INTERVIEW WITH FR. SYLVESTER HEEREMAN
NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER – Nov. 13, 2013, Rome
This is the full, unedited version of an interview that appeared in the Register 19 December 2013
Fr. Sylvester Heereman, L.C. was born on September 10, 1974 in Bad Neustadt an der Saale, Germany. He joined the novitiate of the Legion of Christ in Germany in 1994; made his first religious vows in 1996 and his perpetual profession in 1999. Was territorial secretary of Italy from 2001 to 2003; member of the formation staff of the Center for Higher Studies in Rome while studying theology. Ordained a priest on December 23, 2006. In 2007 he was named territorial director for Germany. He was appointed vicar general of the Congregation on February 16, 2012 by Card. Velasio De Paolis. From October 15, 2012 he is the acting general director of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi Movement.
What is the current situation in the Legionaries of Christ and how are you planning for the General Chapter in January?
The General Chapter has three main tasks which can only be finished at the Chapter. First, it will have to elect a new government. Secondly, we’ll have to discuss and present to the Holy See the new constitutions and that’s after a three year process which involved the participation of all legionaries in the revision process. Lastly, we’ll have to sum up the experience of the last eight years, the whole crisis with the founder and how we’ve been living it and overcoming it and where we stand now with regards the whole institutional experience. So those will be the three main topics of the Chapter. Right now, the Provincials are preparing their reports to submit to the Chapter containing how those different issues impact their areas of responsibility. We are doing the same thing here: trying to sum up the main events of the last years and the things that have already been changed through the interventions of the Apostolic Delegate: We intend to make visible to everybody what has already been changed and decisions that still need to be taken.
So the general situation among the Legionaries is one of expectation, both in the sense of joyful expectation and also in a “let’s get this over with” sort of way. This will surely be a fruitful and blessed moment, but like all things in life, there’s apprehension about what’s going to happen. So there are mixed feelings.
What is it about the Legionary ethos of the past that has brought about so many problems concerning communication, clarity and truthfulness?
The first answer to that concerns the founder. The vast majority of Legionaries really was unaware of his misdeeds and so when they came to light, the shock was very big for all of us. And when you’re still trying to digest the truth, it’s very hard to be communicating it, right? That’s kind of what happened, in very few words.
Some argue that, in view of the extent of his misdeeds, those closest to him must have known.
Personally I’m too young to have really lived those years. When I joined, he was already 74. But certainly that was the mistake of an institution; because an institution needs to control their leaders, There was really no institutional control of his whereabouts because of naïve trust all those years.
How much was due to the constitution and ethos of the Legion, that you weren’t allowed to criticise the head, and he had an authoritarian streak about him that prevented legitimate criticism?
That’s probably part of the mix. There was a very strong deference towards the superiors in general, much more so to the founder. And we always trusted, thinking that an aspect of charity is to not speak badly of people and that was applied also very much to the superiors. That’s probably part of it. But I don’t think that’s the main cause. Then there’s the question of knowing about something but which you’re not responsible for. What do you do with that knowledge when you’re not above that person? That’s a very difficult thing. I’m sure some knew some aspects and just didn’t know what to do about it.
The old constitutions had over 800 elements and the new one will have approximately 200. What would you point to as key changes that illustrate the significance of these changes?
The basic principle of the constitutions’ revision was to leave in only the essential elements, the major principles, but allow for adaptation, flexibility and creativity in the living of it. The old constitutions were in the spirit of the old canon law and maybe also influenced by the founder’s mentality of tending to be too controlling, to kind of impose a certain way of sanctity. The old constitutions were very detailed so the Holy See said: “Identify what are the essential principles and take out everything that maybe licit and valid but should be in secondary codes or books, or shouldn’t even be regulated.” So the new constitutions have principles of formation but not concrete methods. They have the principles of administration but not the concrete processes and methods. They have the general duties of the superior but not the way he should implement them.
So all this should allow for more flexibility and being stronger on what’s essential, to become more human in a sense, on things that are secondary. That’s the main change in the constitution. On the content side, the new constitution is updated in the whole area of exercise of authority which was one of the big areas that the Holy Father, after the apostolic visitation, indicated. Those elements were present in the old constitution but kind of tangled up with things that were an obstacle. So what are those elements? The importance of the councils, the general council needs to be very close to the general director and have a strong role in decision making. The same is true on a territorial and local levels for the respective councils. Then there’s the principle of participation of the whole congregation in making decisions. So now, for example, when we nominate superiors, the people who will be governed by him are consulted. Now we consult people about their own nominations, not because there’s no obedience anymore, but really to seek together with the member what’s best for him and for the congregation. As you mentioned, there was a strong authoritarian element in our vision which is one of the things that has changed the most.
