Life with the Great Santini

By Giselle Sainte Marie


…Maciel…the “Great Santini,” outwardly a beacon of discipline, responsibility, and heroic virtue – stepping in to save the Church much as the Marines are seen as the backbone of the military. His “children” are model citizens of the Kingdom, smart, talented and obedient – but inwardly they are oppressed, misunderstood, and degraded.

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Perhaps you are familiar with the excellent movie, The Great Santini. It was about a Marine Corps fighter pilot (played by Robert Duvall), married with four children, reassigned from the West Coast to a base in the South. Rather than living on base, he buys a rambling home in town, where he wakes up early each morning to have breakfast in the local diner. He fulfills his job as one of the commanding officers in a squadron, and enthusiastically follows his son’s basketball career at the local high school.

To this town, who doesn’t know him, he’s a “hale fellow, well met,” fitting in nicely with the locals, performing his military duties impeccably (all the way down to drinking with the guys at the Club after hours and instigating ruckus pranks) and appearing to be the ultimate family man. The wife (played brilliantly by Blythe Danner) made all things possible, supporting his career, running interference with the children, and drying the tears in his wake – because he was not what he appeared.

For whatever reasons, he was a tyrant behind closed doors. Outwardly affable, to those who lived with him he was wildly dysfunctional – treating his children like recruits, forcing them down paths they didn’t want, and squashing their individuality through shunning and ridicule. He awoke them all early each morning like a drill sergeant, pushed his son to play in a sport beyond where his natural interest led him, ignored his older daughter and her legitimate emotional needs, and dictated all decisions without input from or interest in his family’s desires. With the mother’s help, they were to be the perfect military family – well turned out, masters of self-control, and conformed to his vision of order.

One scene bears special interest, based on a friendship that the older son made with the son of the family maid. The two boys, one black and the other white, got along very well and shared many interests, despite the black boy’s stutter and other idiosyncrasies. When the pilot’s son discerned that there was trouble brewing and that the local boys were going to attack his friend, he wanted to intervene – but his father insisted, “It was not their business.” He disobeyed his father and went anyway, but was unable to save the boy from dying at the hands of the gang. The trauma of it all only added to their estrangement.

What this has to do with the work of Regain is that this movie is an excellent analogy for the Legion of Christ. It would not be a stretch to see Maciel as the “Great Santini,” outwardly a beacon of discipline, responsibility, and heroic virtue – stepping in to save the Church much as the Marines are seen as the backbone of the military. His “children” are model citizens of the Kingdom, smart, talented and obedient – but inwardly they are oppressed, misunderstood, and degraded. The fellow officers adore Santini for his contribution to the Corps, just as other priests and bishops in the Church admire Maciel (unless they take the time to look too closely), and yet the formation that really takes place in his ranks is highly dysfunctional and lacking respect for the dignity of his children. The wife sees his defects, but covers for him – just as the Church has covered for Maciel and perversely glossed over or explained away the abuse in her own home.

The unsettling scene of the racist attack on the innocent black boy – where Santini tried to keep his son from intervening – reminds me of the numerous testimonies of Legionaries who were ordered to ignore the homeless, to step over the beggars (with a smile), or to focus exclusively on their own projects despite glaring needs in other areas. Mass media apostolates, family centers, and rubbing elbows “efficiently” with well-heeled and influential Catholics is the business of the Legion, not helping others – or even tending to the crushed families in their own wake. Women who have pressing needs with difficult children, fallen-away husbands, or unforeseen illnesses in their families are not supported, but used for the little they can offer the Legion, and then dropped.

Children in Regnum Christi aspostolates are not encouraged to develop their unique talents and interests, but herded into vocation discernment events and pressured to “be generous with God” – through the Legion, of course. Those who try desperately to communicate with their spiritual directors about their inability to sense a vocation are ignored, called selfish, or sent home in disgrace with a profound feeling of failure. It calls to mind the scenes where Santini wouldn’t listen to his son, but walked behind him – yelling insults and bouncing a basketball off his head; or the heart-rending conversation the daughter had, which ended with her screaming at her father, while he calmly read the evening newspaper, ignoring every word.

In no way do I mean to denigrate the military and the excellent service they provide. My family has its share of officers who served their country. Likewise, the Church needs disciplined priests and generous apostles – but one cannot be fooled by shiny shoes, a good haircut, and a crisp demeanor alone. It’s what forms an army that matters. You can create it one of two ways: through inner discipline, joy of service, and human respect – or by badgering, fear, and crushed spirits. Both methods will put a contingent of men and women on the ground ready to take orders, but the former will be ranks of healthy souls using their freedom in the proper way, while the latter will be just as dysfunctional as the formator – slaves to appearances with the integrity of dust.

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