Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the Baptist, the Curè

The Nativity of John the Baptist caught one of our more perspicacious early Mass-goers by surprise this morning. She is training to become an extraordinary minister of communion and has, as a side effect, grown entranced by our liturgical calendar.

As I locked the aged maple doors of the church, she turned back and asked me why we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist when, to the best of her observation, other saints are celebrated on their death... or, as I prefer, exit to reality.

John’s importance as a sign of messianic fulfillment and his role as the Precursor, last prophet of the Old Covenant, has traditionally been recognized as equal or greater than his importance as saint and martyr. His birth and his death prefigure the Christ who enters the stage of humanity barely a step behind him.

John the Baptist is not your garden variety holy man.

Pope Benedict chose the birth date of another John, also unique in his sainthood, to initiate what he is calling ‘a year for priests’.

The letter he wrote, outlining his purpose for this timely and urgent celebration of the priesthood, is a fitting point of departure for what will be a year’s worth of meditation on our identity and mission as priests.

I read the letter slowly and could not help but recall, as one who flips through the pages of a scrap book, the different episodes of my own journey that have been as dramatic and, at times, as commonplace as anyone blessed with this unusual vocation.

The past eight months have been particularly trying – in ways unpredicted – because of the unraveling of the Legion of Christ and the increased demands of my ministry: the administration of four struggling city parishes, the latest of which, is barely awaking from a long and dark hibernation...

Never have I felt so surpassed by my circumstances, so utterly befuddled by the twists and turns of fate, so acutely aware that a priest is one who relinquishes the reins of his life to Another...

Both Johns have something to teach me this year.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

more than words

There was a time when it was severely frowned upon to refer to writers other than the Founder in our preaching, spiritual exercises and private reading. We were instructed to quote him often, to dedicate certain meditations to his person, virtue and vocation. We were to read his letters during adoration and as part of the liturgy of the hours. We were to engage in studies of our own spirituality much like Jesuits have studied Ignatius and Salesians have studied Don Bosco.

Now? Not so much.

For those of us who have lived through it, it is nothing less than mind-boggling.

Recalling the years and years of our lives as LCs during which EVERYTHING was centered on the person of Fr. Maciel now feels like trying to remember the hallucinations of a distant psychotic episode.

Every word, every gesture, every commentary, every scrap of paper scribbled on by ‘the Boss’ was a treasure, an unforgettable connection between the inspired, saintly Founder and his intrepid, although still imperfect, co-founders.

For a long time the most piercing motivation the superiors could give us to live with greater fidelity the infinite rules and regulations of the order was: “Think of how Nuestro Padre suffers with even the slightest infidelity of his co-founders!

He was our ideal... the true “legionario tipo” that we all so ardently aspired to imitate.

I cringe to think of it now.

Those same green books that I so dutifully worked my way through, volume after volume, taking time to memorize favorite passages and copy special phrases into my own spiritual journal... now make me physically nauseous when I try to read their pages.

A letter from the early 80’s encouraging a LC priest to be ‘authentic’, to open himself entirely to the Legion through his superiors, to never wear ‘masks’ and always be transparent...

This from the master mask maker himself!

Line after line on the subject of chastity, on maintaining priestly dignity and decency when dealing with women, on offering the sacrifice of ourselves with a pure heart to Christ...

When did he think this stuff up? While he was lying in bed, enjoying a post-coital cigarette next to some young concubine, dreaming of the army of holy priests he would someday offer the Church?

Or how about those fabulous letters warning us of the dangers of ‘particular friendships’, those devilish ‘maría–remedios' waiting to seduce us at every turn, importuning us to have confidence only in our superiors (i.e. report everything you see, no matter how innocuous, to Big Brother)...

Yet behind it all he camouflaged his own turbid proclivities and allowed his unrestrained deviance to ruin so many young lives!

How sick does it get, man?

All those heavy one-liners of Nuestro Padre that were constantly repeated as a litany of motivation to eager and gullible ‘co-founders’ now sound hopelessly vapid and cynical:

“fiel hasta morir en la raya” Yeah, right. Just like NP.

“de una sola pieza, al pié del cañón” Spare me the irony.

“amor et dolor vita mea” You put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

“el Legionario se es o se despide” Finally, some candid advice...

“nunca he dicho ‘no’ a mi Señor Jesucristo” If that’s the case, who has?

“soy por la Legión que Dios me quiere” Syntax is no longer the main problem with this one...

“mi vida por Cristo” Whatever.

All of this is not just the venting of a guy who, like many others, was deceived and betrayed about the core truth of his vocation.

It is vitally important as a point to be considered by the visitation.

The spirituality of the LC, such as it is, is embedded in the writings of the Founder. His thoughts and his words are conserved in endless books, pamphlets, recordings and videos. In the LC we have often prided ourselves on how completely EVERY aspect of our lives has been defined and detailed by the Founder.

The double life of Fr. Maciel as inspired spiritual guide/fraud and sexual predator has totally negated his credibility. Nothing he has said or written to the LCs or the RC members can be believed or taken seriously. Who he was taints all he wrote. There is no separating the teachings from the life of the teacher when it comes to the all-consuming, conscience-binding religious vocation.

