Inside the world of Opus Dei

The Journal News/April 22, 2001
By Shawn Cohen and Gary Stern

For the past two decades, the most controversial Roman Catholic group in the world ran its American operations on a New Rochelle side street, waiting for the right time to deliver its message.

Now Opus Dei is ready to take its stand.

This mysterious worldwide movement for lay Catholics, long a visible religious force in Europe and Latin America, has just opened a new 17-story, $55 million headquarters in midtown Manhattan and is aiming to increase its American membership.

The news that Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent accused of spying for Russia, was an Opus Dei member brought an unexpected round of media attention in February. Suddenly, the longstanding international debate about Opus Dei was cracked open, with Catholic liberals and progressives framing the more conservative organization as a Catholic mafia - cunning, cult-like and secretive.

The movement, whose Latin name means "Work of God," has faced a long and sweeping list of charges, including intimidation of members, elitism, denigration of women, even infiltration of governments. And the group's use of self-mortification - some members must wear spiked chains around their thighs, whip their buttocks and sleep on boards - has been too much for many critics to take.

But Opus Dei dealt squarely with February's media assault, seeing a chance to confront its critics and polish its public image. Its ultimate weapon: Opus Dei is beloved by the pope, and its teachings are in lock step with the Vatican.

As one Opus Dei priest put it, the group's "coming out party" in America is under way.

Still, there will be no ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Opus Dei operates below the cultural radar, finding new members and raising millions of dollars through a network of supporters. How it will reach out to 8 million New Yorkers remains to be seen.

"The joke is that we should put 'Opus Dei Inc.' at the top of the building," said the Rev. Arne Panula, Opus Dei's vicar, or top official, for the United States. "Then we thought that maybe we won't."

Opus Dei's critics say that the group, despite the new, high-profile real estate, will continue to operate behind a veil of secrecy. They contend that Opus Dei actually promotes a rigid brand of Catholicism by aggressively recruiting new members and controlling them, and by seeking members in positions of political power.

The revelation that one of FBI Director Louis Freeh's children attends an Opus Dei school has fed this theory, especially on the Web.

"Members lead a kind of double life," Paul Baumann, a columnist for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, wrote after Hanssen's arrest. "To the world, they are successful doctors or lawyers, distinguished only by their professional skills and autonomy; off the job they must not only engage in an intense life of prayer (all to the good) but be strictly accountable to those above them in 'the work' (more problematic)."

The Catholic left's emotional opposition is starkly at odds with Opus Dei's place in the heart of the church. Pope John Paul II is so enamored with Opus Dei that in 1982 he made it the church's only "personal prelature," which is like a diocese without borders. In 1992, the pope beatified Opus Dei's founder, Monsignor Josemaria Escriva of Spain, before 300,000 people, one of the largest crowds ever in St. Peter's Square.

Opus Dei's 84,000 members live in some 50 countries and include 1,750 priests, who run the movement. Most members are married and work full time but contribute much of their time and money to the movement. Others are celibate and give their lives and entire paychecks to Opus Dei.

Members insist they are simply pursuing the founder's vision: lay Catholics striving for Christian perfection at work and home instead of leaving holiness to the clergy. To achieve this goal, they gather for retreats, prayer sessions and daily Mass at their local parishes.

"By working, we share in the suffering of Christ," said John Casey, an Opus Dei member from Chappaqua. "We become co-redemptors with Christ."

Members say Opus Dei is misunderstood because it is a relatively new, 72-year-old movement in a 2,000-year-old church, and because its goals are revolutionary for those who would leave real religious practice to priests and nuns.

Even critics admit that Opus Dei usually achieves its goals. With only 3,000 official members in the United States, Opus Dei has raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years through nonprofit foundations based in New Rochelle and across the country. The money goes to Opus Dei programs as far away as Kenya and the Vatican.

