Building on the Ruins of the Old Me: why I left the Legionaries of Christ

When I realized I had to leave the Legion of Christ, the floor was ripped right out of my life.

Everything on which I had based my very identity was called into question.  I had become a member of this religious order at fifteen, before having completed high school, and my past seven years had been completely dedicated to learning how to spend the rest of my life as a priest in the Legion.  Now with the fundamental direction of my life suddenly in question, I found myself incapable of the most routine activities of my day; classes, community prayer, mealtimes.  There was no point anymore.

I believe that a person’s vocation is the central kernel of their existence.  Your identity is built around your purpose in life.  God exists outside of time, and he calls you into being in one eternal moment: the whole you, from beginning to end.  And when God calls your name out of the nothingness, he does it for a reason.  I thought I’d found this reason.  For seven years I lived my life for this reason, and then one day, my certainty was gone.

Without my priestly vocation, I was faced once again with the most fundamental questions.  Looking in the mirror I had to ask: who are you, Luke?  Why are you here?

Eight months later I’m still building on the ruins of who I was.  I don’t mean to sound melodramatic or depressing; I’m actually quite a joyful person.  The truth is simply the truth: my identity crumbled and now I’m building a new one.

By now you may be asking: well, Luke, if your vocation to the priesthood was so central to your identity, why did you have to leave the Legion all of a sudden? That would be a very fair question.  I have two answers.  I had known in my heart for some time that I wasn’t cut out for religious life, but I had been afraid to face the facts, choosing rather to view that nagging realization as a temptation against my vocation.  The second reason is that the Legion I had fallen in love with and joined was changing before my eyes.  I had signed on for one thing, and it was becoming something else.

Let me make something clear.  I am still in contact with many Legionary priests and seminarians, and I do not subscribe to the brainwashing, cult accusations leveled at the order.  As someone genuinely concerned for the future of Christianity, Catholicism and the religious life, I would like to share my experience as a Legionary seminarian in all it’s detail, including the personal struggles I had with certain aspects of the Legion’s formation and methodology.

When I read or hear some of the horror stories about excessive control, brainwashing and repression that come from certain former Legionaries, I think of certain moments of difficulty I had, and how easy it would be to tell those stories in terms that would horrify anyone out of context.  If I wanted to, I could use all the right words to push all the right media-hype buttons.  What I would much rather do is something productive, i.e. tell my story exactly as it happened and let you judge the Legion of Christ for yourselves.

This is something I wanted to do back in the Legion, but couldn’t, because I wasn’t allowed internet access to have a blog.  Maybe this is a little piece of the new me…part of my new purpose in life.

A few days before I left the seminary, I wrote these words in my journal:

I believe that:

1. One day I will look at all my present goals and say I fulfilled them.

2. On that day I will make new ones.

3. one day everything will work out.

4. I am a survivor.

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An Inquiring Mind
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10 Responses to Building on the Ruins of the Old Me: why I left the Legionaries of Christ

  1. Anonymous says:

    My two biggest gripes I have to this day are 1) the way I was constantly told that I had a vocation to the priesthood and any sort of ulterior consideration was to go against God’s will, and 2) the way we were taught to venerate Maciel, a “living saint”.
    It’s not something I need to get over or anything, it’s just a fact of the way I was affected by them that I’ll always have a problem with. I can hope that it will only get better from here on out, but the lesson I learned from it is that I shouldn’t take anything for granted.

  2. I know where you are coming from… I entered the Legion later in life than you did (I was almost 19 yrs old), but I stayed much longer too (19 years). I left because I was sure it God’s will for me to do so, but it was incredibly difficult to make that decision. I did feel called to religious life, and felt I was suited to it, but remaining in the Legion was going to cost me my spiritual, emotional, and possibly mental health. It seemed to me that the congregation I thought I had joined turned out to be a myth. The founder I had been taught to venerate and imitate as a holy man was a deeply disturbed person who lived a life of deception, manipulation, and dissolution. The history of the Legion that I had studied was riddled with lies and half-truths. I no longer knew for sure what the founder had written and what he hadn’t (it was admitted that one of his books was mostly plagiarized and that many of “his” letters, even supposedly personal ones, were written by other people). My superiors had always said that we would do whatever the Pope asked – or even only desired – promptly and obediently, and I saw that it was not true by the way we handled the matter of spiritual direction, and the private vows, and the spin that was given to the Vatican communiqué. Almost worse, we were not allowed to talk about the situation openly or discuss it honestly among ourselves. Many Legionaries seemed to be in total denial. Etc…. In short, my world was turned upside-down, and I felt profoundly betrayed. I realized that God was not giving me the grace of internal peace in the Legion anymore. To preserve my sanity, I had to go.
    At the same time, I still have a great respect and personal appreciation for the vast majority of Legionaries, who are good men sincerely striving to serve God. I had many good experiences in the Legion, and was very enriched in some ways, but also see that – as the Vatican communiqué pointed out – there are also serious problems that need to be addressed. Those systemic problems in the Legion have had an impact on my own formation and my life; it will take a long time to get things straightened out.
    My perception of my call to the priesthood pre-dates my knowledge of the Legion, and I continue to serve as a priest. However, as you said, the Legion gave us a very clear picture of who we were supposed to be, far beyond the basic priestly vocation. Now that I have left that behind, I also – like you – am trying to rebuild my identity, but within the parameters of my priesthood, which has given me an anchor and some stability. On one hand, it’s kind of exciting, but on the other, it’s a real challenge.

