Founder of Opus Dei Will Be Canonized

Conservative Group Gained Pope's Favor

Washington Post/February 27, 2002
By Alan Cooperman

Pope John Paul II will confer sainthood on the founder of the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei in October, the Vatican announced yesterday in the latest sign of the group's favor within the church.

The canonization of Josemaria Escriva, a Spanish priest who died in 1975, has occurred with unusual speed, aided by the strong backing of Opus Dei, which has about 84,000 members around the world, including 3,000 in the United States.

Both the group and its founder have long been controversial. Opus Dei's best-known member in the United States may be Robert P. Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence agent turned KGB spy, and detractors have portrayed the group as a secretive cult built around the charismatic figure of Escriva.

But yesterday's announcement shows the pope's "high esteem for Opus Dei and its founder," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of the Catholic journal First Things.

"Opus Dei is frequently vilified as a sinister power within the Catholic Church and beyond. But I think that from the Holy Father's viewpoint, it is more accurately seen as a very impressive movement of lay renewal that is committed to vibrant orthodoxy of teaching and practice," Neuhaus said.

In the past, it has often taken many decades, or even centuries, for a pious figure to win sainthood. But John Paul, eager to set modern examples of faith, has accelerated the process. In his 23-year papacy, he has elevated 456 people to sainthood, more than in the previous four centuries combined. The Vatican said yesterday that in addition to Escriva, the pope will travel this year to Mexico and Guatemala to declare two other saints: Juan Diego, an Indian who is said to have seen the Virgin Mary in 1531, and Pedro de Betancur, a 17th-century missionary.

Escriva founded Opus Dei, Latin for "Work of God," in Spain in 1928. It is mainly a lay movement -- only about 2 percent of its members are priests -- and its primary goal is "to help ordinary people come closer to God in their work and daily lives," according to the Rev. Brian Finnerty, the group's U.S. spokesman. "Christ was a worker, and by doing our work well, we can imitate him," he said.

Under John Paul, Opus Dei was made the only "personal prelature" in the Catholic Church, a status roughly equivalent to a diocese but with no geographic boundaries. Headed by a bishop in Rome, it has members in more than 30 countries.

In the United States, the group runs schools, youth camps and about 60 residential centers where members, called "numeraries," live in celibacy, although they are not ordained and they hold outside jobs. About 70 percent of Opus Dei's U.S. members are "supernumeraries" who, like Hanssen, live outside the centers and can marry.

John Paul beatified Escriva in 1992, declaring that a Carmelite nun had been miraculously cured of tumors through prayers for Escriva's intercession. Late last year, the pope cleared the way for his sainthood by attributing a second miracle to him -- the healing of a Spanish physician whose hands were damaged by X-ray radiation.

Escriva has been accused of supporting the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but Finnerty said Escriva refused to align Opus Dei with the Franco regime. John Coverdale, a professor of law at Seton Hall University who worked closely with Escriva at the Vatican in the 1960s, said the Opus Dei founder was careful never to reveal his own political leanings.

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