Legionaries’ Paradise, Part 1: a Tale of two Stories



There are always two versions of the Legion of the Christ:

the official story –full of divine interventions-and the other story, told by those who are not happy with it. For sixty years the Legion maintained -demeaning, threatening and suing detractors- that Marcial Maciel, their founder, was a living saint. But at the end they had to acknowledge the truth: he was a conman, drug addict and a pedophile who even abused his own children.

The quasi-diocese of Cancun-Chetumal under the Legion’s care is no different. This territory, placed under the Legion’s pastoral care in 1970, also spawns two stories. The official story describes the Prelature as the Legion’s self-less evangelization of the Maya people and of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who flocked to the area to work as laborers and in the tourism industry.

They began with five priests, Mexicans and Irish, and now, forty-five years later, there are seventy-five priests. They began staffing seven parishes and now, five decades later, have over fifty. And they have been able to cope with the demographic explosion of the state of Quintana Roo which has grown from 90, 000 inhabitants in 1970 to 1,600,000 in 2015[1]. There is no denying the numbers and the Legionaries have gained respect and prestige among the people. Some of the priests have worked hard and long, both with the indigenous communities and in working class neighborhoods.

But there is another story that runs parallel, told by the dissidents, some of whom are former Legionaries who, having gone beyond the appearances of the religious order, have become its harshest critics. According to them, this hot and humid area was used by Fr. Maciel as a kind of “Tropical Siberia” where he could exile some of organization’s undesireable elements: be they priests accused of sexual abuse or those who assumed a critical posture vis-à-vis the Legion’s modus operandi. The dissenters are quick to point out, among other things, how Cancun has become a great source of income for the Legion as handsome fair-skinned priests celebrate weddings for the rich and famous in luxury hotels.

According to the official story the Vatican asked the Legionaries to take over sparsely populated Quintana Roo in 1970 and “even the wisest prophet could never have foretold the demographic explosion.”

According to Legionary priest on a limb, Fr. Pablo Pérez Guajardo, a native of Saltillo, Mexico, Fr. Maciel, the astute founder, secured the Prelature for his Legionaries because he had insider information, thanks to his relationship with the then Minister for the Interior and later president, Luis Echeverría, that the Mexican government would invest millions of dollars in creating this huge Caribbean tourist paradise. “The Legion- according to the official version-“launched a frenetic crusade to provide the Prelature with dignified churches”[2]

The alternative version accepts this fact but accuses the Legionaries of invading green areas and taking over public spaces to build their churches. In their ruthless expansion the Legionaries have been aided and abetted by en enterprising hotelier, Fernando García Zalvidea; said collaborator had been imprisoned on charges of money laundering for the Juarez drug cartel. And (as is not uncommon in certain countries) he was released after serving only thirteen months of his sentence.

On November 21st, 2015, the Cancun-Chetumal Prelature is celebrating its 45th anniversary under the direction of the Legionaries of Christ, the order founded by Marcial Maciel on January 3, 1941 in the basement of a house in Mexico City’s Colonia Juárez. On this festive occasion the Legion is launching two monumental projects: the Basilica of Santa María Guadalupe del Mar, with a 350 feet high cross, which will become the Catholic icon for Cancun, costing approximately 12 million dollars. The second project is a large seminary which will run into 57 million Mexican pesos (about five million US dollars) and will have an Olympic-size swimming pool, soccer fields, basketball courts, housing up to a hundred seminarians.

[1] Normally, the Catholic Church is divided into dioceses: specific territories, staffed by local clergy, headed by a bishop. In certain exceptional cases Rome will create a “prelature” when the “Church structure” is underdeveloped and there are not enough local clergy  to meet the pastoral needs of the populace. “The Holy See” may ask a religious order to help out. “Prelatures” are often poor and isolated indigenous communities. In Mexico Franciscan Friars staff the prelatures of El Nayar (Nayarit state) and El Salto (Durango), while the Salesians take care of the Mixes communities in Oaxaca. The Jesuits  staffed the Tarahumara communities in Chihuahua state from 1958-1992.   The Cancun-Chetumal Prelature covers the relatively young state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Peninsula.

[2] Citations are from Una Iglesia de corazón misionero, libro de nuestra historia 2010, published by the Prelature in 2010 to mark its 40 anniversary, pages 34 and 39 respectively.

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