Charism and Founder, PART FOUR: The Founder

If a stranger had to walk into the Centro de Formación of Monterrey, where I have lived for the past five years, and guess what religious order it belonged to, he might have a hard time.

I say “might”, because if the stranger were familiar with any other formation house constructed by the Movement or the Legion, he’d notice the similarities: large windows, open spaces, manicured gardens, the chapel with its centrally placed crucifix and tabernacle, Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ in every office, a general neatness and order.

Other than that, there are few clues: there are no portraits of the founder on the walls, no pictures narrating the history, no shelves of special spirituality books in the libraries, no photos of Movement events displayed in the living rooms or on the office walls. The letters of the founder are boxed up in the basement and the pictures are burned or buried. In the Centro de Formación, a favorite portrait of the founder in the reception area was appropriately replaced by Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son.

At times, the Regnum Christi Movement reminds me of the popular motivational speaker Nick Vujicic. Nick should have been born with arms and legs, like any other human being, but he wasn’t. At eight years old he thought his life was worthless and seriously contemplated suicide, but faith pulled him through. If he was alive, he thought, it was for a reason. God had a plan for him, a mission. And God was right.

In the first part of this series, I mentioned the mystery of paradoxes and how hard they are to incorporate in one’s life. Regnum Christi is still a mystery, but even more so for those who live in it than those who live outside it. The ones who need real conversion are those who actually LIVE the paradox: those who have read all those letters gathering dust in the basement, those who appear in the burned photos, those who struggle to integrate a lifetime of experiences in Regnum Christi with the harsh truth of the founder. A recent letter from the major directors of the Movement and the Legion exhorts members to remember that simply writing new Statutes is not enough to achieve a true reform; a profound conversion of heart and of life is necessary. Only this can prepare us for the work of spiritual discernment, a work Ghirlanda describes in his 2011 conference:

What the Holy Father asks for is that the original gift which the Spirit has made to the Church through Fr. Maciel comes forth, purified of all that, as it was suggested more explicitly in the Holy See’s communiqué from May 1, 2010, Fr. Maciel himself, because of the imbalance due to his immoral life, could have infused in the Constitutions and in the practice of life in the Legion. Therefore, the work that the entire Legion is called to, with the help of the Pontifical Delegate, is a work of spiritual discernment, that is to say, an attentive listening to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit makes you understand, through the voice of all the members of the Legion, the charism which should genuinely come alive again in each one of you as individuals and as a community, purified of all that could have stained it.”

Several analogies have been put forth to describe this process of removing the stained to reveal the pure. Joan Kingsland likens it to culling blueberries, picking out bad ones and saving the good ones. Br. (now Fr.) Matthew Schneider used the image of a rusty pipe polluting the pure water. The image that speaks best for me is that of the “refiner’s fire” in which the refiner holds the raw silver over a searing, thousand degree heat and watches the impurities slowly seep out. He holds it not a second too long over the fire; only until he can see his image clearly reflected in the pure silver. “Thousand degree heat” seems to fit the bill, because the purification process is not so much like separating black from white, but more like wading through grey swamp with your eyes fixed on the North Star. Like sitting before a mirror and asking that eternally burning question “Who am I?” in order to make those critical decisions that reflect the truth of who you are.

Founders are supposed to be good guys. The Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis says, “It redounds to the good of the Church that institutes have their own particular characteristics and work. Therefore let their founders’ spirit and special aims they set before them as well as their sound traditions-all of which make up the patrimony of each institute-be faithfully held in honor.” Evangelica Testificatio says, “…the Council rightly insists on the obligation of religious to be faithful to the spirit of their founders, to their evangelical intentions and to the example of their sanctity.” Canon 578 says “All must observe faithfully the mind and designs of the founders regarding the nature, purpose, spirit, and character of an institute, which have been sanctioned by competent ecclesiastical authority, and its sound traditions, all of which constitute the patrimony of the same institute.”

