New Saint Reflects Lay Group's New Influence

New York Times/October 3, 2002
By Frank Bruni

Rome -- Pope John Paul II has made so many saints at such a brisk clip that the ascension of yet another, at a ceremony scheduled to take place here on Sunday, would not automatically attract special note. But to a great many Roman Catholics, the canonization of the Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer reflects much more than a tribute to his deeds and devotion.

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Father Escrivá founded Opus Dei, a Catholic lay organization that was, for many decades, defined less by its influence than by its eccentricities, including members' commitments to celibacy and the practice of lashing themselves. Profoundly conservative and shrouded in mystery, Opus Dei, or Work of God, hovered on the fringes of church life.

But since Father Escrivá's death in 1975, it has increased its number of members to roughly 85,000 people worldwide, gathered strength and, since John Paul's election in 1978, won more and more respect from Vatican officials.

Father Escrivá's canonization is the best and most compelling illustration of that strength, the ultimate encouragement of a little-known group that increasingly finds itself with more than a little power, to the delight of traditionalists in the church and the distress of progressives.

"If you're trying to promote an organization in the Catholic Church, what greater thing can you do than invite all the members to Rome, have them meet with the Holy Father and make their founder a saint?" asked Deal W. Hudson, the editor and publisher of Crisis magazine, a conservative Catholic periodical.

In fact, Father Escrivá's canonization comes as quickly after his death as that of any other saint, a fast track that seems to underscore both the aggressiveness of Opus Dei and its favor in the Vatican.

"He should enter the ranks of the saints with an asterisk," said Kenneth Woodward, author of "Making Saints," a book about the canonization process. Mr. Woodward said the Vatican had not given a hearing to Father Escrivá's critics, some of whom had concerns about the priest's ties to the Spanish regime of Francisco Franco.

The canonization follows other examples of the rising profile of Opus Dei in many countries, including the United States, where there are about 3,000 members.

In the last few years, an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. José Gómez, was made an auxiliary bishop in Denver; Opus Dei opened a new $47 million American headquarters in the heart of Manhattan; and the pope bestowed the designation of "pontifical university" on an Opus Dei school in Rome.

"It's increasingly seen as more mainstream and more normal," said the Rev. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest in Washington, D.C., whose own trajectory attests to that.

Earlier this year, Father McCloskey, who is often invited to provide the conservative Catholic perspective on television news shows, personally supervised the conversion of Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, from Protestantism to Catholicism. "There is a certain gift that Opus Dei has," Father McCloskey said in a telephone interview, "in terms of dealing with people of influence."

Opus Dei officially began in Spain in 1928 and was based on the idea that a Catholic can achieve holiness - and that his or her work can in turn be holy - without becoming a priest or a nun. It is partly a matter of prayer, principle and adherence to Catholic teachings on all issues, including birth control, abortion and homosexuality.

For a little less than a third of the men and women in Opus Dei, it is also a matter of atypical living arrangements and uncommon rituals.

These members, known as numeraries, live in small, single-sex centers owned and operated by Opus Dei. They hand their paychecks over to a group administrator, and they pledge celibacy.

Some lash themselves with bits of rope, as monks and saints often did in the past, although they usually do not like to talk about it.

"I can tell you that some kinds of that are less painful than an hour's workout in a gym," said Dr. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman, who has long been a numerary member of Opus Dei. "I can tell you that I've tried both."

The Rev. John Paul Wauck, an American in Rome who went from Opus Dei numerary to Opus Dei priest about three years ago, said he sometimes wore a spiked chain around his thigh and denied himself even lukewarm showers.

"It's not a main point of my life in Opus Dei," said Father Wauck, who is the brother-in-law of the accused spy Robert Hanssen, who was also a member, although not a numerary.

But, Father Wauck said, it reminds him of Jesus' suffering and moves him away from material self-indulgence.

"It's a penance," he said. "It's a way of saying no to myself."

Partly because of that kind of practice, Opus Dei has drawn controversy and many critics. But there are other reasons as well.

The group's admitted emphasis on preaching the gospel to well-educated, professionally successful people has made it seem overly calculating to some Catholics and elitist to others.

In addition, some former members and their relatives complain that Opus Dei is cult-like in the way it grooms new prospects, separating them from their friends and families. The Rev. James Martin, an associate editor of America magazine, a Jesuit-run journal, said that after he wrote an article raising questions about the group's recruitment techniques, "the number of heart-wrenching phone calls that I got from parents was astounding."

Opus Dei officials say that there is no coercion involved in recruiting, and that members usually do little more than broadcast their enthusiasm.

Father Martin said it was important to note that there is, indeed, a benevolent side to Opus Dei and that "they do a tremendous amount of good." While Opus Dei does not seem as deeply involved in social work as some other Catholic groups, it does run medical and educational programs for the poor.

Its members tend to come across as earnest, cerebral and wary of what outsiders will make of them, an understandable suspicion that feeds their reputation among many Catholics as a kind of secretive enclave, a Skull and Bones of the church.

They also come across as obedient. Father McCloskey said bluntly that the phrase liberal Catholic is "oxymoronic," adding, "You can't consider yourself a good Catholic if you dissent from fundamental teachings."

That kind of viewpoint fills many Catholics with misgivings about Opus Dei.

"Opus Dei represents the school that the world must conform to and listen to the wisdom of the church - that the world is threatening, with too much choice, too much freedom," said Robert Elsberg, the editor in chief of Orbis Books, a Catholic publisher. Mr. Elsberg made clear that he did not subscribe to that school.

But he and other Catholics said the canonization of Father Escrivá was not a surprise: two decades ago, John Paul blessed the group by making it a personal prelature, meaning that its priests and members fall under the jurisdiction of an Opus Dei prelate with no geographic bounds. There is no other Catholic lay organization with that arrangement.

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