Canonization of Josemaria Escriva

Controversial leader declared a saint today

National Public Radio/October 6, 2002
By Howard Berkes and Duncan Moon

It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Howard Berkes.

The founder of a controversial Catholic group was made a saint today. Josemaria Escriva was a Spanish priest who founded the group known as Opus Dei in 1928. The organization now has 80,000 members, including Pope John Paul's spokesman. It has risen steadily in power and prestige and is a favorite of the pope, who has publicly praised in the group. But its membership in the United States is relatively small, only 3,000 members, and some accuse Opus Dei of being a secretive cult. NPR religion correspondent Duncan Moon reports. Duncan Moon reporting:

In Latin, 'opus dei' means work of God. And its newly sainted founder charged its followers to focus every aspect of their lives, especially their work, to honor God and serve their fellow man. The group espouses a strongly conservative brand of Catholicism that demands adherents sharply prioritize their lives, giving up anything that gets in the way of service to God. Critics of Opus Dei say that sounds OK in theory, but that there is a dark side to the organization. They accuse Opus Dei of being secretive, manipulative and of using mind-control techniques to force members to submit to its will.

Sharon Clayson(ph) was one of the organization's numeraries, members who take vows of celibacy and live in special housing with other numeraries of the same sex. She says that when she was first recruited she had no idea what she was getting into, but that as she was pulled in deeper many of her freedoms were taken away and she found herself being stripped of her individuality and ability to make decisions for herself.

Ms. Sharon Clayson (Former Member, Opus Dei): They control every aspect of your life--your behavior, the information that is available to you, your thoughts and your emotions. You have to hand over all your money from your job, presents that you get from your family, any money that you get from your family. And then even after five years of being a member, you have to hand over your inheritance. They read all your mail, your incoming and your outcoming mail.

Moon: In the end, Clayson left Opus Dei after her sister had a serious accident. She says the director of her group restricted her visits to the hospital, even though her family needed her, especially her mother.

Ms. Clayson: First of all, she thought she was going to lose my sister, and then she thought she'd already lost me, so she--it was very difficult.

Moon: Clayson says the director told her that Opus Dei had now become her family and her first responsibility. Clayson says a light went off in her head and she packed her bags and went home.

Opus Dei denies their techniques are inappropriate. They say, on the contrary, their program is transforming people's lives and that those who don't find value in it are welcome to leave at any time. Also, two-thirds of members are not numeraries, like Sharon Clayson; most are supernumeraries, like Michael Barvik(ph), who live in their own homes and can marry and have children. Barvik is the director of a Washington, DC-based Opus Dei program that works with inner-city youth. He says in an era when the media and the Internet have created an information overload, Opus Dei helps bring clarity and purpose to his life, and he says sacrificing personal desires to better serve God and his fellow man is not onerous but cathartic and liberating.

Mr. Michael Barvik (Opus Dei Member): Just because you, as an individual, may have talents that allow you to be an ace when it comes to debate, an ace when it comes to football and an ace when it comes to student government doesn't mean that you necessarily need to pursue all those things. Because in the end is the goal to make myself number one for the sake of being number one or is there a higher goal, which the work, Opus Dei would say, is service to others? And so there is a prioritizing. It's not just structure for the sake of structure.

Moon: But while Opus Dei has been growing rapidly abroad, especially in southern Europe and Latin America, its growth has been slow in North America. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of the Catholic magazine America, says much of that can be attributed to cultural differences.

Mr. James Martin (Jesuit Priest; Associate Editor, America): I think that some of their philosophies, shall we say, of religion do strike people as--I don't want to say anti-American, but for most people Opus Dei represents characteristics of the church that strike people as deeply against the American grain; for example, their emphasis on secrecy, their emphasis on delineating the sexes in terms of their roles, their very aggressive recruiting tactics that strike some people as cultlike.

Moon: Whether those differences can be overcome is a point of debate. Supporters see some vindication in the canonization of Josemaria Escriva, and hope it will stir further interest in Opus Dei and help swell its ranks. But critics and former members like Sharon Clayson hope the canonization will turn the media spotlight on the Opus Dei they know and warn prospective members to be wary. Duncan Moon, NPR News, Washington.

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