Grasping the Brass Ring Reflections on the Consecrated Life in RC
By Giselle Sainte Marie
Picture a beautiful young woman confronting her parents. She is modestly dressed, fresh of face and pure of heart, yet with firmness in her voice. ï¿½I love you both but you cannot stand between me and my vocation.ï¿½ She has an unseen army at her back ï¿½ great saints who had to defy families who wanted them to remain in the secular world, to carry on the family name or business, or to marry for questionable motives. Saint Clare is a model ï¿½ the single-minded woman who fled to Assisi to have her beautiful hair shorn and to embrace the poverty of her friend Francis. This woman has also heard tales of Saint Thomas Aquinas whose Dominican companions kidnapped him out of his own home where he had been imprisoned by his family who didnï¿½t understand his vocation. She also has stalwart women on her side ï¿½ all those scattered throughout the world who have already undertaken their private promises to embrace Christ forever as their Spouse, and who are even now praying for her strength and perseverance in this confrontation.
Now she is confronted with these two beloved but misguided souls whose priorities do not match her own. They speak of education, degrees, work experience, and her youth ï¿½ as though she hasnï¿½t prayed long and hard over this decision! How could they know of the privilege of being called from all eternity to be a bride of Jesus Christ? How could they know how many other souls depended on her generosity right now? How could they speak of such mundane details when she had lived shoulder to shoulder with the most vibrant, enthusiastic, and joyful women she has ever met?
This scenario has been endured by many perplexed families in countless homes over the last ten years ï¿½ homes that have, from the earliest years, encouraged these girls to live out their faith, formed them in family love, and catechized them carefully amidst the confusion and lies of the modern age. These are families who took heroic steps to stick to the narrow path ï¿½ praying constantly, spending exorbitant sums on educational options that would help to safeguard the souls entrusted to them, and looking for like-minded groups to share their love of Christ, Holy Mother Church, and Pope John Paul II.
From the parentsï¿½ point of view, Regnum Christi ï¿½ through its schools, youth groups, retreats, and summer camps ï¿½ looked like just the organization to back up everything that had been fostered within the family. The consecrated women who had taken charge of the girlsï¿½ clubs were zealous and focused. The Legionary brothers and priests had taken such a fraternal interest in the boys and the state of their souls. Who could doubt that the time spent in Legion-sponsored activities was anything but helpful in learning to live virtue and imitate Christ Himself?
But, thus far, those had been other peopleï¿½s sons and daughters. Here was their own flesh and blood asking to leave ï¿½ a girl so young she hardly knows her own mind, so young she doesnï¿½t know the world sheï¿½s rejecting, so young that she has little formal education beyond high school or a few semesters of college. How can she make a lifelong decision at such an age ï¿½ even when that decision is one that would otherwise please any strong Catholic family? Something is wrong that is hard to pinpoint.
According to the formation program in Regnum Christi, God has called the founder (Marcial Maciel) to build this Movement at this critical time in the history of the Church. While so many Catholic institutions are straying from their original mission, when so many priests are foundering in their very faith, and souls are confused and poorly catechized, the Legion is stepping into the breach. Faithful to Christ, loyal sons and daughters of the Virgin Mary, and obedient to the Holy Father, we couldnï¿½t ask for a more orthodox group to help build the Kingdom of God ï¿½ or could we?
Trapped by Closed Arguments
Joining the movement ï¿½ incorporation ï¿½ commits all members to daily, weekly, and monthly obligations such as prayers, meetings, and retreats. Each is an established devotion with many Catholics anyway so the transition to life in Regnum Christi is not difficult, although the degree of activity accelerates pretty quickly. With the incorporation, she is assured that, by her very presence, she is fulfilling Godï¿½s for herself and that the closer she integrates her life with the methodology of the Movement, the more closely she will be clinging to His will. That is the first catch, which confuses the members; it is a cyclical yet unspoken argument: ï¿½You are here, so God must want you here. Live this life well and you will assure your salvation.ï¿½
The demands made on members are simply actions reflecting their baptismal promises. The prayers, apostolates, and recruitment methods are all centered on Regnum Christi organizations. This makes sense given the members commitment to this group, but this world also closes in on itself and becomes all-absorbing. The schools, the camps, the retreat centers, and the youth groups all need tremendous inputs of time and money, so members are quickly put to work according to their talents and availability. Each of these endeavors has as its given goal of spreading Gospel values and love of Christ so the mission cannot be disputed. Also, though, since the methodology is Godï¿½s gift to the Church and is blessed, the way to run these apostolates also cannot be disputed. Here we have a second closed argument for Regnum Christi: ï¿½The end is good because it is Christ; the means are blessed because it is of God ï¿½ who are you to argue with either?ï¿½
The Movement has now stepped in as broker between the soul and God since it lays out the devotions and norms, is appointed safeguard of oneï¿½s baptismal promises, and becomes guardian of the way the member serves the Church since it directs the apostolic activities of its members. As it is difficult for an adult member to see the progression of control and pressure on the member, it is nearly impossible for the young and impressionable women to understand what they are undertaking by their association with Regnum Christi.
