|Fr Owen Kearns, LC|
January 28, 2011. How does a longstanding Legionary, ordained in
1983, process the current circumstances of the Legion and his
own place within it? In this testimony, Fr Owen Kearns,
LC, returns to the very beginnings of a call that
came from God, finding in it the “indestructible foundation” upon
which he plans to build his own future and that
of the Legion.
JESUS CALLED ME
By Fr Owen
COMMUNIQUÉ OF THE HOLY SEE REGARDING THE APOSTOLIC
VISITATION OF THE CONGREGATION OF THE LEGIONARIES OF CHRIST (1
“The Pope renews his encouragement to all the
Legionaries of Christ, to their families, and to all the
laypeople involved in the Regnum Christi movement, during this difficult
time for the congregation and for each of them. He
urges them not to lose sight of the fact that
their vocation … is … the indestructible foundation upon which
each of them can build their own future and that
of the Legion.”
REFLECTIONS ON HOW MY VOCATION
THE INDESTRUCTIBLE FOUNDATION
UPON WHICH I CAN BUILD
MY OWN FUTURE AND
THAT OF THE LEGION
you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” In the early ´60s in small-town
Catholic Ireland, the country was being invaded through us teenagers.
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were
flooding our consciousness and creating a new culture. There was
a struggle going on for the allegiance of our hearts
and minds. Nobody seemed to notice or to care.
there was a meeting of the grandly named “St. Patrick’s
Debating Society” (it was just a discussion group). It was
open to anybody; about 40 or so mostly working-class people
and upper secondary school students would show up. A priest
was always on hand, to lead prayers at the beginning
and the end, but he didn’t intervene in the discussion.
Anybody could volunteer to write a paper that they would
read to kick off the discussion.
One of the schoolgirls was
a pale blonde who we all thought would go on
to be a fashion model. She wrote a paper that
basically said: “The facts of life (That’s what we called
sex-ed back then) ― we’re not being taught them by
our parents or by our teachers or by the priests.
So where are we getting them from?”
Actually, we were getting
our ideas about sex and freedom from pop culture, the
spearhead of secular culture. The Beatles’ message — “She loves
you, and you know that can’t be bad” — was
so seductive. But Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death was a warning
sign that behind the promise of fun lurked a hidden,
The schoolgirl concluded: “We’re getting them wrong. We want
The adults, sensing criticism, demurred: “Oh, pooh, pooh! No,
that couldn’t be so.” We teens insisted: “It is so.”
And we insisted so fiercely that the adults finally asked
for a show of hands. “How many have been taught
the facts of life by their parents?” Out of about
25 teenagers, two hands went up. “How many by a
teacher?” None. “By a priest?” None.
Oh. So. Something had to
It was decided to arrange a talk by a
medical doctor and a priest ― one evening for the
boys, two evenings for the girls ― at the Legion
of Mary hall. There was no publicity, no promotion. No
need. The word went round the town’s three all-boys secondary
schools like wildfire: “We’re going to hear the truth about
On the appointed evening, we rode in on our bicycles.
The sun was setting gloriously. At The Ramparts, a seedy
area backing Main Street, we walked across the concrete footbridge
over a stream (glorified drainage, actually) into the Legion of
Mary hall. Never before and never since were there so
many people in that room. Inside, it was not just
“standing room only”; it was jam-packed. You couldn’t even move
The good doctor had an easel and a large pad
with the anatomical drawings on it. He explained how the
human reproductive system worked. That wasn’t what we were there
for. We hadn’t come just for the how. We were
there for the meaning, the mystery, the beauty, the challenge.
All eyes were now on the priest. You could hear
your own heart beating. Then he spoke, in resonant church-organ
tones. “Well, boys, I am sure you are all familiar
with what the Church teaches about the Sixth and Ninth
Commandments; so, we’ll end with a prayer. In the Name
of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
Holy Ghost.” Mechanically, we muttered “Amen.” That was it. It
was over. We shuffled out, in shamed silence.
Back outside, night
had fallen. The rain was coming down. Not Ireland’s usual
driving blustery rain, just a listless drizzle. Even so, we
rode home slowly. None of us was in a hurry
to tell our parents that somebody they looked up to
had just demeaned us. We didn’t even have the words
for it, anyway.
