|By Fr. Gary Coulter||Go to Fr. Coulter's Homepage||Sign-in the Guestbook|
There is also an official Josemaría Escrivá site:
And all of his writings are available on the internet:
Of course the official Opus Dei site has much information about Escrivá and Opus Dei:
You may have heard some of the rumors or accusations made about Opus Dei, how it is growing cult hiding under the guise of the Catholic Church. This is only the tip of the accusations on dozens of web pages about Opus Dei, which claim it is Fascist, dishonest, completely evil and working to take over the Catholic Church. And if it's on the internet, it must be true, right?
Put Opus Dei into your favorite search engine, and of course the official Opus Dei site is listed, but the next entries will all be sites dedicated to letting you know the "real truth" about Opus Dei. For example, the unofficial homepage of Opus Dei claims to be an independent source of information on the organization. But then it goes on to say that since the official home page is only going to present the positives, there is an emphasis on critical points of view.
So I want to examine how real some of these accusations are, and will divide my talk into 3 parts: first, to give a biography of St. Escrivá; second to speak on the spirituality of Opus Dei, finding God in work and daily life; and last I will address some of the questions of what Opus Dei is, its structure and functions, and perhaps answer some of the misconceptions about Opus Dei.
Life of St. Josemaría Escrivá
My own introduction to St. Josemaría Escrivá occurred on October 6, 2002. At that time I had been sent to Rome to study canon law, and had arrived just a week before the canonization of St. Escrivá. Fortunately, I was able to get a ticket to help distribute communion at the Mass, at which it's estimated that close to a half-million people attended. Needless to say it was quite a welcome to Rome. The booklet of canonization has an excellent summary of his biography, although I only have a copy in Italian, it is available in English. After the canonization, I then decided to read a biography on the Saint and chose the one by Peter Berglar, which I highly recommend. For those who want to really go into more depth, there are many other biography on the saint, including a three-volume work, but these will be my two main sources.
Josemaría Escrivá was born in Barbastro, Spain, on January 9, 1902 and baptized 4 days later. His father was Jose and his mother Maria Dolores, so you can guess where he got his name: Josemaría. His parents gave him a strong Christian education, including a life of virtue, frequent Confession and Holy Communion, prayer and devotion to Our Lady.
While intelligent and studious, he was also cheerful and fun-loving, despite the sorrows he would undergo at a young age. He had an older sister and young brother, plus three younger sisters who died before he was 11. At age 13 his family suffered financial difficulties and had to move a nearby town where their father found a job.
Every biography of Josemaría mentions the story of the first time he sensed his vocation. During the Christmas season just before his 16th birthday, he saw some frozen footprints in the snow. They had been left by a discalced Carmelite. He was moved by the thought of a barefoot friar walking in the heavy snow, and found himself wondering: "If others sacrifice so much for God and their neighbor, couldn't I do something too?" Josemaría sensed that God was asking something of him, although he didn't know exactly what it was. This moment had a decisive influence on Josemaría Escrivá's future, for he decided to become a priest, thinking this would help him discover and fulfill his calling from God.
After completing high school, he started seminary studies which led him to the Pontifical University at Saragossa at age 18. While completing his formation and Theology courses prior to ordination, he also studied Law. He was remembered by his fellow seminarians for the example of his life of piety, respect for discipline and endeavor in study. During this time his spiritual life became deeply rooted in the Eucharist and Mary. He spent many hours praying before the Blessed Sacrament, and each day he would also visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar, asking Mary to help him know God's will.
His father died just 4 months before his ordination as a priest in 1925 at the young age of 23. He began his ministry in a rural parish, but in 1927, Fr. Josemaría's Archbishop gave him permission to move to Madrid to study for his doctorate in Civil Law. In the Spanish capital, his apostolic zeal soon brought him into contact with a wide variety of people: students, artists, workers, academics, priests. In particular, he was chaplain for the Foundation for the Sick, a charitable organization that treated some 4000 people every year with food, medicine, clothing and pastoral care.
