VATICAN CITY — A priest of the Legion of Christ has offered his profound apologies for published comments in which he is quoted as comparing the Legion’s disgraced founder, Father Marcial Maciel, with St. Mary Magdalene.
In a pamphlet entitled “Magdala: God Really Loves Women,” Father Juan Solana wrote that Father Maciel’s initials “are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene.”
The saint, the first witness to the Resurrection who is often thought of as the second most important woman of the New Testament after the Blessed Virgin Mary, “had a problematic past before her deliverance, so there’s a parallel,” he wrote in the pamphlet, which was published to promote the Legion-operated Magdala Center in Jerusalem. Father Solana is the center’s director.
“Some people have a formal, public display and then the real life they live behind the scenes,” he continued. “But when we accuse someone else and we are quick to stone him, we must remember that we all have problems and defects. With modern communications so out of control, it is easy to kill someone’s reputation without even investigating about the truth. We should be quieter and less condemning.”
First reported Wednesday, the revelation immediately drew a firestorm of criticism from Catholic writers on the Internet.
In an essay, “The Legion Defames a Woman. A Saint,” on her blog, ethicist Pia de Solenni wrote, “How the Legion can compare the life of a man which the Vatican has identified as ‘devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning’ to a saint, the woman who is known by tradition as the apostle to the apostles, is utterly incomprehensible.”
“Scripture doesn’t record Mary’s sinful past. (Newsflash — no one’s perfect.),” she wrote. “It records her profound faith, a faith that truly understood and knew, a faith that took her to the tomb while the men stayed away.
“It’s a bitter irony that the Legion would hide the deplorable character of their founder behind a woman who witnessed her faith truthfully and openly and about whose sins we know very little.”
Father Solana’s Apology
In a statement issued by the Legion Thursday, Father Solana said he “personally and profoundly” apologized for his reflection. The Legion has said it remains a mystery how the comments escaped scrutiny before being published.
In the statement, Father Solana wrote that the comparison between Mary Magdalene and Father Maciel was clearly “inappropriate and poorly chosen.”
“I was trying to make a point about compassion and forgiveness in light of the Legion’s history, but realize now that my words were awkward and suggest a reverence for our founder that we clearly reject,” he stated. “Again, I’m sorry for any hurt this has caused,” he said, adding that the Legion is “no longer distributing the booklet.”
The Magdala Center is a spiritual center and archaeological park run by the Legionaries of Christ. Reportedly built at a cost of $100 million, it was inaugurated at a ceremony earlier this year, and blessed by Pope Francis during his visit to the Holy Land in May.
The project is an exception to the rest of the Legion’s assets. The congregation has had to sell many of its properties in the U.S. and abroad following fallout from revelations of Father Maciel’s double life. Beginning in early 2009, it became publicly known that Father Maciel, who died in 2008, had sexually abused seminarians, had relationships with two women, fathered children whom he sexually abused, engaged in financial malpractice, and had an addiction to drugs. Many of these accusations date back 50 years or more.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI removed Father Maciel from active ministry based on the results of an investigation started under Pope John Paul II. The priest was ordered to spend the rest of his days in prayer and penance. The Legion publicly acknowledged, repudiated and apologized for his “reprehensible actions” in 2010.
Why Was the Comparison Published?
The Mexican-born priest managed to continue his abuse unchecked in large part because of an institutional and cultish reverence for the Legion’s superiors that Father Maciel had fostered.
Some argue that Father Solana’s comments show that this reverence is hard to shake off.
But in the same Aug. 28 statement in which Father Solana apologized, the provincial director for the United States, Legionary Father John Connor, implied this case was an exception. Noting that the past five years have been a time of “challenge and change” in which the Legion had “embraced the hope of renewal,” he said the religious congregation is “firmly set” on the path of reform.
“Unfortunately, this week we experienced what must feel like a detour from our path forward. It is not,” Father Connor wrote. “I want to assure you that we are indeed, determined to stay on course.”
Stressing that the Magdala Project has support from a wide number of Christians, Jews and Biblical scholars, he asked to keep Father Solana and the project in prayer.
In comments to the Register Aug. 28, the Legion’s U.S. spokesman, Jim Fair, said the congregation was “still trying to figure out” how the comparison came to be published.
The booklet, he explained, was written by “someone outside and our people in Jerusalem either didn’t check thoroughly enough, or the likely concerns didn’t arise in their minds.
“I can only apologize and agree with those who were offended,” he added. “We categorically reject the comparison.”
The booklet, whose author, Hermana Viljoen, lives in South Africa, was written to coincide with the Magdala Center’s inauguration over the summer.
More of Father Solana’s Comments
Elsewhere in the text, Father Solana points out that the Magdala Center is to be a “place of redemption, forgiveness and reconstruction, especially for women.”
Today’s society, he says, “no longer has clear rules of acceptable behavior” and the movies and the Internet have “become the standard by which people repeat wrong attitudes and behavior,” leading to their bodies and souls suffering as a result.
The pamphlet says: “Yet, brokenness, shame and trauma do not happen to women only. When the facts surrounding Marcial Maciel came into the news, it sent shockwaves throughout the world. Having been the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, many looked up to his example and trusted his integrity.”
Father Solana then adds: “For us he [Father Maciel] was a holy man, the leader of a big spiritual Movement. He initiated many dozens of universities, hundreds of schools, hundreds of youth centers, thousands of vocations (priests, seminarians and consecrated men and women.) All of a sudden, his reputation collapsed like the twin towers. When you have idealized him for years and he was the model, your spiritual father and suddenly poof, he was nothing. It was extremely painful.”
Father Solana goes on to say that St. Mary Magdalene was “a strong woman,” but adds that there much fiction and confusion about her.
He says, “There is simply not enough evidence to build a soap opera about Miriam from Magdala.”
Jay Dunlap, former communications director for the Legion of Christ who now heads a school and outreach for disabled persons in the Archdiocese of Omaha, said, “Father Solana’s comparison of Maciel to St. Mary Magdalene seems an indication of how long-time Legionaries who viewed Maciel as their spiritual father are still struggling to reconcile the reality of his depravity with the spirituality they have lived for so long.”
“The fact a statement like this could be published may be an indication that the Legion’s reforms have resulted in a less controlled environment,” he added. “Under Maciel, communications were tightly controlled and had to be reviewed, edited and approved by the inner circle at the headquarters in Rome. “For a statement like this to make it into print either indicates that the internal controls are no longer as tight, or if it was in fact approved in Rome, it suggests a continuing tone-deafness when it comes to Legionaries praising Maciel.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Register staff contributed to this report.