Legio Maria

Legio Maria
Formation 1963
Type New Religious Movement, African Initiated Church
Headquarters Got Kwer, Kenya.
Membership est. 400,000 - 1.2 million
Baba Messiah Blasio Simeo Malkio Ondetto

Legio Maria (Latin, “Legion of Mary”) — also known as Legio Maria of African Church Mission, and Maria Legio — is an African Initiated Church (AIC) or new religious movement initially among the Luo people of western Kenya which incorporates traditional Luo religious customs into a Catholic Christian framework. The movement originated in the early 1960s as a breakaway of the Roman Catholic Church, declared its own pope, and asserted that it has replaced the "Church of Rome" as the true Catholic Church for Africa.

Baba Messiah Blasio Simeo Malkio Ondetto, co-founder of Legio Maria, unknown date.
"Gaudencia Aoko, or Mama Mtakatifu (Holy Mother), in western Kenya was a Luo girl aged 20 when called after the death of her two children in 1963; soon after, her movement seceded, broke from the Catholic Church and formed the Legion of Mary Church."[1]

Contents

History

Demographics

In 1963 a movement of dissatisfied Roman Catholics in South Nyanza Province left the Diocese of Kisii and formed the Legio Maria Church, or Legion of Mary Church, under the leadership of the messiah-prophet Simeo Melkio Ondetto and a young woman named Gaudencia Aoko.[2] Both were excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. By 1980 the church numbered 248,000 adherents.[3] Government estimates at the time of the split from the Catholic Church stated that there were nearly 90,000 followers of Legio Maria. By 1968, it had become a member of the East African United Churches.

The Legio Maria Church was not the only church schism among the Luo people in the early years of Kenyan independence. Catholic missionaries had been working among the Luo for 61 years before the 1963 split.[4] By 1966 there were 31 “distinct Luo separatist churches registered with the Kenyan Government.”[5] Across Kenya, “by 1966 there were 160 distinct bodies with a total of 600,000 adherents, most of whom were formerly members of the Protestant or Catholic Churches,” with the Legion of Mary Church being the largest of the schisms from the Catholic Church.[6] Today, estimates of the number of Legio Maria adherents range from 400,000 to 1.2 million[7] to even over three million.[8] In this regard, the Legio Maria Church is one of the most resilient and successful of the African Initiated Churches. While the Legio Maria Church began exclusively as a movement among the Luo people, it is now found all over Kenya and even has significant numbers of communities among the Turkana in northwest Kenya. In 1979, the word “mission” was added to the church’s official name, becoming the “Legio Maria of African Church Mission.”[9]

Origins of the Movement

According to Legio Maria leaders and researchers, the origins of the movement can be traced to the convergence of at least four separate events: the concealment by the Roman Catholic Church of ‘the third secret of Fatima;’ the death of Gaudencia Aoko’s two children and her subsequent dream in which Mary and Jesus spoke to her; Simeo Ondeto’s experience in which he was taken up to heaven and conversed with Abraham, Jacob and David; and the appearances of the Virgin Mary, Bakira Maria, as an older African woman among the Luo people. Apart from these events, when Gaudencia Aoko and Simeo Ondeto were asked why they started the Legio Maria Church, they claimed that they came to resent the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church and that they “wanted to declare that they were Catholics in Africa, and not in Rome.”[10]

The Third Secret of Fátima

The Three Secrets of Fátima are related to a number of appearances of Mary to three shepherd children in 1917 at Fatima, Portugal. It was there that Mary revealed three secrets to the shepherds. The Catholic Church released the first two secrets in the 1940s but the surviving shepherd did not write down the third secret until 1944. She sealed the envelope and instructed the church to not open the secret until 1960. Yet, to the consternation of many, the church did not reveal the secret in 1960, leading to countless rumors and theories as to why the church would not want to reveal a statement or prophecy officially attributed to the Virgin Mary. The Legio Maria Church believes that Church officials in Rome refused to release the true secret because it revealed Mary’s prophecy of a Black Christ for Africa.[11] Schwartz recounts the theory:

Angry at Rome, Mary decided to ‘walk away from those people’. She determined apparitions no longer sufficed. She would tread on African soil as a person with her Son. Colorless in Heaven, both would become black Africans and bring her message directly to a more receptive audience. Legios declared ‘The Third Secret of Fatima’ was about African independence and the coming of Legio.[12]

In 2000, the Catholic Church released the official third secret of Fatima alongside a commentary on the meaning of the secret written by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.[13] Many groups, including the Legio Maria Church believe the church is continuing to cover-up the true secret revealed by Mary at Fatima.

