Charism and founder Part 1: The paradox

“A paradox is not a conflict within reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality should be like.” — Richard Feynman

It’s not easy finding people who like reading the works of American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor. Her characters, even the likeable ones, end up shot, crushed, gored, drowned, trapped, abused, in jail, or dead of a heart attack. In a world where every blockbuster and bestseller has to have a hero and a feel-good ending, Flannery doesn’t sell.

I’d get depressed, too, if that’s all I could see in Flannery’s work. But Flannery was deeply Catholic, and her sad endings had a purpose: to provoke her characters to an encounter with grace, one they would have never had if they hadn’t suffered the unspeakable. In the end, then, there is redemption, even at the unwitting hands of a devilish assassin.

In literature, this device is called paradox. Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as, “an apparently self-contradictory statement, the underlying meaning of which is revealed only by careful scrutiny.” Christianity is full of paradoxes: to give is to receive; to surrender is to find freedom; to die is to be born to a new life. Paradoxes that are revolting and indigestible at first, but gradually draw us into the mysterious world of God’s ways and the wonders of his grace. “We preach Christ crucified,” said Saint Paul, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor 1: 23-24) Writers use paradoxes to arrest attention and provoke fresh thought. The Holy Spirit uses it, too, to wreck schemes and remind us that it is he, not us, who knows the way things ought to be.

The Regnum Christi Movement is a living paradox. On the one hand, it has a morally depraved founder whose personal style of governance heavily influenced its constitutional law, traditions and praxis. On the other hand, it has a real charism that has been affirmed and reaffirmed by top Church authorities and theologians and thousands of Regnum Christi members.

Several of my friends and acquaintances would prefer that the paradox not exist. They’ve commented to me over the past few months that they find it impossible to believe that God could have transmitted a charism, a grace, through Marcial Maciel LC, the Movement’s historical founder. The Church is making a mistake, they say; there is no charism. And being that there is no charism, thousands of Regnum Christi members wasting their time on renewing and purifying the non-existent. Why don’t those members just face up to history, disown the past, and start over again, whether as a new movement or just good ol’ parishioners?

Their points are important and their concern is genuine. If anything, they want me out of an “abusive situation.” Yet I can’t help thinking that their starting premise is mistaken; they’re looking at the situation from the point of common sense and justice, and not from the point of grace. It is the supernatural view that transforms what we think about the natural. It does not imply that we deny facts and historical events or oppressive systems and serious errors; rather, it thoroughly embraces all of that and asks a question from a different perspective: is God trying to write a story here, a story that implies we get crushed, drowned and buried, so that we can learn what it means to be saved, to be chosen, to be free? Is grace truly capable of working through the most desperate and horrific of situations?

What I want to share with my friends in this short series of blogs are some theological reflections on the nature of grace, the theological truths that have permitted the Church and Regnum Christi to believe that the grace of a charism can be granted though an unworthy founder. On these premises are based the hope that the members of Regnum Christi, guided by their Pontifical Delegate, can purify and renew the patrimony of the Movement. I don’t want my friends to cover up and escape the paradox of Regnum Christi, but to contemplate it with me, to let it fester, haunt and upset our souls, until a clearer vision of grace and its mysterious workings emerges before us.

The next blog will start with the concept of grace. What is grace, and can we do anything to merit it?

 

About Melicia Antonio

Melicia Antonio is a consecrated woman of Regnum Christi. She studies theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
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20 Responses to Charism and founder Part 1: The paradox

  1. Diaspora says:

    I differ “On the one hand, it has a morally depraved founder whose personal style of governance heavily influenced its constitutional law, traditions and praxis. On the other hand, it has a real charism that has been affirmed and reaffirmed by top Church authorities and theologians and thousands of Regnum Christi members.” The two aspects are connected. So the charism(a) is not flawless. It passes through the founder. It has to be reviewed.

  2. Melicia Antonio says:

    The charism as a gift from God IS flawless. God only creates and gives good things. When I say “real charism”, I am affirming real existence. What got warped was the understanding and practice of it. Hence the need for revision, purification, etc, which no one is denying.

