Gabon III – A Legionary Of Christ In Gabon, West Africa
Story comes full circle as author describes his last years in the Legion, his loss of faith in the superiors and in Fr. Maciel brought to a head by the General Chapter, his exile and departure
In 1981 the Legion had celebrated its first ever General Chapter. This is a solemn gathering of the top brass with representatives from all the ranks, to examine and approve or revise the Constitution â€“the laws which govern the day to day life of the members. At that time I was the Director of the Legionâ€™s house in Rye, New York. I fully expected to go to Rome to the somewhat mysterious General Chapter. We all knew this was a landmark occasion, and most of us knew that the real purpose was to have General Chapter ratify the Constitution during the life of the Founder. That way the rule of life, the Constitution, would to a large extent be â€œhewn in graniteâ€� because, having fulfilled the requirements of Canon Law which govern the frequency of such Chapters, it would be a long, long time before there would be another Chapter. This, politically, was a very smart thing for the Founder, Fr. Maciel, to do because he had a far greater chance of controlling the outcome than he would have if he waited til he was dead. It he had a little more faith he could have waited til he was dead and supervised day to day operations from heaven. It seemed obvious to me that the representatives to the Chapter would be carefully selected. This Chapter was in no way intended to encourage any real examination or to introduce new ideas. It certainly was no place for dissent. The sole purpose, I believed, was to rubber stamp the Constitution and any changes that might be made by the â€œyes menâ€� at the meeting.
Fr. Anthony Bannon and other â€œinâ€� people
Indeed, for several years before the Chapter the Congregation had started to take on a â€œnew directionâ€�. Lay members of an ancillary group known as the â€œRegnum Christiâ€�, R.C. for short, had been given more and more importance. To be precise, the Legion was more a part of the â€œRegnum Christiâ€�. So, now, the tail was wagging the dog. The Legion which I had joined was now the â€œclerical sectionâ€� of a new lay â€œMovementâ€�. The meanings and implications of the term â€œmovementâ€� was to become a constant topic in the Founderâ€™s writings an in our weekly conferences. Methodology was becoming far more important than the Spirit. Such things as efficiency, integration, and blind obedience had taken the place of an earlier emphasis on the virtue of charity, which had given the congregation its earlier appeal and charism. Coldly calculated tactics were the new name of the game. Deep down the unstated objective was to do better than the rival, secret group know as the Opus Dei. Monsignor JosÃ© MarÃa EscrivÃ¡ de Balaguer, the Founder of the Opus, a Spanish group, was also alive and, although there was no doubt they were doing well, they were also very vulnerable. We were going to make sure that they did not consume our part of the spiritual pie, and unflattering comments on their style and operations were a constant theme of conversation in the Legionâ€™s inner circle to which, I felt, I belonged. They, just like us, were extremely active in the fertile and somewhat naÃ¯ve environment of Mexico, and again, like us, the name of their game was secrecy and tight-knit isolation.
Despite all this I was so sure that I had been successful enough and had demonstrated sufficient consistent loyalty to the congregation that I knew I would be invited to the General Chapter. On the other hand, according to Canon Law, in order to participate in the Chapter, one should be an ordained priest and have finished the full course of theological studies. I was O.K. on both counts since I had been ordained by Cardinal Biaggio in 1976, and received my M.A. in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. I knew that others, like Anthony Bannon, a cold-hearted right-winger from Dublin, would be excluded because of the studiesâ€™ requirement, despite the fact that he was the regional superior for the U.S. He, like so many other Legionaries, had been ordained a priest in a hurry, without formally finishing his studies of theology, while the advance guard like myself and Murphy, had toiled in our â€œapostolic practicesâ€� â€“a sort of internship introduced to the Church, I think, by the Jesuits. Despite all this, Bannon was called as a delegate. I wasnâ€™t.
The Chapter, which I did not attend, was the central event of that year. The final document became required reading and the subject of private meditation. I was a little disappointed that I didnâ€™t get to go but I wasnâ€™t totally surprised. Besides, I had other exciting things to do so I certainly donâ€™t think I overreacted. Like all the other pious Legionaries I prayed hard for the successful outcome of the deliberations in Rome. I knew that Declan Murphy from Dublin was there, as was David Owen, and I felt that at least they might represent the unstated views of those of us who did not consider ourselves â€œholy Joesâ€� and yes men. When the final Chapter documents were released I knew that the Congregation which I had joined and to which I pledged my vows had changed. I felt cheated because the rules had been changed during the game. Many of us had longed and hoped for some relaxation of the rules governing visits to our families. There had been some suggestion that this might happen. In fact I had hoped that even in small ways, now that the Congregation was more established and stronger, that some of the more stringent requirements of membership might have been eased. Small things like being allowed to listen to vocal music and not only instrumental; or to become more involved in local parish life; or to be allowed to speak to priests and seminarians from other orders; to have dinner at the homes of benefactor families who supported us and who, especially in the States, could not understand our isolationism. The fact that I had hoped for some of these changes is probably a sign of how far I had drifted from the new order.