How could the priest have thought that we
were only interested in how sex functioned? What led him
to disdain our quest for a fair love, for an
ideal to live by? Why wouldn’t he talk to us?
Why did he refuse to engage our culture?
Among ourselves, we
never discussed the event. Not right then, immediately afterwards, on
our way home. Not the next day in school. Not
ever. It was too shameful, too demeaning, too degrading.
no question of organizing another event: Who would we ask?
If we had known some other priest personally, maybe some
of us could have turned to him, but none of
us did. Anyway, we all supposed that the priest that
night was the chosen representative of the other priests in
town, whether diocesan or religious. As far as we teenagers
were concerned, they were all the same.
Until that moment, out
attitude towards priests was inherited from our parents: respect. That’s
why we expected … something. Truth, wisdom, guidance, encouragement ―
even warnings about temptation, a lecture about sin, threats of
hellfire … anything. But now, we knew: They have nothing
to say to our culture. And how it felt to
us was: They don’t care about us.
I might have gone
on to become, as most of my classmates did, a
former Catholic. One day, however, one of the Irish Christian
Brothers at our secondary school invited us to visit Our
Lord after school in the little chapel that the brothers
used. A few of us went the first day. After
a few days, I was the only one. Something —
I don’t know what or how — kept drawing me
I wasn’t saying prayers. Certainly not the Rosary; at home
we had started the family Rosary a number of times;
it always fell through. I had an instinctive aversion to
the “infallible” devotions that were popular among older Catholics: Say
this novena; it’s never been known to fail. I didn’t
have a Bible and wouldn’t have known how to use
it to meditate or contemplate anyway. I wasn’t reading spiritual
Besides, I wasn’t there for anything. I didn’t have any
particular need or at least I wasn’t aware that I
had needs that I should pray for. I had no
I was just there to visit Christ, just there for his
sake, not mine. And to that, he responded.
thing I learned was something so simple it can easily
be overlooked: Christ liked it. He was not indifferent to
being visited. His unspoken message was not: You are boring
me; much less: You are annoying me. Rather, it was:
Come back again.
From the silent Lord in the tabernacle in
that small chapel, things began to be communicated. At the
time, I wasn’t even conscious of it. I never came
out of the chapel aware of an insight that I
didn’t have going in. It was just that, as I
interacted with my friends or thought the long thoughts of
youth about the future and what it might hold for
me, certain attitudes and convictions and values began to emerge
in me. It didn’t even occur to me that they
were being forged in those silent times spent with the
Since the Lord used no words and no discourse, I
had no protection, no defense against what he was communicating.
With what words can you argue with a wordless communication?
Unknown to me, a conversation was happening, and I couldn’t
even sift it, much less block it.
It was a communication
not so much of words or even ideas as of
values. The values my friends were focused on: making money,
owning things, getting ahead — these began to seem shallow,
empty, worthless to me. What will they be worth at
the end of life? What use will they be after
you’re dead? Somehow the Lord had managed to get me
to evaluate what passes in light of what remains, the
visible in light of the invisible, the tangible in light
of the spiritual, the temporal in light of the eternal.
was a communication not so much of words or even
ideas as of feelings. A feeling of sadness for my
peers being so abandoned without a sure guide on our
quest for meaning and value, for the truth of our
lives and for a fair love.
It was a communication not
so much of words or even ideas as of a
view, a way of seeing reality, his way of looking
at the world, society, culture, other people. What Jesus sees
when he looks at the world… It wasn’t just an
insight into another possible way among many of looking at
the world; it was the unveiling of the world’s inner
meaning, a view into what was and is truly real.
The world I saw was a wheat field ripe for
It was not only a communication of the inner
meaning of the world but also, by that very fact,
the disclosure of my role in it. What I would
be. What he wanted of me. What he intended for
Once I saw that the world is a wheat
field ripe for the harvest, I knew: I will be
a laborer in that harvest.
It was a communication not so
much of words or even ideas as of a sense
of responsibility for the eternal salvation of others. Who is
going to help save them? If you don’t go, Owen,
who will take your place?