  3. Exclaustrated says:

    I’m glad some serious topics are here discussed. To save the charism as you are relentlessly trying , Melicia, does not need the “through Maciel” thesis. Actually Fr. Ghirlanda has already got around the through problem, so the way out is not to look to the good Maciel did, but to the bad he did so to correct the way things were done. What about the preferential option for the rich, for instance? Your theology is more protestant or even muslim, as if God acts directly without mediations. Maciel is a mediation, he could only corrupt the charism, not transmit it.

  4. Liz Phelan says:

    Melicia, just what is this “real charism that has been affirmed and reaffirmed by top Church authorities and theologians and thousands of Regnum Christi members.”? Can you please articulate it?

  5. At the risk of anticipating something that Melicia will explain in other parts of the series, we have to keep in mind that God can make use of imperfect—even perverse—instruments to achieve his ends. (Regrettably, we would have to place our founder, Fr. Maciel, in the latter category.) For example, if an unworthy candidate is ordained to the priesthood, in no way does that impede the efficacy of the sacraments that he celebrates. Even a priest in mortal sin absolves sins, confects the Eucharist, and baptizes validly.

    Of course, a charism (which we can loosely define as the particular way of living the Gospel proposed by an institute or movement) is not a sacrament—ontologically it is much less than a sacrament—but like a sacrament it is a grace (that is, a help or gift) given by God that exists principally for the benefit of the Church.

    My point is, if God can bestow on an unworthy priest the ability to confect something as great as the Eucharist, then he can certainly permit an unworthy instrument to transmit a charism, which is a lesser good.

    What God produces, of course, is perfect in itself. Another question is what extraneous elements (stemming, no doubt, at least in part from the bad influence of the founder) have contaminated our living of the charism. That discernment has been our greatest task in these past three years.

    This idea that bad instruments can be the channel of grace, by the way, can be found in the Summa Theologiae, First Part, Question 64, Article 5 I cannot, therefore, be in agreement that Melicia’s theology is Protestant; I think she is on very solid ground.

    God bless.

  6. Correction: the reference to the Summa should be Summa Theologiae, Third Part, Question 64, Article 5. The link was correct.

  7. Exclaustrated says:

    Fr. Louis: You need to read the whole of the Summa, St. Thomas adresses the possibility of a grace being lost because of unworthiness (the concept S. Thomas uses is lack of good behavior), and his answer is obviously affirmative. Cf. ST. II-IIae q. 172, a. 4. Anyway St. Thomas is no guarantee of orthodoxy for every proposition of his work, because he is not the Magisterium of the Church. Your reasoning, nevertheless, has a serious flaw: you basically say if God can channel his grace thorugh and an unworthy priest when he consecrates he can certainly chanell something less valuable such as a charism. But the opposite is correct, since that graces are for salvation, graces that are not necessary for salvation do not need to be channeled through unworthy instruments, not the opposite.

  8. Melicia Antonio says:

    @ Liz Phelan
    Your question is important, but I’m going to hold off answering for now because one of the blogs of this series will be just on that topic. However, I’d like to ask you a question: what do you understand by “charism”, in its general sense as it could be applied to any religious institute or apostolic movement?

  9. Melicia Antonio says:

    @ Exclaustrated- thanks for your comments.
    1. “through Maciel” is necessary because he is the historical founder. There is no religious congregation without a founder to transmit the charism. Br. Louis has touched on how this is possible in the Maciel case and I will take it up more in depth in this series. I’ve been consulting Ghirlanda himself for my blogs so hopefully we can stay on good theological ground here.
    2. You are totally right that the bad things have to be examined so that they are not repeated. My personal experience is that those of us carrying out the revision are very conscious of past failures and erroneous premises. We have all been victims. As for the “preferential option for the rich”, I won’t get into it at the moment because I think it merits another serious discussion, one we can have as soon as we lay down theological premises for the existence of a charism.
    3. I don’t quite catch what you’re trying to say about mediators. I believe in human mediators insofar as God chooses to use them. Salvation history is full of mediators who sinned greatly; you already know the history of the Popes. There are also isolated cases of founders who were less than ideal. This is in no way a defense of bad mediators, but an invitation to reflect on the paradox, the power of grace despite the human instrument.
    4. It’s rather unfair that you’re wholly discounting Thomas Aquinas. TA is being brought in as an explanation of why the Pope’s affirmation of the existence of the RC/LC charism (see the May 1, 2010 communiqué) makes theological sense. In a communiqué, obviously the Pope isn’t going to explain every theological argument related to every one of his affirmations. As I see it, this is the favor Ghirlanda (and other theologians) did for us.

