National Catholic Register


Legionary Founder Dies


February 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/5/08 at 2:43 PM


COTIJA, Mexico — Father Marcial Maciel, LC, founder and former general director of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, died Jan. 30. He was 87.

In accord with his often-expressed desire, the burial was simple. It took place Feb. 2 in Cotija de la Paz, Michoacan, Mexico, in a ceremony led by Father Alvaro Corcuera, general director of the Legion.

Marcial Maciel was the fourth of the eight surviving children of Francisco Maciel and Maura Degollado.

Father Maciel was born in Cotija on March 10, 1920. At age 7, he had witnessed the martyrdom of faithful Catholics, including one of his friends, Blessed José Sánchez del Río, during the Cristero uprising (1926-1929) against religious persecution in Mexico.

At the age of 15, amid the continued religious persecution, he entered an underground seminary run by his uncle, Bishop Rafael Guizar y Valencia of Veracruz, who was later canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.

At 20, while still a diocesan seminarian, he founded the Legion of Christ on Jan. 3, 1941, in Mexico City, with a small group of younger seminarians. He was ordained a priest on Nov. 26, 1944. The congregation received papal approval from Pope Pius XII on May 25, 1948; the Decree of Praise, which constituted it a congregation of pontifical right, from Paul VI on Feb. 6, 1965; and the final approval of its constitutions from John Paul II on June 29, 1983.

The Regnum Christi movement received the definitive approval of its statutes from John Paul II on Nov. 26, 2004. Father Maciel was elected general director of the Legion of Christ in successive general chapters until 2005, when he declined his re-election. Since then, his health declined steadily.

Among the many messages of condolences received by Father Corcuera was a note from the Mexican bishops’ conference, signed by its president and secretary, in which the bishops expressed their closeness “to all the members of the congregation of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement for the sad loss of their beloved father and founder. … In such a sorrowful circumstance, we unite ourselves to your grief, raising fervent prayers to the Lord so that he receives Father Maciel in his embrace. At the same time, we ask to you transmit to all the members of the congregation our sentiment of spiritual closeness and our recognition of their important work in building the Kingdom of God.”

Father Maciel leaves behind a thriving religious congregation and a movement of apostolate which have produced many works for the Church.

The major areas of their apostolic work are: education, youth and family ministry, evangelization (including a mission territory in Quintana Roo, Mexico), and multiple works of Christian charity.

In the United States, the congregation has more than 15 local communities of priests and religious, nearly a dozen communities of consecrated women and 40 active ministry programs which serve in dozens of dioceses.

The new University of Sacramento in California brings the number of Legionary universities to 17. The congregation has several schools in the United States. The publisher of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine is Legionary Father Owen Kearns.

As general director (until January of 2005) and as founder, Father Maciel oversaw the founding of new centers and apostolates in 31 countries, with the help of many priests and consecrated men and women of Regnum Christi. The Legionaries of Christ currently have three bishops, some 750 priests and close to 2,500 aspirants to the priesthood, novices and religious in formation, with houses of the congregation established in 20 countries.

Regnum Christi currently has 70,000 members from approximately 40 nationalities.

Father Maciel was one of the forces behind the renewal of priestly formation after Vatican II. He emphasized the centrality of imitating and following Christ, and the importance of human formation. In decades when Church seminaries were closing and slowly reopening, the Legion of Christ opened in Europe and America 20 minor seminaries, nine novitiates and four centers for humanities, philosophy and theology for the formation of Legionary religious, plus major seminaries in Rome and Brazil for the formation of diocesan seminarians.

In 1990, Father Maciel published the book Integral Formation of Catholic Priests. It has been translated from Spanish into eight languages, and is used as a standard textbook in numerous diocesan seminaries.

Approximately 460 Legionary religious currently pursue their formation at the Legion’s Center for Higher Studies in Rome.

Together with a group of Legionary priests with extensive academic experience, Father Maciel founded the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome in 1993 with the purpose of offering the study of philosophy and theology in full loyalty to the magisterium of the Church. It was at the Regina Apostolorum that the first ecclesiastical faculty of bioethics in the world was founded in 2001.

In 1986, a group of Legionary priests, led by Father Maciel, launched the Catholic culture magazine Ecclesia. Among its contributing writers was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

Through Regnum Christi, Father Maciel established an international network of Catholic volunteers, now hundreds of thousands of people who serve in various pressing areas of social and ecclesial life, through humanitarian missions, re-evangelization missions, medical missions, and various educational, medical and nutritional programs for the poor.

Father Maciel undertook various projects in order to meet particular needs of the Church, as requested by several popes. These included the construction in Rome of a national Mexican church consecrated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1958, the sending of European and American vocations to Latin America from the 1950s onward, the increase of an evangelizing presence in Europe from the 1990s onward, the preparation and launching of Regnum Christi and its apostolates in Asia from the second half of that decade onward, and Father Maciel’s participation in meetings with the founders and directors of other new ecclesial movements.

After directing the congregation for 64 years, Father Maciel declined to accept, in January of 2005, his re-election as general director. He preferred to see another priest of the congregation take on the responsibility during his own lifetime. The general chapter then elected Father Alvaro Corcuera to be his successor as general director.

In May 2006, after accusations against Father Maciel, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a note which recognized that Father Maciel in 2002 had published a declaration denying the accusations.

However, “taking into account both the advanced age of Father Maciel as well as his poor health (the congregation) decided to renounce any canonical investigation and to invite him to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry.”

Father Maciel spent his final years in a private life of prayer, in a spirit of obedience, submission and reverence for the Catholic Church. His wish was for the congregation to remain centered on the love of Christ and on total loyalty and service to the Church. He wanted an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, at whose feet he was ordained, to be placed over his tomb.

His burial in his hometown of Cotija brought full circle to a missionary life that was launched by looking at Cotija’s cemetery.

In a published letter addressed in 1993 to Legionaries and Regnum Christi members titled Time and Eternity, he wrote:

“I remember how, in the evenings, I used to like climbing one of the hills outside Cotija, where I was born. From the top, conversing with God, I would look out over the cemetery down below at the foot of the hill with its decorated graves, and in the level ground farther on, the red roofs of the small village, and there, set in their midst, the bell tower and dome of the parish church. I would ask myself, in the simple words typical of a 13- or 14-year-old country boy, ‘What is the meaning of this life if sooner or later we all end up in a grave?’”

Father Maciel’s life was profoundly shaped by the drive to make the most of his time on earth.

As he put it in the Time and Eternity letter, “From my early teens, God granted me the grace to perceive with clarity and depth the reality that intimately touches the existence of all human beings: life is brief, barely the blink of an eye, compared with the eternity that awaits us beyond this fleeting passage through time.”

In 2005, Pope John Paul II addressed the general chapter and all the members of the Legionaries of Christ and said: “The task of developing the work inspired by the founder lies before you. Through it, you seek to distinguish yourselves in devoted service to the Church and by the formation of youth in sound Christian and human principles which, based on freedom and personal responsibility, will contribute to their spiritual, social and cultural maturity, faithful to the magisterium and in full communion with the Pope.”

In a recent audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Father Corcuera renewed the Legion’s absolute commitment to this fidelity and communion.