Catholics' Strict Offshoot

Daily News/May 13, 2001
By Charles W. Bell

With the blessing of the Pope, the most unusual and controversial Catholic order in the world is settling into new 17-story headquarters in the heart of Manhattan.

To many Catholics, the presence of Opus Dei is a mixed blessing.

Detractors call it a dangerous cult. They say that, among other things, it brainwashes members, imposes rigid segregation of the sexes and practices medieval methods of discipline, including self-flagellation. The most devoted members wear spiked chains around their thighs for hours a day.

Defenders say Opus Dei ("Work of God" in Latin) is no more sinister than any of several especially devout Catholic groups that encourage rank-and-file faithful to live holier lives.

"All we're doing, in whatever way we can, is raise the supernatural temperature around us," said Brian Finnerty, national director of communications for the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei.

Finnerty puts its world membership at 79,000, including about 3,000 in the United States. There are 200 or so members in the New York area, he said.

Though the Pope is its most important supporter, it has several VIP members, among them the new bishop of Denver, Jose Gomez, and outgoing FBI director Louis Freeh's brother, who until recently was director of an Opus Dei center in Pittsburgh.

Another member, Robert Hanssen, an FBI intelligence expert, was charged earlier this year with spying for the Russians for 15 years.

The order's stated mission is to help Catholics, through prayer and study, find God in everyday life and integrate work, leisure and spirituality. Members called "numeraries," one of three types of membership, take vows of celibacy and live in residences.

Opus Dei's headquarters, a smart new 17-story high-rise at the corner of E. 34th St. and Lexington Ave., is not completed, but the organization is already up and running.

The order began moving into the building last October from suburban New Rochelle, where it had run its U.S. operations for about 30 years.

Inside, behind dark wood doors, are two chapels, a library, conference rooms, living quarters, dining rooms and the office of the U.S. vicar, the Rev. Arne Panula.

Finnerty, a former reporter for the newspaper Investors Business Daily, said the organization wanted to invite Edward Cardinal Egan to bless the headquarters this Thursday - the ninth anniversary of the beatification of its founder, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva - but were forced to reschedule because of unfinished work on the building. Otherwise, there are no plans for an official opening.

Opus Dei is the only Catholic organization of its kind in the world. Founded in Spain in 1928, it expanded around the globe and began working in the United States in 1949.

Thanks to a papal decree in 1982, it's the church's only "personal prelature," an ecclesiastical term for Catholic jurisdictions that govern people and not geographic areas, such as parishes or dioceses.

Pope John Paul raised eyebrows when he beatified Msgr. Escriva in elaborate Vatican ceremonies in 1992. Beatification, the last step before sainthood, usually comes after decades of investigation. For Escriva, it was 17 years.

Opus Dei is governed by its own bishop, who lives in Rome and who reports only to the Pope - and only every five years. It doesn't publish financial or membership statistics.

There are no signs outside the Manhattan headquarters, which Opus Dei calls Murray Hill Place and which is next door to Yeshiva University's midtown complex.

But outsiders are welcomed to most of its programs - one, a day-long seminar on marriage, is planned for Saturday. There also are high-profile programs for girls, in the Rosedale section of the Bronx, and for boys, in Crotona Park in the Bronx.

To critics, lack of identification anywhere outside the headquarters building - which cost about $42 million, raised by gifts to an Opus Dei foundation - is a symbol of its operational strategy behind the scenes.

Because of its relative secrecy - "holy discretion," as Opus Dei calls it - and its unorthodox, even bizarre, practices, the order has attracted considerable hostile attention.

The most devoted members practice self-flagellation and wear spiked thigh chains, called cilis, to remind them of the sufferings of Christ.

Finnerty said members wear the cilis only a couple of hours a day. "It is not as important as some people think," he said.

Critics have assailed Opus Dei for requiring numeraries to turn over their secular paychecks, waive all rights to privacy and report weekly to officials on every aspect of their professional and personal lives.

Segregation of the sexes is so strict that men and women are required to use separate entrances.

Such practices have led critics to call Opus Dei a cult-like sect.

'We are not a sect," said Gomez, the first Opus Dei priest in the country to become a bishop. "We are part of the church."

Like most members, Gomez ignores the charges and speaks instead of fidelity to the church and its mission.

"Opus Dei," Gomez said last month at his installation as bishop, "is so simple, but so difficult to explain."

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