Opus Dei's 'fast track' to sainthood

Controversial Catholic group's founder is canonized

MSNBC News/October 6, 2002
By Stephen Weeke

Vatican City -- The Catholic group Opus Dei, which counts tens of thousands among its global following, achieved its greatest goal Sunday when Pope John Paul II proclaimed its founder, Josemaria Escriva, a Saint. While analysts say Opus Dei is the most powerful force in the church today, critics call it the most dangerous. Former members call Opus Dei a cult, and parents complain the group "brainwashes" their children. So why does the pope like Opus Dei so much?

Opus Dei, or "Work of God" in Latin, and has been around less than a century. It was founded in Spain in 1928 by Monsignor Escriva, who said he'd received direct instructions from God to do so. The basic principle of Opus Dei is that regular people doing ordinary work can still live holy lives without having to become priests or nuns.

On the surface, it sounds like an honorable goal - and hardly controversial. But Escriva's method for turning those words into actions is strict, literal, and unquestioning in its interpretation of traditional Catholic teaching, filtered through hundreds of sentence-length maxims he wrote in a book called "The Way."

The controversy surrounding Opus Dei is therefore not so much about what it believes, but rather how it expects its members to live their lives in pursuit of those beliefs, and why it has always revealed as little as possible about the details of this way of life.

Those details that have become public knowledge have come primarily from members who have left the group. They show a collective world view based on a deep, God-ordained division between "us" and "them." That hardly makes Opus Dei unique, but rather places it in the company of many other groups that have seen themselves as somehow "special." We've all grown accustomed to seeing the gamut on that kind of thinking run across religious boundaries, from team sports and the military to street-gangs and racism.

Going After Members

But what's different about Opus Dei's adversarial view of life, former members say, is the intensity with which its followers go after new members, presenting themselves as enthusiastic, intelligent, clean-cut young people who've found spiritual peace in a hectic world. What they don't tell their new prospects, ex-members say, is what life will be like on the inside, after they join.

Although Opus Dei's spokespersons have over the years forcefully denied these allegations of secrecy and deceptive recruiting techniques, journalists and writers who have tried to get information from the group have likened the effort to "peeling an onion."

Meanwhile, John Paul has never wavered in his admiration and commitment to their advancement in the church. Escriva died in 1975, and his followers immediately bent to the task of making their leader a saint. The process for that requires a waiting period of five years before the Vatican will even open a file for the "cause." But when that time was up the Opus Dei members were ready. With only 27 years between his death and his canonization, Escriva has become the "fastest saint" in history.

Another gift the pope has given Opus Dei is the freedom to operate anywhere in the world without taking orders from the local bishop.

This is a unique privilege within all of Catholicism, because all other religious orders and groups, whether they be Jesuits or Franciscans, priests or nuns, have to obey the local bishop. All members of Opus Dei, on the other hand, report to the Opus Dei bishop at their headquarters in Rome because the pope has deemed the group of 84,000 people around the world, a diocese made of people instead of land.

Anonymous Influence

While some might think that Opus Dei would wear this kind of papal support openly, and thus its name, that's hardly the case. In fact, in almost all of its institutions around the world, from high schools and colleges to recreation centers and sports clubs you will never see the name "Opus Dei." The names of these places are always anonymous sounding, drawing from names indigenous to the area.

This practice has also drawn accusations of secrecy and concealment, but Opus Dei's rebuttals have always forcefully insisted that it's just a matter of privacy and that the affiliation is spiritual, not physical.

While spiritual affairs remain a constitutionally guaranteed right in America and most of the Western world, financial matters are still open to the law of the land. The net worth of Opus Dei as an organization has never been revealed, but the recent purchase of a building in Manhattan to house its American headquarters is a good indicator of the groups' liquidity. Opus Dei paid $47 million for a 22-story building for the administration of 3,000 members.

Members are divided in two categories: "Numeraries," who are celibate, and "supernumeraries," who can be married and have children. Numerary members live a life entirely dedicated to Opus Dei. They live in residences often near college campuses with other same-sex members. They turn their paychecks over to their local leader, called a "Spiritual Director," and are given only a small sum the checks for their daily needs like bus fare. The men and women are strictly segregated to avoid contact with the opposite sex.

