What Does the Future Hold for the Legion of Christ?
Exclusive interview with its acting general director, Father Sylvester Heereman.
Legionary Father Sylvester Heereman was born on Sept. 10, 1974, in Bad Neustadt an der Saale, Germany. He joined the novitiate of the Legion of Christ in Germany in 1994, made his first religious vows in 1996 and his perpetual profession in 1999.
He was territorial secretary of Italy from 2001 to 2003 and a member of the formation staff of the Center for Higher Studies in Rome while studying theology. Ordained a priest on Dec. 23, 2006, Father Heereman was named territorial director for Germany in 2007. Not yet 40 years old, he was appointed vicar general of the beleaguered congregation on Feb. 16, 2012, by Cardinal Velasio de Paolis.
Cardinal de Paolis was appointed apostolic delegate to the Legionaries of Christ by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, after alleged sexual abuses regarding the Legion’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel, became public and were acknowledged by the congregation.
Since Oct. 15, 2012, Father Heereman has been the acting general director of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, the lay movement of the Legion. Rome correspondent Edward Pentin interviewed the general director Nov. 13 about the congregation’s disgraced founder, the upcoming general chapter meeting and the future of the Legionaries of Christ.
What is the current situation in the Legionaries of Christ, and how are you planning for the general chapter in January?
The general chapter has three main tasks, which can only be finished at the chapter. First, it will have to elect a new government. Secondly, we’ll have to discuss and present to the Holy See the new constitutions, and that’s after a three-year process, which involved the participation of all Legionaries in the revision process. Lastly, we’ll have to sum up the experience of the last eight years, the whole crisis with the founder and how we’ve been living it and overcoming it and where we stand now with regards to the whole institutional experience.
So those will be the three main topics of the chapter. Right now, the provincials are preparing their reports to submit to the chapter, containing how those different issues impact their areas of responsibility. We are doing the same thing here: trying to sum up the main events of the last years and the things that have already been changed through the interventions of the apostolic delegate. We intend to make visible to everybody what has already been changed and decisions that still need to be taken.
So the general situation among the Legionaries is one of expectation, both in the sense of joyful expectation and also in a “let’s get this over with” sort of way. This will surely be a fruitful and blessed moment, but like all things in life, there’s apprehension about what’s going to happen. So there are mixed feelings.
Some argue that, in view of the extent of Father Maciel’s misdeeds, those closest to him must have known.
Personally, I’m too young to have really lived those years. When I joined, he was already 74. But, certainly, that was the mistake of an institution, because an institution needs to control its leaders. There was really no institutional control of his whereabouts because of naive trust all those years.
How much was due to the constitution and ethos of the Legion — that you weren’t allowed to criticize the head, and he had an authoritarian mystique about him that prevented legitimate criticism?
That’s probably part of the mix. There was a very strong deference towards the superiors in general, much more so to the founder. And we always trusted, thinking that an aspect of charity is to not speak badly of people, and that was applied also very much to the superiors. That’s probably part of it. But I don’t think that’s the main cause.
Then there’s the question of knowing about something, but [something] which you’re not responsible for. What do you do with that knowledge when you’re not above that person? That’s a very difficult thing. I’m sure some knew some aspects and just didn’t know what to do about it.
The old constitutions had more than 800 elements, and the new one will have approximately 200. What would you point to as key changes that illustrate the significance of these changes?
The basic principle of the constitutions’ revision was to leave in only the essential elements, the major principles, but allow for adaptation, flexibility and creativity in the living of it. The old constitutions were in the spirit of the old canon law and maybe also influenced by the founder’s mentality of tending to be too controlling, to kind of impose a certain way of sanctity.
The old constitutions were very detailed, so the Holy See said: “Identify what are the essential principles, and take out everything that may be licit and valid but should be in secondary codes or books or shouldn’t even be regulated.”
So the new constitutions have principles of formation but not concrete methods. They have the principles of administration but not the concrete processes and methods. They have the general duties of the superior but not the way he should implement them.
On the content side, the new constitution is updated in the whole area of exercise of authority, which was one of the big areas that the Holy Father, after the apostolic visitation (a Vatican investigation of the institution conducted in 2009), indicated.
As you mentioned, there was a strong authoritarian element in our vision, which is one of the things that has changed the most.
What do you say to the argument that this is such a unique case, in that this is a congregation solely founded by Father Marcial Maciel and so closely tied to him that it needs to start from scratch?
In the end, whether there is a real charism is not our call, but the Church’s call, and that’s been: Yes, there is a charism.
