What every parent should know about the Legionaries of Christ
Parents are sometimes surprised by a child’s sudden interest and devotion to the Legionaries of Christ — an organization which all too often the parents know absolutely nothing about. Though bewildered, such parents often take comfort in the fact the legion is an established religious congregation, officially recognized and sanctioned by the Catholic Church, one which prides itself on its declared devotion to the pope and its purportedly close ties to John Paul II. For any parent who wishes to have an ongoing relationship with his or her child, however, there is real reason for concern. With the possible exception of Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ is like no other order of priests within the Catholic Church. Therefore, before your son or daughter runs off to join the legionaries, there are several things that you as a parent should know.
When he enters the Legion every moment of the young man’s life in the seminary will be controlled and scheduled — from waking up to going to sleep. He will live under a set of strict, draconian rules. For example, he will have to eat such things as hamburgers, potato chips and even apples with a knife and fork. He will not be allowed to walk up a set of stairs two steps at a time. He will not be allowed to cross his legs when sitting down. He will have to take showers wearing a bathing suit.
You will not be allowed to visit him for any significant period of time — no more than a few times a year and then for usually no more than a day and a half at a time. He will not be allowed to go home to visit — at least for several years — and then only on a very limited basis thereafter. When he does visit, he will not be allowed to stay overnight in your house.
He will not be allowed to have or will be strongly discouraged from having regular phone conversations with you. He will not be allowed his own email address to which you can write him or he can write you. All ingoing and outgoing mail to him and from him will be opened and read by his superiors before you or he see it. If there is something they do not want him to read in your letters, they will not be given to him. He will be encouraged to write monthly letters home, but he will not be allowed to share any of his true feelings unless they happen to be supportive of the Legionary agenda.
You will never have a true parent/son conversation with him ever again. You will never be allowed any level of emotional intimacy with him. You will never know what he is truly feeling — if he is depressed, worried, upset, confused. He will be taught to hide his true feelings from everyone except his legionary “spiritual advisor.”
He will not be allowed to be involved in the personal lives of family members. He will not be allowed to have friends — even among fellow Legionaries.
He will not receive a traditional university education. He will not learn any practical job skills. Almost any degree he may receive — such as a theology degree from a Legionary school — will be useless in the outside world.
There is a far better than 50-50 chance that he will leave sometime before ordination. He will either leave on his own or be kicked out without notice and without explanation — perhaps as much as 13 years after he entered. When that happens, he will move back home with you because he will have no where else to go. He will not have a driver’s license, credit card or bank account — nor will he will know how to use them.
Behavior towards one’s family
The Legion has a dizzying array of rules for its members to follow. There are over a hundred rules governing dining room etiquette alone, including instructions on how to stand while praying, how to sit down and stand up (they must sit down in the chair from the left and get up from the right), how to hold glasses and flatware (always with the right hand, even if one is left-handed), when and how to drink water, how to pass serving platters, and so on. There are rules on how to eat bread, soup, cheese, eggs, fish, chicken, meat, pasta (it is to be cut with a knife then lifted up rather than twirled around the tines of a fork), potatoes (they are to be lifted up, not jabbed, with a fork), legumes, vegetables, fruits and pastries.
There are rules governing the use of bathroom facilities. Legionaries are instructed to lower the lid on a toilet, to allow the water to run after using it, and to use toilet paper sparingly. They are told to avoid the use of urinals and to use liquid soap rather than bar soap.
But the Legion provides guidelines on more than just the mundane aspects of Legionary life. The Legion interposes itself between its members and their families and its rules proscribe for its members a very emotionally constricted life. Legionaries are instructed to follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ, who — out of love for His mission — sublimated familial affections. They are told to live their religious consecration with a sense of separation from their families. One’s “authentic” love for them is to be expressed by praying and sacrificing so that God may help them in their spiritual and material needs. But one may not ever compromise the Legion or its superiors in situations in which the requirements of their families are not in harmony with the Legionary’s own religious life. Legionaries must avoid becoming involved in the problems and “temporal matters” of their own families and may never ask for or give any gifts to their own families without authorization from their superiors.
Legionaries are told that, when receiving family visits, they must always appear happy, cordial, attentive, grateful and satisfied with the vocation that God has granted them. During rare visits to family members, legionaries must use these occasions to give testimony of the consecrated life.”
Emotional honesty is not permitted. Legionaries are told not fall into states of sadness or homesickness in regard to their families and may not become accustomed to discussing with family members their emotional states when experiencing depression or some unresolved difficulty. The rationale is that the legionary should not disturb them with problems that relate solely to his personal relationship with God and with the Legion.