Having had the founder of the congregation come into such disrepute, why not just re-found it, change the name and start over, but keep the structures?
In the end, refounding is just a word. You might say we’re refounding. Personally, I think the whole challenge is between continuity and newness. If we were to start from scratch, I would have left. I’m not here to build something that’s my idea, as if it were a democratic process in which “we agree to something and we do it.” We’re building on something that in a mysterious way has been very damaged by the flaws of the founder and human nature, but we stay because we believe there’s more to it than that. We are seeking to give continuity to the good given in the charism. That’s the only reason that Pope Benedict XVI asked us to continue on. He didn’t say: “Continue if you come up with something that’s worth continuing.” The challenge, and it’s the challenge of the constitution, is to identify those valid principles that help us to live the Gospel and that help us in our own mission which we see has done good, that has brought the Gospel to people’s lives and had a positive impact on many people’s lives, and at the same time take responsibility for the weaknesses of the institution, identify them and overcome them. That’s the task. It’s not to cut 100% and start something completely, but to make that discernment.
But refounding completely would be more straight-forward?
Marketing-wise it would be easier. I just think the important principle is to say, for me personally but also for all legionaries who have stayed – luckily the vast majority – that we stay not just because we believe in ourselves, but we believe in God’s fidelity and God’s action in our history. Even in his providence, he knew what was going to happen and there was good here. It’s not just about the bad things that have happened – the terrible things that have happened to people. We need to recognise that, make up for it, and prepare to face that. But at the same time, we need to discover what the message is here. We live in a world that’s full of broken lives, drama, suffering, sin and failure. So we have that in our own history, mixed with good things, like all human beings. That’s the message we need to learn, assimilate deeper, and that’s how we go on.
What do you say to the argument that this is such a unique case in that this is a congregation solely founded by Fr Maciel, and so closely tied to him, that it needs to start from scratch?
In the end, whether there is a real charism is not our call but the Church’s call, and that’s been yes, there is a charism. Benedict XVI, when he named the Apostolic Delegate in 2010 and spoke about the real call that is there, the authentic core of the charism that needs to be preserved, that’s the Church’s call. It’s also my experience that there’s something real here, and that’s what we’re trying to build on while at the same time having to face up to that contradiction. Precisely in that contradiction there’s also a message that maybe we haven’t fully understood and maybe we never will. Certainly it’s helped us to grow in humility. For me, it has meant not putting trust in myself, my perfection, or in presenting a perfect way of being Christian, but to know that human life is extremely contradictory, that there’s so much brokenness in this world. We’re called to bring the Gospel right there, kind of what Pope Francis has been saying: that there’s no life so destroyed that God would be separated from it.
Another point about this founder problem: in the end, everything that is authentic in the Church, if it is authentic, is rooted in the Gospel and, in the end, a fruit of God’s grace. So that may also be part of that message: that God’s grace is stronger and more merciful, beyond human understanding.
Will you be keeping the same name?
That question has come up, but it’s never been addressed specifically, institutionally. Certainly, if it’s brought up in the chapter, only the chapter can decide that.
Have you implemented the new Safe Environment guidelines?
Oh yes. We certainly feel that as a congregation, because of our history, we have a very special responsibility in that area. From 2002 onwards, even before the crisis resulting from the discoveries about our founder, we had made a great effort to live up to the Dallas Charter in the US, but also in countries where those topics aren’t so strongly on the bishops’ conferences’ agenda yet, so we were even ahead of the culture. I’m confident to say we’re in control of our situation in that area. There isn’t a concrete danger to anybody. We investigate any concrete allegation against the Legionaries that come up, cases from the past. We follow the procedures. We put great effort in getting the provinces, the territories, ready to have the structures needed implement that. And then to implement prevention having a stricter screening process ourselves, in admissions and in the process of formation, in those early stages.
A 2010 communique from the Holy See’s press office mentioned three main elements should be looked at, one of which was clarification of the charism. Some say they’re not sure what the charism has been, others have said it just seems to be fundraising. What is your response to that accusation?
[Laughs] We haven’t been doing very well have we?!