On October 2, 1928, during a spiritual retreat, Fr. Josemaría saw what it was that God was asking of him: to open up in the Church a new vocational path, a way of sanctification, holiness and apostolate through daily work and in the fulfillment of ordinary duties in the world. Escrivá remained silent about what exactly occurred on that Feast of the Guardian Angels, or about any mystical graces and charisms he received throughout his life. But he always insisted that Opus Dei was not his own invention, not the result of good and pious intentions. He did not see himself as an innovator or reformer, rather he was commissioned by God, and this was his vocation and call.
From then on he worked on carrying out this task, but during these early years what would later be called Opus Dei consisted of just one man: a 26 year old priest with light and zeal. Convinced that one can and should sanctify the world and sanctify oneself in the world, Josemaría didn't try to spread this message by writing a book. No, he taught it in by his own life, sacrificing himself completely for other people. He continued his priestly ministry, particularly caring for children and the sick and poverty-stricken in the suburbs of the city. At the same time he taught law to earn a living for himself and his mother, sister and young brother. Some of the first members of Opus Dei would come from among his students; attracted by his prayer and self-sacrifice, they decided to follow him one day, to learn his secret as it were. You can imagine their shock and amazement at what they saw. I would be remiss if I didn't mention his mother Dolores and sister Carmen, who were also an important part of the Opus Dei family the first members encountered.
At the beginning, this 'apostolic work' didn't even have a name, until one day a friend asked: 'How is that work of God coming along?" A name had been found: the work of God, Opus Dei - ordinary work transformed into God's work. In 1933, he started a university academy as he saw science and culture as a central way to evangelize the whole of society.
Actually I was introduced to Josemaría Escrivá many years before he was named a saint. While in the seminary I read a little book called "The Way". Its first version was published in 1934 under the title "Spiritual Considerations". Since then there have been 372 printings of "The Way" in 44 languages and its circulation has passed the four and a half million mark. It contains 999 pithy statements of spiritual insight about Christian life and spirituality - based on his personal experience - every paragraph is a gem to be meditated on slowly.
475, The Means - You realize you are weak. And so indeed you are. In spite of that - rather, Just because of that - God has chosen you. He always uses inadequate instruments, so that the 'work' will be seen to be his. Of you, he only asks docility.
530, Holy Mass - Isn't it strange how many Christians, who take their time and have leisure enough in their social life, in following the sleepy rhythm of their professional affairs, in eating and recreation, find themselves rushed and want to rush the Priest, in their anxiety to shorten the time devoted to the most holy Sacrifice of the Altar?
His other spiritual writings include Holy Rosary; The Way of the Cross; three collections of homilies, Christ Is Passing By, Friends of God, and In Love with the Church; and Furrow and The Forge, which like The Way are made up of short points for prayer and reflection. Lastly there is a collection of interviews of St. Josemaría with different newspapers and magazines entitled "Conversations with Msgr. Escrivá de Balaguer".
In Spain a Civil War broke out in 1936 with outbreaks of religious violence in Madrid, and Fr. Josemaría was forced to exercise his priestly work clandestinely and move from place to place seeking refuge; fully aware that if caught, he would be executed - as were 6000 other priests during the Spanish Revolution. Eventually, he was able to leave the Spanish capital; and, after a dangerous journey across the Pyrenees mountains, he took up residence in the Nationalist zone where he could exercise his priestly ministry more freely. When the war concluded in 1939, he returned to Madrid and finally obtained his doctorate in law. In the years that followed he was able to give new vigor to his apostolic work and mobilized many university students to take Christ to every area of society. At the same time, with his growing reputation for holiness, he gave many retreats to laity, priests, and religious.
In 1941, the Bishop of Madrid gave him full backing and granted the first canonical approval to Opus Dei. In 1943, through a new grace he received while celebrating Holy Mass, there came to birth the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, in which Josemaría foresaw priests proceeding from the faithful of Opus Dei. Both laity and priests, belonging fully to Opus Dei, would cooperate organically in its apostolates. In June of 1944 three engineers were ordained the first priests of the Priestly Society. One of them was Alvaro del Portillo, who would eventually succeed the Founder as the head of Opus Dei.
In 1946 Fr. Josemaría took up residence in Rome. During his years in Rome, he obtained a doctorate in Theology from the Lateran University and was appointed by Pope Pius XII as a consultor to two Vatican Congregations. But he also worked to obtain papal recognition for Opus Dei and four years later in 1950, he received the Church's definitive approval.
