Can John Paul II’s trust in the founder of the Legion of Christ nullify the Pope’s holiness?
Divine Mercy Sunday 2014 will be remembered because of the historic canonization of two popes on this date: John XXIII, the Good Pope, and John Paul II the Great. The canonization date was not chosen randomly. John Paul II himself instituted the feast of Divine Mercy during a visit to the site where Saint Faustina shared the request she received from the Lord to promote his Divine Mercy. John Paul II was a fond devout of Divine Mercy. The Lord would grant him years later to die and enter into Heaven exactly on Divine Mercy Sunday vigil, the beginning of the feast. For these reasons it is impossible to try to dissociate the life, death and entrance into heaven of the new saint from our Lord’s Divine Mercy.
The beatification decree was issued after acknowledging formally that a miracle had been performed under the intercession of John Paul II, servant of God. The advanced Parkinson of sister Marie Simon Pierre Normand was unexpectedly healed after asking John Paul II for his intercession. Years later, the canonization decree was issued after acknowledging that the brain aneurism affecting Floribeth Mora was instantly healed with no medical or scientific explanation. This happened after praying for the intercession of now blessed John Paul II on May 1st, 2011, right on the day he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.
Alas, we see how in spite of the overwhelming joy in the Church around the world, several Catholics and non Catholics complain or at least doubt about the validity of the canonization of the Polish pope, affirming he protected Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ.
Marcial Maciel had earned Pope John Paul II’s trust. Maciel founded the Legion of Christ and of the Regnum Christi movement in 1941 and 1951 (originally, the Legion of Christ was named by Maciel “Missionaries of the Sacred Hear and the Virgin of Sorrows”). But he was accused in the nineties of having sexually abused seminarians. In addition, the Legionaries acknowledged publicly in 2009 that Maciel had had at least one woman and some children. We also know he was addicted to dolantine, a morphine derivative. Pope Benedict XVI sentenced Maciel in 2006 to a life of silence and penance, away forever from any exercise of his priestly ministry. A little after one year later, in January 2008, Marcial Maciel died.
The moral harm provoked by Maciel was immense. He caused sexual damage to some. To some others, he left in their soul the same pain suffered by a child who discovers his father has been unfaithful to his wife. Some left the Legion and the Regnum Christi. A few -very few- abandoned priesthood. Yet, in the other hand the priestly order and movement founded by Maciel were bearing abundant fruit and doing good to thousands of people through their work in schools and missions in several countries. If all Christian life is a chiaroscuro with lights and shadows, Maciel’s life was painted in black and white.
Recently the Legion of Christ concluded an extensive process of renovation prescribed by Benedict XVI. Their constitutions were reviewed and renewed with Pope Francis’ final approval, marking a new chapter in the history of the Legionaries, this time with no connection to their founder, Maciel. Since long ago, the General Director of the Legionaries, Fr. Álvaro Corcuera at the time, had ordered the Legionaries and consecrated men and women of the Regnum Christi to remove all pictures from Maciel from their houses, schools and all facilities. Also, they received the order to refrain from publishing any writing from Maciel. We know now he also plagariazed some spiritual writings, which published as his own.
There are many who cannot understand how come Pope John Paul II didn’t take action againts Maciel early enough. Even worse, they cannot understand how the Pope could trust so highly someone who his successor, Benedict XVI, qualified as a “false prophet” (Seewald, P., Light of the world).
In reality, understanding why John Paul II trusted Marcial Maciel is not complicated. Their first contact took place back in 1979 when the recently appointed Pope was making plans to join the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) who would gather in Puebla, Mexico. For Pope John Paul, it was a top priority making that trip, but at the time Mexico did not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican State, which prevented the Pope from traveling to Mexico as a Head of State. It was Maciel himself who reached out to the mother of Mexico’s president José López Portillo. She convinced her son of allowing the Pope to make the trip, opening the doors to what would become the very first trip of John Paul II. It was in Mexico where he appreciated the potential of visiting every country as pastor of the Catholic Church, becoming the first “pilgrim Pope”.
Besides, Maciel had founded the Legion of Christ. A very orthodox priestly order, totally obedient to the Pope and faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. A flourishing order with increasing vocations year over year. In addition, Maciel had founded the Regnum Christi movement. John Paul II was a big sponsor of the sanctification of the lay faithful and this movement was indeed a good means to achieve this purpose. The schools of the Legionaries were providing very high quality Catholic education to thousands of students around the world, from pre-school to college. And all this work had been started by Marcial Maciel. Why would Pope John Paul have a reason not to trust him?
