A papal envoy on Saturday bestowed near-sainthood on Madrid-born Alvaro del Portillo, watched by tens of thousands of Opus Dei supporters from 80 countries. Also present were hundreds of priests and bishops.
The ritual was performed by Cardinal Angelo Amato. Pope Francis sent a message, saying Portillo while proselytizing had exemplified simplicity without fear.
Portillo took over leadership of Opus Dei in 1975 from Jose Maria Escriva, a Spanish priest who founded the sect in 1928. It later played in a key role in Spain during the dictatorship of General Franciso Franco.
Book, film shook image
The movement, whose title in Latin means "God's Work," was portrayed in Dan Brown's bestselling book "The Da Vinci Code" and a subsequent movie in 2006. Opus Dei responded with a media-friendly public relations campaign.
Escriva was canonized in 2002 by the late Pope John Paul II.
Saturday's beatification - the last step before sainthood - followed acknowledgement from the current Pope Francis that Portillo had, through prayer, interceded in the resuscitation of a Chilean baby who had been near death in 2003.
Influence waning, say observers
Spanish sociologist Alberto Moncada and Juan Gonzalez Bedcoya, religious affairs correspondent at the center-left newspaper El Pais, both said Opus Dei had lost influence in recent years - in Spanish political circles and at the Vatican.
"Pope Francis has followed a line in the Church that is very different from that which Opus Dei has always defended," said Raquel Mallavibarrena of Christian Networks, a progressive Spanish Catholic association.
Under the late Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei flourished with its strict adherence to traditional Catholic values, including opposition to artificial contraception.
Pope Francis has said the Church must end its obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and become more merciful.
Opus Dei, which requires its members to enact a daily routine of prayer, sacrifice and service, runs teaching centers and benevolent projects around the world.
Religious commentator Jose Manuel Vidal said until 2004 at least three ministers in the government of the-then premier Jose Maria Aznar were members.
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