What of the “mind and designs” of Maciel? The 2010 communiqué makes it clear that Maciel is not to be emulated nor adulated, his life being devoid of “authentic religious meaning.” Yet to believe that all his intentions therefore were “completely fradulent” and “rotten to the core”, as critics have told me, would be treading on the sacred ground of conscience. The facts are what they are: he founded a religious order and a movement that were approved by the Church and carry the signs of a genuine charism. Why he did so is impossible to know; the fact is that he did do it. Otherwise, he would not be an “enigma” as Pope Benedict calls him in the interview Light of the World: “We see the dynamism and strength with which he built up the Legionaries,” the Pope said; he was “a false figure” who had a “positive effect.” Cardinal De Paolis acknowledged in an interview with Vida Nueva that there are “values that Maciel inculcated in the Legionaries, such as obedience to the Church and respect for doctrine, which cannot be denied.” (my translation) The co-founders have had the same experience. I believe Fr. Evaristo Sada when he says that he only received good things from Fr. Maciel, and now feels profound humiliation for the sufferings that others received at those same hands.

What of the writings of Maciel, volumes and volumes of letters and conferences spanning more than half a century? Fr. Michael, commenting on a previous post, said: “With Maciel’s downfall, what do future Legionaries and RCs do? Maciel’s writings are unreliable and his example of life is horrible. We’re dealing with an already-existing religious order given a charism from above…without benefit of supporting documentation or example of life from the founder.” Re-reading Maciel’s writings is not an absolute necessity at this stage; those who are participating in the reform have already had a lifetime of listening to Maciel and the work of spiritual discernment is done from within, retaining that which resonates with the charism and the Gospel. Yet for the future generations who had no contact with these writings, it will be necessary to compile and write new sources of spirituality. Could the letters play any part, however small, in that process? Certainly not direct quotations, but are there ideas to be salvaged, applications and analogies that reflect Christian doctrine and our understanding of the charism? Ideas that resonate with the reformed Statutes? I think so. In this case, it would hardly be a case of plagiarizing the founder, but of cofounders taking back what was rightly theirs.

I am not attempting here to resuscitate the “grand narrative” of Maciel, only to illustrate how intricate and complex is the work of determining the role of the historical founder. Every charism, in a sense, has to be purified. Every charism is received by a weak and sinful human being who struggles, with the help of grace, to understand what God is truly asking of him and his followers. In our case, the purification was not completed in the figure of the founder himself, creating a structure with serious gaps and placing a heavier burden on the cofounders, but not one impossible to carry.

I mentioned before that is a lacking of something essential that creates disequilibrium, and therefore evil. For every “virtue” or essential aspect of the Regnum Christi charism, under Maciel there had flourished a corresponding “vice”. Some aspects I would point out, based on my personal experience as a professor and formator of the consecrated women, and as applied to the consecrated women, are the following:

1) Regnum Christi is noted for obedience to the Church and adhesion to the Pope. At the same time, it practiced non-evangelical concepts of obedience and the Will of God. We already know how much governing authority was concentrated in the figure of the founder. As well, the will of God was often equated to the will of the director, without room, in many cases, for a proper discernment on the part of the subject. There was abundant personal attention, but true discernment was not always present.

2) Regnum Christi is noted for its apostolic zeal, for creating marvelous apostolic works that reach thousands of people in all levels of society. At the same time, something I call the “Great Apostolic Machine” would place the needs of the institution before the needs of individual people. People sometimes got crushed under the weight of it: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

3) This “Machine” also affected formation. Although Regnum Christi formation is noted for orthodoxy, in the case of the consecrated members it wasn’t always profound and transformative, simply because the initial formation years and college studies of many consecrated members were cut short in order to send them out to the apostolate.

4) Regnum Christi has a gift for working with leaders. A cursory look at the heads of the apostolate reveals a roster of wildly talented people who are happily putting their gifts at the service of the Church. Yet Regnum Christi could fall into what some termed “elitism”, a focus on certain types of leaders and a preference for extroverted, type-A personalities.

5) Regnum Christi is noted for a strong sense of family spirit. Yet the strict norms governing relationships with one’s biological family often caused strain and conflict. As well, consecrated members were discouraged from cultivating “particular friendships”, which sometimes resulted in an artificial sense of universal charity: friends with everyone and no one.

