Validating Opus Dei, Pope Canonizes Its Founder

New York Times/October 6, 2002
By Frank Bruni

Rome -- Before a hushed crowd of hundreds of thousands in St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II today made a saint of the founder of Opus Dei, a deeply conservative Roman Catholic lay group that has grown steadily in influence and stirred considerable controversy over recent years.

The pope's canonization of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, a Spanish priest who started Opus Dei in 1928, represented the ultimate Vatican validation of Opus Dei, and it came just 27 years after Father Escrivá's death in 1975, a lightning-quick period by previous church standards.

John Paul praised Father Escrivá as someone who saw the possibility for holiness in each and every aspect of human life.

"He never ceased, in fact, to invite his spiritual children to invoke the Holy Spirit - to make sure that the interior life, the life that is in connection with God, and the familiar, professional and social life, made up all of small earthly realities, not be separated," the pope said.

The pope's words, delivered in a slightly strained manner that reflected his struggle against Parkinson's disease, echoed from the foot of St. Peter's Basilica across the length and breadth of the square in front of it, which overflowed with worshipers.

According to the Italian government, about 300,000 people were present - so many that they also packed the Via della Conciliazione. the long, majestic street that leads from the Tiber River to the Vatican.

The crowd was reminiscent in size to the one that gathered here in June for the canonization of Padre Pio, an Italian monk, but its more formal feel and look spoke to the kind of Catholics attracted to Opus Dei, or Work of God. Many are well-to-do professionals who obey without question the most traditional Catholic teachings.

Opus Dei members and supporters who attended the canonization had come from scores of countries and, in some cases, thousands of miles away. They jostled for position near one of several enormous television screens.

They said today's event was a powerful affirmation of their personal beliefs and of the spirit of Opus Dei.

"This is the greatest day possible," said Enrique Gelpi of Washington, D.C.

Frank L. McNamara Jr., another American in Rome for the canonization, said, "This is a triumph of goodness and holiness over cynicism, despair and all the things that bring down the human spirit."

"I'm a cynical trial lawyer from Boston, and I live in a world where things aren't as they seem, and skim milk masquerades as heavy cream," Mr. McNamara said. "But this is a triumph of integrity."

Father Escrivá was born in 1902 and started Opus Dei after claiming a vision from God that revealed the group's mission, which is to help ordinary Catholics attain holiness in their daily lives - and in the way they conduct their careers - without becoming priests or nuns.

According to Opus Dei officials, the group has about 85,000 members worldwide, including about 1,800 priests.

Nearly a third of the lay people in the group are deeply committed "numeraries." They usually live together with other members in small residential centers that are segregated by sex, hand over their paychecks to a group administrator and make commitments to celibacy. Some lash themselves ceremonially with bits of rope.

That way of life partly explains the suspicion with which many progressive Catholics regard Opus Dei, but there are also other reasons.

Opus Dei's acknowledged emphasis on evangelizing successful, well-connected people has given rise to a complaint by some Catholics that it is an elitist organization with a secret agenda. Its presence on university campuses and its recruitment of young people have prompted other critics to describe it as cultlike.

Opus Dei emphatically denies those charges, and even some of the group's detractors concede that the group includes many devout, honorable, altruistic men and women.

They have long enjoyed favor with John Paul, whose spokesman, Dr. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, is a numerary member of Opus Dei.

The pope made that clearer than ever today. Citing the message of Father Escrivá, he said, "The daily life of a Christian who has faith, when he works or rests, prays or sleeps, in all moments, is a life in which God is always present."

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