My case is a horse of a different color from the start. Regarding the “exiting process”: it is interesting to me that I always imagined it as being traumatic, even two and a half years before I was even told to leave: toward the end of novitiate, when everyone wonders if their number might be up, for whatever reason. My leaving coincided with a visit to my grandfather, a World War II convert to the Faith, whose advice, though it didn’t really apply well to my situation, shed light on how a functional and ecclesial institution (neither of which is the Legion) would be expected to operate. All I could see was that I was “out,” and all I kept thinking for awhile (though I fought such thoughts) was, “was it my fault?” He, on the other hand, advised me to try to write to the General Director on the matter. I knew that the decision had been handed down from him, and that the matter was closed as closed could be. He had a heart attack that summer and passed away soon after.
Prior to my leaving the Legion, I had read a text by Father Maciel in the Principles and Norms, entitled “Exhortation.” It advised me to avoid the abusive, bossy, insulting and otherwise self-glorifying members of the community. Of the ten members, my conscience then obliged me to write a letter to my assistant asking that I not be assigned to work with either one of three. I was promptly sent on an excursion with one of them. I was flabbergasted. I recall how, in the novitiate in the United States, there had been a handful out of fifty who displayed an immature, overbearing, and otherwise nagging disposition. One assistant in Mexico verged on being a gay-sadist, the way he did nothing all day but criticize me. Wow! Now, that was just plain nasty!
I never wanted to oppose the Legion, because I had already injected myself with the venom they offered: that is to say, I was sure they were the best thing ever to happen to the Church, and to me. Gradual was the process of maturity, and grueling. And yet one fine day, I was told that I wasn’t fit for Legionary life. It was then that scales dropped from my eyes and I realized what Legionary “formation” had done to me. Free will was my new teacher and formator, and I had much to learn.
Primed for the Legion
My father was himself a churchman, ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1988. He was pretty strict. He didn’t really make it a point to get into our emotional problems; having worked as a probation officer, he knew that young men only whined so as to get their way; they didn’t have any real feelings (except those of the erotic sort) and didn’t genuinely care about anyone except themselves. In this sense, I was primed for the Legion. I imagined myself as a rat, a bum, with no social hope at all. My first retreat was a violent one; the sight of my fellow-retreatants recklessly throwing balls at each other (I broke my glasses) brought tears of joy to my eyes. Unlike the personal violence and shouting which was a daily phenomenon–to the point of being a ritual–in my home, here was random, loving cruelty. I could offer it up! For Christ! Besides this, I WASN’T a wimp, after all. I truly grew taller on that retreat. Now, when my family criticized me morning, noon and night, I was going to take it with a grain of salt. How effortless it had seemed to suffer, get back up and “try again,” because I was loved, or, at any rate, not hated. Granted, no one knew me there (my brother and I had traveled there with complete strangers from a neighboring city we had only met on one other occasion), but here was already my home. “Cheshire!” To this day, it rings like heaven to me. MY SANCTUARY, my me-place. It was there, in the years to come, I would become a man (between interminable interludes of home-life). I wasn’t that I really knew these people–this would come back to haunt my psyche, but only much later on–but here was something necessary, something vital. Here was God!
Now, mind you, I had never visited any seminary or religious house (except our empty school convent and a “Catholic” retreat house): Rochester, NY, is the Sahara Desert of faith and vocations and all things decent and sacred. They’ve got liberalism down to an art, no, down to a religion! Now, God had swept me away from my past, which was an endless sea of futility and complete lack of purpose, surrounded by people who seemed capable of nothing more than reveling in it, earthworms of another species. I had home-schooled already for a year (it would be another two and a half years between this retreat and the day I would enter), and it had subtly proven even worse than school, the one and only advantage being that we were freer (a thing whose value I mistakenly underestimated for several years into the future).
