GABON II- FROM BRAVE ENTHUSIASM TO SCARY DOUBT
Joining, training, questioning
Why did I join?
Why did I join such a mysterious organization at all? The answer is probably more complicated that I know. As a Catholic in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, a “vocation” to be a priest was considered a gift from God, and not to be taken lightly. Like countless other Irish youth, I too was concerned with the “black babies” in Africa. Who would feed them and baptize them? The thought of being a missionary in Africa always appealed to me. In hindsight I have to wonder how aware I was of the demands that go along with being a priest [and religious]. How much can you understand of poverty, chastity and obedience when you are fifteen and living with your parents? Anyway, my parents, both devout Catholics, always nurtured the idea of a “vocation”. My mother later told me that she “offered me up to God” shortly after I was born. I was never really sure, deep down, if she wanted or expected to be taken up on the offer. My father was more sophisticated in his approach and understood that a vocation, in order to be deemed valid, had to be sanctioned by the bishop who “called” one to the service of God on behalf of the Church. A pamphlet which an ardent recruiter thrust on me summed it all up. It said “better to have tried and failed than sadly salute the one I might have been”.
The recruiter for the Legion in Legion was an impressive Mexican by the name of Santiago Coindreau. He dressed dashingly by Irish standards in a well-pressed, double-breasted black suit with Roman collar. Allegedly he had turned down a scholarship to the military academy at West Point. The Irish immediately associated his name with the respected Cointreau orange-based liquor. That maybe gave him credibility or a sense of affinity. He still wasn’t a priest but that did not seem to deter him from being called “Father”. He drove a sparkling black Volkswagen beetle. And he drove it fast. He had little respect for the mundane traffic laws, personified by the gardaí on their bicycles or the odd Triumph 250 motorcycle.
Until I got my very first ticket for speeding at age 45 this reality of the law applying to me, just like everyone else, hadn’t fully hit home. However, that “semi-superman” mentality is probably what allowed me to talk my way out of numerous sticky situations with unsophisticated police officers. Their laws didn’t really apply to someone who was working directly for God. Santiago Coindreau had no doubt whatsoever in his mind that he was a legend and that God wanted me in the Legion. This was the newest order in the Church and, although I never realized it at the time, there were only about ten ordained priests (in the order). The rest were “Brothers”, seminarians on the road to ordination. I had skipped second grade in elementary school and consequently had finished high school at seventeen. I figured I could spare a year or two to let God appreciate my generosity and then let me know that he didn’t really want me in the Legion.
The Legion vocation pitch in 1962 Ireland
Father Santiago was very different from your average Irish clergyman, for whom he did not have too much respect and was, consequently, that more appealing to those of us who thought that priests, in some ill-defined way, should be enthusiastic beyond compare. The sort of guy you would want to have in your foxhole if you were under attack. He had, literally, erupted into our senior class room at “Synge Street”, a well respected all boys’ school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. In the final year, as we prepared for taking the “Leaving Certificate” examination, it was customary for four or five recruiters from secular clergy and from religious orders, selected on a rotating basis, to come and make a recruiting pitch. Having heard them, there was little question in my mind that I wanted to be a priest. Apart from knowing that I wanted to be a missionary priest, I found it very hard to decide among the competing orders. Father Santiago Coindreau made that decision a little easier. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious. No question that he knew how to relate to young people. He introduced himself to the class and as he was doing so, he started to throw copies of Communist magazines to anyone who cared to catch one. “The question is simple”, he said. “Do you want to save Latin America from Communism? It’s not complicated. Latin America is already Catholic. There are millions of Catholics there. Do you want to help keep them, or go charging off to other places to convert people for the first time?” Although I was more inclined to Africa myself, this seemed to make sense. “Mexico is the leader of Latin America. What it does, the rest of Latin America will imitate. I represent a brand new order. The founder is only fifty seven years old. He wants to develop a group of highly trained, committed, professional priests to reclaim Mexico. The Mexican clergy, right now, is not up to the challenge. They are not as sophisticated, as smart or as educated as their opposition. Will you help us change this?” This was different! The Legion of Christ, was the order was known, was not obviously for Holy Joes. First the Communist magazines, then a great pitch and, now, we’ll all standing on our feet saying a “Hail Mary” in Spanish, for the success of the Legion of Christ. This order was exactly what the Holy Father needed in Latin America! And, the Holy Father was clearly a friend of the Legion. “Fill out this form and, if you check the ‘interested’ box, we’ll arrange for you to come visit our new novitiate in Ireland, at Hazelbrook House, Malahide (County Dublin)”. This Father Santiago was so enthusiastic that you knew, if you said “yes”, that he and the Legion would be all over you. I signed on the dotted line.
Leaving home and Novitiate
Leaving home had to be the hardest thing I ever did in my life. The thought of not seeing very much of my family again was horrendous. When you are doing the Lord’s work you can’t let human emotion like that get in the way. I’ll never forget the actual moment of leaving my parents and brother and stepping into the cold, inhospitable world of religious life in the Legion. Seventeen other individuals, each for his own reasons, had come to the same place. Brian … because he wanted to save the prostitutes of the world. Michael… because he wanted to pray for people that he felt no one else would pray for, like Marilyn Munroe. I didn’t feel like I had a lot in common with the others although, in general, the Dubliners seemed to understand each other better. David… told me about his girl friend and I told him about mine. That created an instant, deep, unholy bond. He still had her lipstick with him. We decided that was a profanation in such an angelical environment. In our solemn little ceremony he cast it out the dorm window with me as a witness. That was a formal goodbye to the world as we knew it.