"Opus Dei's influence is not nearly as great here as in Latin America or Europe, but I don't doubt that they are growing in influence in the U.S.," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit who wrote a 1995 study critical of Opus Dei in the Catholic journal "America."

"I would like to think they are becoming more open, but in general, they are a very secretive organization. The way they do things runs against how America operates, and they may strike many Americans as questionable and quite odd."

Last month, Opus Dei achieved a milestone in America. The Rev. Jose Gomez became an an auxiliary bishop in Denver, making him the first Opus Dei priest ordained a bishop in the United States. This sign of Opus Dei's prominent place in the church came weeks after the archbishop of Lima, Peru, Juan Luis Thorne, became Opus Dei's first cardinal.

It would be hard to overstate the ferocity with which Catholic liberals, and some moderates, attack Opus Dei. Critics contend that Opus Dei has a cult-like allegiance to its founder and is more concerned with pushing Vatican policy to the right than with enriching the spiritual lives of individuals.

And yet, Opus Dei could not be held in higher esteem at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a member of Opus Dei.

John Paul II's recent apostolic letter for the new millennium calls for a fresh emphasis on holiness in daily life, echoing Opus Dei's clarion call and delighting its members.

Opus Dei's overriding theme of holiness at work and in daily life actually predated the Catholic Church's historic Second Vatican Council. Escriva, the founder, said he had a vision from God on Oct. 2, 1928, that people can "love and serve God without giving up their ordinary work, their family life and their normal social relations."

Vatican II, a worldwide gathering of bishops more than 30 years later, reached strikingly similar conclusions about the laity.

In 1998, the late Cardinal John O'Connor, at a special Mass for Opus Dei, said: "The kind of life Opus Dei offers as an ideal is the life of holiness to which everyone is called." O'Connor's successor as archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, plans to bless a chapel in Opus Dei's new headquarters next month.

For many Catholic liberals, though, Opus Dei represents the worst strains of religious extremism. They call the group militant and fundamentalist for teaching that true holiness can only come through adherence to Opus Dei discipline.

"Liberals and progressives label Opus Dei as right wing and fundamental in rather promiscuous ways," said William Dinges, an associate professor of religion at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "Opus Dei is clearly very conservative. But their growth is largely due to the loss of religious fervor that used to be found in the parish and the priesthood. Opus Dei has become the alternative for a hard-nosed expression of what it means to be Catholic."

Perhaps the best example of this expression is Opus Dei's belief in not only self-denial, but the ancient Christian practice of corporal mortification. Some members are required to sleep on boards, wear shirts that produce itching or conceal spike chains around their thighs to control physical desires.

"If you're used to saying no to yourself, then you can have courage," said Diana Jackson, director of a New Rochelle facility for female members. "The point is to build fortitude and offer that to God."

For critics like Eugene Kennedy, a prominent writer on the Catholic Church, there can be no explanation for Opus Dei's choosing to operate outside of the public view.

"It is time to stop being polite to Opus Dei," Kennedy said. "Secret societies cannot be Catholic. Opus Dei does not constitute a community of love and support, like Jesus did, but seeks to divide, subvert and, as I believe we found with Mr. Hanssen, appeal to the paranoid strain in life."

Opus Dei members express bewilderment over the vitriolic nature of the charges. They insist they are private, not secretive, and never coerce anyone to join.

"Critics imply that Opus Dei has an agenda, which is a falsehood," said Irene Dorgan, a celibate member who lives in New Rochelle and runs an Opus Dei tutoring program for girls in the South Bronx. "I've been in Opus Dei since college, and no one has told me any secrets. This is a calling from God, a vocation you commit to. This is a life of service, a life of prayer."

The bottom line, Opus Dei officials say, is that many critics are uncomfortable with any promotion of orthodox Catholicism.

"If Mother Teresa's order is very supportive of the papacy, no one cares," said Brian Finnerty, Opus Dei's head of communications in America. "But if Opus Dei focuses on lay people, something must be wrong."

