Fr. James Manus McIlhargey, 1946-2005
The bus station at Concepcion, Chile, was cold, but bright, on August 7th, 2005. My final farewell to the terminally ill priest quoted the traditional Irish song, “
The Homes of Donegal”:
the time has come for me to go and bid you all adieu. But when I’m traveling far away, your friendship I’ll recall. As the bus sped away all too quickly from the city lights into the winter night, I was left weeping at the stars. Celebrating the end of the year 2005, I thanked the Lord for the life of a dear friend, a real brother and a sincere Christian. Fr. Declan Creighton, lc, aptly preached at his funeral,
he left an indelible mark and the highest goals for those who knew him.
Our paths first crossed at the newly built Novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ in Dublin, Ireland, during the summer of 1968. To us novices Manus was our
big brother, straight from philosophy studies in Rome, coming to work in vocations. Soon, his fame on the football field echoed throughout our cloistered life. Like many others, Manus paid a high price to follow Christ and join the Legion. To a man, we all believed our religious superiors that God, from all eternity, has chosen us to leave all and be His legionaries. But Manus was different. Here was a soccer star, turning from a possible professional life at Manchester United Football Club, to live our vows. But now, it was our prayer that Manus be on our team, a sure recipe for success. And this was true to the end, to the final whistle.
Serving God alone
Another kind of exercises awaited us during the summer of 1970 in Salamanca, Spain, to where we traveled to begin our liberal arts studies. There we performed in silence the month-long spiritual retreat of St. Ignatius: “Our goal on earth is to love, honor and serve God, and, thereby, save our souls. All else should be treasured only in far as it helps us achieve this goal. People and places in this fleeting world have a limited value, subject to personal discernment”. Little did we know then how much that radical idea was to weigh in both our lives. One reality check at retreat’ s end was to see Manus appointed to go on
apostolic practice to the new Irish Institute K-12 school in the industrial city of Monterrey, Mexico, together with Brother Thomas White (now a priest in the Los Angeles area). Meanwhile, I happily took the Legion bus east to philosophy studies in Rome.
Sooner than I thought Monterrey turned out to be my destination, too. I would end up there only two years later, after a stint in New England where I was little brother companion to then Bro. David Owen on his USA vocational recruitment road tours. When I arrived in Monterrey luck –
or Providence– would have it that Bro. Manus would open the door to me. The by now Padre James got out of bed in the dark of night to offer me a bite. Eating together was a custom we would oft repeat. Then, for two happy years of my life, Manus would continue to live his creative consecrated life, as dean of students for the high school section of the Irish Institute. At the school Manus was an accomplished leader, achieving excellent conduct from students, based on his personal care for each one and love for fairness in applying rules. My joy was to join him on retreats and gatherings for teenagers held in ranches on the city outskirts. A stiff climb to reach the summit of Chipinque Mountain above the city was part and parcel of how he viewed being a youth leader. My admiration as an enthusiastic follower of the legionary mystique was to witness his founding the ECYD (legionary movement for teenagers) from naught in Monterrey. His view of teenage commitment to Christ as being the essence of a Catholic Lay Movement bore generous fruit for the order. Manus was the one who personally groomed and recruited such prominent Legion of Christ members as Rev. Luis Garza, lc, Vicar General, and Rev. Evaristo Sada Derby, lc, Secretary General, as well as important Regnum Christi lay members.
Change of Assignments
My time in Monterrey came to a sudden end, coinciding with the departure of Fr. Pedro Martin Saiz, l.c., as Irish Institute principal and community superior. In our later conversations, Manus and I recalled how Rev. Martin was personally contacted by phone and suddenly summoned to go meet the Superior General, Rev. Maciel, in New York. Pedro was wary, suspecting some plan was afoot, but he obeyed. Maciel had a private detective (hired in Spain by the Rev. Tarsicio Samaniego, lc, who would later spend time at Cheshire, CT) follow Pedro’s tracks. Other bona fide sources later confirmed that the Rev. Maciel did indeed set up a clever La Guardia Airport plane transfer to speed Pedro away from Mexico and the US to his native Spain. Pedro would soon forget his abrupt departure from Monterrey when confronted by Spanish Civil Guards on arrival at Madrid airport.