As these values, feelings and insights
unfolded and developed in me, I began to get uneasy.
Me different from my friends, my concerns and values and
ideals and expectations different from theirs, different in a way
that seemed to be pointing towards priesthood.
That, I found alarming.
thought that, if you were going to be a priest,
and to do so, you would have to leave great
things (wife, family, career, choosing your own way in life,
your own clothes, interests, space and so on), then it
had better be great or it couldn’t be worth it.
But the priests I saw didn’t project that. There were
plenty of priests in our town, both diocesan and religious;
the nearest parish was run by religious. I didn’t know
any priest personally, and had little notion of what they
did outside of Mass and confession. It might have been
different if I had known them better.
Still, like many Catholics,
my impressions of priests were formed mainly from their preaching,
and I don’t remember ever being challenged by what I
heard in a sermon. It seemed that the local priests
were satisfied with the way things were run in Ireland.
They never suggested that society or the culture needed to
be engaged, much less transformed. We were supposed to save
our souls (that is, basically, stay out of Hell) by
keeping the commandments and going to confession when we broke
them. How society was being run and who was shaping
the culture and for what purpose was not an issue.
certainly would have been easier if I had known then
the many priests, diocesan and religious, who opened their heart
and home to me on my years of travels as
a Legionary vocation director. They taught me so much about
the value of priestly life and witness. At the time,
though, to a teenager, it looked like the local priests
didn’t expect too much from their own priesthood. For me,
that wasn’t good enough. They were a good reason not
to become a priest. Who would want to be like
In our classroom of about 30, there were about six
of what we called priest material. They were planning on
going away to a seminary when they finished secondary school.
And they were typical: dull, dutiful, dour, disapproving, studious, no
fun, no friends, no social life. Priesthood would be perfect
for them: They already fit our teenage perception of the
local priests; all they would need would be the studies.
were another good reason not to become a priest. See
the kind of guys who are interested in it…
a long struggle to convince the Lord that I couldn’t
become a priest. Others maybe, but not me.
At first, I
was sure I had valid reasons. I was too different
from the priest material. So, I was confident that thinking
it through would prove me right, and that the inner
promptings toward priesthood would turn out to be a false
alarm and fade away.
So, I would tell the Lord, I
can’t be a priest because I like “This.” I would
pursue my interest, and he would be waiting at the
end: See? You’re not made for “This,” are you? He
was right. Not only had “This” not fulfilled me; it
had left me feeling empty inside. So I would respond,
No, but I still can’t be a priest because I
like “That.” I would pursue “That” and it would lead
to the same dead end. All it did was make
the emptiness much bigger, like when you shake an empty
tin can: It sounds emptier if it has two peanuts
in it. See, you’re not made for “That” either, are
you? No, but I still can’t be a priest because…
a while, I ran out of valid reasons, so I
turned to excuses. If there were a way to convince
myself that the whole thing was a figment of my
imagination or a product of my cultural, social or family
conditioning, I would have found it. I certainly tried hard
enough. I was left with no good reasons not to
be a priest, while those inner promptings that I should
become something I still disliked kept growing more insistent.
Christmas Eve, 1965. I was 17. I was walking home
with Fintan Farrelly, a classmate from senior year in high
school. We had been Christmas shopping. We were just off
the town’s main square, passing the Court House. Not on
retreat, not in a church. All the same, the inner
conversation, or rather argument, had become incessant.
Come on, Owen: Be
Go away. Leave me alone.
Come on; you’re just chicken.
I know. I’m chicken. Just
leave me alone.
But I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
The interior pressure had gradually built up until it was
unbearable. I had to decide, one way or the other.
knew it wasn’t just a question of being open to
considering priesthood, or giving it a try. It was much
more radical than that. It meant abandoning all things —
everything and everybody else — for the Lord’s sake. It
meant letting him dictate what I would do with my
life. It meant letting him have the final say and
the first say and the whole say and the only
say about my future and its circumstance.
Somehow, I realized that
Christ wouldn’t ask me to leave great things for something
mediocre. If I gave up what I loved and what
I was looking forward to, he wouldn’t cheat, wouldn’t defraud,
wouldn’t disappoint, wouldn’t let me down. It would be well
worth leaving what I had to leave.
