always be transparent...

This from the master mask maker himself!

Line after line on the subject of chastity, on maintaining priestly dignity and decency when dealing with women, on offering the sacrifice of ourselves with a pure heart to Christ...

When did he think this stuff up? While he was lying in bed, enjoying a post-coital cigarette next to some young concubine, dreaming of the army of holy priests he would someday offer the Church?

Or how about those fabulous letters warning us of the dangers of ‘particular friendships’, those devilish ‘maría–remedios' waiting to seduce us at every turn, importuning us to have confidence only in our superiors (i.e. report everything you see, no matter how innocuous, to Big Brother)...

Yet behind it all he camouflaged his own turbid proclivities and allowed his unrestrained deviance to ruin so many young lives!

How sick does it get, man?

All those heavy one-liners of Nuestro Padre that were constantly repeated as a litany of motivation to eager and gullible ‘co-founders’ now sound hopelessly vapid and cynical:

“fiel hasta morir en la raya” Yeah, right. Just like NP.

“de una sola pieza, al pié del cañón” Spare me the irony.

“amor et dolor vita mea” You put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

“el Legionario se es o se despide” Finally, some candid advice...

“nunca he dicho ‘no’ a mi Señor Jesucristo” If that’s the case, who has?

“soy por la Legión que Dios me quiere” Syntax is no longer the main problem with this one...

“mi vida por Cristo” Whatever.

All of this is not just the venting of a guy who, like many others, was deceived and betrayed about the core truth of his vocation.

It is vitally important as a point to be considered by the visitation.

The spirituality of the LC, such as it is, is embedded in the writings of the Founder. His thoughts and his words are conserved in endless books, pamphlets, recordings and videos. In the LC we have often prided ourselves on how completely EVERY aspect of our lives has been defined and detailed by the Founder.

The double life of Fr. Maciel as inspired spiritual guide/fraud and sexual predator has totally negated his credibility. Nothing he has said or written to the LCs or the RC members can be believed or taken seriously. Who he was taints all he wrote. There is no separating the teachings from the life of the teacher when it comes to the all-consuming, conscience-binding religious vocation.

The writings – all of them, from the Constitutions to the Salterio – are as fraudulent as the life that produced them.

From now on, there will be an 800 pound gorilla in the room every time his letters are read during meals in spiritual exercises, every time the Constitutions are read and commented on in community, every time the wishes and words of the Founder are half-heartedly tossed around as motivations.

In essence, the visitation has to expunge every last vestige of the Founder from the Legion’s spirituality.

But would a ‘Legion’ devoid of Fr. Maciel’s thought and teaching still be the Legion of Christ?

Therein lies the challenge: to remake a religious congregation into something totally removed from its Founder, while at the same time salvaging the vocations, apostolates, houses of formation and charitable works associated with it.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

a triple challenge

And I thought Pentecost was a bust...

Preaching on these theologically supersized liturgical solemnities is definitely a challenge. It feels like there’s no middle ground between trivializing the content into Paris Hilton/Jonathan Morris approved sound bytes and turning the homily into an arid ethereal classroom à la Gregoriana...

Regardless, my experience is that if you speak passionately and with enough personal conviction about anything, you can get them to listen.

For a little while.

This is where I went, in under twelve minutes, today, Solemnity of the Holy Trinity:

• all religions look for ways to speak about the Ultimate Reality
• all religions coincide, to some degree, in what they say about God
• but the truth about God can only be revealed by God Himself

• Christianity has a unique, somewhat difficult, way of expressing its knowledge of God... such as it is
• Christianity believes that Jesus Christ IS God and, therefore, is God revealing Himself in a way that we can comprehend... at least a little
• Jesus of Nazareth found no better words in the human vocabulary to speak about God than: Father, Son and Spirit (Consoler, Advocate...)
• Jesus differentiates between the three persons but radically adheres to the affirmation of a single God
• the ‘three’ of the ‘Trinity’ is not, strictly speaking, a number; it is an expression of plenitude, of a relationship that is complete and perfect