The headquarters of Opus Dei were fixed in Rome, showing his aspiration to serve the Church founded by Christ. But having a universal, Catholic heart, he traveled frequently to various European countries and Mexico, to spark the apostolic growth of Opus Dei in those places.
This approval does not mean the now Msgr. Escrivá was without his trials and critics. When it was founded, many aspects of Opus Dei's spirit were considered revolutionary for the time, to the point where some called them heretical: aspects such as the vision of the role of the laity in the Church and in the world; the view of marriage as a way to become a saint; the idea of the world as a place where one can pursue holiness; and that the demands and joys of ordinary, everyday life could be a path or means to holiness.
In 1962 John XXIII announced called the Second Vatican Council, and over the next 3 years the Church confirmed several fundamental aspects of the spirit of Opus Dei, such as the universal call to holiness; professional work as a means to holiness and apostolate; the value and lawful limits of Christian freedom in temporal affairs; and the Holy Mass as the centre and root of the interior life. Undoubtedly, Josemaría was a forerunner of many of the Council's teaching, and afterwards he diligently fostered its implementation through the activities of Opus Dei all over the world.
In his later years Escrivá undertook a number of catechetical journeys, where he would speak about God, the sacraments, Christian devotions, the sanctification of work, and his love for the Church and the Pope. In 1974 and 1975, he made two long trips to a number of countries in Latin America, where he met with large groups of people and spoke to them about their Christian vocation to holiness.
Just three months after celebrating his 50th Jubille of priestly ordination, Josemaría Escrivá died in Rome in 1975. I had the opportunity to celebrate Mass at the tomb of St. Josemaría on June 26th of last year, the anniversary of his death. The epitaph he choose for his tomb was simple: 'Josemaría Escrivá, sinner' - it was to read; and underneath that, 'Pray for him'. But when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1975, his successor couldn't bring himself to carry out the instruction, so only two words are inscribed there 'El Padre' - 'The Father'.
By the time of his death, Opus Dei had begun in dozens of countries and had touched countless lives, and his books have reached millions of copies.
Pope John Paul II beatified Msgr. Escrivá on May 17, 1992. "With supernatural intuition," the Pope said in his homily, "Blessed Josemaría untiringly preached the universal call to holiness and apostolate."
Ten years later, on October 6, 2002, John Paul II canonized the founder of Opus Dei in St. Peter's Square before a multitude of people. At the canonization, the Holy Father said that "St. Josemaría was chosen by the Lord to proclaim the universal call to holiness and to indicate that everyday life, its customary activities, are a path towards holiness. It could be said that he was the saint of the ordinary."
The Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá and Opus Dei
To speak now on the spirituality of Opus Dei, you probably realize that it is really the same as speaking on the spirituality of St. Escrivá.
He believed sanctity is something that should be normal and ordinary. Indeed the demand that baptized Christians be saints isn't something new, for Christ himself challenged us: "Be perfect, as you heavenly father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). As St. Paul affirmed in this first letter to the Thessalonians: "This is the will of God: your sanctification" (4:3).
His successor, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo summarized: "The basic conviction, the root of the whole spiritual message of Msgr. Escrivá, was the urgent need to seek personal sanctity in the midst of the world."
Therefore, for ordinary Christians, this personal sanctity is realized in and through professional work. Work that is sanctified also sanctifies, it makes Christ present in the world with a growing and contagious spirit. Work then becomes a way to bring others into contact with God, in a word, it is apostolic.
It should be clear that St. Josemaría taught that there is no task in the midst of the world that cannot be sanctified nor sanctifying. Any licit and moral profession, whether intellectual or manual, whether considered prestigious or menial, no matter how important or humble, has a potential to be a means for personal sanctification. Here we must remember our Lord himself, who spent 30 years of hidden life working as a simple and poor carpenter.
Now it's easy to say work can make us holy, and it sounds good, but how can we actually make our daily, routine work an offering to God? Besides understanding the theory, I want to give some more practical tips.