It was not
that I could accept the risk of abandoning things I
treasured because I had figured out that what I would
get was better than what I left. No, I could
run that risk without even knowing what it was I
would get, because I knew I could trust the one
who was asking me to leave the treasures.
So I told
him, All right. I’ll give it a try.
The weight of
the world lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer
afraid. I was free! And I was happy. So happy
that Fintan noticed it:
“Hey, Owen, what’s got into you?”
Fintan, I’ve just decided to be a priest.”
“Oh, that’s …
I thought to myself: It won’t be terrible. It will
be great. I can’t even imagine how it will be
great, but it will be. But I didn’t argue with
Fintan or try to convince him. How could he understand?
I didn’t understand it myself. I knew exactly what he
meant: You want to be like one of them? I
also knew he was wrong: I won’t be like them.
certainly was not willing to become like any of the
local priests — diocesan or religious. Probably some or even
many of them were good, holy and admirable priests. But
we didn’t know that. All we knew was that they
showed no interest in us; they made no move to
engage us in our culture. Our reaction was typical of
teenagers: They don’t like us: That’s all right; we don’t
Instinctively, I sensed that if I went to a
seminary that had formed them, I would end up like
them. And that, I was not willing to do.
have any clear idea of what kind of priest I
wanted to be, just of the kind of priest I
wanted not to be.
What then? The logical alternative, in Ireland
in the 1960s, was to be a missionary. To become
a priest far away.
|Owen Kearns as a candidate in the summer of 1966, at the Legion's novitiate in Belgard Castle in Dublin, Ireland.|
So, I’m to be a missionary, then.
That meant joining some missionary order.
But which one? And there
were so many! How was I to choose between them?
What should I look for? I had no clue.
made a deal with the Lord. Look, this wasn’t my
idea. And there are too many orders for me to
investigate: I’ll be an old man before I finish. So,
I’ll take it that the one you send into my
life that I like the best, is the one you
want me to join.
I would never have thought of it
in those terms at the time, but it was basically
a covenant, a kind of homemade one, a personal, private
one, just between him and me. But it was as
valid as any formal public covenant, as binding as a
marriage or a monk’s vows. Once it was made, it
was irrevocable. There was no going back on it, no
altering it, no abandoning it. The only option was to
keep it, to be faithful, to carry out my side
of the agreement when he carried out his.
It was totally
clear to me that the Lord was calling me not
just to love him more than I loved anyone else,
but to love him exclusively: Love me and nobody else.
someone had asked me, “Are you consecrated?” I would have
laughed. I didn’t think of myself as that. And yet,
I sensed that, somehow, I had been set apart. I
felt bound — to what? Not to a commandment or
to a promise, much less to a vow. It was,
rather, to an unspoken understanding with the Lord: Keep yourself
for me. It was a confused yet definite sense that
I was reserved for him.
It was a confused sense, because
I still enjoyed social life, enjoyed dancing and dating, and
I intended to keep on doing that until I would
have to go away to be a priest. (If I
had a spiritual director, I might have been less confused.)
Even after I decided to join the Legionaries, I didn’t
tell them I was set, because I didn’t want any
of my friends seeing priests coming round the house: It
would be bad for my social life.
Even so, it was
a definite sense, because I knew I had to remain
There was this girl. Our mothers, with that intuition that
mothers have, engaged in some old-style matchmaking and arranged an
introduction. I liked her, and I sensed that, if I
got to know her better, it would lead, not simply
to having fun together, but to being drawn to each
other, each for the other’s sake. And that, I understood
from the Lord, was no longer an option for me.
So, I pretended to be more interested in her younger
sister, and so remained reserved. From then on, I kept
my distance from her. I belonged to the Lord. Far
from feeling deprived, or envying my friends their freedom to
have girlfriends, I cherished my otherness. I was content.
orders “came into my life,” how that concretely happened, was
through the vocation talks missionary priests would give at our
secondary school. Fairly often we would have a guest speaker
for religion class. The teachers liked it and we liked
it and the missionaries liked it. At the end of
the talk, the visiting missionary would hand out interest slips.
before I decided to be a priest, I enjoyed evaluating
them, comparing them, judging them, sizing them up. I didn’t
have words or concepts such as spirit or charism, so
I weighed up what I called their attitude, their approach.
