A Legionary In Gabon, West Africa
Over the years, legion-watchers have identified carefully set strategies on how legionary authorities manipulate members who wish to leave or whom bosses wish to dismiss.
Generally, the naive good-intentioned member, still considering himself under a vow of obedience to the Crucified Lord as well as being closely controlled in a secluded and segregated community, is at the mercy of authorities’ decision-making. Where might one freely go, with neither constant communication with family, in-hand college degree, survival money, employer recommendations or, maybe, even passport? Cases of members fondly saying goodbye to all and happily walking out the front door are few and far between.
There are cases of abrupt dismissals, like a seminarian playing soccer in Salamanca, Spain, being mandated by his religious supervisor, (via another seminarian â€“ another tactic) to hop into the college van and change his shoes: a while into the journey, the member notices his suitcase on the rear-seat. Final destination: Madrid airport. After years of divine benevolence with his vocation, God, according to legionary directors, has suddenly changed His mind.
However, the normal procedure is first isolate the member within a legionary community so that his scandalous doubts may be silenced. Being sent by divine mandate to some isolated community might be the next step to reduce the negative influence such individuals may have on â€œthe peace and harmony of the Congregationâ€�. The mission territory of Quintana Roo, Mexico, is the most noted example while Caracas, Venezuela, has such a historic status in legionary lore. In other cases, members are left alone for years, while maintaining their legionary canonical status, such as Fr. James McIlhargey, RIP, in ConcepciÃ³n, Chile. Australia is still â€˜convict-landâ€™ in such an ideology, while, in the U.S., Providence, RI, Los Angeles, CA, and Rye, NY, are considered â€œcontrolled communitiesâ€� by big brother legionary. â€�Hush moneyâ€� to former members to keep quiet and live their peaceful, and comfortable, lives is part of such an evangelization. Even worse, the gun of blackmail is properly brandished: â€œyou speak badly of us; weâ€™ll foul-mouth you to your Bishopâ€�. Imagine an xLC priest trying to relive the priesthood in a diocese! His silence is almost guaranteed.
An important component to proper, if not Christian, understanding of the â€œmethods in this madnessâ€� is the prominent care the Legionaries take of their image at the Vatican. To have members, especially priests, request departure from either congregation or celibacy might question the authenticity of their â€˜miraculous growthâ€™ in the Church. The simple answer is to make departing members disappear into silence and oblivion in the bold tradition of militaristic tyrannies. Do the Legionaries not fight for Christ, like an army in battle-array?
The ultimate tactic, witnessed by some of us, is to make life â€œimpossibleâ€� if not â€œhellâ€� for a dissenting member, oft in a far-off place. The underlying Machiavellian, sorry Macielian, ethic of the end justifying the means bears fruit in lies, tricks and desperation. The member, cornered in a non-exit situation, is on the verge of another nervous breakdown and bolts for the door, slammed shut as he scrambles for safety. In fear and trembling, his life-long wish is to forget the monstrous nightmare.
The inherent evil in all of the above is the attempted destruction of a personâ€™s faith and family values. To the last, we legionaries joined to serve Christ and Church. Our right to think, question and leave is divine. The Legion has a right to accept or reject members, but with respect for conscience and liberty. Even later in life, no man has a right to anotherâ€™s destiny. They cannot play God. We trust in His justice.
The following is one such story of â€œexit by exileâ€�. The author wishes to remain anonymous.
The bright side to these dramas of hypocrisy by stealth is that by analyzing legionary tactics, we shall be aware, watchful and pro-active. The recent appointment of a Legion survivor as Bishop of Dallas shows Catholics that where thereâ€™s a will, thereâ€™s a way to exit successfully. The truth shall set us free.
AN IDEAL PLACE TO FIND MYSELF
The airport at Libreville, in the early dawn, was pretty much like I expected it to be. Not very different from small city airports, much like Shannon in Ireland or Acapulco in Mexico. Except, that is, for the ubiquitous presence of the troops in full battle dress, complete with automatic weapons. Belligerent looking â€“even trigger-happy looking- just like you see in the movies. They were very much in control and they knew it. Not many white people and those that were there looked like they felt out of place, pretending to be busy, and anxious to get out of there. I never felt whiter in my life.
The unfamiliar French, laced with what seemed to be large doses of a local language or dialect, made me feel uncomfortable too. French pronunciation always made me feel self-conscious. The atmosphere in the airport, for no reason that was obvious to me, was tense. I found myself thinking that Iâ€™d hate to go to jail, perhaps to be shot at dawn, because of some awful mistake due to a mispronunciation of mine. No one was there to meet me and immigration official was decidedly unfriendly. â€œNoâ€�, I didnâ€™t have a work visa or a return ticket. â€œYesâ€�, I assured him, in pidgin French, the Bishop of Franceville is expecting me. Somehow that didnâ€™t seem like it should carry a lot of weight. It didnâ€™t. The official didnâ€™t seem at all impressed. A couple of soldiers were called. They took my passport and told me to wait. Blarney and what I thought was a large dose of my native charm wasnâ€™t going to work here.