First the type of work we do needs to be one that can be offer to God. This means if your work prevents you from fulfilling your duties toward God or your family, if it unnecessarily puts your health in danger, if it intrinsically immoral or aimed at mere material gain, then it is unlikely that it will lead you to God. Work is a means, not an end. Getting rich is not the proper end of work, it has a much greater purpose: complying with the divine calling, we work to take care of the earth, to create a more just society, to care for our neighbors for the sake of love.
Next we look at the quality of our work - what kind of work are we offering to God? We need to be dedicated, industrious, and professional, not lazy or sloppy. Do we work with an attention to detail and care about the quality of our work? Do we produce quality products and deliver what is promised? We should have a certain professional zeal and enthusiasm, and further our training in order to improve our work. Whether one works as a barber or an engineer, a maid or a scholar, one can still be a professional who seeks holiness by doing quality work with a good work ethic.
All honest work can be a service to God. That means we offer our work by doing it in a moral, ethical manner, by being honest and just in our dealings. Even in the circumstances of today's professional world we need to distinguish right from wrong, and treat others with justice and charity. Especially in professions such as lawyers, accountants and tax advisors, but in any job we should answer the question: "How would Christ conduct himself here in my place?"
Another way to offer our work to God is to do it with joy and out of love - a joy that thrives in work done close to God and in service to neighbor and society, a joy that rejoices in the fruit of one's handiwork, embracing the task at hand, doing it with love. This joy is possible, regardless of the circumstances, once we see work as a way to follow Christ. Profound joy comes from knowing we cooperate with the work of Christ on the cross. To work is to share the privilege of Simon the Cyrenean, the privilege of helping Christ to carry the cross.
This is not always going to be easy. Because of original sin we may have an inclination to idleness, a natural reluctance and aversion to work. We are tempted to minimize our work or avoid it. No one likes the burden, the exhaustion, the routine. Yet Christians, quite literally, become fellow workers of Christ. Our daily work includes a "way of the cross". The fact that suffering may accompany it becomes an opportunity for identification with Christ. Everyday work can have a redemptive and sanctifying value when it is consciously and cooperatively united with Christ on the cross, who sanctifies all people, all types of work and every moment of our lives.
A final way we offer our work to God by joining it to prayer. Work becomes supernatural because its end is God and because it is done with God in mind. For St. Josemaría, the root of the astonishing fruitfulness of his ministry lies precisely in his ardent interior life which made a contemplative in the midst of the world. His interior life fed on prayer and the sacraments, love for the Eucharist and the Mass, devotion to the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and the Guardian Angels.
St. Josemaría preached constantly that interior life is more important than just organizing activities. He insisted that holiness requires prayer, work and apostolate to be intertwined in a unity of life. In order to attain sanctity through daily work, one needs to struggle to be a soul of prayer, of deep inner life. When a person lives this way, everything becomes prayer, everything can and ought to lead us to God. Every kind of work can become prayer, and every kind of work which become prayer, turns into apostolate.
For the vast majority of Christians, the place for holiness and sanctification is the world. All baptized Christians are a part of the world, and when they try to imitate Christ, they fashion the world from within, shaping it according to God's plan. This is the vocation of the laity.
This is why Opus Dei is not a form of religious life, which traditionally removes one from worldly affairs. Some people are called by God to finding sanctity in a religious vocation, which has and will continue to be a foundation for the Church, but it is not the only path to holiness.
So what is Opus Dei?
Josemaría searched all his life to find the proper juridical structure for Opus Dei. He insisted over and over it was not a religious order or other form of consecrated life. It was first approved as pious union, an association of the faithful. Yet associations of the faithful are not able to incardinate priests, as he envisioned for Opus Dei. So he formed the priests as a society of common life without vows, and later as a Secular Institute. Yet this was still quite imperfect and he would not live to see his dream of Opus Dei being given the new juridical status of a personal prelature in 1982, as would be envisioned in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
A 'personal prelature' might sound very technical, but the reality is quite simple. Prelatures are one of the ways the Church is trying to respond to the specific pastoral and evangelizing needs of our times. It is a portion of the people of God - much like a diocese - except it is scattered worldwide instead of having territorial boundaries. It is a personal, non-territorial structure - similar to a military archdiocese having jurisdiction over military personnel. The prelature has a Prelate (often a bishop), clergy and lay faithful who have a special task to perform. In the case of Opus Dei the task is to spread the awareness of the universal call to holiness among ordinary lay people, through the sanctification of their work and other social and familial activities. That is the service the Church expects of the faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei.
