Opus Dei is unique in Catholic world

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/October 8, 2005
By Tim Townsend

When Terry McHugh gets to his desk at Computer Associates each morning, he resolves to do things the hard way. For Jesus.

McHugh, 52, and a member of the Catholic movement Opus Dei, proofs all his e-mails to make sure they are punctuated correctly and capitalized in the right places before he hits "send." If he has to return six phone calls and there is one he's dreading, McHugh makes that call first.

But not just to get it over with. McHugh attacks the difficult, if sometimes mundane, parts of daily life to identify with Christ's suffering and offer his daily work to God - the central idea at the core of Opus Dei.

"Even the little details, the menial tasks of life, if done well can be done well for the love of God," he said. "You bear the crosses that are coming your way anyway - you embrace the cross."

Opus Dei, a conservative, largely lay movement within the Catholic church, has been shrouded in mystery and myth since its founding in Spain in 1928. Perhaps the brightest light has been shined on the movement in the two years since the publication and mammoth success of "The Da Vinci Code," a novel featuring Opus Dei members as its murdering, scheming bad guys. That light promises to get even brighter for Opus Dei next year when the movie, based on Dan Brown's novel and starring Tom Hanks, is released.

Opus Dei leaders were so disturbed by the group's negative portrayal in the book that they have devoted an entire section of the group's Web site to debunking some of Brown's claims.

Next year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of Opus Dei's presence in St. Louis. Its 100 or so members here will celebrate with conferences and parties, according to the Rev. Michael Geisler, spiritual director of the Wespine Study Center, the organization's St. Louis headquarters for men.

Opus Dei has a special classification in the Catholic church. It is a "personal prelature" - the only one in existence - which means it does not report to individual diocesan bishops, but to its own leader in Rome, who in turn reports directly to the pope.

Other lay groups within the church are tied to religious orders. Regnum Christi, for instance, another conservative Catholic lay organization, is united with the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order of ordained priests.

Opus Dei is also unique in that its priests and lay people are equal members of the movement.

"In Opus Dei, at least according to the theory, it's not that lay people work alongside or support the priests; it's that the priests and the lay people are all part of one indivisible whole," said John L. Allen Jr., the author of the forthcoming book "Opus Dei."

Saint Josemaria Escriva, who died in 1975, founded the movement to help the Catholic laity "become saints" by dedicating their lives to God through their everyday work - whether they are electricians, police officers, teachers or attorneys - and in doing so, redeem the secular world from the inside out.

In 2002 Pope John Paul II made Escriva - whom members call "the founder"- a saint, and last year the process to canonize Escriva's successor, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo (who died in 1994), was begun.

Escriva was a priest, but only about two percent of Opus Dei's 86,000 members are priests. About 70 percent are married (or "supernumerary") members. There are also celibate lay (or "numerary") members, many of whom live much like an order of priests - in community - at an Opus Dei center. "Cooperators" are non-members who support the organization with money and time. There are about 3,000 members of the movement in the United States.

The McHughs have been supernumerary members for 20 years. Terry's wife, Joan, is a homemaker who has reared five children (four girls and a boy, ages 12 to 26) and was involved with Opus Dei before her husband.

Joan McHugh says she finds ways to put Opus Dei's ideals into practice around the house.

"For me, it's cleaning the toilets, or tackling a closet that hasn't been touched in 25 years," she said.

About a mile away from the men's center in Kirkwood is Opus Dei's women's headquarters, the Lindell Study Center, which houses five female numerary members. Seven male numeraries (and two priests) live at the Wespine Center. Numerary members of each center are completely segregated from numeraries of the opposite sex.

"Since the beginning, men's and women's centers have been run separately," said Mary Williams, director of the Lindell Center. "That is partly because what we want to do with a young boy to form him is different from what we want to do with a girl. Their needs are very different."

Numerary members donate all their salaries except basic expenses to Opus Dei.

Dr. Jerome Fisher, 66, has been a numerary member of Opus Dei or, as members refer to it, "the work," since 1962. Since 1968, Fisher has lived at the Wespine Center and worked as a dentist with a general practice. About a year ago he began working at a dental clinic in Pine Lawn, helping needy patients.

Fisher said numerary salaries and money donated by supernumerary members and cooperators went toward operating the centers. The Wespine Center's latest tax filing shows it took in $155,000 in direct public support in 2003, and another $141,000 in program fees and room-and-board fees.

"Whatever is left over goes to our headquarters in New York or our regional headquarters in Chicago," said Fisher.

In his book, Allen writes that Opus Dei's total American assets are $344.4 million, and he estimates the movement's global assets at $2.8 billion.

"Overall, that makes Opus Dei a significant but hardly giant player," said Allen. "In America, it has roughly the assets of a mid-sized diocese."

A frequent criticism of Opus Dei, especially by former members, is its recruiting methods. The term "recruiting" is distasteful to members of the movement, though the concept of evangelization is important to them. Members say those who develop an interest in joining Opus Dei do so out of a context of real friendship.

"You can't effectively bring people closer to Christ without friendship," said Fisher.

Members invite non-members to Opus Dei-related events and programs to slowly introduce them to the organization. The McHughs may invite couples to "family enrichment" workshops at their home, or get together with a group of parents as children are heading back to school.

"As we get to know each other we invite them into the circle," said Terry McHugh. "Maybe to a men's formation program at the center for a spiritual reading and a talk."

Allen said some former Opus Dei members feel they were tricked into joining the group.

"When you talk to ex-members, they say time and again that they were 'seduced' into the Opus Dei orbit by friendship with bright, articulate, fun people, only to find that friendship to be a sham when they decided to leave," he said.

Opus Dei has faced such criticism for some time, and on its Web site, the group offers a statement saying it mandates six years of "systematic and comprehensive instruction as to what membership entails" before allowing anyone to join.

"Opus Dei proposes to people to give their lives to God, following a special path of service within the Catholic Church," it reads. "One's life can only be given freely, through a decision coming from the heart, not from external pressure: Pressure is both wrong and ineffective."

For Joan McHugh, sitting one hot August evening on her back deck, cicadas screeching in the trees above her, the message of "the work" could not be more simple. To her, Opus Dei has little to do with power or money, and everything to do with honoring God in everyday life.

"We seek holiness in the world where we are ... by doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways," she said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.