Tuesday, February 3, 2004
They do not watch television or movies. They do not listen to the radio, play video games or use the Internet.
When they listen to music, it is only classical. When they talk on the phone, it is only with their families.
Mostly, their days and nights are filled with study and prayer. These boys – who range in age from 12 to 16 – are preparing for the priesthood.
From a really young age, I just felt called to become a priest, said James Kuchar, 14.
As a 4-year-old, Kuchar said, he played make-believe Mass in his Boise, Idaho, home.
I would pretend I was a priest and my brothers and sisters were congregants and altar servers, he said.
Immaculate Conception Camp Del Oro opened last summer to 15 boys interested in becoming priests. It is one of about 10 high school seminaries around the country run by a variety of Catholic orders.
The seventh-through 12th-grade school in Colfax is run by the Legion of Christ, a Catholic order known for its strict observance of religious tradition. It is the order’s first school in the West and draws students from California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Idaho. It costs about $7,200 a year to attend.
The Legionaries operate a similar, but much larger, seminary high school in New Hampshire, as well as a graduate school of psychology in Virginia and 10 institutions of higher education in Latin America and Europe.
The order also has been in discussions with Sacramento city and county officials about opening a university here.
Sacramento Bishop William Weigand has welcomed the Legionaries to the region, which is a primary reason they established the apostolic school in Colfax, their spokesman said.
Membership in the order has grown steadily since it was established in Mexico in 1941 by the Rev. Marcial Maciel. Today, Legionary leaders say, about 70,000 people worldwide belong to Regnum Christi, the order’s lay movement; there are about 3,100 Legionary priests and seminarians.
The order, however, is not without its detractors. In the 1990s, several of Maciel’s former students accused him of sexual abuse in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Maciel has denied the allegations, and Legionary officials say a Vatican investigation determined that he did nothing wrong. Maciel, 83, now heads the order from Rome.
While Legionaries say their schools offer outstanding academics and an environment of intense spiritual devotion, critics say the program is too regimented and controlling.
At the school in Colfax, the boys awaken in a communal sleeping room with 15 beds. They dress, taking uniforms from a communal clothes closet. Before breakfast, they go to morning Mass. Before each class and each meal, they say prayers.
Ben McCabe, 14, said he likes the school because it gives him the opportunity to foster a relationship with God.
I think He might be calling me, McCabe said.
That’s why I’m here. This school is like a door and I’m here to see if I should go through that door.
In general, students at the Legionary schools said they come from highly observant Catholic families. Many have several siblings and were home-schooled before joining the Legion.
Three of Edward Kuchar’s nine children left Boise to attend the school in Colfax. He says the boys chose the path themselves, and he couldn’t be happier.
God is attracted to us and for some reason our kids are getting evangelized very young, Kuchar said.
It’s God working in their life. It’s a stunning thing as a parent.
School leaders say the 240-acre Colfax campus is a work in progress.
A main building holds a kitchen, dining room, sleeping quarters and classrooms. Another building serves as a chapel. Motor homes scattered on the property provide shelter for visiting priests and brothers.
Eventually, officials hope to move the school closer to Sacramento and reserve the Colfax site for religious retreats.
Between prayer, study and hikes in the woods, the students do all the work it takes to keep the facility running, said the Rev. John Curran, who heads the Colfax campus. They sort laundry, set dining tables, wash dishes, mow lawns, clean bathrooms and paint fences. The school day is long and highly structured, and vacations are short – a few days after Christmas and a few weeks over the summer.
Students interviewed in Colfax say they don’t mind.
I’m willing to make the sacrifice for God because we don’t have long on this Earth, said Thomas Cauthorn, 14.
I’d rather make the sacrifice and spend eternity with him.
But other students who have left the Legion’s other schools say the sacrifices the school demands of its students are unreasonable.
It’s very regimented, very secretive. As you progress, it becomes more secretive; you can’t criticize your superiors, said Todd Carpunky, 29, a bankruptcy lawyer in New York City.
Carpunky attended Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Connecticut, went on to further training to become a priest, and then became a Legionary recruiter in Europe.
He described an environment at the schools where strict regulations dictated every aspect of life, including – as part of the training in etiquette – how to eat a banana with a fork and knife.
You can never just pick up a banana and eat it, Carpunky said.
The flow of news from the outside world was censored, Carpunky said, with newspapers arriving
with whole entire sections cut out – even in the Catholic newspapers.
Carpunky left the Legion in 1996 after a dispute with Legionary leaders over his desire to seek medical care for a herniated disc in his back.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me, Carpunky said.
But I was so scared at the time because they tell you if you leave you’re at risk of eternal damnation.
Training to become a Legionary priest is a demanding task, Curran said, and requires a lifestyle that does not suit everyone. The school teaches table manners and grooming in an effort to prepare the boys for whomever they might meet when they leave, Curran said. Exposure to the media is controlled so that the boys don’t encounter any inappropriate influences, he said, and contact with friends is limited to help the boys foster their friendship with Jesus Christ.
If they’re called to be a priest, they take a vow of obedience, poverty and chastity. We live our vows very strongly, Curran said.
If a boy has a problem with that, then it’s a way for him to see that he isn’t called here.
Yet, enough people have found such practices so stifling that they have left the order and share their experiences on Web sites such as http://www.regainnetwork.org or http://www.exlegionaries.com. The Legion of Christ has responded with http://www.legionaryfacts.org to counter its critics’ claims.
One defining characteristic of the Legion of Christ is the strict prohibition of gossip, said Jay Dunlap, the order’s North American spokesman.
People are attracted by our emphasis on charity, even in every word you speak or write. We never use words to slander or attack, he said.
But Andrew Boyd, 20, another former Legionary who attended the apostolic school after it moved to New Hampshire, said the no-gossip rule creates an environment where people can’t fully express themselves.
The Legion’s emphasis on communal living was too much to bear, Boyd said, and he felt manipulated by superiors who read his mail.
If they can control any information that comes to you, nobody is going to come in and convince you to leave that life, Boyd said.
Boyd left after a year, feeling that he had been tricked into a life he did not sign up for.
Of course they don’t tell people straight up, ‘Do you want to come to our seminary? We read your mail.?
Boyd went into a diocesan seminary, where, he said, he was allowed privacy and his mail was not read. He now studies history at the University of Central Florida, where he is involved with the Catholic Campus Ministry and Army ROTC.
Dunlap and Curran said that opening student mail is an ancient practice in many Catholic schools preparing boys for the priesthood. It cultivates the spirit of openness and honesty that’s necessary in a communal religious environment, they said.
Sometimes there could be news in a letter that could really rock a kid, Curran said, adding that it’s important that school leaders know what’s going on at home so they can respond to the child’s needs.
The parents expect it, and want it. They know that’s the way this life is, he said.
Upon hearing about a year ago that the Legion of Christ was planning a university in Sacramento, Boyd said, he wrote to Bishop Weigand to
warn him about them. The bishop responded with a note, Boyd said, stating that he had had only good experiences with the order.
That view was supported by the Rev. Charles McDermott, an official with the Sacramento Diocese, who said in an interview that the Legion of Christ is simply a conservative form of Catholicism.
The Catholic Church has broad boundaries, McDermott said.
We believe what St. John the Evangelist said that Jesus said: ‘In my father’s house, there are many mansions.’ There is room for people to be more liberal or more conservative, without ceasing to be Catholic.
About the Writer
The Bee’s Laurel Rosen can be reached at (916) 773-7631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.