Pope begins reform of Legionaries of Christ

VATICAN CITY — In initial steps toward reforming the Legionaries of Christ, Pope Benedict will name a personal delegate with authority over the order and a commission to study its constitutions, the Vatican said today.

In a lengthy statement, the Vatican indicated that the Legionaries would need to undergo very deep changes, including a redefinition of the order’s religious charism and a revision of the way authority is exercised among its members.

While the pope will have the final word on whatever changes are eventually imposed, one Vatican source said after seeing today’s statement: “It looks like they are calling for a refoundation of the order.”

The pope met Friday with the five bishops who conducted a visitation of the Legionaries’ institutions over the last year. They visited almost all the order’s religious houses and most of its pastoral institutions, meeting with more than 1,000 Legionaries.

The Vatican emphasized what it said was a high degree of sincerity and cooperation shown by the Legionaries, and said the visitators encountered many young priests who were “exemplary, honest and full of talent.”

The Vatican statement castigated the Legionaries’ founder, the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who had been found to have fathered children and sexually abused seminarians. His “most grave and objectively immoral conduct” calls for “a path of profound revision” in the order, the Vatican statement said.

It said Father Maciel committed “true crimes” that reflected “a life devoid of scruples and of authentic religious sentiment.” Most Legionaries didn’t know about his conduct because Father Maciel was able to skillfully “create alibis and obtain the trust, confidence and silence of those around him,” it said.

Most Legionaries, because of their “sincere zeal,” believed that accusations against Father Maciel could only be lies, it said.

The Vatican said the visitation highlighted three primary requirements:

— The need to “redefine the charism” of the Legionaries of Christ, preserving “the true nucleus, that of ‘militia Christi’ (the army of Christ), which distinguishes the apostolic and missionary action of the church.”

— The need to revise the exercise of authority in the order, in a way that “respects the conscience” and is closely connected with truth.

— The need to preserve the enthusiasm and missionary zeal of younger members through adequate formation.

“In fact, the disappointment about the founder could place in question the vocation and that nucleus of charism that belongs particularly to the Legionaries of Christ,” it said.

The Vatican said the pope wanted to assure the Legionaries and members of the order’s lay movement, Regnum Christi, that “they will not be left on their own” and that the church will “accompany them and help them on the path of purification that awaits them.”

Part of that path, it said, is a reaching out to those inside and outside the order who were “victims of the sexual abuse and of the system of power put in place by the founder.”

“To them at this moment go the thoughts and prayers of the Holy Father, together with gratitude for those among them who, in the face of great difficulty, had the courage and the constancy to demand the truth,” it said.

As for future steps, the statement said the pope has “reserved to himself” those decisions, beginning with the naming of his delegate and the commission to study the order’s constitutions. He will also name a visitator for the Regnum Christi movement, at their request.