Revelations to Founders

While the facts are unclear as to whether the revelations from God to Simeo Ondeto and Gaudencia Aoko to start the Legio Maria church occurred simultaneously or at separate times, we know that both received similar revelations. Aoko’s two infant children died in 1963 and, in her grief, she received a dream in which both Jesus and the Virgin Mary told here to start a new church called the Legio Maria. The Catholic catechist Simeo Ondeto’s revelation came in 1962 when he was dead for 2 days. He was taken up into heaven where he conversed with Abraham, Jacob and David and learned of the heresies of the Roman Catholic Church that followed in the pattern of European rejection of Jesus since he came to the earth. Among other instructions, he was told to baptize polygamists and to start a church called Legio Maria.[14]

Appearances of the Virgin Mary

According to early adherents of Legio Maria, the Virgin Mary began appearing among the Luo people in the 1950s. Priests at Nyandago mission discounted the supposed apparitions, stating that Mary could not appear as a Black African.[15] Legio tradition tells of Mary and her son being incarnated as Luo in the beginning of the 1900s, with Mary entering into an earlier time period than Jesus. Born to Luo parents, the Black Christ (Simeo Ondeto) grew up in Angoro village, Kano location, near the Nyanza-Rift Valley border. Mary wandered throughout Luo land during this time, performing healings and other miracles; the church was officially organized “when the 90-year-old Mary and her adult Son, Simeo Ondeto, were reunited in South Nyanza at a place Legios call Got Oyawore (Mount the World Has Opened to the Light).”[16] Schwartz recounts that the “Black Mary ‘returned to Heaven’ on 23 December 1966, and that those who met her claimed “direct personal experience of Mary’s disclosure of the meanings of the ‘Third Secret of Fatima,’” in which it was revealed that “the Virgin Mary brought liberation for Africans!”[17] At nearly 90 years of age, from 1963 to 1966, Mary gave her task of evangelism to the twenty-year-old Gaudencia Aoko.

Early Tensions

Tensions exist among adherents concerning who officially started the Legio Maria Church, as stories claim that both Aoko and Simeo Ondeto received visions specifically telling them to found the church. While Aoko is popularly held as the founder of the church, official church doctrine from the male leadership does not recognize her as such. Conflict between the two came early, when in 1968, Aoko expelled Simeo and two other leaders of the church for giving themselves the titles of “Pope,” “Cardinal,” and “Archbishop.” Although this early conflict was resolved, and the titles remained, Dirven reports that Aoko still resented Simeo's “thwarting of her original practice of sending those baptized by her to the Catholic mission for instruction.”[18] Early on in the movement, at Aoko’s encouragement, many children baptized in the Legio Maria church attended Catholic Church sponsored schools.

Official Hierarchy

The full official title for Simeo Ondeto became Pope Baba Mtakatifu Messias Simeo Ondeto. He “returned to Heaven” on September 4, 1991, and was followed by the following Popes who continue to lead the Legio Maria Church:

• Pope Timothy Joseph Blasio Ahitler (1991–1998).

• Pope Maria Pius Lawrence Jairo Chiaji Adera (1998–2004)

• Pope Raphael Titus Otieno (2004–present)[19]

Messianic Theology

According to Legio Maria teaching, there are three “dispensations” or times when God has stepped into human history. The first is found in the Old Testament “when Jesus sent the High Priest Melchizedek to be a mediator between himself and the people of Israel.” The second is when God sent Jesus to the Jews and Gentiles, “who are the Europeans according to the Legio understanding.” It was the Europeans who rejected and killed Jesus. Because of this failure on the part of the Gentiles, a third and final dispensation was needed; the appearance of God in Africa as Simeo Ondeto. “Legio followers delighted in pointing out that because the West did not accept God’s appointee, God, as it were ‘slipped through their fingers and came to dwell among Africans.”[20]

Simeo Ondeto is known as the Messias, or Black Messiah, whose role is to liberate Africans from the oppression of colonialism and to “heal and protect from the evils of witchcraft.”[21] Simeo Ondeto is not seen merely God’s messenger, but as “the actual embodiment of God in history.”[22] Church leaders distinguish Messias Simeo Ondeto as separate from Jesus. He was not sent to replace Jesus, for Jesus has already accomplished his mission to the Jews and Gentiles. Instead, Messias Simeo Ondeto is God incarnated in another context, specifically for the Africans. Often, 1 John 4:1 is used as biblical support for the confession that God has again come into the flesh through Messias Simeo Ondeto, for “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God and every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God…Therefore we say that Jesus has come in the flesh.”[23] Just as Jesus was the Messiah for the Jews and the Gentiles, “so also God has decided to give the Africans their mediator.”[24]