In the same way that parents take care to oversee large expenditures of their young adult children, they want to be near as life-altering decisions are made. This is what families are for ï¿½ the overlapping generations allow wisdom to trickle down from the elders as new life assures fresh interest to the aging. The give and take between family members is under girded by love for one another and an active faith assures that action is grounded in truth.
How sad ï¿½ and contrary to Godï¿½s plan for families ï¿½ when such decisions about vocations are made without consulting the parents, the primary educators of these girls, and honest reservations are interpreted as deliberate obstacles to Godï¿½s plan.
Fatherly Oversight Missing
It is important to understand Regnum Christiï¿½s explanation for its ï¿½consecratedï¿½ life. The women who choose this life are not ï¿½religious,ï¿½ since no vows have been made. Vows are publicly made to a bishop, which give the soul a privileged place in the structure of the Church, canonically speaking. The consecrated member of Regnum Christi has made a set of private promises to a Legionary superior, which means that she is still a layman in the Church, with no canonical protections for the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience she is undertaking. It has been made clear to her through her training, though, that private promises are every bit as binding before God as public vows and that, despite their canonical distinction, God takes them (and her) just as seriously.
The Legionï¿½s explanation for such a distinction has been that this Movement was born under persecution (the Cristero War in Mexico in the early 20th century) and the ability of the consecrated members to live as laymen is an important protection for them should the Church return to the ï¿½catacombs.ï¿½ While this may or may not happen in the future, it leaves the women tremendously vulnerable in a system that gives them no recourse for their difficulties. Each womanï¿½s understanding of her vocation is that Christ has called her to Himself for spousal love but it is best if their relationship is maintained ï¿½under the radar,ï¿½ so to speak. Wrapped up in the privilege of being so called, it would seem petty of her to demand protection for her status. God, she would think most certainly, will provide.
Thus, consider that the parents are not a part of the decision-making process that leads to consecration: the fathers do not give their daughters to the Church in a formal way as has been historically a part of Religious professions (complete with wedding dress and bestowal of dowry gift), until recently the parents were not even invited to the consecration ceremonies (this change came about because of so much bad feeling by parents), and even parental permission is inconsequential to the acceptance of the young woman. Compounding this troubling set-up, there is no Episcopal oversight in the process; neither the young womanï¿½s bishop from her home diocese nor the resident bishop where the consecration is made knows of the consecration of the soul in his care. Interestingly enough, for the traditional outlook and orthodox sensibilities that the Legion is known for, they are party to a remarkably modern trend in family life ï¿½ the independence of youth, the rejection of family wisdom for choosing a state in life, and in a manner of speaking, ï¿½spiritual elopementï¿½ ï¿½ running away on the sly to embrace a spouse without witnesses. We will find, though, that even ï¿½elopementï¿½ as a definition may be too generous a term.
What is this Consecration, Really?
To engage in a valid marriage recognized in the eyes of the Church, the potential spouses need to be emotionally mature, adequately prepared, and open to children. The preparation would make them understand what a life-long union entails, giving them time to know one another as well as themselves, and time to ponder this life-changing step. A lack of maturity, close-mindedness to new life, or human or emotional malformation can nullify the vows, and the Church is often asked, in cases of separation or divorce, to discern whether such a decree of nullity is appropriate. Witnesses to the vows are an essential factor and may be later called upon to help the Church in this important function.
Religious vows mirror wedding vows, with witnesses, notification of the appropriate authorities, and prior preparation of the candidates for the embrace of Christ as lifelong Spouse. Historically, the religious orders have demanded years of preparation with interim temporary vows paving the way for the final vows at the end. If the candidate leaves before her final vows, she or others have discerned that she is not called to the religious life and she goes knowing she was not yet a bride of Christ, no matter how many years were dedicated to the process.
In Regnum Christi, the process is somewhat reversed, with the binding consecration to spousal love of Christ undertaken after only weeks or months of preparation. This formation would consist of an academic explanation of consecration combined with two key elements: an opportunity to see the joy and enthusiasm of others living the life, and a presentation of the highly romanticized life of the founder, complete with tales of heroism, intrigue, persecution, and the weight of the New Evangelization squarely on his long-suffering shoulders. The accumulated effect on young impressionable girls is overwhelming. The program is front-loaded with her private promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience (and a fourth secret promise added that the candidates probably were unprepared for); and then the women undertake a study of the evangelical counsels that now pertain to them ï¿½ in order to better understand what they have already undertaken.