Following a year at the Irish Institute in Mexico City, I then returned to Rome, where the religious superior was the Rev. Juan Manuel Duenas. A special treat during final exams on summer days were enjoyable meals outdoors in the shade of the cool Roman pines. Soon Manus, too, came back to Rome. Not long after we heard the Rev. Duenas publicly criticize legionaries who sought their own separate aggrandizement (
hacer rancho aparte), not the congregation’s. Rev. Duenas, spiritual director and rector at the same time!, expressed his shock at Manus receiving 300 letters in Rome from young people he had known in Monterrey. For Padre Duenas here was absolute proof of personal ambition! In a cowardly fashion I did not raise my voice for my friend; I just thought to myself: what a way to speak of someone whose fruits for the Regnum Christi Movement and the Legion of Christ of were so apparent.
During our final week together that year Manus had also added that he considered the Rev. Duenas an
insensitive robot. As Duenas was his assigned spiritual director, Manus was allocated certain time for
moral orientation with him. Manus laughed with Irish glee, recalling how he would enter the Reverend’s office, Duenas would not lift his eyes from papers on his desk, but just ask Manus W
hat are your problems?
None, Father, was the polite answer. Despite the courteous manner, such a reply was tantamount to rebellion in a soul vowed to venerate the superior as God’s direct representative. Because of this and other actions, the Rev. Maciel would later label Manus as “
el recalcitrante” (the recalcitrant one).
May Legionaries eat toast?
Not long after, Manus was assigned to Conegliano, Italy, site of a
controlled community (a term used by Rev. Raymund Cosgrave, l.c.). Such isles of exile are common practice in the Congregation, where dissenters are put out to pasture and, hopefully, leave the Congregation. One incident of control particularly amused Manus. Father John OReilly, l.c., now in Santiago, Chile, had a special longing for toasted bread. The house Superior, however, considered such a wish contrary to the will of God and, possibly, I guess, Church teaching. Anyhow, the Rev. Maciel saved the day -and Johnny’s breakfast tastes-by writing a special letter allowing him such worldly weakness.
Chance meeting on a bus
Manus and I parted paths. I headed to Mexico for vocational work, while Manus remained in Rome. An amusing incident he recalled years later referred to the respected moral theology legionary professor, Rev. Roberto Gonzalez, another member suddenly disappeared from the Congregation. Roberto worked in the Congregation for Bishops in the Vatican, and the
grapevine had it that Cardinal Baggio, Prefect (head) of that department, caught the Rev. Gonzalez passing confidential information on prospective bishops to Legion Founder and Superior General, Fr. Marcial Maciel. Anyway, God’s ways are not our ways. One day Manus met none other than Roberto on an ATAC bus traveling the streets of Rome. Roberto explained he was now priest at a parish outside the eternal city.
Soon after, Manus’ turn for spiritual direction came again, this time with the Rev. Rafael Arumi (recently deceased, R.I.P.), then Provincial of the legionaries in Europe. At the end of their conversation searching for God’s will, Manus decided to look Arumi in the eyes and ask,
Where is Fr. Roberto Gonzalez? Without blinking, the Rev. Rafael answered,
He’s on a special mission in Mexico. Years later, I still remember Manus, quickly swallowing a slice of pizza with the comment,
It’s all a lie. When I finished my sip of Chianti, it hit me he was talking about the Legion of Christ.
The Legion’s reply to Manus’ recalcitant attitude came later in another form. Rev. Maciel delivered a public talk to the Legionary community of Rome containing carefully monitored questions; he encouraged the members to follow closely the example of Jesus, far from the ways of the world. The future 21st century Church leaders pondered every word of their divine messenger. Soon however, Maciel turned nasty, using his bully pulpit, ridiculing in all but name Manus James McIlhargey as an example of a once zealous priest turned self-centered. Leaving the auditorium, none of the Reverend’s faithful followers dared say a word of support for Manus. Except one, Fr. Lancelot McGrath.
to be continued