• far from being a theoretical dogma (read: entirely useless as far as my ‘real life’ is concerned), our faith in the Trinity is our answer to the ultimate and ever-present WHY?
• we affirm that relationship (love) - not matter, blind energy or the cosmic lottery – is the source, the underpinning, the reason, the cause, the finality and the meaning of all there is
• the universe, with us in it, is the result of the Father’s love for the Son... a love that had to overflow outside itself, expand beyond its own divinity, as it were
• the universe, our universe, is the necessary scenario – the ultimate possibility – for the Son to love the Father totally, as He Himself is loved... our imperfect world gives the Son the platform to embrace and become what He is not (suffering, sin, death, condemnation), exhausting all possibilities of love understood as losing oneself for the beloved...
• the Spirit is the vibrant, dramatic, subtle and explosive relationship between Father and Son that fills the universe, gives being where only nothingness would survive, and permeates with its beauty all that is

• after Mass, we shall all go running off to Walmart, or to twittering and text messaging our friends, or to fire up the grill in the backyard or to plop down in front of the flatscreen to watch the Yankees or the Sox... but the tremendous truth of what we affirm today as a community in this holy place will ever and always be the rock we stand on and the hope we live by


Saturday, June 06, 2009

liar, liar

A couple of weeks ago I had a visit from a friend, a priest in another religious congregation.

The Somascan Fathers (CRS), founded around the beginning of the 16th century, have a relatively small operation in the USA, but can be found serving in parishes with high levels of poverty or large numbers of recently arrived immigrants.

This priest told me the troubling story of their last superior general, which I related to immediately. By all accounts a saintly man, a kind and gentle pastor of souls with a deep spiritual life, something cracked inside. After a number of years serving as superior he unexpectedly called a press conference and stated that he would be resigning his post. He asked the Vatican to appoint someone better fitted to assume the grave responsibilities of his office. Although he made no further disclosures at the time, it appears that something arose in his private circumstances that was serious enough to merit his immediate retirement.

Think what you will, this man was honest enough to know that the turmoil and challenges of his personal life were radically incompatible with his religious commitment and obstreperously contradictory to his role as superior general of the congregation.

There was pain on all sides: his, in leaving; his brethren’s, in ‘losing’ a friend and spiritual guide; the faithful’s, in wondering what inner crisis would cause a beloved priest to abandon them...

And yet, he drew a line of basic decency in the sand and rejected the leading of a double life. He made a choice. He now lives with it. But he refused to hurt, insult and betray those around him with disdain and duplicity.

I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

A Legionary priest, working in a women’s center of RC in South America, recently responded to the anguished questions of the Movement’s members about the fraudulent life of Fr. Maciel by saying, in short, that “as a man he had his shortcomings, we should not be judgmental and we should look to the good that has come from the Legion in its works”.

His ‘shortcomings’?

That’s like saying that Caligula had his ‘quirks’... or that Amy Winehouse has her occasional ‘bad hair day’.

If we are to believe that Fr. Maciel was somehow a ‘flawed saint’ or simply ‘an imperfect instrument of God’, how do we defend the fact that he perpetuated the lie of his double life and drew so many ingenuous, enthusiastic followers into a spider’s web of wanton deception that lasted till his death?

Why didn’t he go to the Holy Father at some stage, reveal his ‘failings’ and ask for a replacement to guide the Legion? Did he never perceive the monstrosity of the warped and pestilent theater of the absurd that his life had become? Was he so far beyond the concept of good and evil that he feared no judgment, no retribution?

He chose to lie and he slaved tirelessly to inflate an image of sanctity, of inspiration, of leadership and of relevance for the Church throughout his entire despicable career. He diligently hid his secret life from the acting LC superiors over the years so that the realistic appearance of the illusion he was spinning would be flawless.

It is the lie that kills me.

I know he was a sexual predator. I know he was morally corrupt. I know he duped, popes, bishops, authorities both civil and ecclesiastic.

But the lie that he seduced me with and with which he held me compliantly captive for thirty years smolders in my gut, invades my dreams and sullies my experience as a priest.

His was a masterful and heartless betrayal of that which was noblest in us. We are all damned fools and the sorry, hapless remnant of a vicious fairy tale. He has made cynics of us all.