By J. Paul Lennon
J. Paul Lennon (and BookSurge Publishing), 2008. ISBN-10: 1-4196-7662-8; ISBN-13: 978-1419676628 (paperback). $15. 400 pages,
Reviewed by Joe Szimhart
Would you, as a loving parent, send your seventeen-year-old son to dedicate his life to a highly manipulative organization controlled by a sexual predator? Of course, you would not. And neither did the loving parents of John Paul Lennon, but… it did happen. What happened was that a culturally motivated, naive young man from Ireland accepted the glowing promise of Catholic recruiters to help form a new religious movement in Mexico in 1961. Lennon felt drawn to the adventure with holy men who would guide and protect his journey. What could be better? Despite lingering doubts about everything from his sexual expression to the existence of God, Lennon signed on and served, eventually as an ordained priest, in the Legion of Christ for twenty-three years. He formally left the “congregation” in 1984. This book answers the question, why?
The Legion was founded by a young Father Marcial Maciel in 1941. In many respects, the Legion of Christ and its lay subsidiary Regnum Christi closely resembles Opus Dei, the Catholic organization maligned in The Da Vinci Code. Both are controversial, conservative, hierarchical Catholic groups formed ostensibly to provide members with rules for a saintly life and a way to serve others. Both groups target wealthy donors and aggressively seek favor from the Vatican. Indeed, Opus Dei’s founder was canonized recently. The same beatific fate may not befall Father Maciel, as long as strong evidence continues to appear regarding his mismanagement of the Legion and his decades-long long legacy of sexual abuse of young men.
J. Paul Lennon’s self-published autobiography is the second significant exposé in English of the Legion and Fr. Maciel, the first being Vows of Silence (2004). There are many exposés in Spanish. Lennon’s story brings the Legion experience into intimate focus through the lens of his life, his dreams, his sins, and his struggles. Lennon broke with the Legion after confronting the leader publicly about mistreatment of relocated members. Lennon was also fed up with the double standards regarding vows of poverty while the leaders basked in favors and food from wealthy donors. Although Lennon never encountered sexual abuse personally while a Legion member, he documents what he learned after he left the group. Be prepared for specificity regarding Maciel’s controversial behavior toward the end of the book. (The title refers to Fr. Maciel’s myriad illnesses that required frequent time-outs for days in bed, which also often required injections of Demerol and erotic massages by young male students).
Our Father, who art in bed… reads well enough as a self-published effort by a first-time book writer.I enjoyed Lennon’s anecdotes about his life in Ireland and Mexico. The reader finds a sense of place and culture as Lennon reflects on his struggles to make sense of his psychological isolation while he serves others. The Legion restricted every aspect of a member’s life, including friends. “What friends?” asks Lennon on page 111. “I had to have a motive and objective to contact outsiders; all activities not sanctioned by the very detailed rule had to be approved by my superior.” He was able to visit his family only five years after he joined. Lennon would not know the songs of Bob Dylan or the other John Paul Lennon and The Beatles until after 1984. Lennon served as a priest in the Washington, D. C. area for five years after he broke away. He applauds the open kindness of Catholic clerics there who restored his faith in the Church. Nevertheless, Lennon requested and was granted a release from Holy Orders in 1989.
Lennon eventually recognized that his Legion experience matched many stories of ex-cult members from any number of other controversial groups. He and other ex-Legionites formed a helping network called REGAIN, which has a Website. As his book documents, Lennon and REGAIN were sued last year by the Legion of Christ over violation of allegedly confidential information. This book is in part an appeal to the Church, the Legion, and the public to recognize the truth of the matter. If nothing else, Lennon’s legacy is set as one brave former priest who took on a festering cult that the Catholic authority has yet to adequately assess. We learn from the book that deceptive recruiting and using the power of the Gospel to manipulate loyalty to an elitist agenda does not represent Christian principles.
The author weaves memoir, exposé, and a plea into his narrative. Details of his life and youth offer insight into his reactions and sense of loyalty as a young recruit. In the Ireland of his youth, it was a high honor for one of your sons to become a priest. Clear evidence allows the reader to see how the cult surrounding the founder Fr. Maciel operated. Lennon moves at times from a first-person account to third person as an emotional strategy to remain as objective as possible about some highly painful passages. Introductory chapter quotes from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse act as effective reflections of the author’s insights. Lennon appears to identify with the emerging Buddha’s struggles and insights. Other quotes from various songwriters, especially Bob Dylan, accent certain passages. When Fr. Paul finally breaks with the Legion in Quintana Roo, Mexico, he realizes that he’s leaving behind everything that mattered to him for twenty-three years. On page 209, a section and the chorus of Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan captures the emotion: “How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction or home, like a complete unknown…”
Lennon forces the reader to consider why the Vatican appeared to support Fr. Maciel, despite early knowledge of the priest’s sexual violations. Abusive cults tend to surround leaders with hidden agendas. In this case, Maciel as a young priest with a vision captured the Vatican’s attention, much as the founder of Opus Dei had. While promoting conservative principles in the face of modernism and secularism, the Church most likely felt it had in both movements an antidote to social decadence and liberalism. Besides, they seem so successful in both recruiting young men and women and in fundraising. Add to that the apparent charisma of the new leaders, and the Church considered that maybe it had budding saints! However, this book examines the forces that act on why someone stays in a religious order. Is there deception and manipulation? Where does one draw the line between rational obedience and blind loyalty? What are the costs one faces to break away? Lennon forces us and the Vatican to ask: Is an ends-justifies-the-means approach the way to make a saint? Is the Legion’s success due more to cult behavior than living the Gospel’s calling?
There is more to this story. Much of it available only in Spanish might help the reader come to a clearer answer. Lennon lists these sources and many more. He also offers information about the REGAIN organization that gathers and disseminates critical information about the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. No matter how you feel about these organizations, Paul Lennon’s autobiography is a must read.
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2009, Page