The church called “La Iglesia del Dios Vivo, Columna y Apoyo de la Verdad, La Luz del Mundo” (“The Church of the Living God, Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Light of the World”), has been in the news lately.
Their leading “Apostle,” Naasón Joaquín Garcia, was arrested at LAX June 3 and charged with human trafficking, rape, and child pornography. The allegations have upset the faithful in more than 40 Luz Del Mundo (LDM) congregations in Southern California.
Naasón is considered a living “Apostle” of Jesus Christ, just as were his father, Samuel Joaquín Flores, and grandfather, Eusebio Joaquín Gonzalez, who founded the sect in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1926. I was familiar with LDM and its churches in El Salvador, but did not know any of its theology until I read an item in a Mexican digital periodical called YoInfluyo.
Wikipedia describes LDM as a “non-Trinitarian” Christian church, a contradiction in terms, but one that illustrates that its adherents are much like the Arian heresy I just read about in Mike Aquilina’s book, “Villains of the Early Church.” The old heresies don’t die, they just change their names.
The movement Eusebio founded in the midst of the Cristero crisis in Mexico sees itself as a “restoration” of the primitive Church of Jesus Christ.
The believers in LDM think that God called Eusebio to refound the church, which had ceased to exist from the time of the apostles until 1926. They refuse to call themselves Protestants, although much of their style is like the Pentecostal churches.
Eusebio was a soldier in the Mexican army when his wife converted to Pentecostalism. They belonged to a congregation that was visited by two prophets, both with multiple wives, who dressed in tunics, had long hair and beards and wore sandals. One of the prophets, Silas, baptized Eusebio and gave him and his wife asylum when he deserted from the military.
One night, Eusebio had a vision and heard a call to be “Aaron.” He left the service of the polygamous prophets and eventually made his way to Guadalajara. (His entrance there on December 12 is an LDM holy day.)
Guadalajara was a focal point of the religious Civil War called La Cristiada in Mexican history, a Catholic uprising against the revolutionary regime that was also anticlerical and atheistic.
Within that context of government persecution of the Catholic Church, Eusebio maneuvered to identify his sect with the ideals of the revolution of 1910.
The sect had internal problems that resulted in Eusebio being rebaptized in 1938 and in 1943.
The first rebaptism (not counting his Catholic baptism as a child) was because he realized that the prophet Silas had incorrectly invoked the Trinity instead of baptizing only “in the name of Jesus.”
When Eusebio broke with the minister who had rebaptized him, Lino Figueroa, he did the honors for himself and then required the rebaptism of all the members of the sect.
Those schisms led to what the sociologist Jason H. Dormady (“Primitive Revolution,” University of New Mexico Press, 2011) has called the “consolidation” of his power. His “Apostleship” was exclusive, a divine vocation based on the corruption of the Catholic Church.
When Eusebio died in 1964, his authority and power was then passed on to his son, Samuel Joaquín Flores, who died in 2014 and then to his son, Naasón, currently held on bail for $50 million.
Although he struggled in the fractious first decades of his movement’s foundation, Eusebio achieved an alliance with the local leadership of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico as a single party state for decades.
In the words of Dormady’s academic study of the movement, “They were able to parlay their vocal adherence to PRI policy into favors and protection in a system absent the rule of law for religious rights and freedoms.”
Even today, LDM has significant support among elected officials. Naasón was feted in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Mexican national ballet’s theater home) just weeks before his arrest, and President Andrés López Obrador pleaded ignorance when asked about the accusations against Naason — while making sure to mention that he believes in “respect and tolerance.”
Independent of the legal case against Naason, the attention to his sect should be a call to action for Catholics.
How many Catholics realize the size and strength of LDM, which claims 5 million members worldwide and a presence in 50 different nations? How many Catholics understand the crucial differences between LDM and proper Christian groups, which, although not in union with the Catholic Church, are at least Trinitarian in belief?
The case of LDM is not unique. There are great gaps in our knowledge of Mexico and its religious history. One could not imagine two European nations with shared borders with an ignorance of history like America’s lack of knowledge of the history of Mexico.
Amid a reality in which no country in the world is guaranteed a Catholic future, ignorance is part of the problem. How many priests — let alone average Catholics — even know what the congregants of the church down the street profess to believe?
I am not just talking about apologetics, which would obviously be helpful. What is necessary is to understand the social and psychological underpinnings behind the loss of loyalty to Catholicism and Catholic beliefs.
Some sociologists argue that the success of LDM as a religious movement has much to do with the history of persecution and institutional instability in Mexican society. The violence of the Civil War and the economic hardship that accompanied it and the worldwide Depression caused an internal immigration from the countryside to the city.
People who have lost their traditional way of life tend to lose some of the values associated with that life.
Among them are religious values. Chaos brought by abrupt and wholesale changes in revolutionary societies (or societies like our own, which have lost their traditional value systems, like Ireland) engenders movements that appear to be reactionary (e.g., the way the women of LDM dress, their hierarchical structure, indoctrination in literalist interpretations of the world and Scripture) but are actually extraordinary breaks with traditional religious culture.
Look no further than the substitution of the apostle’s entrance in Guadalajara for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Understanding is not the same as faith, and the “crisis du jour” (“crisis of the day”) of our Church is about something Bl. John Henry Newman called the great “apostasia” (“apostasy”) of the modern age.
However, faith without understanding, which does not do its homework, is irresponsible. Ignorance of the varieties of religious experience on the menu of our culture, especially the varieties that seem to be attracting Catholics and the famous “nones,” is culpable.
God will always be with his church, which as Newman said, “has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now.”
But there is clearly work to be done. The dramatic arrest of a religious leader and the charges brought against him should make us see beyond the present situation to the historical and social context that produced his leadership in the first place, and make us think of how ignorance of the other religions is making the Church increasingly vulnerable.
Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of the new book “The Wedding” (Lambing Press, $16.95).
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