The writings – all of them, from the Constitutions to the Salterio – are as fraudulent as the life that produced them.

From now on, there will be an 800 pound gorilla in the room every time his letters are read during meals in spiritual exercises, every time the Constitutions are read and commented on in community, every time the wishes and words of the Founder are half-heartedly tossed around as motivations.

In essence, the visitation has to expunge every last vestige of the Founder from the Legion’s spirituality.

But would a ‘Legion’ devoid of Fr. Maciel’s thought and teaching still be the Legion of Christ?

Therein lies the challenge: to remake a religious congregation into something totally removed from its Founder, while at the same time salvaging the vocations, apostolates, houses of formation and charitable works associated with it.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

a triple challenge

And I thought Pentecost was a bust...

Preaching on these theologically supersized liturgical solemnities is definitely a challenge. It feels like there’s no middle ground between trivializing the content into Paris Hilton/Jonathan Morris approved sound bytes and turning the homily into an arid ethereal classroom à la Gregoriana...

Regardless, my experience is that if you speak passionately and with enough personal conviction about anything, you can get them to listen.

For a little while.

This is where I went, in under twelve minutes, today, Solemnity of the Holy Trinity:

• all religions look for ways to speak about the Ultimate Reality
• all religions coincide, to some degree, in what they say about God
• but the truth about God can only be revealed by God Himself

• Christianity has a unique, somewhat difficult, way of expressing its knowledge of God... such as it is
• Christianity believes that Jesus Christ IS God and, therefore, is God revealing Himself in a way that we can comprehend... at least a little
• Jesus of Nazareth found no better words in the human vocabulary to speak about God than: Father, Son and Spirit (Consoler, Advocate...)
• Jesus differentiates between the three persons but radically adheres to the affirmation of a single God
• the ‘three’ of the ‘Trinity’ is not, strictly speaking, a number; it is an expression of plenitude, of a relationship that is complete and perfect

• far from being a theoretical dogma (read: entirely useless as far as my ‘real life’ is concerned), our faith in the Trinity is our answer to the ultimate and ever-present WHY?
• we affirm that relationship (love) - not matter, blind energy or the cosmic lottery – is the source, the underpinning, the reason, the cause, the finality and the meaning of all there is
• the universe, with us in it, is the result of the Father’s love for the Son... a love that had to overflow outside itself, expand beyond its own divinity, as it were
• the universe, our universe, is the necessary scenario – the ultimate possibility – for the Son to love the Father totally, as He Himself is loved... our imperfect world gives the Son the platform to embrace and become what He is not (suffering, sin, death, condemnation), exhausting all possibilities of love understood as losing oneself for the beloved...
• the Spirit is the vibrant, dramatic, subtle and explosive relationship between Father and Son that fills the universe, gives being where only nothingness would survive, and permeates with its beauty all that is

• after Mass, we shall all go running off to Walmart, or to twittering and text messaging our friends, or to fire up the grill in the backyard or to plop down in front of the flatscreen to watch the Yankees or the Sox... but the tremendous truth of what we affirm today as a community in this holy place will ever and always be the rock we stand on and the hope we live by


Saturday, June 06, 2009

liar, liar

A couple of weeks ago I had a visit from a friend, a priest in another religious congregation.

The Somascan Fathers (CRS), founded around the beginning of the 16th century, have a relatively small operation in the USA, but can be found serving in parishes with high levels of poverty or large numbers of recently arrived immigrants.

This priest told me the troubling story of their last superior general, which I related to immediately. By all accounts a saintly man, a kind and gentle pastor of souls with a deep spiritual life, something cracked inside. After a number of years serving as superior he unexpectedly called a press conference and stated that he would be resigning his post. He asked the Vatican to appoint someone better fitted to assume the grave responsibilities of his office. Although he made no further disclosures at the time, it appears that something arose in his private circumstances that was serious enough to merit his immediate retirement.

Think what you will, this man was honest enough to know that the turmoil and challenges of his personal life were radically incompatible with his religious commitment and obstreperously contradictory to his role as superior general of the congregation.

There was pain on all sides: his, in leaving; his brethren’s, in ‘losing’ a friend and spiritual guide; the faithful’s, in wondering what inner crisis would cause a beloved priest to abandon them...

And yet, he drew a line of basic decency in the sand and rejected the leading of a double life. He made a choice. He now lives with it. But he refused to hurt, insult and betray those around him with disdain and duplicity.

I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

A Legionary priest, working in a women’s center of RC in South America, recently responded to the anguished questions of the Movement’s members about the fraudulent life of Fr. Maciel by saying, in short, that “as a man he had his shortcomings, we should not be judgmental and we should look to the good that has come from the Legion in its works”.

His ‘shortcomings’?

That’s like saying that Caligula had his ‘quirks’... or that Amy Winehouse has her occasional ‘bad hair day’.