In their affirmation that Messias Simeo Ondeto is the Black Messiah, the Legio Maria do not exclude the possibility and reality that the Messiah has been incarnated in multiple times and contexts. In interviews during her three years researching the Legio Maria Church, Nancy Schwartz relates,

most Legios insisted to me that theirs was not the only way to choose light and Heaven. The Baba Messias Ondeto had preached that ‘God is a polygynist’ who loves ‘all the houses in his home’. All religions, he had said, are akin to ‘branches of a tree that bears fruit’. Legios reiterated that black and white people could both get to Heaven, if they followed their faiths.[25]

Thus, salvation is available through other religions and revelations of God. While the Legio are clear that God has provided specific revelations and even incarnations for different peoples of the world, this does not translate into an exclusivist position in which only adherents of Legio Maria will be with God in heaven. According to Schwartz, “most Legios affirmed that Heaven was a place where the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mary, saints, angels and Old Testament prophets and patriarchs are without color, a place where there is nothing like Mzungu (European/white person) and African.”[26] She concludes that the Legio Maria Church has “formulat[ed] their own version of an anti-racist black liberation theology,” which is very unique.[27]

Practices

Prayers and Worship

The Legio Maria Church meets as individual congregations for regular prayer and worship. Often the congregations live together in community homes. The Church uses many Roman Catholic hymns in worship services, and employs both original Legio Maria songs and Catholic hymns in informal services, often accompanied with dancing and prayers. Large wooden crosses, swords and other symbols are often carried by male adherents or worn around their necks. During worship, both men and women wear robes and women additionally wear head coverings. The robes and head coverings can be any number of colors, and some communities wear their robes at all times as a distinguishing mark of Legio identity. Candles are normally present in worship as representations of the saints and angels. The Legio, in addition to Legio-specific African saints, recognize most Roman Catholic saints.

Strict Holiness

As an AIC, some aspects of African traditional religion and beliefs are incorporated into the church, including the early revelation to Simeo Ondeto that polygamists could be baptized into the church. In this sense, the church is more willing to accept some cultural practices, but this is balanced by a strict sense of holiness. According to Dirven, there are also “rigorous and legalistic taboos of drinking, smoking, dancing and wearing shoes in holy places — trumpeted as the essence of a strict moral code.”[28]

Dreams

Dreams are very important for adherents of the church. Just as Messias Ondeto and Aoko received revelations through dreams, the adherents of Legio Maria are taught to expect revelations from God, Jesus, Aoko, Mary, angels or Simeo Ondeto through dreams. Dreams are always seen as messages from the holy ones. Even while the Messias Ondeto and the Black Mary were still alive, it was possible for them to be in one place in Kenya while teaching and visiting other adherents through dreams.[29] It is a very serious offence to falsify the retelling of encounters with the holy ones in a dream. Such actions could lead to an official rebuke from the priest, or even a beating, called a chwat, from one’s local community.[30]

Dreams also provide direction for the individual in regard to spiritual discipline practices and outward garments. While many AICs require adherents to exclusively wear white robes when worshipping, the Legio Maria church encourages adherents to listen for messages from angels in their dreams in regard to the color of robe they should wear. Schwartz recounts the varied meanings of these dream inspired colors:

Dreams can lead Legios to acquire robes of yellow, a range of blues, purple, green, red, brown and other colors that are associated with various spiritual gifts and patron saints. Black is for ordained male priests (padri, pl. pate) and church mothers (madha, padri madhako, pl. mathe, pate mamon). Legio priests and church mothers wear black robes at requiem masses and at graveside services held in family compounds. At happier times, black prayer beads are worn or carried by church mothers and priests as a metonym of power and ordained status. A few non-ordained men and women said they had the black beads on their house altars because a dream had directed them to get the beads and pray with them at home. The dream-bestowed black beads were a source of quiet pride to these Legios.[31]

It is through dreams that the Legio Maria adherents can also receive direction for the more mundane decisions in life.

Headquarters and Holy Site

The Legio Maria headquarters and center is the village of Got Kwer, a community that adherents refer to as “Calvary”. This village of about 600 is approximately 15 km west of the southwestern Kenya town of Migori and is recognized by adherents as containing Messiah Simeo Ondeto's homestead and tomb, which is viewable as a long, cloth-covered plinth with numerous devotional objects scattered around. Both are maintained by a local community followers.

Other sacred sites

  • A large rock formation on the Kisumu-Bondo road about 29 kilometers west of KisumuKit-Mikayi — has become a popular local pilgrimage site for Legio Marians who come to the rock to pray and fast for several weeks at a time.

Continuity and Discontinuity with Christianity

The Legio Maria of African Mission Church can be seen in both continuity and discontinuity with orthodox Christianity. While one of the main critiques of the Legio Maria Church from other Christians centers on the claim that Simeo Ondeto is the “Black Messiah,” there are many ways in which the Legio Maria are in continuity with the Catholic Church.