5) Regnum Christi had some good internal communication. A letter I sent to any major director unfailingly resulted in a personal response, save some of my letters to the busy founder. At the same time there were communication structures that did not foster transparency and free access to important information.

Major changes have been made in all of these areas: for the last seven or eight years, the consecrated members have finished basic formation before receiving apostolic assignments; in the last two years, the government has been restructured, access to media relaxed, family visit time increased (from 6 days over three years to 30 days over three years), and the vocational discernment period extended from two years to eight years.

These decisions have not been made simply as a reaction to criticism, but as based on principles that should direct the spirit of an institute. The reform is not simply passive, but must be proactive. Some say reform should simply “chop out” troubled areas; if working with leaders caused us problems, cut it out! But would that really solve the problem? Are not the contemplatives tempted to pietism? Are not the active orders tempted to activism? Are not those who work with the poor tempted to politics and liberation theology? Are not the “intellectual” orders tempted to heresy in the name of academic freedom? The solution is not to stop working where God has placed you, but to purify your intentions with the help of grace.

A true reform implies a return to the sources. For Regnum Christi, this means a return to Gospel values, to fundamentals of Christian anthropology that place value on each person, to Canon Law as expressed in the updated 1983 code, to Church documents in their entirety and not just the paragraphs that were convenient for the founder’s purposes, to solid spiritual authors, and, of course, to our own experience of the beauty of the charism.

With these thoughts, I end this mini-series, in part because my objective of illustrating the paradox is complete and in part because I will be soon starting my one month Spiritual Exercises. I want to close with a thought from the Jesuit theologian Futrell. He says that every significant person or event in an institute’s history marks it in a unique way. An institute is what it is today, because of its history. What will Maciel and the reform mean to the history of the Regnum Christi Movement? What lessons will the Movement have learned? What lessons will it have to share?

The prodigal son came home. His father forgave him. Life would never be the same in that household, and the son would never regain the inheritance he squandered. All belonged now to his brother. Yet the mercy of God ruled in that household, and the story was passed on for generation after generation of how humility and forgiveness reconciled a family broken by sin.

Broken, not destroyed.



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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4 Responses to Charism and Founder, PART FOUR: The Founder

  1. Liz Phelan says:

    Thank you Melicia! This section was very much needed. Your discussion of some of the severe problems associated with Regnum Christi is a breath of fresh air, and your point that any institute can fall off-track but that they should stay where God has called them is spot on.

    But here is the quandary:

    1. Council documents and canon law unequivocally reference the mind and designs of the founder as instrumental in the establishment and patrimony of the institute.

    2. Per the Holy See, Maciel led a life devoid of scruples and genuine religious meaning and used his skills as leader and “charismatic founder” to set up a support system to fool the majority of Legionaries. As a result, the life and structure of the institute were impacted adversely enough to require a “profound re-evaluation”.

    3. The Legion and Regnum Christi are not to emulate or adulate their founder. You have boxed up his writings, etc. None of his works are directly admitted into your process of “purification”.

    4. Furthermore, while the institute and the movement (under the leadership and influence of Maciel) did obtain approval by the Church, you stated in your last piece that Maciel did not follow some very basic canonical processes. Therefore, he either was grossly misinformed by someone in the curia, or he deceived those Church officials overseeing the approval. At the risk of going out on a limb, I’m guessing it was the latter. Therefore, the entire original approval process is called into question.

    5. Finally, you admit that, in fact, it is impossible to know why Maciel founded the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. Apparently not even his stated words or actions can serve as a guide here (see #3).

    Do you not see a problem here? How can you conclude that you have a sound foundation and patrimony? Or even that Maciel had good intentions when he designed the Legion and Regnum Christi? Couldn’t one just as easily (if more easily) conclude he was up to NO GOOD at the time? There would be no “mystery” associated with that conclusion!

    The Holy Father, Cardinal De Paolis and others have rightly pointed to some good accomplished by the Legion. How does this prove your institute’s validity? Isn’t it the case that the Holy Spirit may well have intervened where appropriate in order to guide those members who joined in good faith and were sadly deceived by Maciel (not to mention anyone deliberately aiding and abetting him). In other words, individuals who NEVER would have joined had they known the truth. That may be proof that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the Church but it doesn’t mean you are valid from an institutional standpoint.

