Catholic Herald Staff
Editor’s note: For the vocations issue, Catholic Herald reporter Jenny Snarski has written a first-person account of her brother’s vocational journey with the Legion of Christ. Once plagued by the founder’s scandals, the community has been cleansed and renewed – a sign of hope for the wider Church.
Triangles, fingers and squares. One of the earliest memories I have of my brother Terry is how he liked his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut up – in triangles, fingers and squares. One sandwich became two halves; two halves became three long fingers, one small square and two smaller triangles.
That image of him as a young kid stayed with me often during the days that our family witnessed and celebrated Br. Terrance’s ordination to the transitional diaconate in Detroit at the end of January.
I couldn’t help but draw a connection between that boy eating PB&J and the young adult, wearing a little white square that identifies him as a man of God to the world and one step away from consecration of his hands and fingers to give us the Body and Blood of Christ at the altar.
A Brief History
There are 12 siblings in my family. The first half were mostly raised in a small city one hour south of the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. Faith and family were pretty much one and the same, a characteristic passed on by my maternal grandparents. And my parents sought further support for the living of a solidly orthodox Catholic faith.
My parents, and many of my mom’s siblings and spouses, found that and more in a humble Mexican priest, who held retreats for boys, and some consecrated laywomen, who would offer retreats for the girls. What we received was unlike anything available in our parishes at the time.
Fr. Lorenzo Gomez was a Legionary of Christ priest who had been stationed in Detroit. With broken English and day-old donuts, he and the consecrated ladies captured our minds and hearts for Christ, fanning a passionate love for Jesus and desire to transform the world for Him.
As an early teen, the strong experiences of Christ and hearing about my vocation to be a saint and apostle, although vivid, was definitely propped up by the chance to spend a weekend away with cousins, spaghetti dinner fundraisers and skits. Much of what I have seen my own children receive through Totus Tuus and Extreme Faith Camp echoes my recollections.
At national, and even international, gatherings of youth led by Legionaries and Regnum Christi consecrated women, we were surrounded by young Catholics from different countries all following the same Jesus in a universal Catholic Church. It was dynamic, it was inspirational, it was lively – and it was something many of us wanted to be part of, in a more committed way.
Fast forward to 1996, when my parents gave four of kids their blessing to leave home – at ages 20, 15, 13 and 12 – to discern vocations with the Legion and Regnum Christi – something they have been both praised and criticized for, but to which my Mom would respond, “How am I supposed to say no to God if they really feel that He is calling them to this?
A long road ahead
Terry is the fifth child. After a short stint being the oldest at home, and through Fr. Gomez’s invitation, he headed to Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, New Hampshire, for the seventh grade in August 1999.
In all, five of the Allen boys attended the minor seminary in New Hampshire and two sisters attended their discernment high school in Rhode Island, one just for a few months. And multiple cousins – as in dozens of cousins – have either spent time discerning religious life with the Legion and Regnum Christi or volunteering years of service in various places of the U.S., Europe and South America working with Catholic youth.
My brother recently admitted to me there were times that he wondered if a “normal high school experience” would have been better, but that overall “the minor seminary for me was without a doubt a blessing for my life and vocation.”
He added, “I probably underestimate and under-appreciate how easy it was for me to make the step from high school to the major seminary, and to do it with more clarity than doubt as to what my future would be.”
“A real grace I had,” Terry said. But a long road lay ahead.
Terry’s novitiate and humanities studies were completed at the Legion’s seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut. He was there from 2004-2010. He then spent four years doing a pastoral ministry internship working with youth in the Washington, D.C., area.
I couldn’t count on two hands the number of trips out East for Mother’s Day every year at the apostolic school for a large gathering of the students’ families, and in late summer for professions in Cheshire. It often felt like a sort of extended family reunion, as over the years you got to know others from around the country. And the priests and brothers were always quite a sight – so many men, so many voices, so many black cassocks; and, as I got older, so many ineligible Catholic bachelors.
Being and feeling a part of the Legion and their mission to evangelize and mobilize Catholic leaders, in all spheres, had a real mystique, and it was often defined as such.