The lay members of Opus Dei still have the same relationship with their parish, bishop and the Pope as other Catholic faithful. They are still bound by diocesan regulations, the teachings and guidelines of the bishop, and are to participate fully in the life of the parish according to their circumstances. Their commitments to Opus Dei are complementary commitments in addition to that of simply being a Catholic, just as all faithful are free to follow whatever path of spiritual development and apostolic commitment they choose to reach holiness.
For example, members of Opus Dei follow a plan of life to guide their daily prayers, including: a Morning offering, daily Mass, the Rosary, Mental prayer, the Angelus, a Particular and General examination of conscience, Spiritual reading, Reading of the New Testament, a Visit to the Blessed Sacrament, Aspirations and other Prayers. They also practice weekly confession, and attend monthly days or recollection and annual retreats. St. Escrivá said that the vocation to Opus Dei is the vocation to be a "contemplative in the middle of the world", and as you can see, the practices in the plan of life will certainly foster a contemplative spirit, while also being a real challenge to do every day.
I am not a member of Opus Dei, so there are others much better equipped to answer some of the criticisms of Opus Dei. My own contact with the work came from attending the University of the Holy Cross, Santa Croce, which they run in Rome. There I met many priests, numeraries and others associated with the work, and it was a great experience.
There is no doubt about the source of one criticism, Opus Dei is everywhere, but it's not because they're trying to take over the Church. Convinced of the universal call to holiness among ordinary lay people, and the sanctifying value of ordinary work; Josemaría Escrivá made an organization in the Church dedicated to not only following, but also promoting these ideals, which quickly spread across Europe, America, Asia and Africa in relatively few years since its foundation. So yes, inviting new members is a part of their work, but never by coercion or proselytism. However, Opus Dei is still made up of sinful human members, so it is always possible that at times they are excesses.
If you visit the houses of Opus Dei, it is true they are well cared for and tastefully furnished. But this stems not from riches but is actually a testament to the spirit of poverty of its members. What seems so comfortable and attractive is the result of hard work, personal sacrifices, and self-denial of the members of Opus Dei. It depends too, on the help of many friends and members, and on the generosity of individual donors.
A popular criticism of Opus Dei is their use of corporal mortification. For example, women numeraries sleep on hard beds, and male numeraries take cold showers. And it's true St. Josemaría practiced many personal mortifications. As he began Opus Dei in the late 1920s and early 30s, these including fasting from food and water, using the discipline and cilice, and numerous other sacrifices. But there are several things to keep in mind: first, bodily mortification has a long histor, approved by many saints and the Church, as a way to grow in humility and make atonement for sins; second and perhaps most important, it is always done under the guidance of a spiritual director, and in a way that is never harmful to one's health; and third, for Josemaría this never took away from his offering the perhaps greater sacrifice of ministering to the poor and sick in Madrid's slums and hospitals - and after caring for them he asked them to offer their suffering for the work he was undertaking. He recognized that it was precisely by union with the sufferings of Christ and being souls of expiation, that many people could become saints, and help bring the truth and love of Christ to the middle of the world. These kinds of bodily sacrifices are certainly not a central focus in Opus Dei, which emphasizes integrating faith with the activities of everyday life. While the Founder was hard on himself, he never prescribed tough mortifications for anyone who sought his advice. Quite the contrary, he would advise one to offer little things to God, for example, to smile, when smiling is the last thing you feel like doing for someone.
I must mention here that that the penances used by Opus Dei are obviously completely unlike the Da Vinci Code's distorted representation. And of course, Opus Dei is not a religious order and has no monks in it to start with. That alone indicates that perhaps Dan Brown's "meticulous research" into Opus Dei wasn't quite as thorough as he claims.
There are three types of members in Opus Dei: Numeraries, associates and supernumeraries. The vocation is the same for all 3 types. The distinction is in their involvement in directing and assisting the apostolic activities of the prelature.