Like Admiral Stockdale, Ross Perotâ€™s running mate in the US Vice-Presidential debate of 1992, I found myself asking myself â€œWho am I and what am I doing here?â€� as I sat on the airport bench with my back to a plate glass window. Father Maciel, the Founder and Superior General of the Legion of Christ, the Roman Catholic order of religious priests to which I belonged, had presented Gabon as an interesting place to make up my mind, for myself, as to whether or not I really wanted to leave the priesthood. â€œAt least youâ€™ll get to see Africaâ€�, was how he put it. â€œIâ€™m told it is very pretty with lots of rolling hillsâ€�. He had even shown me a postcard sent to him by Luis, a fellow Legionary whom I liked and who had actually volunteered to go to Gabon. The countryside, depicted in the postcard, looked more like a giant overgrown broccoli to me. The â€œrolling hillsâ€� must have been buried under the lush tropical rain forest. Yet a stint in Africa seemed to make more sense to my overheated mind as we discussed my future at the Legionâ€™s US headquarters in Cheshire, Connecticut. It certainly beat going back to Rome, despite a promise to let me be the driver of the newly acquired Mercedes Benz bus! â€œWhen I was a child I played with the things of children. Now that Iâ€™m a man thatâ€™s a damn stupid way to try to persuade an educated adult to return to â€˜further studiesâ€™ to the â€˜mother houseâ€™ in Rome!â€� was how I tried to paraphrase St. Paul. Meanwhile I was curious as to what Luis might have done â€“or to whom he might have done it!- to get himself to a disease-infested country, slap bang on the Equator on the west coast of Africa. There again, I remembered, Luis was always uncomfortably close to a nervous breakdown, and somehow it made sense to me that he should be there. I wasnâ€™t sure it made the same sense for me.
By now the airport was pretty deserted. As I half expected, all the belligerent-looking commando types had to go home, probably to beat their wives. One of them grunted at me, gave me my passport and quite abruptly walked away. Nobody seemed to care what my next move might be. I guess I wasnâ€™t perceived as a threat to national security. Most unflattering! I got into the last of the small taxis and asked, in more ambitious French, to be taken to an address that had been given to me by Luis. Welcome to Africa!
Three days later, after having taken that long to make contact with Luis, the only person I knew on the whole dark continent -I stayed at a parish house of priests known to Luis-, I got to Franceville, my final destination, courtesy of a one-way air ticket sent to me by Luis. The front seats of the modern jet aircraft were folded down to accommodate crates of animals â€“mostly chickens- as I recall. The combination of people, animals and stale aircraft air created a whole new olfactory experience during flight. The left-over refreshments were given in a plastic bag to a friend of the stewardess. The dark jungle below, devoid of any man-made light, was sort of spooky for our night-time flight. Later we landed in an equally spooky red-dirt â€œfieldâ€�, with no paved runways and no buildings, otherwise known as Franceville airport.
Passengers were met by friends and relatives as they descended the ladder from the plane. I was impressed by the handsome women wrapped in colorful cloth up to the bust, most of them wearing a headdress of the same material. And then there was Luis, the man who was to be my spiritual mentor at a very troubled moment in my life. The holy man who, whether he knew it or not, was going to help me figure out Godâ€™s Will for me. Gaunt and sweaty, he greeted me, loaded my bags and baggage into the back of his four-wheel drive Mitsubishi truck and told me that he was â€œout of Gabon on the next flight!â€� â€œ!Yo me largo de aquÃ!â€�, was how he put it in Spanish.
I couldnâ€™t believe it! Luis was actually hell bent on leaving the next day! We got to the Mission where, somewhat apologetically, he showed me the little outhouse which was to be my room. At least it had a shower stall and a mosquito net. I wondered where Iâ€™d have to grope my way to it if I needed to take a leak during the night. Would I return with all my body parts intact? The full cast of characters at the Mission included a Gabonese bishop who looked and acted aloof or, in plain Christian terms, plain mean; a French missionary in his early forties, an older Dutch missionary, and a specially trained bull dog which was supposed to help you avoid snakes if you had to walk outside at night. Apart from the dog, none of them were particularly friendly. The Bishop, the boss, was not expecting me and didnâ€™t seem to know who I was or what I was doing there. Not that I wasnâ€™t wondering myself. Finally, after consultation with Lerma, he seemed to agree that it would be alright for me to stay. After dinner, he settled down with the others to drink Johnny Walker Red Label and to watch â€œDynastyâ€� in French on a small black and white TV. At the time I couldnâ€™t imagine anything more incongruous: a bishop watching â€œdynasty on a mission outpost in former French Equatorial Africa. My main priority was to convince Luis that he couldnâ€™t leave, that he had a moral obligation to me and, if he really did leave, Iâ€™d be out of there with him â€œlike a bat out of hellâ€�. Speaking of which, that particular phrase took on a whole new meaning for me: my little outhouse bedroom was infested with the biggest and most raucous bats Iâ€™d ever seen. The unrelenting humid tropical heat added to the imagery.
