Legionaries of Christ: new order for a new millennium

Legionaries of Christ: new order for a new millennium

Peter Westmore

After attending the recent World Congress of Families in Geneva, AD2000's publisher, Peter Westmore, visited the headquarters of the Legion of Christ, a relatively new religious order, in Rome. He was shown over the new seminary run by the Legionaries, the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, which can accommodate about 1000 seminarians. This is his report.

At a time when many dioceses in both the West and developing world are suffering from a lack of vocations to the priesthood, the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ - formed less than 60 years ago - has grown to have over 400 priests and over 2000 seminarians and aspirants to the priesthood throughout the world.

The spectacular growth of the Legionaries of Christ is clear evidence of the continued working of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

The Legionaries, who are renowned for their orthodoxy and loyalty to the Holy Father, have just opened a new seminary in Rome, with a capacity of about 1000 students for the priesthood.

Just as the French Revolution was followed by the formation of a number of new religious congregations in Europe, the Legion of Christ was formed in the shadow of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which led to decades of persecution of the Church.

The founder of the order, Fr Marcial Maciel, was born in Mexico in 1920, during the Cristero rebellion, and entered a seminary in Mexico City in 1936. Five years later, while still a seminarian aged 20, he opened a house of studies for 13 young men, with the support of Bishop Francisco Gonzalez Arias.

Ordained in 1944, Fr Maciel took his first group of seminarians to a Pontifical University in Spain in 1946, to provide them with an adequate formation for their future mission.

In 1950, the Legion opened its first Centre for Higher Studies in Rome, and the first four Legionary priests were ordained in 1952.

From modest beginnings, the Legionaries undertook extensive apostolic work, particularly in Mexico, where they established primary and secondary schools, and other facilities. In 1964, the Anahuac University, directed by Legionaries of Christ, was established in Mexico City.

Later, a seminary was established in Connecticut, in the US, where many students from Latin America, Europe, and even Australia, have studied for the priesthood. Other centres of formation have been established in Western Europe and North and South America.

This phenomenal growth is based on a spirituality in which Jesus Christ is the centre of a Legionary's religious, priestly and apostolic life. They strive to love him in a personal way, imitating him as their only model of holiness.

This fact gives churches conducted by the Legion a somewhat ascetic character, as they have few of the statues which adorn most churches.

At the same time, the Legionaries have a deep filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Mother of the Church. They consecrate their priesthood and apostolic mission to her care. They seek to imitate her virtues: faith, hope, charity, obedience, humility and her co-operation with Christ's plan of redemption.

They seek to love and serve Christ in his Church, the beginning of his Kingdom on earth. Their love of Catholicism brings Legionaries to meditate on the Church in faith, embrace her in obedience, labour for her growth, and make her holy in their lives. They say, "Loving the Church means being in step with the Church, neither ahead nor behind."

Their fidelity to the Church is accompanied by loyalty to the Pope, based on an intense study of his teachings, catechesis, and promotion of his charism of primacy and magisterium.

They seek to co-operate with all bishops in the promotion of their own diocesan programs.


Legionaries of Christ have a 12 year period of formation before ordination, in which intellectual and personal formation are combined. Students are expected to develop a mature, balanced character, in which the virtues of strength and discipline are balanced by generosity and openness to all.

To achieve this, Legionaries undertake some form of apostolic work throughout their years of formation. This involves catechesis of young people or adults; study circles with university students, workers or professional people; and co-operation in parish pastoral programs, charitable organisations, and similar works.

Their spiritual formation is strongly influenced by the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, but after their second year of philosophy, students spend two or three years in some apostolic work, including Regnum Christi, an apostolic movement founded by Fr Maciel, which includes lay men and women.

Pope John Paul II has recently drawn attention to the works of the new apostolic movements in the Church, and strongly endorsed them.

At a time when the Church in the West is suffering from an acute shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the Legionaries of Christ offer clear signs of hope for the future. Fr Maciel has expressed the hope that the Legionaries of Christ will play a role in the re-evangelisation of the United States.

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