  10. Exclaustrated says:

    Melicia: The May 1st communique in no way suggests Maciel has transmitted some charism so, again, the “through” Maciel thesis is unnecessary as a way of explaining the origin of LC/RC as a charismatic reality. Maciel can be only an historical founder, as you call him, but not a charismatic founder, so you don’t need to look at him nor at his writings to redefine the charism, and you should question many aspects of the historical LC/RC identity as flawed and not inspired. Some of them have changed, not others. But basically the task is looking for the charism not in the past, but in the present of LC/RC, especially in those aspects that are emerging and are against what Maciel taught. For instance abandoning the veto to accept parishes or to work on poor areas of cities rather than rich ones

  11. Jane D. says:

    Are there any non-Legion/Regnum Christi canonists or theologians out there who can speak to this matter? Pardon my cynicism, it just seems to me that you’re a little biased, and desperately attempting to find a charism, to justify the continued existence of the Legion and RC. LCs and RCs can’t even put it into words. “We don’t know what it is, but we’re called to it!” I’ve observed multiple attempts to capture this elusive charism, and it inevitably involves a long-winded mind-numbing dissertation that fails to prove anything. The fact that this topic is being covered in an umpteen-thousand word 3-part series illustrates my point. Does the Holy Spirit hide charisms from the very people supposedly called to that charism?

  12. Jim Fair says:

    Friends…I’m clearly not a theologian, just the Movement’s communications guy. But please let me add what I hope will be a helpful perspective.

    When a religious organization experiences the jolt we have experienced over the past several years, it is only natural to go back to the fundamentals of what the organization is based on, and seek confirmation and clarification. We are in that process. That we can’t reduce all of this to a brief definition that everyone can easily spout should come as no surprise. A charism isn’t a slogan.

    I know that I love my wife and it is totally clear in my mind and heart that I do. But describing it in words is difficult. Her personality? Her naturally curly hair and dark brown Italian eyes? Her cooking? The way she walks and talks? It is all of those things and many more. In a sense, all of those things create her charism.

    Many people seem to want a definition of the Legion’s charism that will fit on a business card: we found schools….we take people on missions….we work with the poor….we work with the rich….we run colleges….we operate soup kitchens….we spend our lives in comtemplative prayer. Perhaps you read one of those descriptions and think of a particular group within the Church. But what you recognize isn’t their charism, but what they do, which is only one element of their charism.

    Our faith is full of mysteries. Consider that the Nicene Creed is just a couple hundred words long and supposedly incorporates the essentials of our faith. Yet, my Catechism of the Catholic Church (second edition) weighs in at 904 pages.

    At the very heart of our faith is the Trinity — a rather difficult concept. Bishop Sheen told a story of a lady listening to his homily on the trinity and telling him after Mass that it was wonderful and she really understand it. He replied that if she thought she understood it he apparently didn’t explain it very well.

    So…if someone says they can explain the charism of their religious order and jumps right into an easy definition, my bet is they don’t understand it. But that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to search for a clear understanding of our charism, and why it is so attractive to us.

  13. Melicia Antonio says:

    @Jane D
    Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, and Fr. Agostino Montán are all experts in canon law and non-Legionaries. If you didn’t know that, then you’re skipping the most important articles about Regnum Christi.

  14. Melicia Antonio says:

    Msgr. Marchesi was a canon law professor, too. But since he taught classes at the Legion-owned Regina Apostolorum, I guess he doesn’t count.

