Legionary Father Eduardo Robles Gil, a native of Mexico, was elected general director of the Legion of Christ in February this year. At that time, the religious congregation, founded in 1941, had just concluded its first Extraordinary General Chapter meeting to draft and revise its constitutions, bringing to a close the Vatican-supervised reform and returning the Legion to self-governance. .
In this wide-ranging interview with the Register in early July, he discusses the health of the religious congregation after its general chapter and the implementation of a program of reform.
The Legion and its lay movement, Regnum Christi, were thrown into turmoil in the late 2000s, after revelations came to light of grave misconduct by the congregation’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), which the Legionary leadership acknowledged, denounced and apologized for in 2010.
Earlier this month, the Vatican appointed Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda as pontifical adviser to advance the renewal and reform of the religious congregation.
In this July 4 interview, Father Robles Gil also explains the congregation’s precise charism, provides details on the new pontifical assistant’s role as a consulter and shares the methodology behind the congregation’s recruitment techniques. He also sheds light on the revised constitutions.
What are your overall hopes and plans for the Legion of Christ?
Right now, our plans are to make the corrections requested to obtain the approval of our constitutions. We need to write our secondary rules and other regulations and updated formation plans. That’s one of our main jobs right now. Then we have to work on the unity and cooperation in the mission with all the other realities in Regnum Christi.
We have consecrated lay women, consecrated lay men and lay members, both married and single, as well as some diocesan priests. We have to figure out a canonical structure, so that, also juridically, we can reflect the communion we strive to live every day. So that’s one of our main tasks for this year. We are still working on that. I also want to visit all the Legionaries in the places where they serve. I have started visiting some places.
In the next months, I will be traveling a lot, so I can understand the reality of the Regnum Christi movement and of the Legion of Christ in each place. That’s very important for good government.
Do you also see your role as being important in trying to restore the morale of the congregation?
Yes, I think most of the Legionaries are enthusiastic now about our apostolic work and their lives, but it’s certainly a task of the new government, the general government, to improve the morale of the whole congregation and also to give it direction. We are analyzing our main lines of our apostolate in family, education, youth and other ministries. We need to evangelize in harmony with what the Church, both universally and locally, is trying to do right now.
What does it mean for the Legion, and for you personally, to live in fidelity to your founder, in accord with John Paul II’s 1996 post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata, which states: “It is precisely in this fidelity to the inspiration of the founders and foundresses, an inspiration which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit, that the essential elements of the consecrated life can be more readily discerned and more fervently put into practice,” and the Second Vatican Council decree Perfectae Caritatis, which states, “Let their founders’ spirit and special aims they set before them as well as their sound traditions, all of which make up the patrimony of each institute, be faithfully held in honor.”?
The Church is not putting this question in this way. In Vita Consecrata, No. 36, St. John Paul II calls for fidelity to the founding charism and says that the inspiration of the founder is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. Canon law states that religious should live according to the mind of the founders, but never does it equate this with fidelity to the particular individual who received the inspiration.
Following Vita Consecrata, it is important to ask: Who is the real source of the Legion of Christ? It’s God; it’s Christ; it’s the Holy Spirit. The source of all congregations and all works in the Church is the Holy Spirit. In the past years, the Church has asked us to redraw the constitutions, putting aside our founder and what he wrote. So we are in a situation which is not common among other congregations.
It sounds easy to put aside the founder, but is it so easy considering the founder had such an influence over the congregation in the past?
No, it’s very simple. I hope I express myself well here. I think the founder was very, very present in the general chapter, not his person, but the foundational inspiration he transmitted. He was present in the Legionaries who are today the bearers of the charism.
I like to think of myself as a man who tries to live his vocation to be a Legionary of Christ to the full. This means that who I am today, also because of my age, has been influenced to a certain extent by what he said and what he did.
But now we have to decide for the future. We are not placing his ideas, his writings as the source of the charism, nor are we presenting him as a model. We are placing the charism as we live it, and have lived it, under the Church’s guidance and approval.
As Legionaries, we have to look inside, to what the Holy Spirit says in our hearts. It may be difficult to accept that God may use a flawed individual to start a congregation, but that’s how it is. We also have other sources which help us to discern what comes from the Holy Spirit: We have the Church and the magisterium, the tradition of religious life in the Church: so many ecclesial documents, so many things where we can enrich our faith.