Delegates from the Chapter were dispatched to all the houses to inform the entire Congregation of the wonderful workings of the Holy Spirit, mostly though the person our Beloved Founder. Those of us on the east coast of the U.S. gathered at my place in Rye, N.Y. to hear the news from an unlikely representative: fellow Synge Street H.S. graduate, Declan Murphy. Murphy was responsible for Legionary operations in Washington, DC.
Before his conference I found myself in my room, a tiny little place on the top floor of our three storey residence. I had purchased the property 5 years previously when I was assigned to New York. It was quite an imposing mansion, nestled on the edge of the townâ€™s nature center. It was spacious and quite cheery, perched on top of a hill overlooking Rye High School. God knows what I might have been thinking about when, contrary to all Legionary norms which forbade entry into another Legionaryâ€™s room, Murphy came right in and, in the limited space with only one chair, made himself at home. As usual, I was happy to see him. Mr. Gregarious, the charming Irish priest which whom I felt particularly friendly. He stood a lean 6â€™ 3â€� and considered himself good-looking. This not unfounded belief had probably been reinforced by countless Spanish and Mexican women who thought that any priest who was not a grubby little imitation of the potbellied caricatures they were used to was to be considered handsome and, in a way peculiar to Mexico, somehow very attractive. Both of us were dressed in our long black cassocks. Murphy, despite his jocular friendliness, wasnâ€™t as relaxed as I might have expected. Although I well knew the anxious, insecure side of him, Declan, for most of the time was jovial, competitive and fun to be with. He enjoyed the pleasures of the sense more than most Legionaries, with the exclusion of the Founder. He was more up to date than any of us on the latest music, movies, and news. He traveled extensively with the Founder who used him to great advantage. Declan was probably an excellent companion and gave Nuestro Padre the aura of youthful vitality, charm and good looks that Maciel reveled in. What Murphy got out of this was some great trips to exciting places, the enviable status of â€œinsiderâ€�, and the opportunity to spend a lot of time far from the rules and regulations what bound the rest of us. He, too, in a very special way, was above the law.
The Simmer of our Discontent
The problem, it seemed, was that the news he had to deliver was not very good. It became immediately clear to me that the Chapter, as I had feared, was a farce from beginning to end, although I couldnâ€™t quote Declan as saying that. However, the final Chapter document, unanimously approved, had not been seen or read by all those who approved it. Now Declan had to tell us all that this was the Will of God for us. Thatâ€™s why he was nervous. The bell rang signaling time for the conference. Murphy went down first and I followed a discreet few moments later. There were about 15 of us gathered in the conference area; all of us observed a sort of relaxed relative silence.
The brooding presence of Fr. Anthony Bannon at the back of the room inhibited any subversive jovial activity. I didnâ€™t like Bannon and he didnâ€™t like me. When his mother was gravely ill I had to persuade him to ask for permission to go visit with her. I knew Mrs. Bannon, a kindly woman who lived in a basement flat on Leeson St., Dublin. He did go, but I donâ€™t think he felt any need to be there. His forever gaunt appearance, accentuated by his steel-rimmed eye glass gave him the classic look of a Nazi. He fancied himself as a â€œhard manâ€�, impervious to heat or cold. On one occasion, in a burst of generosity I bought him an overcoat out our my scarce funds because I felt that his stoic blue-knuckled refusal to admit that he was cold in the freezing New York winter was doing the image of our congregation more harm than good. The feistiest of the men at the conference was Fr. John McCormick, another Dubliner and Synge St. graduate. John and I, although we had been class mates since 3rd grade elementary, were never particularly good friends, though we liked each other. He was raring to go. He couldnâ€™t wait to fire pointed, aggressive, angry questions at Murphy. He obviously wasnâ€™t happy with the outcome of the Chapter. I admired him for throwing caution to the winds and for voicing his concerns with such conviction. I also knew that, sooner or later, this public display would catch up with him and would not go unnoticed or unpunished.