Life began the next morning, literally at the crack of dawn. The details arenâ€™t so important. Luis agreed to stay on for a while longer. The staple diet seemed to consist mostly of fish heads for dinner; no body, no tail; just the head, with the mouth open to show the teeth. â€œYouâ€™ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!â€� they seemed to sing. The Bishop used to get really upset if you didnâ€™t eat the eyes, and he would circle the table, toothpick in hand, like a dark Don Quixote, ready to spear the unwanted eye, all the while explaining how delicious they were. I soon discovered a massive supply of bananas in the kitchen and I am living proof that you can survive on a banana diet. This diet was supplemented with three quinine anti-malaria pills a day and eight anti-loa disease pills. Loa is also known as river blindness, a disease which does tremendous harm in Gabon. It is transmitted by the bite of a fairly small yellow mosquito. Untreated it becomes incurable, causes paralysis and, I believe, death. The old Dutch missionary suggested that the anti-malaria pills (quinine) would make me blind and that it was actually smarter not to take them. That way, if I got malaria I would be able to see myself shake and then I could threat the malaria with the quinine. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about. This old-timer from Holland had arrived in Franceville â€“by canoe! – many moons before. He had stopped off along the way to greet Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his hospital at Lambarene, near the mouth of the river. After a long stint in Gabon, the ex-missionary had retired to Holland only to find himself bored out of his mind. Culture shock would be our euphemism for his re-entry. After a few years he had volunteered to return to Franceville. He drove an ancient, impressive Land Rover of which he was very proud. He lived apart from the Mission most of the time in some outpost that I never visited. His hut was illuminated with Christmas tree lights which he connected to the Land Rover. He performed his morning ablutions in his â€œshowerâ€�: a barrel of water perched on his roof which some local kids would help him tilt over.
I opted to consume my daily ration of pills which I got courtesy of the US Government and my physician brother. He had a hard time understanding why I was going to Gabon at all. To say that he was not an ardent supporter of the Legion is something of an understatement. He married right after he graduated from medical school at University College Dublin. With his wife and his two children he lived in the Washington DC metro area and he worked at the NIH. He seemed to love his job where, working in the pulmonary department, and moonlighting â€“when financial needs dictated- in the emergency room of a local hospital. I remember him saying that the emergency room experience had made him realize the importance of keeping fit and of not letting his kids use skateboards. I saw more of him than at any other time since I joined the Legion. [Ed. The Legion has a house in high scale Potomac, MD]. Although he and hs wife always made me feel welcome and the children always seemed delighted to see their â€œuncle X.â€�. . . I always put it down to the fact that I really didnâ€™t have very much experience of family life and had little, if any, contact with them for the first ten years of their married life. I had joined the Legion in 1962, when I was seventeen years old. The Legion was not the sort of organization that would ever epitomize the warmth and togetherness that one associates with family life. Camaraderie, comrades in arms, yes; family, no. Not only did the Legion seem to be very ambivalent about the role of family in the formation of its members, but also contact with the family was not encouraged unless, of course, they had money to donate. That explains why, during my period of twenty years with the Legion, I spent the sum total of twenty days with my family. Psychologists probably salivate at the prospect of getting into Legionary heads to survey the damage.
The [Ed., weaning] process started when, before joining, you couldnâ€™t get a straight answer on how often youâ€™d get to see your family after you joined. As a special privilege for the eighteen of us who joined in the summer of 1962, we were promised a visit at the following Christmas, and one at the end of the two year novitiate. The novitiate is a period devoted to spiritual formation, lasting, in most religious orders, one year. In our case it was a two-year novitiate. No contact with the outside world. No radio, no TV (except to see the news of the Kennedy assassination), no newspapers. Not even the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican publication; that was reserved for when you were studying philosophy and theology and, I suppose, deemed capable of handling such lurid, torrid, yellow journalism. We were housed in a residential property in a place known as â€œHazelbrook Houseâ€�, in Malahide, County Dublin. The connection between â€œhazelâ€� and â€œnutsâ€�, i.e. “crazy”, did not strike us then, but it might have been an omen.