Downtown San Diego, California, the early 1990’s. Sister Jean handed me another stack of envelopes. I happily stuck the stamps onto them and passed them to another volunteer who was filling them with brochures of St. Paul’s bookstore’s latest merchandise. Life was nice here. A loving community of nuns, a media apostolate, lots of books, a quiet chapel…and I was already dead sure that God was calling me to the consecrated life.
“Couldn’t I just stay here?” I asked God, as I licked another stamp. Silence.
“I would stay if you told me to,” I repeated. Silence.
“These are nice nuns,” I tried again. No answer.
And that’s the way it was every time I considered whether or not God could be calling me to become a Pauline nun like Sister Jean. Something just didn’t feel right, and it wasn’t just a feeling.
I came into contact with several other religious orders and lay groups, but just never felt a mutual attraction. Nothing was clicking and I couldn’t figure out why. The summer of my sixteenth year wasted away in existential vocational angst. Little did I know that it was not just a question of finding the right fit, but of actually discovering what charism God had in store for me.
Ghirlanda explains in his 2011 conference that charisms are divided into two categories: personal charisms, which are given to persons for a specific ministry, such as the discernment of spirits, and collective charisms, which are given through a founder, to an institute, for the Church. By nature, a collective charism is participated in by all the members of the institute; in fact, the charism only exists as long as there are members who live it. The Jesuit theologian John Carroll Futrell explained in an article he wrote for The Way:
The charism of the founder of any religious community is this charism as it is lived now. It does not exist in the air. It is not a myth or a pious ideal. It has no actual, lived existence even in the rule, or the constitutions, or in other historical documents expressing a past reality. If this charism has any real being at all today, it is because the Holy Spirit is still operative by his presence and power within certain persons, calling them to the service of the people of God and of the world to which he originally called the founder through this gifted vision and dynamism.
Normally, the founder incarnates the charism in an exemplary way and sets the pace for the generations to come. Nevertheless, the rest of the institute’s members, especially the first nucleus of cofounders, also have a crucial role in transmitting and developing the charism. Think of St. Francis Xavier who incarnated the ideal of the Jesuit foreign missionary, or St. Anthony of Padua who opened up new intellectual pathways for the Franciscans.
The charism is not an exclusive possession of the founder, neither is it destined only to the institute. Its ultimate purpose is to build up the Church. This is why an institute only operates if it has been approved by the Church, because without insertion into the Church, the charism and the institute have no meaning (Lumen Gentium 45).
What exactly is a collective charism? It is a distinctive style of living the Gospel that involves a particular style of sanctification and apostolate. Each institute reflects an aspect of the saving action of Christ: Christ the teacher, Christ sent by the Father, Christ in prayer, Christ among the poor, Christ full of mercy, etc. In this way, the plenitude of the ministry of Christ is manifested more completely in the Church and the world.
Every charism, therefore, implies something new and distinct in the Church, but at the same time, there is nothing new. As Fr. Luis Garza LC explains in this letter (link to Fr. Luis letter “Principal Traits”), only the Gospel is radically new. Among the institutes there are characteristics that may be repeated, but never in the same exact combination. And combination is what makes all the difference. Think of a cake showing at a state fair. Any cake will have ingredients also found in other cakes, just in different quantities. In fact, if you were to hand me a cake and say, “This cake has an ingredient that NO other cake in the world has,” I would probably hand it to a forensic expert before taking a bite. Even if a cake did have a unique ingredient, like ant jelly, it does not mean that ant jelly could never again be used in a cake. However, while the cake makers are competing for prizes, the founders are not. Each charism showcases an aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; all together they form a beautiful mosaic of the Gospel.
Ghirlanda reminds us that The Code of Canon Law does not use the word “charism”, but “patrimony of the institute”: its nature, character, purpose, spirit or spirituality, and sound traditions.
