ATLANTA — For Nancy Nohrden and other consecrated women in Regnum Christi, the scandal involving their once revered founder forced them to examine why they had joined the movement and to seek their answers from God, not themselves.
“It was a lot of soul-searching in my personal prayer,” said Nohrden, director of consecrated women for North America, “and having Our Lord himself confirm what was essential to why I was here, which was belonging totally to him in the consecrated life and giving him the initiative to just confirm the call that this is the specific place he was calling me to live out that particular vocation.”
Nine years after the scandal broke and after much reflection, members of the movement are beginning to see signs of restoration.
As the movement, which includes the Legion of Christ, a religious congregation founded in Mexico in 1941, goes through a renewal process recommended by the Vatican, lay and consecrated members and priests say a stronger, more balanced organization is emerging from a period that many describe as a purification.
Since the first group of laypeople joined Regnum Christi in Spain in 1968, followed by the addition of consecrated women and men, the apostolic movement had seen rapid growth internationally, with a presence in more than 30 countries. However, lay membership is now about half of what it was before the scandal, and other branches of the movement have suffered losses, as well.
Regnum Christi currently has an estimated 31,500 active lay members, 668 consecrated men and women, and 1,729 Legion priests, novices and religious in formation. Before the scandal, there were more than 1,000 consecrated men and women and 2,305 priests, novices and religious in formation.
Enrollment in the Legion’s apostolic schools for boys who are discerning the priesthood also was affected, requiring the consolidation of the two North American schools into one in Rolling Prairie, Ind., and closing the other in Center Harbor, N.H.
The renewal process began after the movement was placed under Vatican oversight following the death in 2008 of Father Marcial Maciel, Regnum Christi’s disgraced founder. In 2006, Father Maciel was invited by Pope Benedict XVI to “a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry,” following a Vatican investigation into allegations he had sexually abused seminarians. After his death, it was revealed that he had had a mistress and had fathered at least one child.
In the first phase of the renewal, the Legion went through a three-year revision of its constitutions, which were approved last year by Pope Francis. The consecrated men and women are now in the midst of revising their statutes, and the lay members began their renewal in October, with a period of study and reflection on Church teachings on the role of laypeople. Currently, lay members are discussing their identity, spirituality and mission in preparation for a series of territorial conventions that will make recommendations to an international convention, which will draft revised statutes and submit them to the Holy See by June 2016.
Kerrie Rivard of Atlanta, leader of the renewal process for lay members of Regnum Christi in North America, said Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, the pontifical delegate overseeing the renewal, thought it important that each branch follow its own course of reform. For lay members, she said, the process began slowly, because everyone had been hearing the word “renewal” for five years without participating in it fully.
Now that members are immersed in the process, she said, “There’s a growing enthusiasm, maturity and sense of responsibility for going through the renewal and giving what they personally feel and listening to the other members articulate what their personal experiences are as well.”
Legionary Father Nathaniel Haslam, Regnum Christi director in Houston, concurred. He said many members experienced a sense of deflation and loss of fervor upon learning about the scandal involving the movement’s founder. As he said, “There’s more momentum now.”
A key change that already has come out of the process has been separating governance of the consecrated men and women in Regnum Christi from the Legion of Christ.
Previously, said Nohrden, the general director of the Legion was also the general director of the consecrated men and women. This was to maintain unity for all the branches of Regnum Christi, she said, but it is now understood that having those called to a particular vocation govern their own association is a common and healthier practice. She said the change has brought much fruit and clarity, adding, “It hasn’t jeopardized at all what was the original intention, which was living a spirit of communion.”
Father John Connor, the Legion’s territorial director for North America, said another change has been to give all branches of the movement a voice in decision-making.
“Legionaries, consecrated members and lay members are discerning together, praying together where the Lord wants us to be, and that is a pretty significant difference in our approach to discerning our mission,” he said
In Houston, for example, where a locality committee with representation from all branches is in place, Father Haslam said, “The laity have as much say as the priests or consecrated women.” As a result, he added, he is seeing more of a spirit of collaboration and teamwork. “Before, the focus was on the priests,” he said. “It was all about the Legion. There’s a lot less of that and a lot more humility — and a lot more of: What are we doing together?”
Still to be determined, said Jim Fair, communications director for Regnum Christi and the Legion, is the canon-law structure of how the various branches will fit together. Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a canon lawyer, who was named pontifical advisor to the Legion in July, 2014, is to help devise a canonical structure for the Regnum Christi movement..
Rivard said that as the renewal process has continued, she sees the members living with more balance.
“I think, in the first part of the life of Regnum Christi in the new millennium, we had an awful lot of apostolic zeal and an overwhelming desire to be in line with the Church and to do a lot of good out there in the world,” she said. “But during this time, where we’ve had to maybe in a sense go less broad in our mission and more deep, we’ve developed a stronger sense of the importance of our spiritual lives and the balance that a family and a lay person has to live in the world to really be faithful to what God is calling them.”
