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Marcial Maciel, 87; Founded Controversial Legionaries of Christ

The Rev. Marcial Maciel being blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Rev. Maciel had many highly placed church allies.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel being blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Rev. Maciel had many highly placed church allies. (By Plinio Lepri -- Associated Press)

Four of Rev. Maciel's uncles were bishops, and one was a general. Rev. Maciel was reported to have been enthralled with militarism and religious discipline from a young age.

Rev. Maciel was running the Legionaries when one of his uncles ordained him in 1944. The order stressed anti-Communism and strict discipline and became a force in opposition to the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s.

Rev. Maciel was considered charming and found wealthy supporters in Mexico and Spain, whose dictator, Francisco Franco, he was said to have admired. He established seminaries in both countries and clashed with Jesuits because of the Legionaries' tendency to recruit from other orders.

In 1946, Rev. Maciel won his first papal audience, with Pope Pius XII, who told him that his order must be "an army in battle array." Three years later, Rev. Maciel formed a lay movement, Regnum Christi, which is flourishing.

He gained wide respect at the Vatican for starting low-cost universities.

Renner and Berry wrote that John Paul also saw the Legionaries as an effective bulwark against rapidly expanding evangelical Protestant groups in Latin America as well as priests following Liberation Theology, a sociopolitical movement aligned with the poor against right-wing governments.

Rev. Maciel successfully courted Latin America's wealthiest families. Among those to help underwrite his causes was the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Rev. Maciel was comfortable in this social orbit, writing in 2006 that "the order concentrates on ministering to the wealthy and powerful in the belief that by evangelizing society's leaders, the beneficial impact on society is multiplied. . . . Like the Jesuits who centuries ago whispered in the ear of Europe's princes, the Legion's priests today are the confessors and chaplains to some of the most powerful businessmen in Latin America."

Rev. Maciel accompanied John Paul on several of his trips to Mexico and sat on papal commissions and committees. He spent his last several years living quietly in his native village.

The order claims to have 700 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries.

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