If we are to believe that Fr. Maciel was somehow a ‘flawed saint’ or simply ‘an imperfect instrument of God’, how do we defend the fact that he perpetuated the lie of his double life and drew so many ingenuous, enthusiastic followers into a spider’s web of wanton deception that lasted till his death?

Why didn’t he go to the Holy Father at some stage, reveal his ‘failings’ and ask for a replacement to guide the Legion? Did he never perceive the monstrosity of the warped and pestilent theater of the absurd that his life had become? Was he so far beyond the concept of good and evil that he feared no judgment, no retribution?

He chose to lie and he slaved tirelessly to inflate an image of sanctity, of inspiration, of leadership and of relevance for the Church throughout his entire despicable career. He diligently hid his secret life from the acting LC superiors over the years so that the realistic appearance of the illusion he was spinning would be flawless.

It is the lie that kills me.

I know he was a sexual predator. I know he was morally corrupt. I know he duped, popes, bishops, authorities both civil and ecclesiastic.

But the lie that he seduced me with and with which he held me compliantly captive for thirty years smolders in my gut, invades my dreams and sullies my experience as a priest.

His was a masterful and heartless betrayal of that which was noblest in us. We are all damned fools and the sorry, hapless remnant of a vicious fairy tale. He has made cynics of us all.


Monday, June 01, 2009

gift of tongues

Year after year, my preaching on Pentecost Sunday is the equivalent of a blow out loss for an otherwise respectable, over .500 ballclub. I flounder. I misspeak. I pitch around the heavy hitters like a wuss. I say as little as I dare as quickly as possible just to be done and gone before the congregation bursts into deprecating giggles.

The chronology is a mess, for starters.

Luke has the disciples all huddled together fifty days after the discovery of the empty tomb. John describes the advent of the Holy Spirit as the apparition of the Risen Lord on the first day of the week following His Passion. Sacred Scripture points to the Spirit living and active in creation, manifesting Himself in different capacities throughout the entire narration of salvation history.

The community is enlightened, emboldened. The universal presence of the very singular Savior is established in a mysterious covenant with human freedom that will flourish throughout this final phase of history.

It is as if the veil is lifted on all that is good, true and beautiful to show its primal source... its original author.

The Holy Spirit appears as the one unbreakable strand that holds humanity back from the edge of the disaster we teeter on so precariously. The Spirit renews all things and assures us that God’s loving providence will, ultimately, win the day.

See? On Pentecost Sunday I babble like that for a few minutes and swiftly get on with the celebration of Mass.

The pending canonical visitation may be a Pentecost of sorts for the LC. A promising wind is blowing and I can only pray that it will shake the whole house to the foundations. Hopefully the cowering disciples will shake off their fear and indifference and give into the mighty impulse of truth and transparency.

The PTB will smile bravely and offer the usual platitudes about what a blessing the Vatican intervention is and how willingly the institution will collaborate...

But it is up to the rank and file to seize this opportunity, this open forum that the Spirit has initiated, and speak from the heart. The legitimacy of the continued existence of our religious family is on the line. The future of our congregation and its works of apostolate, the credibility of our vocation as LCs depend on what we do now.

Do not wait to be called. Demand to be heard.

Do not waste time with pet peeves or petty grievances. Don’t be intimidated or confused by the official talking points. Do not hesitate out of a false sense of loyalty: the betrayal that was committed was not ours.

Go to the essence of our experience as Legionaries. Speak openly and without reservation about formation, methodology, charism, ecclesiology, freedom of conscience, mechanisms of control, priorities, relationships inside and outside the LC, transparency, communication, trust and credibility. Don’t hide the outrage and hurt of the past few years seeing the myth collapse and the bubble burst. Don’t pretend that nothing has happened. Don’t forget that we have received tremendous gifts in spite of the lies and duplicity that darken the history of our congregation.

If it is a clichè, it is because we have made it so. But Jesus meant it when he said it: “The truth will set you free.”

Recently the Superior General wrote us a long, sentimental letter about his trip to the Holy Land as part of the entourage of Pope Benedict on his historic visit. Instead of waxing poetic on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, perhaps a straight forward, no-spin letter about something that actually matters to the members of the congregation might be in order. I suggest a letter about the tremendous historical event we are about to experience: the visitation.

What is a visitation? Why is the LC being submitted to this extraordinary canonical process now? What precise finality does the visitation seek? How can we prepare for it? How can we all participate in it? Who can we write to? Who can we speak to?

Some of our guys actually think that the primary task of the visitation is to delve into the dalliances of Fr. Maciel.

Perhaps new victims will turn up, maybe yet untold horrors will be unearthed. Certainly the shredders on Via Aurelia have been churning fast and furious since the ball of twine began to unravel, making new revelations more unlikely.

But, as far as the future of the LC is concerned, does it really matter whether he fathered four children or ten children? If the abused seminarians of his egregious career are “more than twenty and less than one hundred”, does an exact number effect the survival of the order?

The visitation is about us, the LC and its inner workings... everything from silly norms of urbanity to finances, from the competence of its superiors to the freedom of conscience of its members...

If this is the moment of truth, it is also the moment of grace.

Let the Holy Spirit move where He will...