In particular, how will Father Maciel be portrayed to your men in formation?
He’s not going to be portrayed. It’s going to be part of the history that our founder didn’t behave properly.
Will they be told about this?
Of course they will. Even if we don’t tell them, it’s all over the place and commonly known. Just a few days ago, a book was published in Italy — The Devil in the Vatican — so it’s common information.
So there’ll be no spinning him, trying to portray him in a better light?
No. That’s what we said in our communiqué on Feb. 6. We were very clear about our position as a congregation regarding the founder and his actions.
What is the status of the penal processes regarding Legionaries? What procedures have you established to address allegations of abuse?
The ones that are open are at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now we are waiting for them to be analyzed to proceed accordingly. But what is more important are the procedures we are following so that these things don’t happen again. We are also screening people who want to join the Legion and trying to form them better in these aspects.
We also have been accredited in North America by Praesidium Inc. and have set codes of conduct for venues where Legionaries and laypeople minister to young people. The crime of sexual abuse should never happen again, not in our congregation, not in the Church, not in society at large. We work, hope and pray that is the case.
Can you give an example of how you’ve put in place these new codes to address allegations of abuse?
What we’re doing right now is that we listen to people who come to us with an allegation. We always trust they are not coming to deceive us, but, rather, start out from the conviction that if they present an allegation it is because something horrible quite probably happened. So if it’s something that sounds credible, and that is usually the case, we immediately take the person aside, removing him from any ministry while the proper investigation is conducted. Cooperation with civil authorities and immediate mandated reporting are also important elements of our commitment towards the protection of children and youth.
There are many things in the codes of conduct, and in the whole Church, so we can protect and put the victims in first place. There is always room for improvement, and we can never say we’ve done enough in this area. But we are firmly committed to continue along this path, together with the Church.
How will the “fourth vow” and charism of charity be transmitted to the Legionaries in formation from now on?
That’s something of the past. We don’t have the so-called fourth vow of charity, of not being judgmental or externally criticizing superiors. We don’t have that vow anymore. That vow will never be made again. It is part of our past. What is part of our present is charity, and if you hear what Pope Francis has been saying about charity, especially to seminarians and priests, it includes not speaking ill of people. But if you also see this from a very realistic point of view, of what has happened in the past years within the Legion of Christ, we have gone through a learning process which has fine-tuned our criteria. That is why it is precisely Legionaries who have been saying, “This or that is not right.” Today, it seems that our main critics are now former members who seem unaware of how much we have changed in many aspects. It’s something we have lived in a sense of charity and dialogue.
Although you’ve done away with the fourth vow formally, is there a danger of the Legion still having excessive deference to superiors?.
You’re going to find this strange, but I hope a bit of deference comes back. Not towards me. Right now, we’re on the other side of the pendulum. So, right now, the approach to the authority of superiors does seem critical.
So seminarians will be encouraged to think critically about their superiors?
Yes. We stress the study of philosophy during the training of our men. Philosophers seek the truth, and that’s part of our formation.
It has always been part of our formation to think critically because that is what a philosopher does, although sometimes we took our lifestyle for granted. This has been overcome in the past years and is an ongoing process. We have to look for the truth and distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, if this is true and this is false.
Father Ganfranco Ghirlanda has just been appointed pontifical assistant to the Legion. Who chose him, and why and how did selection process happen?
I really don’t know what the selection process was, but I think they were very intelligent and wise in the sense that, if they want someone to help us, it’s important he knows us.
Father Ghirlanda has been helping us, working with us, for four years now. So it’s a continuation of the renewal process in an intelligent way. And he’s an expert in canon law.
One of the things we need now is to find a canonical solution for the unity of the whole Regnum Christi movement. He’s one of the best persons who could have been assigned to us. Of course there are other canon lawyers who are very competent, but maybe they do not know us as well as he does.
Will he also have a supervisory role?
It’s not supervision, it’s advisory, but he has a critical mind, so he will, perhaps, see something that, in his opinion, is not right, and he will tell us or he may inform the Congregation for Religious. That is part of the life of the Church. You see things and you try to improve them. If you don’t like something, you make it known to those who can make a change.