Dedication Demanded

Female members are expected to do the housecleaning for the male members, so when the women show up for their chores, the men make sure to leave the house ahead of time and return after the women have left.

Every hour of the day is allotted to work, prayer, penance, or recruitment of new members.

From Escriva's maxims come orders to completely obey one's spiritual director "like a child," and not to question orders that might go against one's own conscience because the individual doesn't know what's good for him or her. Rather, "The Father does," alternately being God or Escriva himself, as represented by his deputy, the Spiritual Director.

These directives to ignore one's own moral compass, former members say, are especially applied to new recruits who want to stay in touch with their families or their friends. Using the "us and them" approach, they tell the recruits to keep their distance because their relatives will not "understand their faith." Opus Dei, they are told, is now their "real family."

Members who have left describe a gradual pattern of detachment from their former lives and a narrowing of communication with the outside world. Only approved books and TV and film programs are allowed, and they are generally related to Escriva and orthodox Catholicism. An internal news magazine is distributed, but is not to be shown to outsiders. It is kept locked up and read by members only with permission from their directors.

Forms of penance range from sleeping on a wooden board laid over one's mattress, to putting a spiked chain called a "clice" - somewhat like barbed wire - around the thigh for two hours a day. Whipping themselves once a week with a lash is called "the discipline." The right to privacy protects what adults do to themselves behind closed doors, and these forms of self-punishment, known as "mortification of the flesh," have been around for ages and are certainly not unique to Opus Dei.

Recruitment of Minors

But what has made these acts more controversial in Opus Dei's case is their application not just to adults, but also to minors as young as 14-years-old. Though most recruitment appears to take place at the college level, many kids first come in contact with the group through youth centers offering sports and music lessons to children as young as eight.

A childhood friend of mine started taking guitar lessons at an Opus Dei center in Rome when he was 10. He said it was a great place to go, lots of fun with other kids, and that the guitar lessons were practically free.

After a few months, however, I noticed he was going to this place everyday after school, but that he no longer took his guitar with him. He said he'd given up because he wasn't good at it but that he kept going for soccer, ping-pong and other activities. By the time he was 12, the sports and games had led to field trips, weekend trips and going to mass and confession at this center. He was assigned a "spiritual director," whom he met with every week and who encouraged him to share his innermost thoughts.

By the time he was 13, the director had begun talking to him about how he saw a "special vocation" in him to dedicate his life to God. At 15, he made the commitment to be a numerary, a celibate member of Opus Dei. At 16, he was wearing the spiked chain every day. At 17, he rejected the whole organization and left the group. Today he is a successful television executive, married with two children and a practicing Catholic. To this day, his father and his sister are still lifelong members.

He doesn't resent the group for his experience, he just feels it wasn't right for him and whatever hardships he subjected himself to, he did on his own free will. Yet he was just 15 and his sister was only 14 when they made their commitment.

Papal Approval

Cardinal Hume, primate of England, cracked down on Opus Dei's practices more than 20 years ago, forbidding them from recruiting members under 18 years of age. This was before Opus Dei got its independence from the pope.

John Paul's approval of this organization goes back to his struggle with communism in Poland. Opus Dei's politics are described as conservative by friends, and Fascist by foes, but what they share with the pope is fierce anti-communism.

History shows that Escriva had close ties with Spain's fascist dictator Francisco Franco and that Opus Dei could not have flourished without Franco's blessing.

Most of Opus Dei's members - first in Spain, and then around the world - have been successful and influential career workers and professionals. The world's most famous member is the pope's own press secretary, Joaquin Navarro Valls, who is a celibate numerary member. But he's not alone among the group's celebrities who include Italian anchormen, Spanish cabinet members, print and television journalists, and even former FBI director, Louis Freeh.

In the process of "sanctifying" their ordinary lives, members are expected to use their professional influence to further the expansion of Opus Dei, in whichever sphere they operate.

With Escriva, Opus Dei's "Father," becoming a Saint, the "Workers of God" will have obtained the church's highest recognition in death. The next goal they are likely to strive for is probably the church's highest honor in life, the papacy itself.

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