The nature of the institute indicates the genus to which it belongs: religious or secular. The character is the species within that genus: monastic, contemplative, strictly cloistered, apostolic (canonical, conventual, integrally dedicated to works of apostolate, missionary): lay or clerical. The purpose defines the end for which the institute has come about: contemplation, particular works of apostolate, exercise of sacred ministry, etc. (PC 7-11; VC 8-11; c. 588). The spirit or spirituality of an institute is tightly linked to the charism…By spirituality we understand the concrete way in which a person or group, in the light of the Gospel, relates to God, to himself and to reality around him, thus reproducing in a certain way an aspect of the one mystery of Jesus. Spiritual life, as an itinerary of life, consists of concrete actions which are simultaneously an expression of spirituality and sustain it.
And earlier in his conference:
Sound traditions…are the concrete living of the institute’s charism according to different modalities in various places throughout time. They are sound if they are consistent with the collective charism of the beginning.
So, the charism manifests itself in numerous aspects of an institute’s life: how the members are organized and governed, how they pray, how they celebrate the liturgy, how they study and work, how they interact with each other, how they fit within the Church and how they reach out to the world, even how they dress or spend their recreation time. Their apostolic reach could be reserved to a certain field, like nursing cancer patients, or broadened to an extraordinary variety of ministries. All of this flows from the charism.
This is why it is difficult to sum up a charism in a catch phrase or a few lines. This article, for example, mentions several orders that serve the poor, but in order to really know if God is calling you to the Redemptorists or to the Missionary Oblates, you would need much more information; better yet, if you find yourself attracted to a certain order, you should go and live within it for a while so you can experience the greater richness of its charism.
This greater richness is what attracted me to Regnum Christ members when I went with them on missions to the Bahamas, three years after my Pauline experience. Something major clicked on that trip. Like a fish immersed in its natural sea, I could not lay my finger on it and say, “this is what brought me”: it was everything, from the way I was welcomed, and the way team life was lived to the way the consecrated women preached and the Legionaries celebrated mass. The phrases “Thy Kingdom come!”, and “My life for Christ!” and “Time is the Kingdom!” resonated with desires I held deep in my soul. Although I had already been a practicing Catholic, it was in Regnum Christi where I discovered Christ as a real, intimate friend: I encountered Christ alive in the Gospel. Regnum Christi was the spiritual family where I could flourish as a person, as a Christian, as an apostle. All that, before I even knew who the founder was.
Maciel did wrong, and his praxis seriously affected the transmission of the charism. To be sure, one of the mistakes Maciel made in his personalized style of government was failing to involve the co-founders more in matters of government. Councils and consultations as they currently operate in the Movement were nearly non-existent. He had obtained special permission not to pass the Legion’s constitutions through a general referendum before presenting them to the General Chapter; special, because canon law normally requires it: “what touches all as individuals…must be approved by all” (can. 119, °3).
However, at the risk of frustrating some of my readers, I want to hold off analyzing Maciel for a moment and analyze another side of the truth. Evil is a privation. What Maciel should have done—and didn’t do—is what affects Regnum Christi, and is therefore evil. But what about the good that exists? What about the co-founders who have received and have tried to live the charism to the best of their knowledge and with the help of God’s sanctifying grace? In my opinion, it would be an injustice to focus exclusively on Maciel’s wrongdoings, just as it would be an injustice to ignore them and pretend that nothing needs reforming.
Ghirlanda told the Legionaries in the question and answer session after his conference:
I spoke with one of you, who expressed all his disillusionment, but I say: why did you become a Legionary if you see this, and this, and this? (The Legionary responded:) Because I have seen the apostolic enthusiasm and the apostolic drive for the Kingdom of God, etc.
This is what you should see as the true core and make sure no elements have obscured it. But if there had not been this attraction to the true nucleus, you wouldn’t be here. Why would you be here? It would make no sense. But if you continue here, it means that there is something here, which is true, of which Fr. Maciel has mysteriously been an instrument, and which continues forward by the work of the Spirit and by your work.
