Keith Keller – Testimony of one of the first American LC’s
No more questions from
The one always-asking-Questions
Where have all the flowers gone ?
I was in the fourth group of American Legionaries who joined in June,1969.
Two of the 1st group, Frs. Russell Donnelly and Walter Bartnicki, reached the priesthood. Only Fr. Walter remains in the LC priesthood, possibly in Rome as chaplain to RC ladies.
The 2nd group were novices when I was a ‘weekend boy’ and postulant: Bros. Patrick Kavanaugh, James Burke and William Brock. Only Fr. William stayed, and is presently in Salamanca teaching. The 3rd group: Bros. Bernard Prior, Michael Murphy and Thomas Christopher took vows and all left within seven years.
My – the 4th – group of Novices had four profess temporary vows: Frs. Antonio Bailleres, Eugene Gormley, myself and Robert Cuthbert The 5th group of Americans were quite extraordinary. Four took vows and in many ways, they were a role model to some of us second year novices. I was surprised to learn that none of these persevered! I was also very surprised to hear that the novitiate had moved a third time and was now overflowing with novices. We used to have to import brothers from Ireland and especially from Mexico just to have enough soccer players.
Youthful Idealism & Enthusiasm
In 1969, I joined the Legion of Christ in Woodmont, CT, after graduating from a liberal Christian Brothers High School and a former minor seminary run by the Holy Ghost Fathers. My parents weren’t thrilled with my decision to become a missionary priest for various reasons. The 60’s were a time of great change and due to the influence of an English teacher I had decided to not become an engineer and became interested in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Every week, a different religious recruiter came to our school. None could compare to the dynamic, charismatic, young Legionary. After numerous weekend visits, I even met the founder, Fr. Maciel!
We were considered co-founders. About four to six times a year Nuestro Padre, Fr. Maciel, would visit and we would have a holiday. It was curious to see how even a stern, taciturn priest like Fr. Jose Maria Sanchez, one of the Mexican Founding Legionaries who has since left, would become like a little child vying for parental attention! We had all been told that we were called from all eternity to this new, great work of Christ. We were in training to become
soldados rasos [soldiers without pretensions] in the West Point of the Catholic Church. We, cofounders, were going to save the Church and the world for Christ. We were part of a new apostolate that was so flexible for any time or place, with a living founder/saint to guide us, full of youthful enthusiasm and idealism.
We all started Novitiate in a rented mansion, called Villa Rosa, in Woodmont, CT, on Long Island Sound. The first year of Novitiate was very difficult. So much silence, prayer and lack of freedom. I wasn’t even told that Rosemary, my girlfriend, had written. A fellow nosy novice had found her letter in the trash! There wasn’t any heat on the 3rd floor or in the basement where the showers were. Occasionally in a Norâ€™easter, the sea would enter part of the basement. Toward the end of my second year, ,we helped move everything to Orange, CT, just outside New Haven. We missed the sea; but not the Jewish beach club playing
Light my fire during final prayers. Probably going to work as camp counselors in the Summers kept me sane. The Instituto Cumbres, a LC school in Mexico, offered their students the chance to go to America. During our Novitiate, in September 1970,we were joined by a group of very zealous, newly ordained Legionaries who stayed with us while attending Southern Connecticut State College. This, plus teaching CCD, working with
weekend boys and as a Summer Camp Counselor broke some of the drudgery of the day to day life of the strict Novitiate schedule.
Salamanca and the Juniorate were a real nice change. Instead of a close knit group of 10 in a small, drafty rented villa on the Long Island Sound, I found myself studying liberal arts with 20 Irish and 30 Spanish and Mexican brothers in Salamanca, Spain. For some reason, I was having trouble believing in God at the time of my first Spiritual Direction with Fr. Arumi, the rector and novice instructor. Waiting outside his office, I could hear his powerful, booming voice.
Poor Soul! I said to myself thinking of the unfortunate directee. Out came my friend, and sometimes mentor, Bro. Michael M.! He must have softened up old Fr. Arumi as Father just laughed when I told him my problems with faith. He said he had thought on another occasion that I was intellectually dead. I liked Fr. Arumi, even if I were missing a few brain cells!
It had always been Nuestro Padre’s dream that we have dual careers like the Jesuits. So, instead of going to Rome, about a dozen of us attended the famous and prestigious Universidad Complutense in Madrid. By day, I went to law school for two years. During the day we studied one of four civil careers and at night had classes with Fr. Esquivel on Philosophy. We shared dual apartments with RC students during the day, returning to a rented suburban house at night and weekends.
The Seeds of Discontent
Once, in my second year of Novitiate, being Brother Regulator, I answered the phone. A woman was crying, begging for help so
they wouldn’t take her children. Apparently, she didn’t want the local parish to know about her messy custody battle. Assuring her that I’d have one of our priests return her call, I told our Novice Master. He told me we shouldn’t get involved as this was not our apostolate… I told him that if he didn’t return her call, then I’d be taking the next train home. He said he would call; but I’m sure he wondered about how
integrated in the Legion I was.
The Mexican 12 year-olds in my camp cabin started complaining to me how the
padresat school pandered to a wealthy boy named Legorreta. Apparently, being the son of the Bank of Mexico’s president allowed him to do as he pleased. This made me wonder if I could adjust to a different culture. Perhaps, I was just too American for what was becoming a foreign Legion.