A match made in heaven
Dad worked, so we played. At least all afternoon, that is. We had home-schooling neighbors, and we lived like rednecks, doing whatever we pleased. Five guys in a small town, good, clean fun (unless you count the muddy creek). Anyways, the reason I didn’t enter right away was because of a rather odd and traumatic “Summer Program” experience. It was awhile before I ultimately decided to enter. Honestly, I envied the apostolics to tears. For me, this was normal, functional; only years later would I outgrow this mind-set (and the Legion with it). I couldn’t believe someone only a year older than myself was wearing a cassock, whereas I had never even seen one! How disenfranchised I was! I blamed parents, Protestantism, the American founders and local diocesan clergy for depriving me of the beauty of the Catholic Church. I thought these insects were lower than the lowest life-form, for they had complicated a once simple, transparent theology and philosophy of life, based on GOD and HIS commandments, and on a relationship with HIM. Indeed, here men prayed as much as they talked. How novel! Where had everyone else gone wrong, for God’s sake?! No, I had never bought this Masonic and New Age notion that God was the enemy. And now here were folks who thought like I did! At last! I had known there had to be something cleaner; and the Legionaries just so happened to be the first Catholics I ever met, though I would later discover that there was much ideology and methodology weighing down their thought- and act-process that wasn’t Catholic by any means. But, what did this matter now? They were zealous, tenacious, and young like me. All I lacked was happenstance, and this I was to calculatingly rearrange down the road. Yes, my “mastermind” would produce a compensation for lost time: I would plan my way in despite all odds. So, it was two or three retreats later that I decided. To “give it a try.” So given was I (and still am) to ruminating possibilities into future certainties that by the time I made it to the Summer Program I was dead-set on staying. Added to that, the Summer Program was held in Cheshire (1997), my dream world.
My father advised that I use judgment with “these people.” Yeah, right, just because it wasn’t HIS idea. He’d forced us through sports activities and Scouting (what dry and senseless activities they proved to be!). No, he had nothing to say to me in this regard. My thoughts alone could have physically vaporized him. As regards the above-mentioned angers pertaining to the “powers that be” which I thought to have interposed themselves between me and my Church, the true Catholic Church, I never expressed these feelings in an organic manner. I did make it a point to criticize this or that institution, especially Protestantism, which my parents absent-mindedly defended, being the mild-mannered and weak-minded sort I now thought them to be. This solidified my determined opposition to the thinking of my parents. They supported all half-baked ideas and mediocre institutions and showed such reservations about the Legion which clearly only existed to make the Church more boldly manifest and bring people to a true, serious and dedicated sort of holiness, or so it seemed. Maturity I had really none of as yet, and yet this determination I mention, though misplaced (or because it was misplaced), was the seed from which maturity was to grow. So, I went to the Summer Program, thinking my acquisition of the sweater, and eventual cassock, a certainty. I called home every week with such joy! Little did I know that my “Superior” was calling them, too, indicating that things did not look good. I was the ugly duckling. I didn’t even know that spiritual direction existed, so vehemently did the priest in charge ostracize me. Only at the end did we speak, and I was in such a state afterward that I didn’t want to eat.
My heart went on in Cheshire as I studied at home. I didn’t have the heart to unpack at first; maybe they would consider it after a month (he had said a year later)? I took home-life for that time as one takes a shot to the chest. I died every day. Sick of that, I would go to the summer-camps to help out. On one occasion, accompanying the candidates of that summer, I met Nuestro Padre. I could have died and gone to heaven, and, frankly, I wished I had, rather than return home to a mediocre, insipid setting of day-in-day-out senseless headaches.
This was too good to end. Can it end? LOATHSOME LIFE! I felt like I would burst! Now, soon after this encounter something was about to change forever. Deep down, I knew that with time I COULD be a Legionary. I was even thinking of going to a small Catholic Liberal Arts college with the intention of re-applying after a year of that.
I even stated my intention in spiritual direction (at least I got to the college part), and the same priest who had referred me to the Summer Program now advised me to “try” the Candidacy. Painted pink, I told my parents. They feigned disbelief (or did they seriously doubt it as I then assumed they did?). That month was torturous. A father who knew nothing of my emotional states would insist that I do this and that (in hopes of distracting me, or maybe driving me completely nuts), and was very reluctant to finally let me go. He almost needed me, though he hardly knew me. (Because of this experience, I began to understand Nuestro Padre’s relationship to his co-founders and the psychology behind the abuse scandals.) Even then, he insisted that I attend a summer visit at that college I had originally planned to go to and was all signed up for. (This after practically forcing me to finish my Eagle project, the last requirement before becoming an Eagle Scout–something on which I placed no value whatsoever, knowing BSA’s affiliation with the Masonry and all things evil, as informed Catholics do, few as they are.) From there, I went to Cheshire with two brothers I had contacted. I stayed. It was already August. The month went by like a blur. I was so unilateral and needed no coaxing. They gave me the cassock. “Safe!” I knew that then my life could begin. I had a couple of months to go before I turned eighteen.