But by Terry’s perpetual profession of vows to the order in August 2013, the Legion had been weighed down (and numbers lightened) for years by awful revelations about their founder, Mexican priest Fr. Marcial Maciel.
Maciel, who died in 2008, had been removed from public ministry in 2006 after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pronounced their sufficient moral certitude in the matter of accusations of sexual abuse of seminarians by the man. It was later revealed that he had also fathered three children and was responsible for multiple financial and identity scandals.
An apostolic visitation began in 2009, and by the next year, the superiors of the order, just 70 years after its foundation, were denouncing their founder’s reprehensible double-life and trying to find their way forward. The process has been devastating for the Legion of Christ, their members and all of the lay people and families connected with it and Regnum Christi. And for the droves that cut ties with the organization, many are still trying to find healing and meaning to so much deceit and betrayal of trust.
My brother was finally ordained to the transitional diaconate after living through almost a decade of these paradoxes of doubt and hope, confusion and clarity, purification and mission.
For those of us who have lived proximate to these scandals, there is still much confusion about how the many, many good fruits we have benefitted from through the Legion and Regnum Christi – vocations, apostolic organizations, educational institutions, missions and evangelization initiatives – could have had their seeds sowed by a man who committed so much evil.
Living through the expanded revelations of the sex abuse crisis in the Church at large has felt almost like a rewind-and-replay. There is no way to make sense of the scandals. But for me, there is also no denying the sacramental graces and spiritual riches I have received through the Mother Church, who claims as her children both the weeds and the wheat.
Terry shared with me that his vision of those realities will always be limited, and that he’s not sure he has fully matured his thoughts on the times of crisis he is living through as Catholic man and Legionary of Christ-almost-priest.
He did say, “I have been blessed to become much more humble about my faith and following Jesus Christ.”
His conclusion: “We are all seeking the truth, but never convince yourself that you have it and that others don’t. Fight for what you believe, live it with passion, but do it humbly because life and God are full of surprises.”
After finishing his studies in philosophy and theology at the Legion’s seminary for higher studies in Rome, the Regina Apostolorum, he decided to pursue a Master’s in moral theology, elongating his already long trek towards ordination.
I guess God knew what He was doing when Terry was given a resolute will, something I’m sure at times I have just called stubbornness. Those triangles, fingers and squares? It was cute until he wouldn’t eat a sandwich any other way, and as the big sister making a lot more than just his sandwich … Well, you can imagine.
My brother Jim, the oldest of the boys, tells of the time he and Terry had a contest of who could hold their hand in cold water the longest. Terry’s willpower and wit can outlast most of us, as has his unfailing vision to his future ordination.
When I asked about his call to the priesthood, he said, “From the time I graduated and entered novitiate at 17, I never truly doubted my vocation. There were moments, especially during my time of internship, when I seriously asked myself if I was really committed to this vocation, but that was a question more of generosity.
“Before my perpetual profession I even dedicated some time to try and see what were the signs in my life that maybe this was not a good idea, and even though I came up with a pretty good list of externally justifiable reasons to doubt my vocation, deep down I always looked at that list and knew in the eyes of God none of those were true reasons or signs that He wanted me elsewhere.”
A new page
Needless to say, 20 years after Terry left home at age 12, and having just turned 32 earlier this month, as his family, we are overjoyed and so proud of who he is, what he has accomplished and his path of perseverance.
His ordination as a deacon was a huge celebration in itself. The sole candidate, surrounded by hundreds of family and friends at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit, and ordained by Archbishop Allen Vigneron himself – there was much to take in.
In his homily, the archbishop reflected on something of a motto in the Detroit diocese.
“We continue to live the 29th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke ends his narrative with 28, but salvation history has not ended. It has continued from the Cenacle on Pentecost until this day … It is important for us to pause for a moment and consider what God thinks about what He is about to do in making Brother Terrance a deacon.”
