Challenging Mission

Opus Dei strives to answer critics and foster sanctity in Catholics

The Boston Globe/March 8, 1997
By Diego Ribadeneira

In the basement sanctuary of St. Joseph's Church in Needham, the Rev. Richard W. Rieman was exhorting more than two dozen men to take stock of their frenetic lives and make room for Jesus Christ.

Wearing a flowing black robe, Rieman paced in front of the altar, at times raising his voice as he urged the men to pray more, to find ways at work and at home to better mirror the image of Jesus.

"Holiness can come from being a good parent or a good worker," Reimen told the men. "The crisis we're facing today is the crisis of sanctity and that falls on your shoulder and on my shoulder."

This unusual evening service, intended to remind Catholics that Sunday Mass alone does not make good Christians, yields a brief glimpse into the heart of Opus Dei, a predominantly lay Catholic organization that proclaims loyalty to the Vatican and promotes the idea of devoting daily living to the glory of God.

Founded in 1928 by a Spanish Catholic priest, Opus Dei, Latin for the "Work of God," has evolved into one of the most powerful and controversial movements in the Roman Catholic Church. Opus Dei, for instance, has a staunch ally in Pope John Paul II and has various members within the upper echelons of the Vatican.

The organization also enjoys the support of powerful church leaders in the United States, including Cardinal Bernard Law and Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York.

Opus Dei's mission is to mobilize lay Catholics to live out their lives according to the Gospel. Sanctity, Opus Dei preaches, can come from striving to be good parents and good workers, and it's not just reserved for priests and nuns. The organization also seeks to make laity a more vital part of the Church.

But the way Opus Dei has gone about its mission has drawn sharp criticism.

In the United States, some theologians, priests, and ex-Opus Dei members, have accused the organization of being authoritarian and obsessively secretive. Some former members say their mail was monitored and that they received subtle encouragement to sever ties with their families.

It is Opus Dei's recruitment methods that have drawn the most attacks. Critics say Opus Dei targets for membership promising students at elite universities, such as Harvard and Boston College, who seem most likely to have lucrative and distinguished careers.

"The main thing I disagree with is the way they get people to join," said Tammy DiNicola of Pittsfield, who joined and then later quit Opus Dei while she was a student at Boston College from 1986 to 1990. "They're not upfront with people. They get people to make a vague commitment to live the spirit of Opus Dei and then there is this intense pressure to keep on even if you disagree with what you discover later on."

Opus Dei officials deny such allegations, saying they are made by disgruntled ex-members and others trying to undermine the organization. They say they try to attract people from all socioeconomic levels and are completely honest about their message.

"If you are a campus minister asking me to go on a retreat, then that's fine. But if I'm a lay person" making such a request "then there must be something wrong or sinister," said William A. Schmitt, an Opus Dei spokesman. "If we were wallflowers doing nothing, we wouldn't get criticized. But the fact of the matter is we're in the mix on campuses, in the workplace, and we are trying to live out the Gospel. Some people are threatened by the Gospel."

Opus Dei has nearly 80,000 lay members worldwide, runs six universities in Europe and Latin America, and operates a medical school in Italy.

In the Boston area, Opus Dei has about 300 members and runs several residences, a retreat center in Pembroke, and a girls school in Westwood.

In January, at the funeral of Rev. Salvador Ferigle, who brought Opus Dei to the United States from Spain in 1949, Law hailed Opus Dei as a vital part of the church.

"What is Opus Dei?" Law told congregants at St. Aidan'sChurch in Brookline. "It is about the preparing for the coming of the Lord. It is about reflecting the life and love of the Lord in our lives. It is about saying Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever."

Gatherings such as the recent one at St. Joseph's serve as a reminder to Opus Dei members that being a faithful Catholic requires a "conversion of the heart," as Rieman told the men at his service.

Members who join as singles are required to commit to celibacy for life and are called numeraries. Membership also entails rigorous spiritual discipline, including daily Mass, reciting the rosary, weekly confession, and regular meetings to discuss faith and life issues.

John Riccobono, 32, who runs a Dorchester youth program, and Marie Oates, 34, who directs a Back Bay residence for female college students, have both pledged to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.

Neither Riccobono nor Oates, however, expresses any regrets or reservations about the decision.

"I can focus fully on dedicating my work to God," said Riccobono, director of the Supplemental Program for Educational Skills, a tutoring and mentoring program founded by Opus Dei in 1985.

However, some former members paint a much different picture of Opus Dei.

Tammy DiNicola of Pittsfield said she especially bristled at being told that the mail she received while living at Brimfield, an Opus Dei residence in Newton, had to first be screened by the residence's director.

David Nelson, who graduated from Harvard two years ago, said he attended a few Opus Dei meetings but became disenchanted when members refused to discuss questions he raised about church teachings on women priests and homosexuality. Nelson said he didn't feel he could express differences of opinion freely without being made to feel like he was out of bounds.

"They ingratiate themselves to people and befriend them, not out of a sincere interest in having a relationship, but because they are trying to get them to join," said James Martin, a Jesuit seminarian at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge and the author of a 1995 article on Opus Dei in America, a weekly magazine published by the Jesuits of the United States and Canada.

Yet, Opus Dei enjoys a papal seal of approval. In 1982, the pope made Opus Dei the church's first and only "personal prelature," meaning it is not bound by geography, nor does it fall under the authority of diocesan bishops. The organization answers to a prelate in Rome.

"Opus Dei is normal, everyday people trying to live their lives well," said Scott Wahle, a sportscaster for WBZ-TV who is an Opus Dei cooperator, meaning he is not a member but a supporter who attends organization events and endorses its work.

Opus Dei spokesman Schmitt acknowledges that the organization needs to do a better public relations job in an effort to clear up what he describes as misconceptions.

"We're in a new era," Schmitt said. "We want to change the impression that we are this secret, anti-democratic, clandestine, onerous thing. There is nothing spooky or weird about it. This lay, secular mission is a new thing and we have not done a good job in explaining it. We're working on that."

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