Too much anecdotal evidence exists which points to an imprudent push to consecrate girls without adequate preparation or authentic discernment. The constant euphoria in consecrated houses ï¿½ combined with an urgency to increase their numbers, zealousness to outdo one another in generosity, and clinging to the Methodology as the only path to God ï¿½ all lead one to see that the younger members are caught up in ï¿½crushes on Christï¿½ rather than mature bonds of spousal union. Young women have willingly accepted that others ï¿½seeï¿½ their vocation, even if they are unsure. They in turn may later influence others to embrace consecrated life in order to justify their own choice and this pressure on the candidate, combined with spiritual direction that leads many to consecrate themselves as an added witness to growing ranks, makes true discernment difficult to impossible.
A Superior and Timely Vocation
It is important to remember that most young women coming into this vocation have known Regnum Christi as an institution for five years or less (some as little as six weeks) and are under 25 years of age, the majority being 18-21. Their parentsï¿½ association with the Movement has often been considerably less, and is usually more remote, having allowed their daughters to attend a boarding school or a high school or college where consecrated women recruit more vocations.
While all new orders and congregations must prove themselves equal to the existing institutions ï¿½ which takes patience ï¿½ Regnum Christi shows itself to be elitist when it comes to the other paths to holiness that the Church offers. The assumption is that this particular Movement was given as a gift to this generation, and thus is both superior to others and more disposed to be a channel of grace in this age for its members. Prior membership in other confraternities and religious families, such as Legion of Mary, third orders, or oblate societies are not seen as obstacles, since joining Regnum Christi supercedes other group memberships. Such prior commitments have to be dealt with by the prospective members, since they are of absolutely no consequence to Regnum Christi recruiters. If the subject even arises, the other groups are explained to be inferior and the Movement is offered as Godï¿½s timely answer to the challenges of this particular generation.
Are They Really Brides of Christ?
There is no doubt that these consecrated women have surrendered themselves to God in a private and complete way. They live complete poverty, chastity, and obedience with an understanding that they have taken Jesus Christ as Spouse. They fully intend to live this life until death ï¿½ and yet many leave after a few years, torn with guilt, confusion, and embroiled in a monumental spiritual crisis. Just as the Church concerns herself with the status of divorced Catholics, we must take the time to consider whether these women were actually ï¿½married,ï¿½ or were merely living as ï¿½spiritual concubines.ï¿½
The state provides certain protections to its citizens through laws and statutes, and the Church protects her members likewise through canon law. Those who have publicly entered Religious life have unique canonical protections that the laity neither has nor needs, since the laity have retained their rights to own property and engage in contracts. When men or women attempt lives of poverty and obedience to Church hierarchy, canonical norms usually protect them and their unique status in the Church. Consecrated women do not have the canonical protections that Religious have, and yet their promises obligate them to that same way of life. Their conscience alone forbids them from making demands in return for the unpaid hours, their total gift of self. If promises to them by their superiors are broken or ï¿½understandingsï¿½ become ï¿½misunderstandings,ï¿½ there is no recourse because their promise was completely ï¿½in-houseï¿½ and private.* By their generous nature and desire to annihilate their own preferences, these women are prime targets for abuse should their superiors not have the highest ethical standards.
Those familiar with the grounds for annulment recognize in the inadequate formation process grounds for assuming that no true union took place. Those who have daughters become consecrated against their parentsï¿½ wishes may recognize similarities to wayward daughters of another type, raising red flags about their maturity in light of this decision:
1 ï¿½Jesus wants me and I am special to Him.ï¿½
2 ï¿½You just donï¿½t understand.ï¿½
3 ï¿½I am old enough to do this and donï¿½t need your permission.ï¿½
4 ï¿½Others know how important this is to me ï¿½ they understand.ï¿½
5 ï¿½Plenty of others have done this and theyï¿½re perfectly happy.ï¿½
6 ï¿½Why canï¿½t you just be happy for me, this is what I really want.ï¿½
7 ï¿½I know Iï¿½ve just met them, but theyï¿½re really wonderful.ï¿½
8 ï¿½This is the group that is going to save the Church.ï¿½
9 ï¿½Iï¿½ve been called ï¿½ this is such a privilege that you canï¿½t say no.ï¿½
10 ï¿½God saw this for me from all eternity.ï¿½
11 ï¿½You are standing between me and my happiness.ï¿½
If this werenï¿½t God Himself, it would sound like just another doubtful suitor who has turned a young girlï¿½s head. Sadly, though, the charity and unity that are the watchwords for this Movement disappear when parents donï¿½t understand. Charity is for other Regnum Christi members or potential members, but parents often witness their daughters turning viciously on anyone who stands in the way of their purported vocation. It is simple enough, she has discovered, to live charity in a home of Christ-centered people, but she has little desire to undertake the difficult work of living authentic love in her own family setting with all its idiosyncrasies. The unity is also reserved for Regnum Christi and its members, as many can attest to their near contemptuousness of other groups who compete for members. Their elitism allows for unity only when Regnum Christi receives priority, and necessary energy is not spent on the Church at large or projects that donï¿½t lend themselves to recruiting.