Legionaries are instructed to take a new role in relationship to their families, serving as legion’s ambassadors. They must try to rouse family members sympathetic to the Legion so that they may support it with their prayers and sacrifices, and especially so that they may become instruments in the search for new vocations.
Avoiding worldly influences
Superiors are warned that worldly influences can infiltrate, especially through the medium of books, magazines, press, radio, music, movies and television. Under the guise of protecting a legionary’s priestly vocation, access to these things are tightly controlled. Superiors must see to it personally that religious and priests do not read newspapers or listen to news in their own rooms or offices. Access to even seemingly high-brow entertainment is restricted. When allowing religious to watch musical events on television, superiors must limit them to symphonic concerts. They are not allowed them to watch any sort of contests, or shows featuring popular or certain types of classical music, such as operas, operettas or ballets.
Under the guise of defending against secular influences, acquiring and retaining even small personal possessions is prohibited. Superiors are not to allow their religious to make purchases of personal items such as clothing, items of personal hygiene, or photographic material. As a demonstration of religious poverty, the legionary must personally ask the center’s manager for those things he needs. Legionaries are also not allowed to have recorders, radios, or cameras in their own rooms. If photographs are to be taken, a small team must be designated to carry out this task.
Superiors must also enforce norms related to travel. They are required to appoint someone to accompany the religious on trips outside the center. As a matter of principle, they must try to see to it that religious do not travel by car and must give them enough money to cover travel expenses and to deal with any difficulties that may arise. When religious arrive in a city with a legionary center, superiors must also see to it that they are lodged in the center and not in hotels, or in the homes of family members or of acquaintances. Among these rules is one which seems to have little relationship to the others, but whose theme is repeated over and over: the superior must control and try to moderate the excessive enthusiasm of religious for visiting family or for communicating with them by phone.
A culture of secrecy
In the Legion the “evangelical virtue” of discretion in practiced, especially with outsiders. Such prudence is deemed necessary for the self-preservation and self-defense of the congregation and for reasons of “apostolic efficiency” so that greater freedom of action might be enjoyed. (In the legion recruitment is often referred to as apostolic work.)
Why does the legion feel it is necessary to maintain secrecy, which it euphemistically refers to as discretion, in order to carry out its mission and to guarantee its very survival? Why does secrecy and suspicion lies at the very heart and soul of the organization?
Out of love for the Legion and a sense of responsibility the legionary must take care not to communicate to outsiders anything that might be misinterpreted about religious life in the Legion, anything that might be used against the Legion, anything which superiors have not authorized him to communicate, or anything that might imply scorn of the Legion.
Legionaries are told to always maintain great self-control, even with their own colleagues, in order to avoid passing along any negative or unnecessary news. They may not speak of problems — no matter how they learned about them — of other religious, communities or apostolates.
They may never distribute, without serious cause, any oral or written reports or facts about legionaries, or writings of the Legion without authorization by superiors. They must be very prudent and discreet in their comments so as not to damage the Legion.
They are encouraged to be shrewd when dealing with strangers and to respond with precision, moderation and discretion to questions they may ask, keeping in mind the good or evil they are capable of doing to the Legion and to each other in passing along a fact or expressing an opinion. They may not allow outsiders to ever have access to their rule books or constitutions..
They must be especially discreet in regard to anything which they may learn in an official capacity, or through dealings with secular members, or through interaction with superiors. They are reminded that they are the keepers of a confidence that may not be betrayed.
One is required to practice “legionary discretion” even in personal interactions with other legionaries. They must avoid dealing with or discussing personal problems with their companions. They are told it is better to refer these problems to those whom God has designated — in other words whom the legion has designated — to help them on their road to loyalty and satisfaction.
The secret vow
Parents of former legionaries have commented that their children are highly reluctant to criticize the legion, even after the legion has expelled them without notice or cause. Similarly, former legionaries do not like hearing unflattering things said about the legion by their parents. This reluctance to publicly criticize any aspect of the legion or its leadership is part and parcel of the legion’s culture of secrecy. This attitude is widely attributed to something often referred to as the fourth vow.
In addition to the usual vows religious men and women take, all legionary priests and consecrated women have until recently been required to take a personal vow (also often referred to as the secret vow) never to criticize anyone or anything within the legion. Those who have publicly accused the legion’s founder, Marcial Maciel, of sexual abuse have attributed their failure to report this abuse to fear of violating this vow.
