Legatus at 30: Forming Catholic Leaders to Be Ambassadors for Christ

Lay organization connects faith and business.

Above, Legatus founder Tom Monaghan on the campus of Ave Maria University, which he founded. Below, 150 Legatus members from the Los Angeles area chapters join Legatus ecclesiastical adviser Archbishop Jose Gomez at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels last month.
Above, Legatus founder Tom Monaghan on the campus of Ave Maria University, which he founded. Below, 150 Legatus members from the Los Angeles area chapters join Legatus ecclesiastical adviser Archbishop Jose Gomez at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels last month. (photo: Legatus Facebook)

Usually business and religion, like oil and water, don’t mix. But for 30 years Legatus has combined the two for a powerful impact.

“Legatus takes people who are already leaders and helps them to be better Catholics,” founder Tom Monaghan explained.

Bringing business people together and giving them a forum for growing in their Catholic faith and a mission to serve “created a fire,” said Monaghan. “People who had not thought of religion outside of Sunday Mass got into it.”

With membership limited to the highest tier of Catholic business leaders, the lay organization’s focus is on evangelizing those with the greatest ability to impact the world.

“They can get more done than any other sector of the laity, and they should,” said Monaghan, speaking of the responsibility of those belonging to Legatus.

Members are inspired to make a difference by living out their Catholic faith.

Members must be Catholics in good standing and an owner, chairman, president or CEO of a business with a minimum of $6.5 million annual revenue and at least 49 employees, or, for a financial service company, with at least 10 employees and $275 million in assets under management. Membership grows through word of mouth, and the only advertisement is with bishops, who must give permission for a chapter to form in their diocese.

Monthly meetings begin with confession and a Rosary, followed by Mass, cocktail/social time, dinner, a short business session and speaker. There is an annual convention weekend, men’s and women’s retreats, and occasional pilgrimages. Ten percent of annual membership dues are given to the Holy Father.


How Legatus Began                                                                                                 

Monaghan grew up in a Catholic orphanage in Jackson, Michigan, from age 4 to 12, after his dad died and his mother could not care for him and his brother. In 1960, he and his brother paid $900 for a restaurant that became Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan soon became sole proprietor, turned it into a franchise, and sold it for more than $1 billion in 1998. He also owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team from 1983 to 1992.

Despite such success, Monaghan never forgot his Catholic faith. “It actually seemed to be an asset,” he said. “If you practice the Golden Rule and treat people honestly and with respect, you can be successful.” Being a loving husband and father to his wife, Marjorie, and their four daughters was also always a priority for him.

Then, in 1987, Monaghan had the opportunity to attend Mass with Pope St. John Paul II in his private chapel in the Vatican. After Mass, the group went to a reception room to meet the Pope. “I can’t even remember what was said, I was so nervous,” Monaghan admitted. 

About an hour after that experience, the idea came to him to start an organization for Catholic heads of companies in order to bring faith into the business world. It would be organized along the lines of the networking Young Presidents Organization for business owners, presidents and CEOs. Rather than just business, however, Legatus would lead members deeper into their faith and thereby strengthen the Catholic influence in the culture.

“Successful people are looked up to for the wrong reason — worldly success — so it’s important that they give a good example,” Monaghan said.  “That’s what the word Legatus means: ambassador. They evangelize just by being so visible.”


Secret of Success

On June 2, 1987, just one month after Monaghan met the Pope, Legatus took hold in Michigan, with a meeting of 11 men in Ann Arbor. It has been growing ever since, currently with 88 chapters and 18 more in development, for a total of 2,655 executive members and 5,000-plus total members.

According to Monaghan, some people come not knowing what to expect, then they get hooked meeting new friends and experiencing their faith on a deeper level. At one meeting, Monaghan said someone came up to him and said: “Thank you for having confession. This is the first time I’ve gone in 20 years.”


High Praise From Church Hierarchy

The Catholic hierarchy has taken notice of Legatus.