Meanwhile Murphy was saying something about it â€œnot being convenientâ€� for us to listen to music with lyrics, another Chapter mandate. McCormick wanted to know why not. Murphy, trying to think on his feet, said something along the lines of Nuestro Padre â€“was we called Fr. Maciel- in his wisdom believed that if one vocation were to be lost because of the pernicious influence of contemporary music, it would be better that none of us ever listen to it. Then I asked: â€œWhat about the 99 of us who might lose our vocations â€“not to mention our minds! -because we couldnâ€™t listen to contemporary music? Wouldnâ€™t it be smarter to get rid of the screwed up fool who was going to lose his vocation anyway and make life miserable for the rest of us to boot? Bannonâ€™s dry cough signaled that I too would be included in the little black notebook with McCormick. There was always a Gabon for people like me. Frankly, at that stage, I didnâ€™t give a damn! I knew that his discontent was going to get out of control. Unlike other occasions when the same sentiments had surfaced, this time I did not care. It had taken me a long time to see the light, and God knows I had tried very hard to be faithful to rules I no longer believed in. I also felt that the Rule to which I had vowed obedience had been radically changed by a rigged Chapter. A time comes when carefully considered thoughts, after having been prayed about, need to be acted on. Now, I welcomed these rebellious thoughts and intended to express them and act on them. Thatâ€™s all I remember from that conference; except that I knew I was not alone.
Gabon Full Circle
Eventually, going to Gabon was compounded by Collette. To understand why, you need to know something of several other women in my cloistered life. Iâ€™ll get to them some other time. Meanwhile, â€œcloisteredâ€� may not be the right word. From the early days of the Novitiate I was appointed as community driver; this job carried with it a certain â€œcachetâ€� â€“or at least I thought it did!; in hindsight, it probably wasnâ€™t good for me. The brief respite afforded by the various sorties mitigated the wear and tear that the Legion methodology works on the personality. I would be down in the dumps but would revive at the opportunity to get outside and drive to the central post office; later on, in Rome, Italy and Salamanca, Spain I would drive our Mercedes Benz 64 seat bus. That would help bring my spirits back up, and to help me convince myself again that my spiritual directors were indeed right. God was definitely calling me. Doubt and unhappiness were signs of my lack of generosity.
So, now, in Bethesda, Maryland, despite the fact that he did not like the Legion and consequently felt ambiguous towards me, my brother kindly offered to help me survive in Gabon. That is how I came to get my pills from the National Institute of Health. He knew far better than I that Gabon was disease ridden; the big problem being the endemic â€œriver blindnessâ€�. He was aware of some research in which he got me involved so as to provide me with some experimental medication; this would keep me immune to the dreaded disease. N.I.H., in order for me to participate in the study and receive the medication, required me to have a physical. Interestingly enough, my cholesterol levels seemed to be fine â€“despite a diet of two eggs and a quart of milk every day for the past 20 years! Thanks to the medication I did not become ill in Africa. I lost about 30 pounds, grew a decent-looking beard, and developed a refined taste for bananas. Other than that I was fine, although I never really got to appreciate fishesâ€™ eyes. An Italian nurse who worked there with us was less fortunate. She left Gabon the same day I did, in a wheel chair, a victim of loa loa.
The Italian nurse reminds me of two, or perhaps three, Italian missionaries at another mission station in Gabon. What they did was never totally clear to me. What was evident was that they were â€œwild menâ€�: their idea of fun was to go gorilla hunting for the dangerous black gorilla. In typical missionary fashion they would go out under-equipped and tempting fate every step of the way; probably another instance of the bravado that comes from working directly for your Creator. Luis used to go visit them now and then and Iâ€™d tag along. They were quite excited about the first dinner I ever had with them. In fact, it was my first dinner outside Franceville. The vegetable, though unfamiliar, were palatable. The meat was gamey, tending towards white, and not appetizing even thought I have always been a meat and potatoes man. What they were having was a man-eating leopard that had been caught and killed that same day by the villagers. I saw its skin salted and stretched out to dry in the sun in the middle of the compound. The taste did something to me. I excused myself and took a little walk around the Italiansâ€™ compound. Someone invited me to peek into their propane powered freezer. The sight of the frozen monkeys, squirrels, and God knows what else finished the work began by the leopard, and I retired to throw up discreetly at the edge of the jungle.
This doesnâ€™t make for good dinner conversation. In a way its indicative of so much that happened in my life. You can tell people about it, but you always remain wondering if they really understand; if they have any sense of the loneliness and sense of isolation that you felt. Now that Iâ€™m married I realize that you really â€œhad to be thereâ€� to understand what it was all about. You had been through Novitiate, a year of Juniorate â€“Humanities- in Salamanca, Spain, two years of Philosophy studies and five years of Theology in Rome, Italy; you had almost no feeling, let along sex, no friends in the accepted sense of the term, and very little contact with the â€œoutside worldâ€�. A cold discipline reminded you that you were doing Godâ€™s Will, and blind obedience kept you on the straight and narrow. Strict poverty kept you detached from things material. You were devoid of most of the experiences of people your age, and yet, had a vast amount of experiences they would never share.
I have read that former military people, who have seen active duty, enjoy a deep sense of satisfaction when they get together with old companions. They need to talk with the â€œbrothers in armsâ€� about things which they believe only they can understand. Those of us who have been so marked by our experience in the Legion probably share a very deep need to â€œstay in touchâ€�. I know that I do!