Home town divided over 'cult' of sanctity through work

The Telegraph/May 10, 2002
By Isambard Wilkinson

Madrid -- Surrounded by the picturesque hills of Aragon, the town of Barbastro, where Msg Josemaria Escriva was born, perhaps best illustrates Spain's divided opinion about Opus Dei's founder.

A town official said: "Some 500 townspeople, so-called believers, have flown off to Rome for the canonisation. That is their choice.

"The majority of people here see his legacy as good for tourism, but a good deal of people stay silent as they see the whole thing as something of a cult."

The popularity in Spain of Escriva, the son of an Aragonese shopkeeper, is beyond doubt. After the Italians, Spaniards will be the best represented among the 300,000 expected to attend the ceremony.

Opus Dei was founded on an ethic of sanctity through work and a strong emphasis on confession. Its supporters say that it lifted Spain off its knees in years of poverty and reaffirmed doctrinal Roman Catholicism.

The organisation's swiftly expanding influence at the heart of the Vatican has reminded some nostalgics of Spain's Golden Age.

During that time Philip II would merely present a list of acceptable cardinals to the Pope and then withhold shipments of grain and wine until a satisfactory decision was reached.

Most Spaniards believe that Opus Dei is the conservative eminence grise behind Spain's political and financial power. Federico Trillo-Figueroa, the defence minister, is a member and newspapers occasionally publish lists of judges, academics and businessmen who belong to La Obra (The Work).

In a determinedly secular country like Spain, with its strong history of priest-killing and church-burning, the presence of a shadowy religious group arouses suspicion and anger.

This week the Socialist opposition party criticised the government, saying that state television and radio's coverage of Escriva's canonisation was excessive.

A spokesman described the two and a half hours of airtime reserved for the ceremony as "a clear example of what the PP [the Popular Party led by Jose Maria Aznar, the prime minister] understands of public service: to broadcast a programme as if we all vote for the PP, go to Mass and belong to Opus Dei."

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