With a firm and gentle voice, Archbishop Vigneron asserted that it was “the whole people of God participating in this sacred action (of ordination), above all by hearts filled with thanksgiving aware of what God is doing to save us in 2019.”
He offered words of encouragement, assuring, “After my many years in the ministry, this is a great consolation – to know that even my failures and my weaknesses and my limits can be at the service of advancing the Kingdom for which I, and all of us, have been consecrated.”
To conclude, he stated, “The history of salvation moves to a new page, moves closer to the consummation of the Kingdom of God. And let our hearts be filled with gratitude and praise to God that he continues to work in our midst, no less powerfully today than He did in the Church as she had her birth in Jerusalem.”
The solid walls of the Cathedral spoke to the solid foundation the Church has been built on – not men, but the God-man Jesus. The richly colored stained glass windows highlighted the multitude of stories in salvation history. And the few open pews between Terry’s immediate family and the rest of the congregation renewed my sense of sisterhood and support as part of his inner circle.
This isn’t just Terry’s story, it’s all of ours. And his committed response to God’s call of priesthood isn’t just his either. It’s all of ours, as is the generous response of each of our brother priests wherever we are and the seminarians we pray for, both existing and future.
Terry did get a couple meaningful moments to tell his story; one was at the reception following the ordination.
He thanked the friends and family present, both his natural family and his religious family. Directing himself to the other Legionaries present – priests, seminarians and minor seminary students – he said, “With all our family quirks, with all our family strengths and all our family everything… I love you guys all for it. I’m really happy, and I’m really proud to be a Legionary of Christ.”
Alluding to the beautiful windows of the Cathedral, he added, “I’m not alone at all … how much confidence it gives me” having so much heavenly and earthly support.
The following morning was newly-Dcn. Terrance’s first chance to assist at Mass and preach the homily. We chuckled at his polite interruption of the celebrant, our beloved Fr. Gomez, who had come all the way from California for the ordination.
Fr. Gomez stoically listened, with hands folded and eyes focused straight ahead of him, to Terry’s accolades.
“The historical fact is that Father, you played a very instrumental role at the beginning of my life, the beginning of my vocation … Even if I’ve been with other priests these 15 years – the image of a priest, the ideal of a priest I received from you as a little kid, has inspired me and today, I’m proud to say … that I still hold that example you gave me very close as an example that continues to inspire you.
The greying Mexican priest broke his gaze and laughed once Terry stopped. His smile was the thank you; his words were, “It makes me feel very old.”
But at the end of the Mass, Fr. Gomez took the opportunity to express what a gift it was for him to be there, witnessing “a vocation that made it to the top – with all the distractions and messages the world present, attacks on the family.”
He went on to explain a vocation as a pyramid, with a very wide base that supports and pushes the man called toward the pinnacle. He commended our parents, “closer to the top … supporting this vocation with their example and prayer … Why were so many open to discernment?
“We needed five Allens to find him – each one of us is a block, pushing up this one.”
Talking about the role that our family has played for him these last two decades, Terry said, “Early on in my seminary years—all very well-intentioned and spiritually motivated—I convinced myself that I did not need my family to follow my vocation and that the only thing I needed to focus on was Jesus Christ.
“I would never recommend that to anyone … Life is simply much easier and filled with more hope when those closest to you love and support you in your life decisions. Also, my priesthood has been influenced without a doubt very profoundly by my family in ways they will never know. They have taught me so much (and the Lord through them) about life and my priestly vocation.”
In that way, Fr. Gomez helped to bring my triangles-fingers-and-squares correlation to its completion. As Terry’s sister, and spiritual sister to all priests and seminarians, I am called to continue supporting and lifting up these men set apart to be the bridges of God’s grace into our world and our lives.
One of Terry’s last comments surprised me, turned the tables and lifted me up.
“I know this is contrary to what is often heard—that God doesn’t need me a priest,” He emphasized, “But He does want me His priest! So I am really excited about that, and excited to see where he brings me and my commitment to giving him my whole life in His service.”
Dcn. Terrance Allen, LC will receive the sacrament of Holy Orders in Rome May 4, accompanied by many family and friends.