There were only two that had stood out, that had
made me think: Well, if you had to be a
priest, it wouldn’t be too bad to be like him.
was an American missionary in South America. I liked the
idea of going to a sunny climate, and he had
an impressive personality and told colorful stories of exciting adventures
on his missions. His attitude was one of massive self-confidence
(I didn’t realize at the time that it was simply
because he was an American; I found out later on
that Americans in general are pretty much like that). Classroom
guests always spoke from behind the podium. He didn’t: He
walked up and down between the columns of desks. You
got the sense that he really had it all together
and there wasn’t any situation that he couldn’t handle. He
loved what he was doing and it was obviously very
fulfilling even on a human level. Well, if you had
to be a priest, it wouldn’t be too bad to
be like him…
The others were two Legionaries of Christ: One
young Irishman who spoke to our junior class, and a
Mexican priest who came in at the end after speaking
to the seniors. The Irish one gave his talk from
behind the podium; he held onto it with both hands
and it was shaking. The two Legionaries were polar opposites:
the Irishman was intellectual and formal, the Mexican priest was
happy-go-lucky. They were enthusiastic and had an infectious sense of
humor. They communicated an intense sense of being passionately caught
up in something far greater than themselves, and they needed
lots of others to join them to accomplish the endeavor.
Well, if you had to be a priest, it wouldn’t
be too bad to be like them…
… the one you
send into my life that I like the best… Comparing
the two communities, I realized that if I joined the
American missionary’s order, I wouldn’t get what had attracted me:
his personality. But if I joined the Legionaries, I would
get what they had in common: that sense of being
involved in a great mission.
I had asked them for more
information, but they hadn’t sent me any. So I forgot
about them — actually, not really forgot, but they faded
in the recesses of my memory. All during the time
I was first doubting then fighting my vocation, there was
no word from them.
But within days of making my decision
to be a priest, giving way and yielding to Christ’s
call, the Legionaries wrote me a chatty little handwritten note
asking how I was doing, how was my family, how
were my Christmas exams…
I thought: These people have a nerve.
They’ve ignored me all this time and now they send
a measly note (not even a letter) and act as
if we we’ve been life-long friends. So, I replied:
very much for your note. The tone of it seems
to imply that we have had previous correspondence. If this
is the case, I am unaware of it.”
It was a
sarcastic dig, meant to make them miffed. In that, it
was an utter failure. They told me later that, when
the Irish Legionary who had spoken in my class received
the letter, he ran to the Mexican priest, waving the
letter in the air and exulting: “A fish! A fish!”
That’s because I had added:
“However, I am still interested in
the priesthood in general and the Legion of Christ in
They thought I was nibbling on the bait. Actually, I
had swallowed it whole.
With the note, they had enclosed an
8-page full-color brochure. It was all about the missions in
Latin America. But the last page was an evening view
of New York City skyscrapers with the lights on, silhouetted
against the twilight sky: BIG CITY. It was taken from
across the East River, so: over there. On this side,
there was the silhouette of a priest. Not on the
other side, tamed, neutralized and absorbed by it. Not turning
away from it, overwhelmed and intimidated by it. Not with
his back to it, indifferent or resigned to it, with
nothing to say to it. No: He was facing it,
as if deliberately sizing it up.
Underneath, it said:
“Legionaries of Christ,
determined to penetrate all walks of modern life with the
transforming message of the Gospel.”
I knew immediately: These priests are
different. And not just a little different: radically different. It’s
a difference not of degree but of kind — a
different kind of approach. I had received or seen literature
from various religious communities: They were all variations on a
theme. Here, there was a different theme. It’s not that
they were going about the same thing as other religious
orders but just doing it a little differently; they were
going about a different thing.
I realized that these people not
only were determined (their word) to penetrate the secular culture
and transform society, but that they knew how to do
it. No wonder the two who spoke in my class
had communicated the enthusiasm, the excitement, the passion of being
involved in a mission that utterly transcended them. There was
no other religious or missionary community even thinking in those
That vision just dropped straight down into the marrow of
my soul, with no opposition, no reluctance, no hesitation, and
I knew: I will be a part of that action.
of course, I had to tell the Legionaries I wanted
to join. Inevitably, they visited the house. In the sitting
room, my stepmother peppered them with questions: What? How much?