    Finally, you say that “re-reading Maciel’s writings is not an absolute necessity at this stage; those who are participating in the reform have already had a lifetime of listening to Maciel and the work of spiritual discernment is done from within, retaining that which resonates with the charism and the Gospel.” How, exactly? Didn’t you also point out that the Legion practiced non-evangelical concepts of obedience to the will of God? And that many of the consecrated members of Regnum Christi at the very least suffered under a compromised program of formation and discernment? (And given the close similarities among the various houses of formation, this fact is probably true – although to a lesser extent – for the Legion as well.)

    You have undoubtedly spent a good amount of time putting this series together and are to be commended for your hard work and earnest efforts. But your statements leave more questions than answers in their wake. Unlike other established groups which may have lost their way in recent decades – succumbing to some pietism, activism, heresy, etc. – the Legion is NOT an institute with a time-tested foundation and decades of undisputed work for the good of the Church before running into problems.

  2. Br. Alejandro Espejo, LC says:

    Thank you Melicia, very good summary of our renewal process. It is not impossible, but yet very dificult to understand it from an outside point of view. And despite many brothers I met in Rome and CT are gone now, I see a lot of hope and better discernment in those they have really chosen to go ahead.

  3. Melicia says:

    Liz, a few quick thoughts before I run off to the wilderness:
    1) I make a distinction between men and their ideas. To emulate or adulate a person is not the same as recognizing that their ideas could be useful.
    2) Regarding “historical precedent”, the argument would be stronger if you could find a case of a legitimately approved institute that was later disbanded on the principle of its founder’s immoral behavior. To say “it’s never happened before and so it never will” is rather weak, in my opinion. Lots of things have happened in the Church in the past century that never happened in the previous nineteen centuries, because the Church began applying theological truths in new ways. Besides, there are parallel cases to RC/LC in past and contemporary history: the Capuchins, Miles Jesu, Communidad di Villaregia, the Sodalites of Perú, all had/have founders that went awry.
    3) In that same vein, immoral founders should be a hot topic of theological investigation and I hope we hear more about this in the future.
    4) I believe in conversion, grace, and the virtue of study. Has it occurred to you that some of the very same persons who applied non-evangelical concepts of obedience could now be applying evangelical ones?
    5) I repeat that the charism is not only given to the founder but also to the cofounders. In this sense, the Merriam Webster definition does not fully explain the reality of the patrimony of an institute. RC/LC has received a patrimony that must be purified and can be purified. I also resist the efforts to define Maciel as a black or white figure, as so many critics want to do; he is the enigma, and that’s what the cofounders have to wrestle with.
    6) Ultimately, time tells all truths. Sit back and watch the show. The next year is going to get really interesting.

  4. Glynn says:

    I an interjecting on this last post because I wish to thank you for this intelligent discussion. My comments are simple.

    I may seem off track a bit, but the fact is that purists want saints. Years ago Opus Dei was being horribly persecuted in my area, and it did not stop until their founder became a saint. Some people are just that way.

    I am Regnum Christi and I believe that saints are being formed in our midst because of it. I never poured over the writings of the founder due to the timing of my incorporation but I understand the charism, and I see many in Regnum Christi live it beautifully.

    I also wish to point out the delicate truth that the harm done in my mind has often come from others; Catholic friends, neighbors, priests, pastors, etc, and many of us have been more hurt by this than the person of he founder. So yes, talk about the issue but don’t ignore how we can all heal as well.

    Finally, I admit to comparing. I think about those who have left orders to start others for a simple reason; like wanting to work in an area of the world where their current order does not operate, or wishing to be radically poor as Mother Teresa did when she left her first order. No one reinvented the wheel. Then I ask whether
    the simple wish to have a holy founder is the only thing one needs to do what Mother Teresa did? Then how would this work and still retain our unity? The work we do is so precious.

    I appreciate your insights and your wisdom and applaud your willingness to engage and listen, and I think people have been pretty reasonable here.

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