Members of the legion and its lay branch, Regnum Christi, are told that the fourth vow obliges them “to never openly criticize, either with words, writings or by any other means, any act of governance of any person or director of the Movement, and to immediately report to the director any person who has done so.”
The fourth vow does provide for legionaries to seek some remedy to what they may perceive as problems within the organization. The vow not to criticize does not deny consecrated members the freedom to approach the director general, or the territorial director, or at least the center’s director to alert them to possible or actual problems. But if the problem lies with the director general himself (sometimes referred to as the superior general), the fourth vow leaves legionaries with no recourse but to remain silent.
The penalty for violating the secret or private vow is severe and irreversible: permanent expulsion. Everyone must have this same certainty and fortitude, especially when the “common good” of the congregation is at stake. It is necessary to prevent the “virus of disunity” — in the form of any criticism — from developing within the body of the Legion. The directors general must be firm and know when to cut this evil at its root. If a religious continues to violate the private vow after having been “charitably” warned against doing so, it becomes necessary to separate him lest he infect others. The common good must take precedence over the individual good. It does not matter how holy, how learned or how active he may be. If a religious violates the private vow, in the legion mindset it is better to cut him off.
In 2007 news reports surfaced in the Mexican and American press that the legion was forced to abolish the private vow on orders of Pope Benedict XVI. So far the legion has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.
In the legion all incoming and outgoing letters are opened and reviewed before being sent to their intended recipients. This applies to not only to seminarians and priests, but to consecrated women as well. (Consecrated women are lay women who live together in legionary centers and who take vows similar to those of nuns, but who do not enjoy the protections canon law provides to religious.) A legionary center’s director or manager is required to review all correspondence from members of the center and release that which he or she judges to be appropriate. He or she must also review all the personal correspondence which members of the center receive as a result of the projects in which they are employed.
Members are told to write letters to parents at least once a month, but are admonished not to maintain a written correspondence with relatives or outsiders which is merely social and frivolous. They may allow themselves to answer letters which they receive, but only if they are not part of a regular correspondence, or the result of a friendship which, in the judgement of the center’s director, may cause damage or cause them to waste time that should be devoted to the apostolic work. These rules make clear that time is not to be wasted on what it considers to be distractions, reminding members that that they are bound by their vows to employ employ their time in “extending the Reign of Christ.”
Letters to parents of Legionaries be answered punctually, but when writing letters home, legionaries must whenever possible use the opportunity to talk about God rather than about their true feelings.
The family seen as an enemy
At best the legion views a Legionary’s family members as distractions from his vocation and at worst a moral danger to be avoided. In either case it is apparent that these rules are designed, for whatever reasons the legion may have, to isolate the legionary as much as possible from his or her family.
The Legion’s own rules give us a good indication as to how it sees families in the context of the legionary life. First and foremost they are seen as a potential source of conflict; they must be taught to accept the rules under which their children live so that they do not become enemies of the Movement out of ignorance.” Ironically, as “outsiders” they are not allowed access to the very books which contain the myriad of legionary rules which they are being encouraged to accept.
Families do, however, serve potentially useful purposes for the Legion. Besides providing the raw material for the Legion’s recruitment goals, parents and extended families also serve as a source of revenue. Parents of Legionaries are encouraged to donate money to the Legion to help support their children’s legionary vocations, even though these children may have been told they did not need their parents’ approval to join the Legion. Parents and family members are also seen as potential recruits themselves. Legionaries are encouraged to fundamentally channel this relationship into “conquering them for Christ,” or more specificially to employ their time in extending the Reign of Christ, both of which are understood to mean persuading family members to join Regnum Christi, the legion’s lay branch.
The message underlying these rules is clear: do not waste your time in building or maintaining the family bonds that give meaning to life, but rather use your existing family ties to advance the cause of the Legionaries of Christ.
Traditionally the family serves as a guardian, protecting the child from potentially predatory outsiders. In the Legionary environment, however, the roles of parent and outsider are reversed. In addition to being told that they are “called from all eternity” to be a legionaries, the Legion’s members are taught to think of the order as its true family while the actual family is treated with suspicion and kept at a safe distance. This role reversal begins as early as adolescence in the minor seminaries the legion runs.
For example, a former apostolic student writes, “When in the Apostolic School, we had a special talk about what we could say when we went home for the summer (four weeks I think it was). We were told what to say specifically if certain questions were asked of us. We were told what we should and what we should not tell our family. For that matter we were told what we could, or could not wear, and where we could and could not go with our family.”