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/visitor-to-regnum-christi-counselors-to-the-legion-announced/

  15. Jane D. says:

    Thanks Melicia. Can you please post the links to articles by Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda and Fr. Agostino Montán, that deal specifically with this topic of the charism and the founder? I’d love to read them. Thanks!!

  16. Liz Phelan says:

    Melicia, I’m sure you and I would agree that “charism” refers to a particular gift given by the Holy Spirit in order to serve the Church. My question is what specifically is that gift? Is it even defined? If not so, then why do you maintain that you have one? I look forward to your next post clarifying this issue.

    Jim, any existing charism of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi should not be as difficult to understand as the Trinity and it certainly is not an essential element to our faith like the Nicene Creed. At least, no other religious group I know has ever made such claims about THEIR charism. It is up to the congregation and the organization of laity to articulate it to the world. Saying “we have a charism” isn’t quite the same thing as actually having one.

    So, Melicia and Jim, my primary question remains – what exactly is it? No slogans or business cards necessary – just an explanation of what it is. Take all the space you need.

  17. Liz Phelan says:

    It’s also helpful at this point to remind everyone that what clearly emerged from the Apostolic Visitation was, first and foremost:

    “the need to redefine the charism of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, preserving its true nucleus, that of the militia Christi, which characterizes the apostolic and missionary action of the Church and is not to be identified with the drive for efficiency at any cost.”

    – Communique of the Holy See Regarding the Apsotolic Visitation of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ (1 May 2010), Section 4 Part A.

    I’m no canonist or theologian but it sounds to me like the Holy See believes that legitimate charisms can be clearly articulated.

  18. Jim Fair says:

    Liz…There is much more to it than a “particular gift.” With time and faith it will become clearer, although I expect many will understand it without being able to clearly articulate it. I’ll stand with my post above.

  19. Liz Phelan says:

    Perhaps I’ve simplified the explanation a bit. As I suggested earlier, it doesn’t have to be a very brief or “slogan”-like explanation.

    The following link is just one example which perhaps can assist the process both for those trying to articulate the charism of the Legion/Regnum Christi and for those questioning what the charism may be. The Order Franciscan Secular (St. Peter’s Fraternity) provides a clear and comprehensive explanation both of the term “Charism” and what it means in particular to the Franciscans:

    http://www.ofsstpeters.com/charism.html

    What jumps out are the simple phrases: “personal gift of the Spirit used for the good of the Church” and “particular way in which people respond to God’s call”. That’s a nice, concise definition of the term “Charism”. See – it doesn’t have to be confusing or murky. An articulation of what these gifts and particular responses are would go a long way toward clearing up the question of whether the Legion and Regnum Christi have a charism.

    What’s interesting too is the linking of the Franciscan way of life to the example of St. Francis himself who “was very particular about keeping his charism intact.” The members of the Legion and Regnum Christi are at a distinct disadvantage in this regard. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long to articulate a charism? While a charism may not be attached to the PERSON of a founder, the founder’s BEHAVIOR surely provides concrete examples of what the charism would be. As Maciel’s behavior was less than exemplary for over very long periods of time, the question of whether he actually founded something for the good of the Church is a legitimate question and hopefully one that was addressed immediately upon the issuance of the Holy See’s 2010 communique.

    Finally we note that FIRST Francis had the charism, and THEN he sought approval from the pope and the cardinals. Based on this one example (and I know that there are more out there), Melicia’s reasoning is backwards. Church authorities don’t validate your charism BEFORE you seem to have one. The burden of responsibility to determine whether a charism exists and what it is AND to convince Church authorities of such lies with the founder and the group. That Maciel was a depraved founder does not somehow allow the Legion and Regnum Christi to skip this step.

    Encouraging and pastoral words from Cardinal De Paolis and other Church officials overseeing this purification are no doubt wonderful but they don’t prove you have a charism. Only you can do that.

  20. Melicia says:

    @Liz
    Thanks for your comments. I’ll be taking them into account when I write the blog on charism.

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