ROME — In his first years as founder of a religious congregation, Marcial Maciel wrote of his burning desire “to multiply and divide myself” to help a world which “is dying because it lacks Christ.”

On March 10, his 80th birthday, Father Maciel turned to another means to multiply himself: the Internet.

Back in 1940s Mexico, his heady dream met with more than a little skepticism from friends, family and even Church officials.

But “multiply and divide” himself he did. He founded the Legionaries of Christ with a handful of young recruits — and watched it grow to a congregation of more than 2,000 members. He later founded the ecclesial movement of apostolate, Regnum Christi, which has spread to 25 countries.

Nor has he lost sight of his other ideal, evangelization. At the request of Regnum Christi members, he held an hour-long question-and-answer session, exhorting his cyberaudience to follow Christ faithfully and to love the Church with passion.

To a question about the apostolate, Father Maciel responded: “Don't be a Catholic who is satisfied with a little praying and going to Mass.

“Christ said, ‘Go to the whole world and preach the Gospel.’ He isn't asking - he is commanding. He isn't saying, ‘See if you can ...,’ but ‘Go!’

“So, look for a place, a parish or a movement which will not only give you work to do but will also give you formation in your faith.”

Faith Under Trial

In the late 1950s, the Legion had seminaries in Mexico, Spain and Rome, and its first apostolate, a school, in Mexico City.

At that time, serious accusations were made against him. He was stripped of his capacity as superior general and banned from Rome for two years while investigators lived with the seminarians and interviewed every Legionary. The accusations were proven to be baseless, and Father Maciel was reinstated. The congregation believes that the persecution, as has often happened in the history of the Church, purified the community and showed the depth of its Christian spirit.

Six years later, Pope Paul VI issued a decree of praise for the Legion and made it a congregation of pontifical right. In 1983 Pope John Paul II approved the congregation's definitive constitutions.

Father Maciel, who is based in Rome, has assisted the Holy See in a number of ways. In 1991 Pope John Paul appointed him to the Synod of Bishops on the formation of candidates for the priesthood. At that time he published Integral Formation of Catholic Priests, currently available in eight languages. Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua wrote of it: “Father Maciel, drawing from his vast experience as an excellent formator or priests, has given the Church an invaluable ‘handbook’ for all who are involved in priestly formation.”

Father Maciel has also been a member of the Interdicasterial Commission for a Just Distribution of Clergy, the 1992 General Conference of Latin American Bishops and the 1993 Synod of Bishops on Consecrated Life.

Since 1994 he has been a permanent consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy. He also participated in the 1997 Synod for America.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, who got to know Father Maciel at that synod, wrote, “One cannot help but be greatly impressed by both the discipline and the joy evinced by so many young men who have followed the vision of Father Maciel in surrendering their lives to Christ and his Church.”

By Their Fruits ...

With the passing of the years, the young founder matured into a senior Church man who has established numerous schools and colleges, missions, centers for retreats, for the family and for youth, and an international seminary in Rome for diocesan seminarians.

Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon called the founder a teacher of the faith who has a “remarkable ability to penetrate through surfaces to the heart of things.”

Last fall, the Legion opened its newest philosophy and theology campus, 20 minutes west of St. Peter's Basilica.

At the new campus March 10, Father Maciel told a packed auditorium, and the worldwide Internet audience, “You have the obligation to be an apostle of Christ. If not, it is a serious omission. Put your shoulder to the wheel and work for Christ.”

Edward Mulholland is based in Carmel, New York.