First, the Legio Maria church recognizes salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The discontinuity with orthodox theology is that the Son of God has been incarnated in multiple contexts, rejecting the orthodox doctrine of Christ taking a human body and soul for eternity. As we have seen in the above research, none of these incarnations are considered exclusive; they only serve to reveal Christ to people of different contexts. All who are saved through any of these incarnations of Christ will worship God together in heaven. Thus, for the Legio Church, salvation is found through Christ, as revealed in their particular Messias Simeo Ondeto.

Second, the Legio Maria church recognizes an active spiritual realm that needs to be dealt with in order to respond to evil and illness. It is God who gives gifts to people for spiritual healing, sometimes through the saints. The Legio specifically recognize the Catholic saints Catherine of Siena and Bernadette of Lourdes in regard to spiritual healing. The Saints Samson and Michael help to “guide Legios with gifts for exorcism and battling witchcraft.[32] In seeking guidance from these holy ones they are in continuity with Catholic theology, but this theology is applied to traditional religious understandings of evil and illness.

As stated above, the Legio Maria church is also in continuity with the Catholic Church in its use of Catholic hymns and the Catholic mass. Many Legio Maria communities still celebrate the Latin form of the mass. In addition, original Legio songs are added that reinforce the particularity of the Legio Maria church.[33]

Another sign of continuity with the Catholic Church is that the Legio Maria include a white Catholic priest, Father Philip Chefa, among their saints. Serving at the Asumbi Roman Catholic mission station in the 1930s,

Chefa was said to have practiced a highly charismatic form of Catholicism that addressed his parishioners’ concerns. He had engaged in healing, exorcism, and the burning of paraphernalia associated with ‘witchcraft’ and indigenous spirit-possession. Chefa had treated people who later became Legios well. He had established a chapter of the Roman Catholic Legion of Mary for Luo in 1938.[34]

Not only does the Legio Maria Church acknowledge the Catholic saints as their own, but they have included some European priests who worked in Africa among their cloud of saints.

References

  1. ^ Barrett, David (1968), "Schism and Renewal in Africa: an Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements." Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 139
  2. ^ Barrett, David (1968), "Schism and Renewal in Africa: an Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements." Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 13
  3. ^ Barrett, David and John Padwick (1989), Rise Up and Walk!: Conciliarism and the African Indigenous Churches, 1815 - 1987, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 199, 66
  4. ^ Barrett, David (1968), "Schism and Renewal in Africa: an Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements." Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 135
  5. ^ Barrett, David (1968), "Schism and Renewal in Africa: an Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements." Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 14
  6. ^ Barrett, David (1968), "Schism and Renewal in Africa: an Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements." Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 30
  7. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 159
  8. ^ Rambaya, Samwel, “Legio Pope Blasts Leaders”, The Standard (Kenya), Monday, 25 October 2004.
  9. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 159
  10. ^ Pobee, J. (1992), “Exploring Afro-Christology” Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang, 138
  11. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 164
  12. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 167
  13. ^ Anon. (2000) “Vatican issues text of third secret of Fatima.” Christian Century 117, no. 21 (July 19): 749-750
  14. ^ Dirven, Peter J. (1970), “A Protest and a Challenge: the Maria Legio Breakaway Church in West Kenya.” AFER 12, no. 2 (April): 131
  15. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 172
  16. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 168
  17. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 179
  18. ^ Dirven, Peter J. (1970), “A Protest and a Challenge: the Maria Legio Breakaway Church in West Kenya.” AFER 12, no. 2 (April): 133
  19. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 179
  20. ^ Pobee, J. (1992), “Exploring Afro-Christology” Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang,139
  21. ^ Pobee, J. (1992), “Exploring Afro-Christology” Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang,142
  22. ^ Pobee, J. (1992), “Exploring Afro-Christology” Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang,140
  23. ^ Pobee, J. (1992), “Exploring Afro-Christology” Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang,140
  24. ^ Pobee, J. (1992), “Exploring Afro-Christology” Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang,141
  25. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (1989), “World Without End: The Meanings and Movements in the History, Narratives and 'Tongue-Speech' of Legio Maria of African Church Mission among Luo of Kenya.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 131-133
  26. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 167
  27. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 188
  28. ^ Dirven, Peter J. (1970), “A Protest and a Challenge: the Maria Legio Breakaway Church in West Kenya.” AFER 12, no. 2 (April): 131
  29. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 175
  30. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 175
  31. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 170
  32. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 171
  33. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 171
  34. ^ Schwartz, Nancy (2005), “Dreaming in Color: Anti-essentialism in Legio Maria Dream Narratives, Journal of Religion in Africa 35, no. 2: 171

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