The Legion in Minneapolis-St. Paul:
An Age-Old Conflict
Last October 22, Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul wrote a letter to Fr. Anthony Bannon, US National Director of the Legionaries of Christ. In the letter Flynn forbids Legionary priests to be active in the Archdiocese and orders that the activities of the Legion’s lay Regnum Christi movement be conducted apart from church property. A similar restriction was implemented in Columbus, Ohio in 2002. This is part of a tension between diocesan and religious priests which stretches back nearly a thousand years.
A Parallel Church?
Archbishop Flynn voices the common concern of the diocesan side of the argument when he states that “any group of religious who minister within this local church needs to do so in a way which promotes unity and cooperation. Rather than experiencing such a spirit, our pastors continue to sense that a ‘parallel church’ is being encouraged, one that separates persons from the local parish and archdiocese, and creates competing structures.”
The difficulty with this concern, which is certainly legitimate in theory, is that there can be a great many reasons for this perception of parallelism. Not infrequently over the course of history, the diocesan clergy (often called secular clergy because they are in the world, as opposed to the regular clergy, or religious, who are under a regula or rule)—the diocesan clergy have become lax and, in response to the general secularization which follows, reform movements have arisen in the form of active religious orders.
Such active orders (the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, etc.), operating under their own hierarchy answerable to the Pope, have frequently sent their priests forth to nourish the souls of those who are also under the jurisdiction of parish and diocese. At times, of course, the flow of zeal can go the other way, as religious orders have declined and found themselves in need of reform. In any case, the twin approach to souls that this situation creates is a recipe not only for renewal, but for conflict, jealousy, backbiting and ecclesiastical politics.
The Less Zeal, the More Conflict
These inevitable conflicts can arise from several causes. Certainly there can be misplaced zeal in which the desire to implement one’s own program interferes with the proper respect and collaboration due to others who possess similar responsibilities. Worldly motivations can also play a role, as when ministers become more concerned with their own following than with the good of souls. In addition, there can be both personality conflicts and legitimate misunderstandings. It is astonishing how often our fallenness limits our view of the big picture, skewing our perceptions in favor of our own immediate concerns.
At the same time, it is axiomatic in both the history of the Church and the lives of the saints that the biggest criticisms of those who are zealous come from those in whom zeal has died (or at least gone to sleep). Consider a scenario unquestionably common in our own time: The diocesan clergy in a particular place have become very lax, sometimes not even orthodox in their faith, and along come some well-formed priests from one of the newer religious movements which is still on fire for Jesus Christ. Consider the inevitable differences, indeed the stark contrasts—the near impossibility of serving Christ well without reflecting badly on someone else.
If I were on the wrong side of that, I’d start complaining about a parallel Church. I’d encourage others to grumble, too. I’d repeat everything that made the upstarts look bad. I’d make sure my bishop heard the rumbling discontent. By my own lights, I’d be convinced I was doing the right thing. It would at the very least be difficult for me to see that my negative reaction was partly caused by my own luke-warm spiritual temperature.
At the same time, one has to recognize that young religious movements don’t always have everything worked out yet; they can be guilty of indiscretions. The Legion is very young as religious orders go, and most of its membership is very young. Add to this the fact that, even more than most other new movements, the Legion possesses something very like a Marine Corps mentality. Formation is very strict. Discipline is very high. Recruitment tactics are very aggressive.
Indeed, there is no nonsense about the Legionaries of Christ or their Regnum Christi movement. As a result, their approach has rubbed many the wrong way. The organization has its share of horror stories, detractors and enemies (as, by the way, does every organization firmly committed to Christ). Legionary priests are in many ways the contemporary shock troops of the Church, and it is not inconceivable that sometimes even good people are left hurt in the wake of their work or of their training or of their formation programs.
Not everyone is right for the Legion and the Legion is not right for everyone. The Order undoubtedly has weaknesses. It also has 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians.
Pointing the Finger
So which way should we point the finger of blame? In all the altercations of this kind for which I’ve known the details, there have been pluses and minuses on both sides. (Fortunately, my own perceptions are flawless, which makes me the ideal judge. It is one of the graces of being a columnist.) The point is that we shouldn’t rush to judgment.
Again, precisely this same controversy has been going on since religious orders started engaging in active ministry outside the cloister, and there were battles between bishops and abbots even before that. In a conflict with such a long and venerable history, all parties need to recognize the complexities involved—complexities which are jurisdictional, social, psychological and spiritual. But with continued renewal on all sides, a modus vivendi can be found, so that all ministers of the gospel may work together for the good of souls.
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