Freedom! I was so focused on that that I really didn’t even pay attention to the routine I was being put through. Now, I was an odd one. I had mild childhood ADD, and never really focused, or so it seemed to me. Distractions led to sleepiness, and owing to the routine, I was in a sort of lulled state. I worked consciously more and more to “wake up” and in this effort that seed of maturity germinated. I tried “initiatives,” which they encouraged all the time. I made sure I was awake to the best of my ability: stretching, cold showers, whatever it took. My attention span was nonexistent in the beginning, but slowly I worked it up to something both me and my superiors could live with. I was still very green, very weak. They sent me to do my second year of novitiate in Mexico. Like a dream come true! Now, not only had I left my family, but I had also left the country. If ever a doubt arose as to the Legion’s adherence to Church law, well, after all, it honestly had been their “Mexican-ness” that had attracted me in the first place. While we Americans are such suckers for written law, Mexicans really don’t give two shakes.
Leeway, I reasoned, fostered a healthy humanity. I only came to object later when, with a certain priest, confession would become such a nasty, vindictive affair. I made it a point to confess to a priest other than my spiritual director. It was part of my attempt to “wake up” mentioned earlier; my attention span was helped by speaking to a variety of people and having a wealth of diverse input. From the Legionary’s point of view nothing they do ever results in any real harm; it’s always because the person isn’t generous and is too proud. But, here, my confessor was proving just too judgmental; while I was hurt elsewhere by an Anti-American attitude (I was the only non-Brazilian in my community and the only American at the center).
Besides that, he just didn’t seem to have all his marbles. Now that I think about it, perhaps he was a bit like me: running from activity to activity without a clue. He just seemed so spent! I’m pretty sure, by the different communities. I’ve experienced that to do well in the Legion one would do best to be a power-hungry savage, since their obedience is only a clever disguise. As for me, my ambitions lay elsewhere. I had no inclination to govern, to build. Often, I fancied I was called to be a contemplative and had misfired when I entered the Legion.
Later, (this is, after leaving) I would think about teaching orders. Finally, I tried, with far more success, a missionary order. Ironically, though, the Legionaries were originally called “Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.” Cloistered “missionaries” who minister primarily to the rich? Original! I’d intuited what I wanted, but I had spent nearly seven years barking up the wrong tree, thinking it to be the only tree, as it claimed to be. I’ve found peace and stability, because I knew there had to have been a thread of purity in my original longing, bogged down as it was by childhood envy and hatred which only filled the void maturity would later fill, or start to fill. God has RICHLY blessed me through all those years.
This testimony wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning that I am a soul singularly blessed by God. Of course, everyone is; I think what we’re often missing is the will to see it. Yes. It is not that you can earn love, but you can get your big pride out of the way long enough for it to shine through. It’s not rocket science, it only requires the will. This is a grace. I never doubted the priesthood, not really, though my mind would wander, for instance, amid intense spiritual anguish. Beauty always mattered to me, because I knew that where there was no beauty there could be no truth: they are the same. Fortified with this knowledge, I knew that the loss of the Legion did not mean the loss of my soul, or even the loss of my life.
I picked up the pieces and took my Bachelor’s degree to several places before it and I were accepted. A rat and a bum once more? Yes, but with a new lease on life. I had run the gauntlet, proven something to myself, and let God prove himself to me. I was free to begin. It was, in the truest sense, a genesis in every way. That newness has not faded, though it has required high maintenance. I learned that God’s gift of free will really does have value. With what I had learned, I was destined to use it for good. He had called, and I had answered. Instead of calling me TO the Legion, he called me clear THROUGH the Legion, as through a fierce storm before the calm. He answered my desperate plea that I made while in the Legion: “Lord, please make my life make sense! Wait for me!” So, let all men know: GOD IS FAITHFUL! AMEN.