Sainthood for 'sect' founder

As the Pope canonises Opus Dei leader Escriva, Liz Nash in Madrid looks at the pull of the secret order accused of female submission, brainwashing and political influence

Sunday Herald/October 6, 2002

Some 300,000 pilgrims -- including three Spanish cabinet ministers -- are to pack St Peter's Square in Rome today to witness the canonisation of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, controversial founder of the secretive and ultra-conservative Opus Dei organisation, who has achieved sainthood in record time.

Escriva was born in the Aragonese town of Barbastro in 1902, the son of a shopkeeper. Ordained as a priest, he claimed in 1928 to have received a message from God that inspired him to promote 'a search for holiness in ordinary life among men and women from all sectors of society'.

His vision blossomed into a worldwide movement renowned as much for its covert influence in politics and the media as its medieval practices of flagellation and mortification.

Escriva's book of 999 maxims, El Camino, (The Way) has been translated into 39 languages and is followed by some 85,000 Opus members worldwide. Maxim One says: 'With your apostolic life, wipe out the trail of filth and slime left by the corrupt sowers of hatred. And set aflame all the ways of the Earth with the fire of Christ that you bear in your heart.' Maxim 793 urges: 'Proselytism. It is the sure sign of true zeal.'

Spain has some 30,000 Opus members, but the order's rule of secrecy -- they say 'discretion' -- prevents exact numbers being disclosed. Similarly, no details are given on the organisation's wealth, estimated by one Spanish newspaper at £120 million annually.

The order has become influential in political, business and media circles in Spain and Italy and in Latin America, with the creation of schools, universities and business academies. Opus leaders, none the less, deny that the organisation amounts to a church within a church, or a sect, as critics claim.

Huge controversy surrounded Escriva's beatification -- the first step on the road to sainthood -- in 1992, unprecedentedly soon after his death in 1975. Critics deplored the order's powerful influence on the right-wing General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, when several Opus members were ministers. Their 'technocratic' drive for excellence was credited with modernising Spain's semi-feudal economy in the 1960s. It was in these years that the movement gained its reputation for elitism.

Initially a marginal, little-known grouping within Catholicism, the Opus swiftly gained ground to become one of the most influential voices in the Vatican after it found favour with Pope Paul II, who prayed at Escriva's tomb before addressing cardinals for the first time after he was elected in 1978. The Pope shares Escriva's vigorous anti- communism and his insistence on the most conservative interpretation of Catholic dogma on matters such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception.

Opus members close to the Pope include the Vatican's spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls, his financial adviser Jose Angel Sanchez Asiain and his private secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz.

The organisation, which is predominantly lay but has 1800 priests, has gained political influence in Spain in recent years, having several members within Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government, and other ministers are openly sympathetic.

Federico Trillo, the defence minister, is a 'supernumerary', a member of the organisation's elite who tithe a share of their earnings but who are permitted a normal family life. Numeraries, by contrast, swear vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live in monastic residences while at the same time moving in the secular world, often holding high-profile jobs.

Other prominent Opus supporters include Spain's state prosecutor, Jesus Cardenal, the former police chief, Juan Cotino, and three former ministers, Isabel Tocino, Jose Manuel Romay and Loyola de Palacio, who is now a European commissioner. Spain's deeply Catholic foreign minister, Ana Palacio, is attending today's ceremony in Rome. Aznar sent two of his children to Opus schools and his wife Ana Botella is openly sympathetic. They share conservative, traditionalist views and oppose progressive ideas.

Still more traditional, carrying a whiff of the medieval, are Opus practices of mortification: members may wear a spiked chain around their thigh so that it and the wounds it inflicts are unseen; and some whip themselves with lead-tipped thongs while saying the prayer Salve Regina. 'It's no more painful than a workout in the gym,' Navarro Valls says. 'And I've tried both.'

Outsiders may spot Opus members in Spain by their fastidious speech and dress, the presence of a model donkey on their desk or home -- representing the ass on which Christ entered Jerusalem, and the symbol of 'perseverance' -- and their penchant for Atkinson's eau de cologne, Escriva's favourite.

The Opus has gained force in the Italian church and among powerful public figures. Sympathisers include Leonardo Mondadori, head of the publishing empire, former presidents Giulio Andreotti and Francesco Cossiga and the former right-hand man of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Marcello dell'Utri, who briefly became an Opus member. Some left-wing Italian MPs condemned the organisation as similar or worse than a secret Masonic lodge, and asked parliament to ban it.

An interior ministry investigation came to nothing. And one Italian journalist and Opus watcher, Rodolfo Brancoli, reckons perceptions of the movement have changed.

Once accused of fostering a religious 'old boy network' that prayed together, played together and helped each other in the worlds of business and banking: 'Today, all of a sudden, it seems to be fashionable for the politician, the businessman and the newspaper editor who only recently stayed away to want to be publicly associated with Opus Dei,' Brancoli wrote recently.

The press and the media are targeted by Opus as a channel for influencing decision-makers. Volunteer stewards at today's masses bear waistcoats sponsored by Italy's Il Tempo magazine. The government-controlled Spanish Radio and Television (RTVE), which is broadcasting today's ceremony live in full, is widely regarded as Opus territory. Socialists criticised the planned blanket coverage as 'disproportionate', but a spokesman said they always carried the canonisation of Spaniards live.

Critics, and disaffected former Opus members, condemn the organisation for 'brainwashing' adolescent recruits. A former member, Isabel de Armas, recently published a book, Being a Woman In Opus Dei, in which she accuses Escriva of 'machismo', and says women in the movement are subjected to practices of 'submission'.

Certainly Saint Josemaria, as he will be from today, assumed his followers would be men: maxim 888 says 'Let your prayers be virile. To be a child does not mean being effeminate.' Armas criticises Opus for insisting members submit to the words of Escriva, 'while at the same time during the indoctrination they never stop talking to you of liberty and personal responsibility'.

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