The Legion also tightly monitors and restricts apostolic students’ phone calls — even those to and from his parents — fearing that they might threaten spiritual and religious discipline. Before permitting visits to the family home, the legionary superior must analyze the family environment so that he can take the necessary steps to safeguard the religious spirit of his charges — this in order to ensure that the parents are not a danger to the candidates’ spiritual situation. During summer vacations the rector and vice-rector must visit the child in his home to check up on him and cultivate the family. The child must spend the most traditionally important of family religious holidays — Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — not with his family, but with the legion. The legion even imposes curfews: if the child goes out with his parents, he must be back in the center by 8:00 PM.
How often the child goes out and with whom the child associates — even extended family members — is controlled by the Legion. Aunt Susie and Uncle Bill’s moral reputation must be certified by the legion before they are allowed a visit. If Grandma and Grandpa happen to be passing through town and want to take their grandson out to lunch, they won’t be allowed unless the visit had been previously requested, approved by the territorial director and appropriate superior, and is happening due to extraordinary circumstances. What might such extraordinary circumstances be? Well, if Grandpa writes a big check to the legion, the rules might be bent. Even then it might not be permitted because in all likelihood the visit would last longer than an hour.
An adolescent apostolic student might under extraordinary circumstances be allowed to attend a family religious function such as a baptism, but only if it happens to be in the same city as the Legionary school and only for serious reasons and in extraordinary cases. Even then he may only attend the ceremony long enough to exchange greetings with his parents. In other words, no going to the party afterwards. No cake and cookies. Just stay long enough to say hello and get the hell out! One has to ask, Why? Because baptismal parties have been known to get out of hand and threaten a twelve year old’s spiritual life?
The Legion assigns to itself the role of evaluating a family’s moral integrity and determining what is best for the child. By “child” I mean anyone in its care, whether that person is fourteen or forty because, with its multiplicity of rules which preclude a Legionary making even the most mundane decision for himself, the Legion infantalizes its members. Some might find this attitude ironic and arrogant considering that the legion’s founder and former superior general has once been suspended from his duties and at least twice been the subject of Vatican investigations into charges that he engaged in drug abuse and sexual abuse of minors in his care.
On a Spanish language website, http://boards4.melodysoft.com/app?ID=exlcesp&msg=228, a writer identified anonymously as a member of the Boletus family expresses sorrow, frustration and anger at being cut off from a family members in the legion. “What we seek is simply for the Legion to allow us to see our sons when we ourselves consider it necessary and to allow us to correspond with them without our letters and emails being first read by others,” the writer states. “ We want to have the opportunity to encourage him when he feels bad spiritually. If he is having a crisis of faith, we want to give him support. I do not believe that this will cause him to lose his vocation. We are fed up reading letters about how good things are and how happy they are in the Legion because I really don’t believe it.”
“The legionary is so dedicated to the mission that anything that does not serve a purpose is a hindrance,” writes a former Legionary in response. “This includes the family whose attentions suggest distraction, loss of time and neglect of fundamental obligations. Because of this, one of the means of ‘safeguarding the vocation’ is separating the legionary from his family and ‘from the world.’” He adds, “In the fifteen years I was in this congregation, I didn’t spend more than a hundred days with my family and four of those were when I was in the vocational center.”
Another former Legionary responds by saying, “If leaving the legion indeed produces a tremendous psychological and even physical blow, then reestablishing a relationship with one’s family after eleven years of separation, as was my case, is simply an impossibility. . . It is very difficult to dust off the family relationship when one returns. One feels like a stranger. Years have passed and those who once surrounded you have changed and the illusive contact ‘letters home’ provided really count for nothing.”
“The norms relating to family which the Legion follows are irrational,” he adds. “It would be better if in time they were changed. Because one day those who manage to change them will realize that family bonds mean so much more than anything else. And no matter how much superiors may try to sweep away all affection one has for his family, they will not succeed. Perhaps they will change. At least to those of us who have left, they seem oppressively cruel. For sooner or later, this will be reason enough for children and youths to avoid spending years of their lives seeking to discover God’s will in a place where confusion and lies are the bread of daily life.”
Disclaimer: ReGAIN and this site are neither endorsed by, nor sponsored by, nor affiliated with the Catholic congregation of priests and religious with the names Legion of Christ, and Legionaries of Christ, nor with the group called Regnum Christi.