Let me just say one thing about the theory of charisms. One of the fruits of this experience is that we’ve all had to go deeper into what the nature of a charism is in a congregation, or in a group of people. Pope John Paul II in Vita consecrata says that at the core of a charism there is a certain aspect of the Gospel. Obviously we’re all called to live the whole Gospel but the different charisms of the Church live and show the Gospel from one aspect of Christ’s mystery. That aspect of the mystery of Christ inspires a spirituality, a way of relating to God; a mission, a way of relating to the world and what you’re called to do; and inspires a type of community, You need all four aspects to understand the charism.
In the case of Mother Teresa, she had an aspect of the Gospel, I’m not sure how she phrased it, but her charism was to serve Christ present in the poorest of the poor. And that’s the way their spirituality is, that’s the way they live among the poorest of the poor. In our case, at the core of the charism is the Christ of public life who says the Kingdom of God is at hand, the message that the love of God has come into the world and is about to reign because it has power over death, sin, and is stronger than anything else. Perhaps we can phrase that message of the Kingdom of Christ by saying the victory of God’s love is at hand, that’s what inspired hope in the people and that’s what he preached. That’s what he showed in his words, miracles and charity in forgiving sins, that power of the love of God. He used that image of the Kingdom of God. And then at his death and resurrection he made that happen.
So we look at Christ and our spirituality as a relationship with that living Christ, who teaches that message, shows it, and from that perspective we strive to live the whole Gospel, love the Church as he did, love Mary as he did, but with that perspective that the power of the love of God is the Kingdom and that that love of God is witnessed by giving our life. The spirituality part is very simple – it’s about a relationship with Christ.
The mission is to let us draw ourselves to the mission of proclaiming that truth, very specifically trying to do something Christ did, involving other people in the mission of Christ. By calling and forming apostles, in our apostolic mission we do many things. We work with youth, families and schools, but the common idea in all of them is to awaken in Christians the call to the apostolate, to let themselves be involved in Christ’ mission.
And then the community, and that’s a very important aspect that may not be well known in public opinion. Our charism is not just the Legion of Christ, but there’s a wider spiritual family, Regnum Christi. So that charism inspires a type of community that has different families in it, the Legionaries Christ, consecrated men and women of Regnum Christi, laypeople who live in the world, that together try to serve the Church from where they are, to serve that charism to proclaim the Kingdom of Christ, the victory of God’s love, through their testimony but also through concrete apostolic action, by becoming apostles themselves together. And that togetherness of the community is one of the aspects that puts us in continuity with this whole development of the Church in the last 100 years – the lay apostolate of the truth that we’re forming in the Church. It’s not just the clergy but we’re all the people of God and trying to fulfil His mission.
This all sounds very good but also a little vague and general.
Yes, you’re right. We do many different things like the Jesuits, the Franciscans, etc. They all do many things, but it’s more about the way you live the Gospel and what you do, the vision, the perspective on Christ that you offer the Church and others. Concretely, what we do changes very much from country to country, but the spirit is the same. We want to awaken in lay people the call to the apostolate. In Mexico, it’s very strong in education, schools and universities, and in the U.S. it’s more about trying to work together with the local Church, working together with the pastors in forming people to run youth groups, spiritual exercises, giving spiritual formation ourselves. So if we say our mission is just part of our charism is to form apostles, that’s quite concrete. It always has this formative aspect: youth work, family work, but always trying to help people grow in their Christian vocation, not staying on the sanctity level but moving towards commitment to society and the local Church level.
How many priestly ordinations have you had in the midst of these challenges and how many priests have you lost?
The number of legionary priests who have left the Congregation from 2010 to November 14th, 2013 is 84 – 33 in 2010, 18 in 2011, 9 in 2012, and 24 so far this year. The number of priests ordained those same years up: 60, 62, 49, and around 30 expected for this year. Figures for religious in formation – those who are not yet priests – who left the Legion, are: 147, 169, 123. Data for 2013 is not yet available, but my guess is that it is about 100. Most of these requests to leave the Legion are a consequence of the natural process of discernment of a vocation. Some had to do with the crisis and the renewal process.
Our latest stats sent to the Holy See correspond to December 31, 2012: Bishops 3, Priests 953, Religious and novices 932, Students in minor seminary 945. At that moment we have 109 houses in 22 countries. Members include 38 different nationalities.
Regarding ordinations for next year, there should be a bigger group. Reasons for leaving the Congregation are different. Some take a year’s leave and come back, and there are the ones who are exclaustrated. Technically and canonically really they are still members, they just have permission to be outside. But it’s not that frequent they come back. And then there are those who have already left. Those who are exclaustrated – realistically, many of them will leave.