“So, instead of just being driven by activity,” she added, “we’re more driven into a fuller and more healthy living of our vocation as lay members.”
Another fruit of the renewal, added Fair, a lay, married Regnum Christi member for 16 years, has been a greater sense of humility and of the movement’s role to service: “It isn’t all about us. I think that God does work in mysterious ways and that the message we really got loud and clear as an organization is that the inappropriate influence of the founder and the adulation a lot of people felt for him was a barrier to our real mission for the Church in evangelizing and helping to form apostles. So we needed to get that knocked out of us so we could do the work we needed to be doing.”
‘Opportunity for Healing’
Nohrden said she and other consecrated members had to discern their place within the movement post-scandal. Obviously, she said, that didn’t happen for everyone, leading to the closing of some houses and a reduction in the number of places where consecrated women serve.
Asked if the sins of the founder could have tainted the entire movement, Nohrden said, “That was exactly what the Church was assigned to investigate and verify. So we members of Regnum Christi actually were very, very grateful that the Church was the one to do the deep investigation and prompt us along in the renewal.”
It was for the Church, she said, to confirm that Regnum Christi was something instituted by God, albeit through a flawed instrument, and that God could still use the movement for the good of souls.
Donna Garrett of Omaha, Neb. – a lay Regnum Christi member for 16 years, who serves on one of the territorial committees making decisions about the movement’s future – said she now sees the movement not so much as something that members do, but who they are and being who God called them to be as they help in the mission of building and evangelizing his Church. The movement defines its charism as “contemplative and evangelizing” in that it begins with introducing people to Christ, who then transforms them into apostles. Garrett said one of the best ways members do this is in providing a small group experience to help people know Christ better.
As the Legion prepares to mark its 75th anniversary in 2016, the past also will be taken into consideration.
It is to be a time not just of celebration, but of reflection and apologies for past faults and sins. “We don’t celebrate our failures,” said Legionary Father Eduardo Robles Gil, general director of the congregation. “What we do is apologize for them.”
Brother Darius Lawrence, a Legion of Christ seminarian who was a student in one of the movement’s apostolic schools when news of the scandal broke, said understanding Father Maciel’s place in the congregation’s history is now part of the formation of its priests. The founder is presented as a broken man whom God used to establish the Legion.
“It’s not something that we can leave behind us, in the sense that you could forget about it,” Brother Darius said. “We know the founder will always be part of our history. He was the instrument God chose to form the Legion.”
News of the founder’s sins did not cause the seminarian to question his own vocation with the Legion, he said, because, having never met Father Maciel, he was more strongly influenced by the examples he saw in the priests he knew.
Still, those members who have discerned that they should remain have had to deal with the effect of losing longtime friends and associates.
Father Connor said it was especially hard for Legionaries to see their brother priests leave, in some cases to become diocesan priests.
“The Legion has a wonderfully strong esprit de corps as a group of men called by Christ to help bring the Gospel into the world,” he said, “so when you have your brothers discerning to leave and move on, that was very difficult.”
Nina Madrid of Columbus, O., a former Regnum Christi consecrated woman who left in 2007 after learning about the scandal, said that a relative who is still a consecrated member has told her that many of the negative aspects of the movement she experienced have changed through the renewal. “It definitely seems much more balanced and real,” Madrid said. However, she added, “I would say in my heart of hearts, I’m still very skeptical about it.”
Lori Lively Tomecek, a former consecrated woman from Baton Rouge, La., whose sister is a consecrated member, said she is hopeful that the movement can be renewed. “I think it is being renewed through the good people that are still there,” she said, adding that she has been encouraged to hear about the amount of discussion going on as part of the renewal. “Before, it was almost complete, blind obedience. We were taught never to question what was told us and that the blessings would come in obeying our directors. But the amount of discussion that’s happening in the consecrated [branch] and their place in decision-making and electing people to represent them, I think that’s a really positive step.”
Garrett said she believes the renewal process has provided a chance to reach out to members who distanced themselves from the movement after the scandal. “It has been a great opportunity for healing. ... And in some cases, where they have maybe used this opportunity to discern that this is not where God wanted them, the parting is not one of hostility, but one of mutual respect.”
Fair said he regrets that many former members went away hurt, disappointed and disillusioned. “We tried to reach out to folks in some cases, and they’re too hurt,” he acknowledged. “It’s not like they need to come back, but I would hope that at some point they’d understand that we realize that we had a lot of flaws, and we’re really working hard.”
He added, “It’s not like we’ve achieved perfection now. It’s a long, slow process, but we think we’re on that path.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.