Numeraries have received a call from God to live celibacy and make themselves completely available to the activities of Opus Dei. They give all their free time and money to the Work. While most of them hold regular secular jobs, they live in centers of the Work. For some of them, their professional work is to direct the apostolic activities of Opus Dei. Numeraries are the primary givers of spiritual direction to the rest of the membership.
Associates are the next in order of availability. Associates are similar to numeraries, in that they are called to live celibacy, but they typically do not live in centers of the work, because circumstances call them to live with their families.
Supernumeraries are lay faithful, married or unmarried, who live wherever they want and give themselves fully to God in their particular state in life. Most of the members of Opus Dei are supernumeraries, probably around 95%, and it is they who carry out the real apostolate in Opus Dei among their colleagues, their friends, and their families.
Then there are the priests who belong to the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, which are of two types. First some priests are incardinated in the prelature of Opus Dei, therefore they are at the disposal of the prelature and are ready to move wherever the prelate needs them. Others are diocesan priests, who join Opus Dei for the fraternity, support and spiritual direction which they feel can help them in their priestly ministry. Such membership in no way changes their relationship with the diocese or obedience to their bishop.
One isn't surprised that the prelate generally calls men to be ordained to the priesthood from among the male numeraries and associates of Opus Dei. While numeraries are asked to be open to the possibility of such a call, they also remain free to say no if they feel God hasn't called them to the priesthood.
Lastly there are cooperators with Opus Dei. Many people, while not being members of the Work, cooperate with Opus Dei's apostolic activities because they believe that what Opus Dei is trying to do is worthwhile. Non-Catholics and even non-Christians can be cooperators, if they wish to help the Work in some way: by praying for it, by assisting in one of the Work's apostolic activities or making a financial contribution. Sometimes people who are not yet ready to join Opus Dei become cooperators instead, but that is not a requirement, as most cooperators never become members.
Does Opus Dei act like a cult or sect? While Opus Dei is not a religious order, there is a similar time of "getting to know" Opus Dei, during which one is obviously taught and formed in spirit of the founder - but I don't think you would call that brainwashing. Someone joins Opus Dei by means of a verbal contract, a commitment between oneself and Opus Dei in which one agrees to try to live the spirit of Opus Dei, to live the plan of life, to carry out an active apostolate, and to help the activities of the prelature, according to his talents and availability. This commitment is renewed yearly, meaning every year one is free to leave if they wish. After five years one can choose to make a promise of "fidelity", to remain in Opus Dei for life, but this is only required of numeraries. So it takes at least 6 years for someone to make a permanent commitment to Opus Dei. And this commitment does not take the form of a vow and can be gotten out of much more simply than a vow can. St. Josemaría used to say, "We are interested in virtue, not vows."
One of the things you will find on the internet is a lot of criticism of Opus Dei by ex-members, particularly ex-numeraries. I can only speculate some reasons for this. First, who forms the primary critics of the Catholic Church in the U.S.? Former priests and religious. Who leads call to action in Nebraska? An ex-priest. So who is the primary critic of Opus Dei? ex-members. Second, I won't deny that it can be very hard, psychologically speaking, for a member to leave. But is it hard for a religious novice to leave during their novitiate, or a seminarian to leave the seminary? It is as true for Opus Dei as it is for other institutions in the Church.
Opus Dei now numbers about 1,800 priests and 82,000 lay people, Yet five or six times that number attended the canonization in 2002, and I'm sure many thousands of people wanted to attend but couldn't. I believe that is another testament to the holiness of St. Escrivá and the universality and popularity of his teachings. Opus Dei wouldn't be a spiritual catalyst in the modern world without the extraordinary holiness and faithfulness of Josemaría Escrivá. He anticipated some of the great pastoral themes of the Church on the eve of the third millennium, and now the members of Opus Dei continue the 'work of God' with the same vocation to holiness and apostolate, finding God in work and daily life.
Allow me to conclude with the opening prayer from the Votive Mass of St. Josemaría Escrivá.
God, our Father,
You chose Saint Josemaría
to proclaim the universal call to sanctity
and apostolate in the Church.
By His example and prayers,
grant that in faithfully carrying out
our daily work in the Spirit of Christ,
we may be formed in the likeness of Your Son,
and together with the most Blessed Virgin Mary,
serve the work of redemption with an ardent love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. + Amen
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