Father Ghirlanda is a very free man. We were able to see that in the chapter: He expressed his opinion very freely, and I am sure he will express his opinion very freely. I was in touch with him today by email, and he said he will try to help as best he can.
And is it good that he’s a Jesuit, given that in the past there was talk of some rivalry between the Legion and the Society of Jesus?
That’s more of a story than real history. We have a founder who was formed in his early years by the Jesuits, and since the Society of Jesus has been one of the strongest congregations, he looked to the society and how they were doing things. So many things in our spirituality and formation come from the Jesuits.
Some say the charism of the Legion is still too vague. Would you clarify what it is?
Yes, if you see what the Vatican told us after the visitation, they told us we had to redefine our charism. So, somehow, these expectations and opinions are well founded. In Articles 3 and 4 of our constitutions, especially No. 4, we define our charism as formation of lay apostles who serve and develop their leadership for the good of the Church. It is mainly inspired in Mark 3:14: “Christ called those whom he wanted to be with him and to send them out to preach the Kingdom.” So, here we have Christ calling people to be apostles, and we try to live that. In many Gospel passages, we find Christ teaching his apostles and sending them on a mission after forming them. So that’s what we see as an inspiration for our charism.
But will the Legion perhaps begin focusing on one particular thing, say education, refugees or bioethics?
In that same article of the constitution, we have many things related to that main mystery of the life Christ: teaching, that is to say, education, forming priests. The article says: “In the mission of forming apostles, Christian leaders at the service of the Church, the Legionaries make present the mystery of Christ who gathers the apostles around him, reveals the love of his heart to them, forms them and sends them out to work with him in building up his Kingdom.”
So we promote the fullness of baptismal vocation, and together with other members of the Church we establish institutions that contribute to the building of the Kingdom. Legionaries serve the whole of the faithful. You can find Legionaries proclaiming the faith, involved in education, evangelizing the family, the media, in youth groups, forming diocesan priests and promoting justice, charity and solidarity with others.
Within Regnum Christi, we also offer priestly assistance to the rest of the members. So it’s a broad spectrum where we serve, but always under this core concept of building the Kingdom through formation of Christian apostles.
Critics often say that the Legion needed refounding because of the extent of scandal caused by Father Maciel and his close association and identity that’s enmeshed with the Legion. Others argue that unless it’s refounded, it will continue, in some way, to reflect the predatory nature of Father Maciel, in terms of fundraising, recruitment, etc. regardless of any constitutional and personnel changes. What do you say to these concerns?
I honestly would tell them that they haven’t heard and haven’t paid attention to what the Church thinks, what Pope Benedict and Pope Francis think.
Four years ago, those concerns could have had a foundation. Not anymore. Why? Because, at the moment, when we were in the middle of our crisis, the hardest part of the crisis and our soul-searching process, Pope Benedict — he had all the information needed — said in Light of the World that there were a lot of good people in the Legion and that it was a mainly healthy body which needed to be confirmed, renewed and had to improve in some of its practices. He appointed a cardinal of his confidence to rule over us in the process of correcting things that were not evangelical, that were not right. He also helped us to review the constitutions for a new future of service to the Church and mankind.
Would it be easier for the Legion to reform if, for example, the name changed? Should there be some radical change in perception of the Legion?
Reality and perception are two different things. The reality is the Legionaries of Christ, the reality is the works of evangelization. If you change the name, you don’t change the reality.
But would it help the reform process?
Okay, we talked about that in the general chapter, and we said that we would leave it for the time being. We could have done that, after a consultation of all the members. But we certainly do not want to do something that sounds like marketing strategy or whitewashing.
We have to assume our history, the bad parts of our history, and we have received the mercy of God and the mercy of the Church, and we have to accept that. As simple human beings, we are sinners who have been called by God. With his mercy, he has forgiven our sins and has called us. It’s like the vocation of Peter as an apostle. He denied Christ, but he was called to be the first pope.
So the mercy of God takes the misery of man and sends us out as his apostles. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of the Church.
This may also be gone now, but it used to be a common criticism that the congregation cultivated the young and those who are weak-minded, trying to psychologically control them, similar to a cult. What do you say to this?