Fr De Guedes, a general counsellor and senior figure in the Legion left recently. It seemed he wanted to leave completely but was persuaded not to. What were the reasons behind this?
He was very specific in saying he wasn’t leaving definitively. He asked for exclaustration but not incardination in the diocese. I myself was surprised. He was a friend and I would have preferred him to stay. He’s been a good element, very active and passionate about the renewal. He was clear in his letter and when he spoke to the brothers here, he said that he’s leaving because he’s tired. Why is he tired? Because he feels it’s not going fast enough. But he’s not leaving because he doesn’t have hope for the reform, but because he doesn’t’ have the strength to be living under the pressure of seeing things that maybe he would like to do and the time has not yet come.
Was he prevented from doing them?
He’s just a counsellor, we came to many decisions together and many times we were all in agreement but also some in minority and he felt more frequently in a minority.
Some suggested it was because he had witnessed disturbing things within the Legion?
I don’t think so – he has concerns about things but more in that aspect of “Are we moving fast enough, assimilating fast enough the different lessons of the past?” Sometimes we get messages from Legionaries who want to go back to the past, or are very hurt if the founder’s role is relativised. So those things happen because we’re a big group and maybe he would read those things in a more radical way than I would. We need to accept there’s a wide variety of sensitivities here. I certainly hope he comes back and I pray for it every day.
Is there going to be a clear break from Maciel’s past, what will be the new vision?
Generally, I repeat here what I said before about continuity and newness. The newness will be very evident in the constitution because it’s much more essential. The way authority is exercised today is very different from the way it was. The whole role of the founder is now very different. Already in 2010, the general director made a clear statement that he is not a model, and that even as a founder, whatever he proposed as a founder, is under the Church’s discernment. So we will not be referring to him as the infallible source of our charism. All those elements change what we understand of ourselves, also the fact we understand now much better than before that the charism is the property of the Church, not the founder. But every generation of Legionaries is the bearer of that charism and it’s the current generation who need to understand how it is to be lived today and to live that in constant dialogue with the Church.
As the reality of the founder’s past will always be present, how will future generations of Legionaries view that do you think?
Those who join today know that perfectly and they still want to join. They don’t join because in two years we get the founder back. It’s not that. They like what they see and feel called to this place. We will always be the congregation who has had that founder, a congregation with a broken father, like so many people, or a father who has hurt. Maybe that is part of the calling, to a life that that helps others to live it. So I don’t think there’s a technical answer to your question. Maybe in the future God will send us great saints, but we can’t produce them and they won’t be the founders. This whole experience is, in a sense, a founding experience again. But we’re now walking under the Church’s guidance, always in continuity with something we’ve received and lived, just trying to purify it and renew all that is authentic in it.
Because Fr Maciel went on for so many years deceiving people, does that imply incompetence, and if so, what mechanisms have been put in place to stop that happening again? You’ve spoken already about authority but is there going to be some other mechanism which can prevent this?
More than incompetence it was probably naivety and that is hard to imagine if you’ve not lived it. It doesn’t come naturally to question and control your general superior, and much less your founder. The concrete mechanism is to control the personal spending of the general director, transparency of his agenda, where does he go, what does he do, and then the constant cooperation with the Council. We’ve woken up from the view that just because he’s a superior, he’s a holy man. Nobody thinks like that anymore.
Some say you haven’t really acknowledged the suffering caused in the past. How true is this?
I don’t think it’s true. Father Corcuera apologised several times and then on 25 March 2010 there was a statement signed by the general director, counsellors and all the provincials, recognising the basic elements. At the same time, I agree that it is probably not enough. The Chapter will have to go back over that and reaffirm, maybe in a clearer and stronger way, those issues. I think we also need to accept the fact that you never do enough to reach out to the people who suffered. We need to be grateful for the ones who have spoken up, who for many years we didn’t believe – we just didn’t believe them. They insisted and we insisted back, and surely we added suffering to their suffering with that. And so we need to recognise that and be grateful for their courage to speak up.
As far as recognising the founder’s sins and misdeeds, I would also say that among Legionaries and Regnum Christi members in the whole world, this is not a taboo at all. Everyone is aware of the essential elements. To write an independent institutional history of that will have to happen, and we will cooperate with that when the time comes. For now, our responsibility is to secure the archives and create a system, making sure history can be written when the time comes. In these last years, our focus has been getting the renewal process going, being as close as we can to the people who suffered and to work on prevention of all those things happening again. We haven’t been so focused on writing the history.