Benedict XVI, when he named the apostolic delegate in 2010 and spoke about the real call that is there — the authentic core of the charism that needs to be preserved — that’s the Church’s call. It’s also my experience that there’s something real here, and that’s what we’re trying to build on, while, at the same time, having to face up to that contradiction. Precisely in that contradiction there’s also a message that maybe we haven’t fully understood, and maybe we never will. Certainly, it’s helped us to grow in humility. For me, it has meant not putting trust in myself, my perfection or in presenting a perfect way of being Christian, but to know that human life is extremely contradictory, that there’s so much brokenness in this world.
We’re called to bring the Gospel right there, kind of what Pope Francis has been saying: that there’s no life so destroyed that God would be separated from it.
A 2010 communiqué from the Holy See Press Office mentioned three main elements should be looked at, one of which was clarification of the charism. Some say they’re not sure what the charism has been; others have said it just seems to be fundraising. What is your response to that accusation?
[Laughs] We haven’t been doing very well, have we?
Let me just say one thing about the theory of charisms. One of the fruits of this experience is that we’ve all had to go deeper into what the nature of a charism is in a congregation or in a group of people. Pope John Paul II, in Vita Consecrata, says that at the core of a charism there is a certain aspect of the Gospel. Obviously, we’re all called to live the whole Gospel, but the different charisms of the Church live and show the Gospel from one aspect of Christ’s mystery. That aspect of the mystery of Christ inspires a spirituality, a way of relating to God — a mission, a way of relating to the world and what you’re called to do — and inspires a type of community. You need all four aspects to understand the charism.
In our case, at the core of the charism is the Christ of public life, who says the Kingdom of God is at hand: the message that the love of God has come into the world and is about to reign because it has power over death, sin, and is stronger than anything else.
So we look at Christ and our spirituality as a relationship with that living Christ, who teaches that message, shows it, and from that perspective, we strive to live the whole Gospel, love the Church as he did, love Mary as he did, but with that perspective that the power of the love of God is the Kingdom and that that love of God is witnessed by giving our life. The spirituality part is very simple — it’s about a relationship with Christ.
The mission is to let us draw ourselves to the mission of proclaiming that truth, very specifically trying to do something Christ did, involving other people in the mission of Christ. By calling and forming apostles, in our apostolic mission, we do many things. We work with youth, families and schools, but the common idea in all of them is to awaken in Christians the call to the apostolate, to let them be involved in Christ’s mission.
And then the community — and that’s a very important aspect that may not be well known in public opinion. Our charism is not just the Legion of Christ, but there’s a wider spiritual family, Regnum Christi. So that charism inspires a type of community that has different families in it — the Legionaries of Christ, consecrated men and women of Regnum Christi, laypeople who live in the world — that together try to serve the Church from where they are, to serve that charism to proclaim the Kingdom of Christ, the victory of God’s love, through their testimony, but also through concrete apostolic action, by becoming apostles themselves together. And that togetherness of the community is one of the aspects that puts us in continuity with this whole development of the Church in the last 100 years — the lay apostolate. It’s not just the clergy, but we’re all the people of God and trying to fulfill his mission.
How many priestly ordinations have you had in the midst of these challenges, and how many priests have you lost?
The number of Legionary priests who have left the congregation from 2010 to Nov. 14, 2013, is 84 — 33 in 2010, 18 in 2011, nine in 2012 and 24 so far this year. The number of priests ordained those same years is up: 60, 62, 49 and around 30 expected for this year. Figures for religious in formation — those who are not yet priests — who left the Legion are: 147, 169 and 123. Data for 2013 is not yet available, but my guess is that it is about 100.
Most of these requests to leave the Legion are a consequence of the natural process of discernment of a vocation. Some had to do with the crisis and the renewal process.
Our latest stats sent to the Holy See correspond to Dec. 31, 2012: bishops, 3; priests, 953; religious and novices, 932; students in minor seminary, 945. At the moment, we have 109 houses in 22 countries. Members include 38 different nationalities.
Father Deomar de Guedes, a general counselor and senior figure in the Legion, left recently. It seemed he wanted to leave completely but was persuaded not to. What were the reasons behind this?
He was very specific in saying he wasn’t leaving definitively. He asked for exclaustration but not incardination in the diocese. I myself was surprised. He was a friend, and I would have preferred him to stay. He’s been a good element, very active and passionate about the renewal. He was clear in his letter, and when he spoke to the brothers here, he said that he’s leaving because he’s tired. Why is he tired? Because he feels it’s not going fast enough. But he’s not leaving because he doesn’t have hope for the reform, but because he doesn’t have the strength to be living under the pressure of seeing things that maybe he would like to do and the time has not yet come.