The co-founders have truly received the charism. It is alive in us and we are capable of delving deep into our souls and defining what it is. We can look back into the written Statutes and the work of the founder and discern what is faithful to the core and what is not. One critic told me that Regnum Christi members are “huddling in fear, desperately trying to reinvent themselves.” I don’t live in fear, but with enthusiasm. I haven’t had to surrender what made me fall in love with Regnum Christi; on the contrary, I am free now to live it in the truth.
The Constitutions and Statutes are still being discussed and drafted, but the essential ideas that are coming to the forefront in our discussions are ideas in continuity with the good experienced in our past, while taking into account the present purification. In spite of the immense variety of cultures, backgrounds, languages, ages, and experiences of Movement members, there is remarkable unity of ideas and sentiments). Some say it is the result of a “cookie-cutter” formation; I say it is the persistence of grace.
The 1st and 2nd degree members put it beautifully in their recent letter (link to letter here):
The following ideas resonated with all of us: Regnum Christi springs from a personal encounter with Christ’s overflowing and merciful love which moves us to transmit it to others; there is a common vocation which is shared by lay people, Consecrated Men and Women, diocesan priests and Legionaries of Christ. The love of Christ urges us to want others to have this experience and that they too become apostles. Each one of us is called to reach his or her own personal fulfillment in holiness and the apostolate, within his or her own state in life, to which our living of Regnum Christi should be oriented.
Here are some essential ideas I see resonating within my own heart and in the hearts of many Regnum Christi members I know:
• Christ-centeredness: as the letter above states, an encounter with a real person whose love transforms you and transforms those around you.
• A striving to build the Kingdom of Christ, a Kingdom of love, here on earth. In this sense, we are “milites Christi”, soldiers of a crucified Christ, and we are ready to do his will and to lay down our lives for his cause.
• A personal love for the Church and the Pope, a belief in the beauty of orthodoxy, a commitment to spread the Pope’s teachings and responding to Church’s call for a new evangelization.
• Charity in multiple expressions:
o A concern for each person, not just “humanity”. To love each person with Christ’s own heart. To sincerely accept each one as he is, with his gifts and his defects, and desire to help him fulfill God’s plan for his life.
o A sense of militancy, urged on by love to do the greatest good possible within the limits of the time given to us. We do not sit around waiting for opportunities to do good, but create them.
o Unity and charity among all the branches and levels of Regnum Christi: a communion of hearts, a sharing of burdens, a coordination of apostolic efforts. In this sense, “speaking well of others” means to lift your brother up, always in accord with the truth, and dissuade the divisions caused by jealousies.
• Integral formation: spiritual, intellectual, human and apostolic. It is the four in harmony that makes for an apostle in tune with his times, sensitive to the needs of others, open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and capable of responding effectively.
• Contemplative and conquering: neither activism nor pietism, because true apostolate can only spring from union with the Vine.
• The formation of Christian leaders, fueled by a double truth: all Christians can become leaders, and the transformation of a society depends in great part on the transformation of its leaders.
In conclusion, it is valid that Regnum Christi continues to exist and flourish, because the charism is very much alive. In the midst of purification, we continue to do our apostolic work and, yes, to accept new vocations. Cardinal de Paolis, in a 2012 interview with Vida Nueva, was asked, “Would you advise a young man with a priestly vocation to try out the Legion?” He answered, “Yes, just as I would advise any other institute to take in new vocations. I see the Legion as an institute that is following its path and that continues to receive vocations.” (my translation) It goes without saying that these new vocations are immensely special: they have lived the highs and lows of a movement in a major transition, they have seen their consecrated role models come and go, they have had to participate in a reform while discerning at the same time their own vocation. One thing is sure: they were called for this moment. As one of them told me, “God calling me for now, not for later.” It is charism at work in the present moment. Even more important than their words is their presence; to me, it is proof that the immediate post-Maciel years are not a mere “bad dream” to be passed over as quickly as possible, but the beginning of an exciting quest for the truth of the charism.