While in Spain, our mission with the Regnum Christi became clearer. We were permitted to read the RC manual which were all numbered and had to be accounted for at the end of each day. This need for secrecy again seemed strange. We were told that it would be disastrous if this information should fall into the hands of our enemies: the Communists or their liberal allies.
At the Complutense in Madrid no one was to know we were seminarians, even though we all stayed together and dressed alike. Not understanding the need for this deception, I carelessly left my clerical photo I.D. out to check out a textbook. Like flies, the Opus Dei students hovered over my I.D. From then on, I found them very friendly and helpful. Sometime during 1974, after I felt we were finally getting the handle on the dual careers, Fr. Maciel decided to pull Bros. William Brock and Eugene Gormley back to Rome
so they wouldn’t miss another year of training . We lesser mortals were to forget Philosophy and concentrate on our civil studies.
Rome, 1975, Holy Year, I finally made it! The Communist were about to win the mayoral elections. Sodom and Gomorrah would break loose, we were told! My separation nightmare begins with the experience that the screws are increasingly being put on my increasing pride and freedom. I joined the other half dozen
Yanks doing whatever menial job that needed doing: acid washing the pool, folding and ironing, washing the buses…whatever. I began to feel not-liked because I was American!
Now, in Spiritual Direction, if I expressed doubts about my vocation or faith, I’d leave with more doubts. I was constantly criticized for talking to non LC seminarians at the Gregorian and for being too friendly with my old pal from Boston. The resurrected
Chapter of Faults though didn’t make me question my calling as much as a discussion that ensued whenever any of my anti-American Superiors attended.
Nuestro Padre used to call me
El Preguntan ,
the guy with the questions. I tried to ask him, as the Founder, as many questions as possible to get his true ‘spirit’ as I thought he was going to pass away at any moment. Anyway, I once submitted a question when the Legionaries and RC’s from Madrid and Mexico got together outside Madrid for the 1st time in ’73 or ’74. I asked whether in the Legion our tactics seemed to be that the ends justified whatever means we used. Needless to say, NP wasn’t pleased. This was
una pregunta de tipo queja [
a question-complaint , meaning
criticism]. After that, it was downhill. I was kind of isolated. I was always saying the wrong thing to Fr. Duenas in Rome.
I was told that I would never be able to hear confessions! There was a question we discussed in moral theology about a doctor who routinely performed abortions on pregnant female prisoners who had been raped in the Nazi work camps. If these women were found to be pregnant and therefore unable to maintain the grueling work schedule, they would be killed. I volunteered with my usual foot-in-mouth enthusiasm that I would have hugged the good doctor for saving so many lives! That, I felt that he hadn’t sinned! Instead of an explanation or a redirection , I was told immediately that I would never be able to hear confessions!
Looking back, I suppose my questioning the validity of minor seminary vocations hadn’t endeared me to the kind of people who would hide our two Mercedes buses “because the visiting Mexican Bishops just wouldn’t understand”. It’s not surprising then, that I was sent to “rehabilitate” to Tlalpan (the LC minor seminary in Mexico).
One of the reasons I was given for my change from Madrid to Tlalpan, Mexico City was because I had
psychological problems, i.e. wasn’t
sufficiently integrated, that I was not sufficiently committed [no bastante entregado]. My luggage was stolen at customs. I took it as a sign from God.
By the time I reached Tlalpan, I was an LC only on the outside. Fr. Morelos, the rector, and my new community had just left for vacations. So for two weeks I rehabilitated during the rainy season in wet socks and underwear! Fr. Santiago (
Jimmy to his friends) talked about needing help with the new candidates in Cuernavaca. I waited past midnight to talk with Fr. Maciel about my calling. All I had wanted for the previous one and a half years or more was for some superior, preferably Father Maciel, God’s Representative, to tell me I didn’t have a vocation. For two nights in a row I waited in the rain till after 12pm. He wouldn’t talk to me; but I did get to leave. Finally, on the third day, I was
liberated by sending a message to Fr. Morelos, the superior at the center. That evening began the long process of re-entry into normal life as a mixed up kid from Philly.
From a Distance
Someone once asked Nuestro Padre if the RC shouldn’t try to recruit former LCs. I believe he said they would try to recruit any that weren’t ‘disgruntled’. I’m still waiting… The only contact with the Legion was what I initiated going to Orange, CT. in the early 80’s to see the Xmas Room. I was definitely made to feel not welcomed by Fr Bannon.
There are some seemingly impressive people to which the closer you get, the less you’re impressed! So it was with Jimmy C. and Marcial Maciel.
When I got home, fortunately for me, Rosemary, my old girl friend of former days, had broken an engagement. When we finally met she said my timing was perfect! I had always felt my timing was a little slow for the LC. We’ve been happily married for over 26 years. I studied electronics after failing miserably to secure any decent-paying work, and worked for IBM for 15 years. Currently, we’re striving to live a simple life somewhat based on a book that Rosemary gave me before I entered the LC: Walden by Thoreau. Thus, a daydream I had in Madrid of marrying a wonderful, loving woman and having three children who would make the world a better place is gradually coming true.