Where? How often? Why? How soon? When? How many? And
on and on.
I was bored and got up and left
them to it. I felt no need to know all
the details beforehand, much less to review them and see
if I agreed with them. I trusted the thing, the
core, and I trusted the people, because I trusted the
Lord and his calling me to them. I trusted the
Legion and I trusted the Legionaries with a total, absolute
trust, with no conditions or limitations. It never occurred to
me to have one trust for Christ and a different,
more cautious, less naïve and less total trust for the
Legion and the Legionaries. The way I looked at it
was: I’m giving my life to these people. Whatever they’re
going to do with me is going to be fine
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT
Jesus called me. I
cannot doubt that. He was more powerful and I had
He called me to trust him, to let
him dictate my future and its circumstance.
He called me
to reserve myself for him. No doubt there.
me to priesthood. No doubt there.
He called me to
the Legion of Christ. No doubt there.
THE CALL IMPLIES THAT
CHRIST IS ALIVE
The fact of the call is to
me one of the most powerful proofs of the existence
of God. Perhaps not powerful in the sense of logical,
but compelling in the sense of personal. Dead men don’t
call. If Christ is calling me, it means, at a
minimum, that he is alive and well.
THE CALL IS ETERNAL
AND THEREFORE NOW
Since the call is from the Risen
Christ, it is therefore a call from his eternity. We
know that eternity has no beginning and no end, and
so it’s often described as stretching back into an endless
past and forward into an endless future. If the material
universe were eternal, that’s the kind of eternity it would
have. God’s eternity is the opposite of that: It’s like
past and future are so collapsed and compressed and intensified
into an endless now that there is no past and
no future, only now.
Since the call is eternal, it comes
from Christ’s eternal now. That means it is not merely
something that happened in the past. Granted, my coming to
awareness of the call was an event or a process
in the past. I can remember it, I can renew
it, but I cannot repeat it. The call itself, however,
is eternal, coming forth from Christ’s eternal now. Therefore it
is always now. Therefore it is renewed at every moment
in time. Since he is calling me now, he loves
me, he loves me now.
The same thing is
true of my response. There was an initial response in
the past. But it didn’t end there. Christ is always
calling me now. And I am always responding to him
I want my response to be worthy of Christ’s friendship,
to be worthy of him. I don’t want to defraud
or cheat or disappoint or let him down. That means
fighting the impulse to be cheap, to hold back, to
be dishonest, to try to get away with giving something
less than everything, to evade the stark choices of self
denial and renunciation and sacrifice. It means always giving him
what I said I would: the final say and the
first say and the whole say and the only say
about what I will do with my life, how I
will build my future.
BUILDING THE FUTURE OF THE LEGION
call is eternal. That means that the Lord called me
to the Legion knowing full well what was to transpire
with the founder. He didn’t call me to the Legion
in ignorance of that, independently of that, in indifference to
that, or despite that. He called me to the Legion
precisely for that, to be involved in the process of
healing and purification triggered by the revelation of the evil
the founder had done.
Christ could have drawn me to the
Legion in many other ways. I give thanks to my
Lord that he chose to draw me through a resonance
in the core of my spirit with the core of
the Legion’s spirit. I loved and trusted the people I
met from the Legion, but it wasn’t just those particular
individuals I was drawn to. I knew I would trust
and love whoever was in the Legion, because we would
be the people the Lord had drawn to this great
enterprise, and so their heart and mind and spirit would
have been formed, as mine had been, to undertake together
such a glorious thing.
It’s on the basis of my call,
on the basis of how Christ formed my spirit to
be able to recognize and respond to what he had
formed in the Legion, that I can undertake the task,
in common with all those he so called and so
formed, of purifying the Legion of everything that is not
in accord with what drew me to her in the
My vocation is — as Pope Benedict said —
an unshakeable foundation on which to build my own future
and the future of the Legion. And I cannot conceive
of a more exciting, thrilling and ennobling endeavor.