Something of particular importance to understand this matter, is the undeniable reality of the constant persecution to the Catholic Church. In early times, christians were cruely persecuted and put to death by the Roman Empire. In our times, the Church is persecuted through communication mass media by means of a very obvious tactic: seeking ways to discredit its moral authority. The moral strenght of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel is a hurdle to the selfish interests of many. The best way to harm the church -many think- is making people doubt and distrust. It becomes necessary making public any negative conduct of a priest or Bishop. And when this is not possible, it is common to present to audiences manipulated information in an effort to slander good priests and bishops.
Slandering cardinals, bishops, and reknown priests is common. Accusing priests and bishops of crimes they never committed happens also frequently. Pope John Paul II was well aware of this reality. Not only because he himself was subject of persecution and espionage as the Archbishop of Krakow, when government would place hidden microphones in his confessional. But also, because first as a Bishop and then as a pope, he was aware of unfounded accusations made with the intention to discredit those who strive to build the Kingdom of God. Both the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi worked earnestly to build the Kingdom of God on Earth when the first accusations against Maciel became public. Why would the Pope doubt about Maciel?
It is impossible to disregard as well the Pope’s very heavy workload. We all know John Paull II spent very long hours working every day, even at a very advanced age. The number of matters a pope has to attend is overwhelming. Time for John Paul II, was never enough. For this reason, the majority of the work has to be delegated to the dicasteries in the Vatican. A pope cannot attend personally every accusation against a priest that is submitted to the Holy See. The responsibility to handle the matter in question belonged to the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, whose prefect at the time was Card. Joseph Ratzinger.
In Light of the world, the book-interview by Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that in fact, this matter was handled slowly and lately. However, he explains this happened because somehow, everything was very well concealed. And it was not until 2,000 that the Congregation had finally solid evidence of what had only been mere accusations up to that point.
No one can proceed against anyone without real evidence. And as I mentioned before, false accusations against priests is part of the ordinary life of the Catholic Church. Without a doubt, this made matters more complicated and explains in a big part the lack of a disciplinary action against Maciel by John Paul II for so long.
Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki, corresponsal at the Vatican since the late seventies, wrote a book titled John Paul II's eternal light). The book presents an explanation about the ways the Pope lived each of the cardinal and theological virtues along his life: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. This becomes a summary of the Pope’s “heroic life of virtue”. Proving the heroic life of virtue of a servant of God is a due step in his beatification process. Alazraki’s book is based on her interview to Msgr. Sławomir Oder, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as promotor of the cause of beatification -and later of canonization- of John Paul II.
In “John Paul II’s Eternal Light”, Msgr. Oder explains Maciel’s case was analyzed as part of of the investigation around the holiness of the Pope. He concludes that indeed, no culpability is found in John Paul II, who trusted a man that in reality, was deceiving him. Sławomir Oder explains that Pope John Paul II had the tendency to blindly trust people. Hence, in different occasions he entrusted important responsibilities to people who ended up betraying him: “During the beatification process it was determined that, in fact, John Paul II delegated a good part of the curia’s internal government to the Secretariat of State. In several occasions, following the advise of some of his closest collaborators, he gave important appointments to people in reality unworthy from a moral perspective, or not apt given their limited skills. Theologians concluded that a beatification candidate is not a super man with no defects or mistakes and that a pope is not an infallible executive in the Church. The pope is only infallible in relation to doctrinal decisions concerning faith and morals.” Msgr. Oder reveals that for John Paul II, it was very upsetting to find out that someone had betrayed him: “If they have lied to me, they have lost already. It is not I who leads the Church, but Jesus Christ.”
John Paul II trusted Marcial Maciel, whose Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi made immense good to many people, but whose double life provoked also an immense moral harm to those he abused and to those who trusted him, loved him, and regarded him as “our father”.
In any case, the culpability does not lie in the one who trusted Maciel, based on the fruit of his apostolic works. Rather, in addition to Maciel’s crimes, he is guilty of having deceived the pope himself. He is guilty of having betrayed, among many others, John Paul II, who had trusted him fully. Certainly, a sad episode in the history of the Catholic Church. But nothing new after all -Jesus himself was betrayed by one of his beloved disciples, in exchange of 30 silver coins.
John Paul II’s goodness is unquestionable. From that goodness sprouted the ability of trusting everyone beyond being able of thinking bad of anyone. Maciel knew how to take advantage of this goodness
John Paul II’s holiness fame impelled the faithful to display banners during his funerals claiming in Italian “Santo subito!” declaring him an instant saint. At the end of the day, John Paul II’s holiness guarantee does not require any explanation or justification whatsoever. Whoever saw Pope John Paul II with his own eyes, even for just an instant passing by the streets in his popemobile, felt deep in his heart the presence of God, coming out from the Pope himself. A powerful feeling impossible to explain, but vividly blunt and undeniable. It is there, in the heart of people, where the truth of God makes its dwelling. In those millions of hearts which vibrated as eyes saw a saint riding a popemobile.
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About this Blog
Posts written by Mauricio I. Pérez, award-winning Catholic journalist and best-selling author.