Controversial Catholic pushed for sainthood

The Vatican has opened the final bureaucratic door to sainthood for the Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei.

Toronto Globe/January 18, 2002
By Michael Velpy

The Vatican has opened the final bureaucratic door to sainthood for the Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei, the influential church organization held in deep suspicion and dislike by Roman Catholic liberals.

The canonization of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas, given approval by the Vatican Curia's Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS), now needs only the Pope's final imprimatur, expected in the coming year.

Opus Dei (Work of God) and similar Catholic laity groups - socially conservative, disciplined and orthodoxly in line with Vatican policies - have been enthusiastically endorsed by Pope John Paul as instruments for revitalizing the church in a culturally secular and morally flabby society.

In 1982, he bestowed a unique "personal prelature" on Opus Dei, in effect declaring the organization to be its own international diocese with its members accountable not to their local bishops but to the head of Opus Dei, who in turn is accountable only to the Pope.

To its critics, the organization bears the trappings of a cult, and its founder, Monsignor Escriva, who died in 1975, the taint of Nazi tendencies, a vile character and insufferable snobbery.

It has been called the Holy Mafia and Octopus Dei, a reference to the power it exerts in the Curia, the 2,500-member Vatican bureaucracy of prelates and trusted laity who govern the Church. A parents' group has been formed in the United States to retrieve children from its grip.

Critics accuse Opus Dei of being intensely secretive and elitist, of discriminating against women, recruiting young people without parental approval and exerting powerful mind control over its members, and venerating its founder well in advance of sainthood status - all charges the organization routinely and more or less successfully over the years has denied or benignly interpreted.

It has been accused of laboring silently and stealthily in such countries as the Philippines and Peru to align government policies with those of the Vatican.

Its influence in the Curia has long been a source of irritation and alarm to Catholic liberals.

In 1992, when the Pope beatified Father Escriva - the major step before canonization - there were suggestions the CCS investigation into his character was rigged, that critics had been kept from testifying.

Major articles were published in The Times of London and The New York Times saying the Pope was moving too fast.

Born in 1902, the son of a bankrupt merchant, Father Escriva was ordained in 1925 and began the pastoral work among students that was to become one of Opus Dei's priorities.

In 1928, he said, he heard God tell him to inspire and nurture a lay spirituality in which people would commit themselves to God without changing their state of life.

Lawyers would remain lawyers, businessmen businessmen and journalists journalists but their work would become dedicated to God - hence the Opus Dei name.

The organization he founded was to have three classifications of members:

Numeraries, who generally have postgraduate university degrees, take vows of chastity, obedience and poverty - turning their incomes over to the organization - and live in Opus Dei communities, often continuing postdoctoral theological studies;

Associates, who also vow celibacy and obedience but do not live in Opus Dei communities; and

Supernumeraries, who are not celibate and follow modified commitments. Members are instructed to wear no religious habit or even a lapel badge to identify themselves, and not to inform anyone they belong to the organization - but also not to deny membership if they are asked.

Women and men living in communities were to be strictly segregated, even entering through separate doors. (Former members have said women are assigned domestic duties.)

After the Second World War, Father Escriva moved from Spain to Rome, where he worked for the rest of his life building Opus Dei into an international organization.

There is unlikely to be consensus on the nature either of the man or his legacy.

For every story told of his terrible temper and arrogant treatment of people he considered beneath him socially, Opus Dei leaders give accounts of his kindness and charity to the poor and sick.

Worldwide, Opus Dei has about 90,000 members in 80 countries.

In 1994, after the death of Father Escriva's successor as head of Opus Dei, John Paul knelt before his funeral bier - a significant digression from protocol: A pope kneels only before the earthly remains of a cardinal.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.