Opus Dei is regularly accused of having a retrograde attitude toward women. Female members do the domestic work at Opus Dei facilities, a practice that members openly support.

"Opus Dei is saying that these activities are something that can actually lead people closer to God," Finnerty said. "It helps contribute to a homelike atmosphere."

Dorgan said that women are better at such chores.

"It's really not so much a sexist thing," she said. "Taken out of context, it can sound funny."

Perhaps the most common criticism of Opus Dei in America is that its members pressure naive college students into joining and call them unholy if they try to leave. This is the main focus of the Opus Dei Awareness Network, a national group that warns parents about Opus Dei's activities and helps to "deprogram" college-age children who join the group.

Dianne DiNicola of Pittsfield, Mass., started the group after her daughter, Tammy, joined Opus Dei while a Boston College student in the late 1980s. Tammy says she was initially impressed with the group as an alternative to keg parties. But after moving into an Opus Dei facility, she says, she was forced to wear a spiked thigh chain for two hours a day and whip her buttocks once a week, and was also instructed on how to target new members.

"I was made to feel that I was doing what God wanted me to," she said. DiNicola left Opus Dei after her family intervened.

In 1981, the late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster, England, actually banned Opus Dei from recruiting members under 18 in his diocese.

But chaplains at prominent local Catholic colleges say they have had no problems with Opus Dei. Carl Procario-Foley, director of campus ministries at Iona College, located only blocks from Opus Dei's former headquarters, said he knew little about the group's presence in New York.

"I've been here for 10 years and have no interaction with them at all," he said.

The Rev. Joseph Currie, head of campus ministries at Fordham University, said Opus Dei is no more visible on campus than other Catholic groups.

"We have them all, from the far right to the far left, but Opus Dei hasn't been that active," he said.

Even the Rev. Walter Debold, a professor at Seton Hall University who believes that Opus Dei is overly controlling and manipulative of members, said he was not personally aware of students who had faced undue pressure from Opus Dei.

"Their style of piety is not mine, but I have only heard indirectly of people who say they lost sons or daughters to Opus Dei," Debold said.

In Europe, the media has regularly accused Opus Dei of trying to infiltrate government. During the final years of Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime in Spain, more than half of his cabinet ministers belonged to Opus Dei. And during the Cold War, Opus Dei was a strident foe of Communism, making Hanssen's alleged ties to Russia even more bizarre.

But Michael Walsh of London, author of a highly critical 1991 book about Opus Dei, said this theme has become stale.

"I rather suspect that they had their fingers burned over Franco, and were unwilling to risk it again," he said. "Moreover, no ex-member of Opus I ever spoke to thought there had been much political involvement as an organization."

Until now, Opus Dei has kept such a low profile in the United States that churchgoing Catholics in the northern suburbs of New York City may reasonably think that Opus Dei is an overseas phenomenon. This may soon change as Opus Dei seeks to reach more people who confine prayer to Sunday Mass.

Opus Dei members even say, with no apparent irony, that the Hanssen arrest may ultimately bring positive exposure.

"Even though it is a tremendous tragedy, God has the ability to bring good out of tragedy," Finnerty said. "The media attention could help us spread the message about finding Jesus Christ in daily life."

Traditionally, Opus Dei employs a sort of stealth message system. The organization does little marketing, but operates and grows through person-to-person contact. Members reach out to friends and co-workers who appear to be stable, devout and family-oriented.

"The people in Opus Dei are all people I look up to and admire," said Mary Andruss, a married member from Scarsdale. "I wouldn't hesitate to go to them with any question or problem I have. We're all on the same wavelength."

That's why members profess utter surprise at the apparent double life of Robert Hanssen, who was active in Opus Dei while living in Scarsdale and Yorktown. It was in Yorktown that he allegedly began peddling $1.4 million in secrets to the Russians.

