Controversy over the canonization of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer

In a solemn ceremony today in St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul canonized Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer.

National Public Radio (NPR)/October 6, 2002
By Sylvia Poggioli

Hansen: Escriva was a Spanish priest who began the Catholic movement Opus Dei. The name means God's work. This canonization is among the most controversial in John Paul's papacy. Critics see Opus Dei as shrouded in mystery, and they say Escriva did not set an example that merits sainthood. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the story from Rome. (Soundbite of organ music)

Sylvia Poggioli reporting:

Josemaria Escriva founded Opus Dei in 1928 to counter Spanish anti-clericalism. He believed Catholicism had to be defended through what he called holy intransigeance and holy coercion.

Father John Walk(ph) (Opus Dei University): He said you have to be saints in the middle of the world, contemplatives in the middle of the world, apostles in the middle of the world.

Poggioli: Father John Walk is an American who teaches at the Opus Dei University in Rome. He says Escriva's basic idea was to sanctify ordinary life.

Fr. Walk: Sanctity in a different kind of package, in a plain brown wrapper--it looks more or less like the life of anyone else, and yet, there's something, we hope, radically different, something heroic.

Poggioli: One radical difference is the practice of some Opus Dei members to whip themselves with a lash or to wear a spiked chain around their legs known as a cilice. Father Walk explains.

Fr. Walk: It's a way of, on the one hand, doing penance, and it's also a way--a very graphic way, obviously--of reminding oneself of what Jesus Christ suffered.

Poggioli: Opus Dei members are primarily laypeople. Their ranks include numeraries, people who take a vow of chastity, who live in single-sex residences and who hand over their salaries to the organization, and super-numeraries, married persons who contribute financially and who often teach in its many schools and universities. There are also about 1,800 Opus Dei priests. Opus Dei members are mostly well-educated professionals. This has often led to the charge that the movement is elitist and overly interested in worldly power and influence.

Since Escriva's death in 1975, Opus Dei has grown to about 80,000 members in more than 80 countries, and its influence has grown under John Paul's papacy. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarra-Valls is an Opus Dei numerary. In 1982, the pope granted Opus Dei autonomy from local bishops, a privilege no religious order enjoys. Another sign of the movement's increasing influence was Escriva's fast-track beatification 10 years ago and his canonization only 27 years after his death.

But during the beatification process, many questions were raised about Escriva's suitability. The most pointed criticism comes from former members who accuse Escriva of having created a cult within the church, which uses questionable methods to recruit new members. Some go so far as to call it brainwashing. Alberto Monkada(ph) founded the first Opus Dei University in Peru, but he now criticizes Escriva the person.

Mr. Alberto Monkada (Opus Dei University): He spoke too much. In front of me ...(unintelligible) 'The devil is in the head of the church,' talking about John XXIII, things like that.

Poggioli: Monkada says Escriva blamed Pope John XXIII for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. At a press conference this week, Monsignor Flavio Cappucci, the man who promoted this cause for sainthood, recalled some other charges leveled against Escriva: that he had a bad temper, that he was cruel, that he was vain, that he was close to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, that he was pro-Nazi and that he was so dismayed by the Second Vatican Council that he even traveled to Greece with the idea that he might convert to the Orthodox religion.

Monsignor Flavor Cappucci: (Through Translator) The very fact that Josemaria Escriva has been canonized demonstrates that these insidious charges are totally unfounded.

Poggioli: The Vatican has ascribed at least one miracle to Escriva: the cure of a cancer patient. Former Opus Dei member Alberto Monkada, however, says church officials were not interested in hearing criticism of Escriva. During the beatification process, Monkada was one of the few negative witnesses to be heard.

Mr. Monkada: They couldn't tell us. They don't even watch me. They were having good drinks, were ...(unintelligible) cognac and whiskey, and they couldn't care less.

Poggioli: But Pope John Paul II has long had an affinity for Escriva. When he was a cardinal visiting Rome, he often prayed at Escriva's tomb. John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, says it's no surprise the pope has favored a movement which is very conservative both politically and theologically.

Mr. John Allen (National Catholic Reporter): They have taken it upon themselves to be his arms and legs on many projects and also in defending, strongly and effectively defending the teaching of this pontificate.

Poggioli: Escriva today became the 468th saint proclaimed by John Paul since he became pope 24 years ago. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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