One of the things we don’t want inside the Legion is weak-minded people. We want men who are convinced about their vocation and who are happy to be here and willing to be here. That’s something we need.
But not manipulated to be there, even if they’re not weak-minded?
One of the elements mentioned in the May 1, 2010 communiqué, published at the conclusion of the apostolic visitation, was to address the issue of formation. One of the points, which are very clear now, is that each one has to decide his own future in many, many things. So no one is pushed.
Maybe discerning a vocation may seem strange for someone who has not experienced it. How do you know you are called by God? It is something perceived by faith; it is moral certitude. You don’t have a letter coming from God through the mail; you don’t have the experience of Paul, blinded by the light on the road to Damascus. You only have a certitude of faith and the freedom to accept God’s calling.
What do you say about those who have wanted to leave the Legion and had trouble doing so? One has heard stories over the years of priests leaving the Legion but then their reputations were smeared because they left.
I don’t know which cases you’re referring to, but we have people who have left because they didn’t like the Legion or feel they could fulfill their calling with us. Also, some people have left because they haven’t behaved as was expected from them.
But these people didn’t seem to have done anything bad or wrong; they just wanted to leave and found it difficult, either through psychological mind games or their reputation was somehow smeared.
This is not my experience. I was speaking with a Legionary priest in this very room yesterday. We were talking about the fact that he wasn’t very sure what he wanted right now, but he wanted his period of exclaustration to be extended. He said he might leave the Legion and serve as a priest in his home diocese, but he wasn’t sure. We were talking in a very friendly way, and I told him to do whatever was best for him: “You decide.” This is how it is now. Maybe years ago, it might have been different. Now, it is very easy to leave, observing canonical procedures, of course. It’s easier to leave than to get in.
What tribute would you like to pay to your predecessor, Father Alvaro Corcuera, who died last month?
I am a little older than he was, but we have been friends. We joined the consecrated life in Regnum Christi together and shared many moments together.
What I always admired about him was he was very kind, gentle, educated. He was always trying to make people happy. He was really very charitable, and all his sufferings were not able to take this charity away from him. He was a gentle man, also in suffering and in pain, even in contradiction.
He worked right up to the end?
He was on a leave from the office of general director because he felt he did not have the strength to carry about his ministry properly. We later found out that what he was experiencing were the symptoms of brain cancer. During his illness, he underwent a lot of suffering, and he couldn’t work, but he was present in many ways and didn’t hide from people. When he could, he would participate in community life, accepted to celebrate the Eucharist for the faithful and found some time to talk to people, whether it was nurses, fellow patients or just your ordinary passerby.
In Holy Week and Easter this year, he was present in our missions outreach. He was staying in a little town near Guadalajara in Mexico and celebrated Mass daily for the missionaries and the faithful of the parish, even if he wasn’t feeling too well. Right after that, he had to go to for a checkup, and he never recovered. So we can say he was working, being a priest, until the end.
How much contact has Pope Francis had with the Legion, and can you share his hopes and concerns for the congregation for the future?
He has very little direct contact with the Legion as an institution. He has had some encounters with various Legionaries. Twice I’ve exchanged a few words with him. He told me: “Go forward; I support you; I want to help you; I don’t want you to fail.” He has been close to us through the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life, and in this, we have seen his love and pastoral care for us. Even in the naming of a pontifical adviser, the Pope has shown he wants to assist us through a person whom he trusts. So I think he has been very close to our process.
You had a recent ordination of new deacons. What are the numbers of vocations like?
At this time, the statistics are a little bit confusing. You never have a generation of priests that is similar to another. There are many things that happen, and each one follows a unique path. Three years ago, we had 62 new priests — that’s the biggest class in our history, precisely in the middle of our crisis. They joined the Legion before the crisis.
Right now, we’re going to have numbers that are oscillating. We’re going to have close to 35 ordinations this year. It is a good number, but the best thing is the personal history of each of these men. Hopefully, it will get better with God’s help. Some of the classes to come might be smaller, and some might be bigger.
Overall, you’re very hopeful?
Sure, we’re very hopeful. With the help of God and the prayers of many, I am confident that we will be able to overcome the crisis we have lived. We also have to acknowledge that there is also a crisis of vocations in the Church, which is a challenge for us all.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.