Because Father Maciel went on for so many years deceiving people, does that imply incompetence, and if so, what mechanisms have been put in place to stop that from happening again?
More than incompetence. It was probably naiveté, and that is hard to imagine if you’ve not lived it. It doesn’t come naturally to question and control your general superior, and much less your founder.
The concrete mechanism is to control the personal spending of the general director, transparency of his agenda — Where does he go? What does he do? — and then the constant cooperation with the council. We’ve woken up from the view that just because he’s a superior, he’s a holy man. Nobody thinks like that anymore.
Is there going to be a clear break from Maciel’s past? What will be the new vision?
Personally, I think the whole challenge is between continuity and newness.
The newness will be very evident in the constitution, because it’s much more essential. The way authority is exercised today is very different from the way it was.
The whole role of the founder is now very different. Already in 2010, the general director made a clear statement that he is not a model, and that even as a founder, whatever he proposed as a founder, is under the Church’s discernment. So we will not be referring to him as the infallible source of our charism. All those elements change what we understand of ourselves, also the fact we understand now much better than before that the charism is the property of the Church, not the founder. But every generation of Legionaries is the bearer of that charism, and it’s the current generation who needs to understand how it is to be lived today and to live that in constant dialogue with the Church.
Some say you haven’t really acknowledged the suffering caused in the past. How true is this?
I don’t think it’s true. [Former general director] Father [Alvaro] Corcuera apologized several times, and then on March 25, 2010, there was a statement signed by the general director, counselors and all the provincials recognizing the basic elements.
At the same time, I agree that it is probably not enough. The chapter will have to go back over that and reaffirm, maybe in a clearer and stronger way, those issues. I think we also need to accept the fact that you never do enough to reach out to the people who suffered.
We need to be grateful for the ones who have spoken up, who for many years we didn’t believe — we just didn’t believe them. They insisted, and we insisted back; and, surely, we added suffering to their suffering with that. And so we need to recognize that and be grateful for their courage to speak up.
As far as recognizing the founder’s sins and misdeeds, I would also say that among Legionaries and Regnum Christi members in the whole world, this is not a taboo at all. Everyone is aware of the essential elements.
To write an independent institutional history of that will have to happen, and we will cooperate with that when the time comes. For now, our responsibility is to secure the archives and create a system, making sure history can be written when the time comes.
Have those who were closest to him — former Vicar General Father Luis Garza, Father Corcuera, former U.S. territorial director Father Anthony Bannon — been fully questioned about how much they knew?
We know their testimonies, but they’re from recent history. Our founder began the congregation in 1941. They come into the picture with responsibilities after he was in his 60s and 70s.
In our culture, he was the founder, a holy man; and, obviously, they’re older than me. When they started to take responsibility as formators or working with him, like Father Garza — he was already the unquestionable founder — and they say, I believe them absolutely, because of the way the founder lived, that they did not know. More so, Father Garza was instrumental in bringing things to light in the years after the new governing council came in 2005. I know there’s lots of distrust towards them, but, personally, I believe what they say. They didn’t know about the double life.
Are any of the people who were closest to Father Maciel still in positions of leadership?
Father Garza is territorial director of the United States — so yes, because no one has ever accused him of anything concrete. One of the important principles in this is also that Cardinal de Paolis made it clear from the beginning: “Any allegation I will investigate, but I can’t go about investigating people just like that.” It’s both against canon and civil law. So they have never been accused of any misdeeds.
What gives you optimism and hope for the future of the Legion of Christ?
This whole process of purification and changing the mentality in areas where it is necessary is not done pushing a button. It’s a process. I think, in general, the vast majority of Legionaries have been able to get into this whole process of opening our minds, of accepting criticism. But there’s obviously still tension about those things, about the founder, what should change or not change.
I’m very confident that, in general, we’re walking together and precisely learning to live that tension, which is a new thing for us. The founder seemed strong and kind of infallible. We’re not used to seeing that this wasn’t true, so you can see that as a positive thing. But, still, it’s not easy.
We have struggles agreeing on the essentials, but this is normal. Having said that, I think we’re moving forward, and I trust that — especially a chapter where you bring priests from all over the world, all kinds of generations, experiences, also a prayerful atmosphere — will certainly be a blessed moment.
We will also be able to give a strong message of identity and also of renewal to the whole congregation, and that will help us. We will make sure everyone has read up on the founder and all of that, but also be able to turn the page.