Even early on in the 1990s, it was called “the most influential lay organization in the Church” by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the first international chaplain from 1988 to 2012. 

During a Legatus papal audience in 1988, Pope John Paul II told the group: “The world needs genuine witnesses to Christian ethics in the field of business, and the Church asks you to fulfill this role publicly and with perseverance.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in a statement for the Register: “From its start, Legatus has been an exemplary source of encouragement and purpose for lay leaders seeking to deepen their experience of Jesus Christ and their Catholic faith. It’s an invaluable collaborator in the mission of the Church.”

Bishop David Kagan was a chaplain for the Rockford, Illinois, chapter for 13 years before being appointed as a bishop in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 2011. He said that he would like to see a chapter start in his diocese.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Legatus,” Bishop Kagan said. He credited it with giving members a deeper perspective on their faith, which then affected how they related to everything from their employees to their families and how they handled their wealth.

“Legatus gets people more actively participating in the sacramental life of the Church,” Bishop Kagan said. “They become excited about living their faith, and that becomes contagious. I’m certain that it is good for the whole Church.” 


Ripple Effect

Lou DiCerbo, chairman and CEO of P.C.P. Benefit Plans Ltd., and his wife, Pat, are members of the New York City chapter. They have belonged to Legatus for 25 years. 

“Legatus has changed my life in many ways,” DiCerbo said. “One big way was when Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the Sisters of Life spoke at a meeting. The Sisters of Life are dedicated to the sacredness of life from conception to natural death. They help thousands of women in crises every year, 24/7.”

DiCerbo became the chairman of their motherhouse committee. “If we ever did research on how individual Legatus members help others, it would be mind-boggling,” he said. “This was Tom’s example and his vision: to get to know our faith better and get on the path to living it. “

Craig Henry is the founder, owner and president of MAS Transportation & Logistics, LLC, based in Lafayette, Louisiana, and managing partner in the Bradford Food Group, a food distribution and bakery company that operates in Mexico and the U.S. He and his wife, Jamie, the parents of three children, joined Legatus in 2013.

“Legatus has literally changed our lives,” Henry said. “We went to Sunday Mass — sometimes — and our kids were in Catholic school, but something was missing. We didn't know what to do with the fruits of our success. And like many lost 40-year-old souls, we weren’t living our Catholic faith as Christ intended.”

After attending their first Legatus Summit in Orlando, Florida, in January 2014, Henry said that he felt reborn. “We learned what the Church stood for and how we could utilize our successes to be true ambassadors for Christ,” he said. “Legatus has focused us on our faith, even with the friends we have, how we raise our kids and run our businesses, and how we view our faith and spread it. It has touched everything in our life.”


Monaghan Also Transformed

In 1989, after Legatus had begun, Monaghan himself was personally transformed. 

When he read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, the chapter on pride struck him. “I always hated a show-off, but suddenly realized that I was the biggest show-off of them all,” he said. He had owned more than 240 classic automobiles, a resort with its own golf course, helicopters, planes and boats — and was always thinking about buying more.

Monaghan disavowed himself of ostentatious luxuries and began investing in Catholic causes, including Ave Maria Radio and the Thomas More Law Center, which is dedicated to defending conservative social and moral issues in court. In 1998, he founded Ave Maria University and Ave Maria Law School as beacons for other Catholic institutions of higher learning and to graduate good Catholics to influence the world.

In March, Monaghan turned 80 and has turned over the reins to all his previous endeavors except for Legatus.  

“Whatever time I have left is going to be spent on Legatus,” he said. The plan, according to him, is for it to double in size in the next few years, then move into Latin America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific Rim, Africa, India and the rest of the world.

“I’m doing this because it’s the best thing I can do to help people get to heaven,” Monaghan said. “All my past experience has contributed to this, and, somehow, at the age of 80, I still have the energy and ability.”


Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.

Editor's Note: At 4:57pm Eastern June 30 this article was updated to correct the

 reference to Young Presidents Organization (not Club).

 The spelling of Lou DiCerbo’s last name was also corrected.