  3. anonymous says:

    You say “I do not subscribe to the brainwashing, cult accusations leveled at the order”. But you also say that you were not allowed internet access. That seems a contradiction. Maybe a minor one, maybe, but my suggestion is that you think more about such contradictions, while at the same time learn more about cults, more about fundamental freedoms humans have and cannot give away to others. And at some point you will get the big picture, and understand that although it is all about appreciations and nothing is black and white, overall it is a cult.

  4. Fr. Cristian Borgono, L.C. says:

    Luke: Congratulations for your openheartedness, I think the clarity you show will help you a lot to rebuild your identity. Just wanted to comment this: the very things the Pope asked to be changed in the Legion are those that open the possibility for brainwashing. Brainwashing is the result of a mixture of structural flaws and the will of brainwashing which is nothing less that limiting your free will (will which obviously was present in Fr. Maciel). What you have just said about your vocation story is a form of brainwashing because the Legion never gave you the possibility to truly discern it, precisely because of its structural damage and eventually poor formation or negligence from Legionary superiors. If you where present at Fr. Ghirlanda’s conference in Rome you will perfectly know what I’m talking about.

  5. A. Navarro says:

    Fr Borgono, could you please share some points of fr. Ghirlanda’s conference, or direct us to some link to find out more about it?

    • Fr. Cristian Borgono, L.C. says:

      Right now it is only a document for internal use in the Legion. But the doctrine he shared with us can be found in his books. Nevertheless, the main statement is that it is the individual`s resposability to discern his own vocation with the assitance of his spiritual director. The role of superiors is not to tell the seminarian is he has or has not a vocation, as they did in the Legion till months ago, but to be sure that there are no objective signs against a true vocation.

      • Josué Rivas says:

        Fr Borgoño, thanks a lot for your sincerity and good will. I know that many of the LC’s that are reasonably upset with what has happened would have leaked the document, but you don’t and that shows your true willingness for change. Thanks a lot for your testimony!

  6. Luke. Thank you for starting this blog. It will be a very healing experience, I’m sure. It was for me (I found a way to hack the LC internet filter and post my blog while still in the Legion. There is still so much more I would like to tell, but my new assignment as Pastor of a Parish leaves little time to write.
    Like Fr Matthew said above and is true for me, “My perception of my call to the priesthood pre-dates my knowledge of the Legion”. Don’t close the door on the priesthood yet. The Legion has no copyright to what God inspires in our souls. Find a good spiritual director in the true sense of the word and seek guidance. Above all, seek the truth, it truly sets us free.
    Try to stay focused on relating your story on this blog. It is so easy to get side-swiped, especially when you read the comments. Don’t let them sway you. Stay focused. Tell your story.

  7. Danny says:

    Luke, Thanks for putting this out there. I’ve just found myself in a similar situation during the summer while studying philosophy in Rome. I found the exact same question. When all this falls apart around you, who are you? What is your identity? For me, the complex struggle led to a simple answer – I’m me, who I am, a child of God. There’s more to it, but I think everyone needs to discover God telling them that in prayer to have security in it, rooted in that experience of the Maker calling his creation by name. In the end, he’s the one who knows who we really are, the only one who can tell us.

    But we can all help each other find him, and I think by telling your story, putting words to things like only you can, is going to help a lot of us answer those questions for ourselves. I really appreciate you doing that, because at the moment I don’t have the heart to try, and for me a lot of things remain unanswered, most especially the bitterness and rebellion of some who walked this road with us and hold their entire experience to be corrupt.

    Count on my prayers! Hope to see you sometime!

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