The consecrated womanï¿½s confusion about this group is compounded by its rate of growth. Another circular argument that is given to her is that it is clear that Regnum Christi is especially blessed by God because of its staggering growth in numbers. Surrounded by women who have been spiritually manipulated into premature promises, and then sent out to recruit others in the same way, she is trapped. If she is less than zealous in recruiting numbers to the consecrated life, she is questioning the methodology that recruited her, and if she recruits heavily, she is ï¿½stacking the deckï¿½ in Godï¿½s ï¿½blessingsï¿½ by filling the houses with vocations as tenuous as her own.
Every endeavor in which her superiors allow her to participate has as its ultimate goal to increase the Regnum Christi fold: World Youth Days, visiting university campuses, teaching CCD programs, assisting at marriage retreats, attending international fora where policies are hammered out, establishing youth groups, even sharing dinner with local families when invited. There is no wonder that, despite the many avenues for sharing Christ and spreading the Gospel, each event has a recruiting dimension. Reticence in sharing the Movement would be unheard of to a consecrated member who knows that for efficacy and timeliness, Regnum Christi is the easiest way to build the Kingdom. Thus increasing numbers ï¿½ the top priority for all members ï¿½ is twisted into legitimacy, which in turn helps to increase the numbers (and confusion!) of the consecrated.
What if She Leaves?
Many women leave, although their souls are in turmoil and their reentry into normal life is fraught with confusion. Good spiritual direction after leaving allows them to understand that the consecration that they undertook carries only as much weight as any consecration that any Catholic makes ï¿½ i.e. to the Sacred Heart, to the Immaculate Heart, to live as a secular Franciscan, or to live more closely oneï¿½s baptismal commitments. As far as the best theologians can discern, there was no spousal union of the nature of a Religious or consecrated virgin who makes quiet vows in the presence of her bishop. As harsh or disrespectful as it may seem, living this union with Christ without canonical recognition is much like living in a common-law marriage without the protection of the state. We are all called to give our hearts to Christ and, during this phase of her life, Christ had her total attention ï¿½ but it was never properly consummated. Nothing is wasted, nothing is lost, but she is free to move on, to marry, or to join another community.
It should be understood by the families and loved ones of the consecrated members that, although many leave, others may be crippled both in their ability to leave as well as after leaving. Cult experts have commented elsewhere on the frightening elements of life in Regnum Christi that come perilously close to cult-like attributes. Knowing full-well that God keeps His word and expects us to as well, coupled with the ominous view that ï¿½God saw you from all eternity as Regnum Christi,ï¿½ it is virtually impossible to walk away without fears for oneï¿½s salvation. Several things must be kept in mind:
1. Toying with the omniscience of God is unfair. Of course God knows all things ï¿½ and if He saw someone ï¿½from all eternity as Regnum Christi,ï¿½ He is equally capable of knowing that that membership would be only of a particular duration and would end on a certain date. Simply because God ï¿½seesï¿½ it doesnï¿½t mean that God wills it, or wills it forever.
2. Regnum Christi doesnï¿½t ï¿½ownï¿½ the means of salvation. A member can leave Regnum Christi and pick up the baptismal commitments, devotions, and acts of piety on his or her own without the Movement as broker. There are many paths to God within the Church.
3. As for the promises, the same rules that govern marriage tribunals should govern the consciences of the women who change their minds about consecration. They can recognize that the promises were undertaken without proper formation, without adequate consent, and while lacking sufficient maturity to make them binding.
4. Charity and unity must be universal, encompassing the messiness of family life, the respect for diverse spiritualities in the Church, and the varieties of personalities that donï¿½t fit neatly into apostolic categories. Nothing justifies disrespect to parents and Church authorities and no movement is given ï¿½pride of placeï¿½ in a particular generation. The fact that such thought is countenanced and encouraged in this particular group should give us all pause for thought.
We cannot allow our beloved sisters in Christ to be confused by these and other circular arguments, to be saddled with unnecessary guilt, or to be forced to oblate themselves without recourse to justice or accountability. The Kingdom that Regnum Christi is building may well not correlate completely with the one Christ has in mind, and the spousal love packaged by the Legion of Christ rings hollow for many a young lady after the initial dust settles. May God grant us all wisdom in the discernment process.
Â· For examples of such misunderstandings, ample evidence exists that promises of education and degrees are often not fulfilled. Likewise, not all consecrated members find that the work they are offered measures up to their skills and formation. Family background also seems to have a bearing on certain assignments and opportunities for positions of authority, which is very distracting to the mission.