When people come to join the Legion, will you be completely open about the past?
They all know what they’re getting into. When I was still in Germany I worked with the people who came to the candidacy programme before joining and we would make a point, when the whole news was still new in 2009-10, of making sure they knew what they were getting into. Now it’s probably not that necessary but it’s a part of what they learn.
Will there be a policy of simple transparency about all that went on?
Yes, but as far as history is concerned, you can only be transparent about what you really know. We haven’t yet been able, and I don’t think we ever will be, to write a comprehensive history of the founder’s life, because he had different lives and took lots of information to the grave with him.
Those who were closest to him – Fr Garza, Fr Corcuera, Fr Bannon – have they been fully questioned about how much they knew?
We know their testimonies but they’re from recent history. Our founder began the congregation in 1941. They come into the picture with responsibilities after he was in his 60s and 70s. In our culture he was the founder, a holy man, and obviously they’re older than me, but when they started to take responsibility as formators or working with him, like Fr Garza, he was already the unquestionable founder. And they say, and I believe them absolutely because of the way the founder lived, that they did not know. More so, Fr Garza was instrumental in bringing things to light in the years after the new governing council came in 2005. I know there’s lots distrust towards them, but personally I believe what they say. They didn’t know about the double life.
Has the Apostolic Delegate been given access to everything?
He’s had all access. We meet almost twice a week, he comes to every general council meeting, and at all important decisions he’s there with us, and that’s been helpful. He questions us, teaches us. He always said from the beginning that the Holy Father has not asked him to do another investigation. There have been two investigations, and of course we need to remember that. There was the investigation done by the CDF before 2006, and they came to conclusions about Fr Maciel but not about others and they listened to 30-40 people. Then we had the visitation of five bishops to all our houses. So there has been a very thorough, external investigation, and the result was that the delegate was named and the indication was that we should review the constitution, authority, formation, the charism, reach out the victims, and review management. That was the delegate’s task, not to write a history.
Are any of these people who were closest to Maciel still in positions of leadership?
Fr Garza is territorial director of the United States – so yes, because no one has ever accused him of anything concrete. One of the important principles in this is also that Cardinal De Paolis made it clear from the beginning: “Any allegation I will investigate, but I can’t go about investigating people just like that.” It’s both against canon and civil law. So they have never been accused of any misdeeds.
Did Fr. Maciel die in communion with the Church?
I wasn’t there but I’ve heard many different testimonies that he died and confessed with the sacraments.
He had last rites?
Yes. In the last months he suffered from strong dementia, so maybe all the horror stories that are out there come from the fact that you have an old man who is confused. I wasn’t there, but I’m aware of some of what was happening. He was on his death bed, recognising and not recognising things, he was just too confused to express himself in his last year, but I know he died with the sacraments. Beyond that, it is in God’s hands.
Looking to the future, you’re optimistic and hopeful?
Yes, the Chapter’s just another step. This whole process of purification and changing the mentality in areas where it is necessary is not done pushing a button. It’s a process. I think in general the vast majority of Legionaries have been able to get into this whole process of opening our minds, of accepting criticism, but there’s obviously still tension about those things, about the founder, what should change or not change. I’m very confident that in general we’re walking together and precisely learning to live that tension is a new thing for us. The founder seemed strong and kind of infallible. We’re not used to seeing that this wasn’t true, so you can see that as a positive thing. But still it’s not easy. We have struggles agreeing on the essentials, but this is normal. Having said that, I think we’re moving forward and I trust that especially a Chapter where you bring priests from all over the world, all kinds of generations, experiences, also a prayerful atmosphere, will certainly be a blessed moment. We will also be able to give a strong message of identity and also of renewal to the whole congregation and that will help us. We will make sure everyone’s read up on the founder and all of that, but also be able to turn the page.
Many people would like to see the Legion become more human, less removed and open and transparent and honest with others. Will that be a fruit of all this?
Regarding the honesty part, I think we’ve come a long way in that. Also what happens to all the young congregations, even with holy founders, is that they tend to idealise their own thing very much. It happens to the movements. They’re very proud of their own thing which can be very good, so we’ve been schooled in humility and a healthy relativism. We’re just another player in the Church, we’re a valid player, we have something to offer to give to the Church, but in communion with others and very much aware of the fact that we’re not better than anyone. We still like what we have and want to be as authentic and Christ-like as possible.