Religion Today

Associated Press/March 7, 2002

Rome -- The founder of the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei will be elevated to sainthood this October, receiving a posthumous honor in 27 years that's often bestowed on notable Catholics only after centuries.

Some are skeptical about the rise of Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer among Catholicism's great names, questioning his virtue and what's seen as elitism and odd practices in the organization he founded.

But with unswerving allegiance to church teaching, Escriva and Opus Dei have long had a powerful champion -- Pope John Paul II.

"In Christianity, what counts is faithfulness to doctrine,'' said Monsignor Flavio Capucci, an Opus Dei priest who led the campaign for Escriva's sainthood.

Founded in Spain in 1928, Opus Dei is Latin for "God's Work'' and the group takes an active role in working for church-backed causes. It now has more than 80,000 members worldwide, most of them lay people and many well-educated professionals.

Spain is still its stronghold, but it also reports growth in Latin America and Peru's newest cardinal is an Opus Dei prelate.

John Paul, dismayed by the flagging faith of many rank-and-file Catholics, has been intrigued by the group for decades.

He prayed at Escriva's tomb before becoming pope (Escriva died in 1975). After becoming pontiff, he chose his spokesman from Opus Dei's fold -- a suave-mannered Spanish journalist with a medical decree, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

John Paul's official biographer, George Weigel, says the future pontiff had contact with Opus Dei going back to the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 assembly which gave lay people their marching orders: go forth and be more dynamic in doing God's work on earth.

The pope "was quite impressed with what everybody's impressed with, namely the ability to enliven people in their daily lives,'' Weigel said in a telephone interview. "Opus Dei's intention is to take very seriously Vatican II's call to lay people to be sanctifiers of the world.''

But Opus Dei has impressed others in less flattering ways.

Although the majority of members are married, the organization is led by a core of celibate professionals known as numeraries -- leading to frequent accusations that Opus Dei is elitist. Those members considered to be among the brightest often live in Opus Dei residences.

In an interview at the group's headquarters, Capucci denied that living apart from most other people runs counter to the Opus Dei vision of dynamic lay people in the world.

"A person who makes this choice needs some kind of protection,'' he said. "Opus Dei is made up of normal persons.''

Capucci also denied Opus Dei is secretive about its membership and practices, which can include self-flagellation -- whipping -- to achieve physical mortification.

"It's the Christian tradition,'' Capucci said.

There has also been concern Opus Dei is too aggressive in cultivating potential members.

In 1981, the late English Cardinal Basil Hume issued guidelines saying no one younger than 18 should be allowed to make a long-term commitment to Opus Dei, and young people who want to join should tell their parents.

A year later, John Paul accorded Opus Dei the elite status of "personal prelature,'' which in practical terms means the group does not have to report to a local bishop.

"I think the pope likes Opus Dei because it puts loyalty to the hierarchy, and especially to the pope, first,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and a frequent critic of this pontiff.

John Paul has censured liberal theologians during his tenure and reiterated church insistence on celibacy for priests and positions against divorce, birth control and abortion.

Opus Dei members in influential posts have championed the pope's line.

A few years ago in the Philippines, a senator opposed the government's family planning program which allowed couples to choose artificial contraception if they wanted. In Peru, a lawmaker campaigned to stop a government sterilization program there.

Many in Opus Dei are well-heeled. At a recent conference in Rome exploring Escriva's message, the racks were thick with camel-hair coats. Members include bankers and at least one TV producer, who give generously to the organization.

Opus Dei is "the source of a great amount of support for the pope's pastoral and missionary endeavors,'' McBrien said. "It was a source of great financial support for Solidarity,'' the anti-Communist labor movement in the pope's native Poland.

Members try to play down differences between themselves and other lay Catholics.

"My life is an ordinary life,'' said Leigh Bowman, 53, from Boston. "I'm a housewife with children. I try to go to Mass on a daily basis, and I pray.''

Criticism swirled around Escriva's figure in the years leading up to his 1992 beatification, the last formal step before sainthood. Two of the nine Vatican officials who ruled on Escriva's merits did not vote in favor of beatification.

Before the vote, Maria del Carmen Tapia -- who was once a secretary to Escriva and later headed Opus Dei's women's group in Venezuela -- said in several interviews that the Opus Dei founder was critical of John Paul's predecessors. He also threw unholy temper tantrums, she said at the time.

Contacted this year in California, she wrote in an e-mail that Escriva experienced "tremendous tension and stress to the point in which, when he realized that something was not done in accordance with what he understood as a divine message, his reactions were quick and forceful; even rude at times.''

But Tapia added: "I also saw him sometimes asking forgiveness'' of those hurt by his strong reaction.

When the Vatican announced the Oct. 6 canonization date, Opus Dei's current head, Monsignor Javier Echevarria, appeared to allude to the criticism of Escriva's character.

He noted the pope had approved sainthood for several other candidates this year, ranging from the Italian mystic monk Padre Pio to a Mexican Indian peasant Juan Diego, who had a vision of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe.

"Each one had his own personality,'' he said.

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