Opus Dei's main public role, its apostolic work, has been in the area of education. Opus Dei runs high schools in Chicago, Washington and Boston and tutoring programs for underprivileged youth in the South Bronx, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere, all blending academics with character lessons.

The group also runs more than 60 residential facilities for celibate members, including men's and women's facilities in New Rochelle.

The group is able to accomplish much - and to raise millions - with only 3,000 official members in the United States. Seventy percent are married or single members called supernumeraries. The rest are celibate members called numeraries. Then there is a network of "cooperators," nonmembers who support the movement financially and with prayers.

In the New York area, some 200 members and 500 cooperators make monthly contributions or lump-sum grants to Opus Dei.

"You can't raise the funds unless you get the inspiration from the good Lord to do it," said Al Frank, a retired auto mechanic from the Bronx and an Opus Dei member who makes a monthly contribution and gave $2,500 to the new headquarters. "It's a gift from God himself. People dig in and give. It's like a chain reaction. They go and talk to other people."

The largest of Opus Dei's four fund-raising arms in New Rochelle, called the Woodlawn Foundation, has raised more than $50 million over the last decade. The money has gone to an Opus Dei university in Rome as well as Opus Dei programs in heavily Catholic cities.

Another fund-raising entity in New Rochelle, the National Center Foundation, paid for the $55 million construction of the new headquarters at 34th Street and Lexington Avenue.

Despite this success, Opus Dei officials say it is time to reach more people.

"If you can bring the message of Christ in the workplace here, in the crossroads of Manhattan, you can do it anyplace," said Panula, the vicar for America. "Three thousand members is not many out of 280 million people. The goal of the founder was that if someone wanted to be affiliated with Opus Dei, in any town, they would be able to. It's a big challenge, and we have a long way to go."

Growing up Irish Catholic in New York City, Sim Johnston of Opus Dei remembers feeling like a spectator when he attended weekly Mass. There was the priest, whom he saw as having an exclusive calling to serve God, and everyone else, who essentially sat in the bleachers and plugged in.

His view dramatically changed when he was exposed to Opus Dei and its driving principle that everyone is called to holiness in their chosen professions. Jesus was a carpenter, not a priest, the logic goes.

"God wants us exactly where we are," Johnston, a onetime banker, said at Opus Dei's new headquarters early this month. He was there for an "Evening of Recollection," a monthly session in which members pray, meditate and receive spiritual guidance.

It is one of several group rituals. Members typically go to church daily, meet weekly with an Opus Dei priest and join occasional retreats, such as one for men this weekend about families. But their commitment is expressed constantly through work and routines. There is no unholy task, no occasion not worthy of prayer.

"Work can be transformed into prayer; that's what Jesus did when he was on Earth," said Maria Gomez, a celibate member who joined Opus Dei in Spain and works as a biophysicist in Tarrytown. "Parts of work are tedious. But when you do it and offer it to God or someone who needs it as a prayer or sacrifice, it helps."

For Janice McKirgan, in Opus Dei for 36 years, even being stuck in traffic provides metaphysical opportunities. She sees it as a test from God that she offers up as a prayer.

"I learned to accept cheerfully whatever God sends," she said, glowing in her Yonkers home after returning from a funeral. "When you're in Opus Dei, you fall in love with your Lord and do whatever you can to please him."

That starts when she wakes up to the "morning offering," the first of several daily prayers. In her living room, beside pictures of family and the pope and the Bible, is her trusted copy of "The Way," Escriva's guide to faith. She gives her own spiritual readings and confesses regularly to an Opus Dei priest who offers direction.

"If my goal is to get to heaven, it's important for me to have a spiritual road map," the widowed mother of six said. "I want to bypass purgatory."Opus DeiIts members include FBI Director Louis Freeh and spy suspect Robert Hanssen. Yet many are unaware of how this influential 72-year-old Catholic organization works. With a new $55 million headquarters in Manhattan, the group's 84,000 worldwide members seem poised to answer the question: What is ...

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