Life was hard, tedious and, in hindsight, not very unlike the atmosphere in a concentration camp. That, I know, sounds harsh. But not necessarily untrue. We slept in a converted cowshed on cots borrowed from the Irish Army. The walls were covered in cardboard which Fr. Coindreau had scrounged from some nearly factory. That cold and damp of the Irish climate was exacerbated by the relative silence we observed during the day and the absolute silence imposed at nighttime. Relative silence meant that you could only say what was necessary. Extraverts like myself had views on how much silence was necessary and as a consequence found ourselves continually having to ask for “penances” for breaking relative silence and similar transgressions. All the carefully chosen bed linen, towels and other necessities so loving purchased by our mothers, became communal property. The reality of this manifestation of our life of poverty hit me when my full length sheets never came back from the laundry. The two stained, oversized handkerchiefs that were returned in their place made me feel miserable. The misery was compounded when we were told that we also would not be having a visit from our families at Christmas.
Cilice and flagellum
One day, after the first few weeks, while changing into my shorts, preparing for a game of soccer, with my bare foot I stepped on some sharp object beside my bed. Further examination revealed that the object was what seemed to be a piece of chicken wire about six inches long. The wire mesh was bent into myriad sharp little points and there was a brown shoe lace attached to one end. It obviously belonged to the guy who slept in the next bed. Brian M., all six-foot-four of him, seemed like a nice fellow –but now I realized he was mad. This was some form of penitential instrument in the twentieth century in Ireland you had to be out of your mind to use it. Off I ran with the evidence to the Director of Novices. Visions in my head of poor Brian being hauled off toe Grange Gorman, the local mental asylum. I couldn’t believe it when the Director of Novices, Fr. William (Izquierdo), a totally bald native of the Canary Islands, didn’t share my shock and concern for Brian’s mental health. My disbelief registered and caused Fr. William to ask if I didn’t really understand what it was all about. As it turns out, Legionaries used two penitential instruments. The one which I have referred to was affectionately referred to by some as “the chicken choker”, and was worn tightly around the upper thigh from after the morning shower, through first prayers, medication (one hour), Mass and breakfast. It caused most of use to walk with a mild limp on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that we wore it. If perchance while serving breakfast, you bumped your leg against a table, you saw stars. And then there was the flagellum, a neat little whip, crafted by loving nuns in Avila, Spain. Fifteen strokes to the thigh on alternate days were supposed to keep our carnal instincts in check. A misdirected stroke could indeed have a distinct effect on the exterior embodiment of one’s carnal instinct. I stopped using these instruments, without the requisite permission, after several years because, quite frankly, it didn’t seem like a healthy thing to be doing and, in a peculiar way could serve to arouse the very same urges they were designed to control. So, as it turned out, Brian M. was no more mad than the rest of us.
Two years of intense prayer, stud of exclusively spiritual subjects –with the exception of Spanish (language) - nocturnal adoration, silence and no contact with the outside world have an affect on you. You become immersed in your immediate world. External norms are forgotten. Things that seemed strange and harsh now seem natural. Doubts become translated into a lack of generosity. The Will of God becomes very clear. Reinforced by weekly confession and by-weekly spiritual direction with the Director of Novices there is no doubt that God is really calling you to be a Legionary and you ought to be very, very happy and faithful. So, when you write the one page monthly letter to your family you them how happy you are and how fulfilled you feel. If your happiness isn’t apparent enough the Director, Fr. William, who reads all your letters before they are sent –and any mail that comes to you- lets you know that you might find a better turn of phrase.
Inwardly torn before Gabon
No wonder then that my brother in Bethesda [twenty years later] was somewhat perplexed by my ambivalent attitude about going to Gabon. Twenty years spent trying to persuade him of the correctness of the Legionary methodology had produced their result. Why, I hadn’t even gone back to Ireland for his wedding! Little did he know who hard I’d fought to be allowed to go to Ireland for the ceremony. Little did he know that a confrere, Eddie Farrelly, a fellow Dubliner and schoolmate, had simple absconded from the Legion when he got the chance, following a brief assignment in New York. I found out later that the Legion thought that perhaps, because he and I got along so well together, I might be part of the same conspiracy, and therefore it didn’t do for me to go to Ireland for the wedding where I might meet Eddie and be tempted to follow in his footsteps. Besides, at that time Legionaries were simply not allowed to go to weddings, period, unless they were the officiating priest. Try explaining that this is the Will of God to your brother whom you haven’t seen for ten years. Now, as I got ready to depart for Gabon, I wasn’t sure of anything anymore and I don’t think my brother and his wife were ready for this. That’s not the way it was supposed to be in the Legion. We were the iron men with all the answers, fully “integrated” into the mind and heart of the Legion. And, what were my parents to think? Faithful Legionaries aren’t supposed to share their doubts. I guess my brother, sister-in-law and I worried about how they might react. Better not to tell them. Don’t upset the apple cart. Write another letter letting them know who wonderful everything was.
Unlike most other moves I made in the Legion, going to Gabon was different, upsetting and not a little scary. Clearly I was going there to make up my mind about my future. I needed some mental space to make the awesome decision as to whether or not I should, or could, continue as a priest in a religious order to which I felt I no longer belonged. I also felt, very strongly, that I could not survive as a secular, diocesan priest. I had never wanted to be a diocesan priest; that is why I joined the Legion in the first place.