Catholic group tries to explain itself


NEW YORK -- For most of its existence, Opus Dei has maintained a low profile within the Roman Catholic Church, content to pursue its work of helping a mostly lay membership grow closer to God in everyday life without drawing attention to itself - even as the popular image grew of a secretive sect that wielded disproportionate influence at the Vatican.

Now a fictional albino monk is bringing the organization into the spotlight.

Silas, the supposed Opus Dei monk who cuts a bloody swath through The Da Vinci Code, has drawn protests from the real-life organization since the novel was published three years ago. With the Ron Howard film of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel due out Friday, Opus Dei has launched an unprecedented campaign to explain the much-discussed but little-understood spiritual path that 3,000 adherents in the United States call "The Work."

"If more people worldwide and in the United States actually knew people in Opus Dei, then the portrayal in The Da Vinci Code would obviously be laughable," says spokesman Brian Finnerty, a 21-year member.

"If you know anybody in Opus Dei, you know that they don't go around dressed in monk's robes and they don't go around with the mentality of rejecting the world and secular society."

Da Vinci Code publisher Doubleday brought out a new edition this month of The Way, the book that followers consider the "essential classic" of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. The organization has produced a DVD exploring "The Work" in the lives of ordinary Americans.

A full-time press office is placing spokesmen and women on the network news, leading reporters on tours of the 17-story U.S. headquarters building in Manhattan and making followers available for interviews. These include a real Silas - 28-year member Silas Agbim, who turns out to be a Nigerian stockbroker living in Brooklyn.

"Basically, they've learned their lesson that this idea that you could make curiosity go away by not responding to it just doesn't work," says John L. Allen Jr., author of Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church. "They've learned the only way to lower people's misconceptions or apprehensions is by opening up."

Followers of Opus Dei say they have heard a calling to place their lives entirely at the service of God even as they maintain their roles in secular society. They seek to sanctify the activities of everyday life by practicing each with charity, patience, humility, diligence, integrity and cheerfulness.

But if The Da Vinci Code has spurred Opus Dei to new openness, so has it provided opportunities for critics - among them, former residents of Opus Dei centers who accuse the organization of conducting aggressive recruiting, alienating members from their families and pressuring them against leaving.

"It's not honest; it's not straightforward," says Dianne DiNicola, who founded the Opus Dei Awareness Network after drawing her daughter out of an Opus Dei center in Boston in 1990. "It tears families apart, and it hurts people."

Finnerty expresses regret for those who say they have been hurt by Opus Dei.

"I'm very sorry that there's anyone at all, and thankfully it's just a few people who say that they were unhappy with the time that they spent in Opus Dei," he says. "I would hope that they would also be able to appreciate that for many people Opus Dei has been a tremendous blessing in their lives."

Opus Dei has stoked controversy from its founding in 1928, Allen writes. The vision of Escriva, then a young priest in Spain, was that the Christian Gospel could be brought to the secular world by laypeople working in their ordinary professions. So novel was his promotion of a church body of men and women, priests and laity all sharing the same vocation that he was accused of heresy.

Given its allegiance to the pope and church teaching, Opus Dei has long drawn the ire of liberal Catholics. It has been embraced by a succession of pontiffs, most notably Pope John Paul II, who made it a personal prelature within the church. The unique status makes Opus Dei something like a global diocese, in which a bishop in Rome presides over 87,000 adherents worldwide.

Pope John Paul, who canonized Escriva in 2002, called him the saint of ordinary life.

"It's almost like your desk is an altar," Finnerty says. "You can find God in the way you serve your colleagues at work, in being a good father, in being a good mother. That's where the Christian faith is lived out."

For such a small group - Allen writes that the worldwide membership is less than that of the Archdiocese of Hobart on the Australian island of Tasmania, and Finnerty says the U.S. contingent could fit in a large parish church - Opus Dei is said to wield disproportionate influence at the Vatican. While laypersons make up 98 percent of the membership, it also includes two cardinals, 40 bishops, and the spokesman for Pope Benedict XVI.

In the United States, rumors have linked several prominent Catholics to Opus Dei. Finnerty says Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, columnist Robert Novak and filmmaker Mel Gibson, all subjects of such speculation, are not members. Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for spying on the United States for the Soviet Union and Russia, was.

Seventy percent of the membership of Opus Dei are "supernumeraries," generally married men and women who work in secular jobs and live with their families. Twenty percent are "numeraries," who typically work in the secular world but are committed to celibacy and live in an Opus Dei center. The last 10 percent are "associates," who are also committed to celibacy but don't live in an Opus Dei center.

All adherents are expected to attend Mass and say the rosary daily, to confess to a priest weekly and to meet with a spiritual director regularly. They also attend small-group meetings, classes, conferences and retreats.

Numeraries are also encouraged to practice corporal mortification, wearing a barbed chain called a cilice (pronounced SILL-iss) around one thigh for a period of time on most days and whipping themselves with a knotted cord called a discipline during a weekly prayer.

In The Da Vinci Code, Brown depicts Silas whipping himself bloody. Members of the real-life Opus Dei say corporal mortification is never intended to injure. They describe the practice as the spiritual equivalent of training for an athletic contest; it was performed by St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Padre Pio and other beloved figures.

Opus Dei was exactly what Patrick F. Fagan was looking for: a call to holiness that he could live as a family man. The Chevy Chase resident was a university student in Dublin when he joined 37 years ago.

A typical day for Fagan, a supernumerary, begins before 6 a.m., when he prepares for Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. He will pray before the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated host that Catholics believe is the body of Christ.

Then it's on to the Heritage Foundation, where the married father of eight is a research fellow specializing in family and cultural issues. He offers up his work to God, trying to perform each task mindfully and to the best of his ability, and taking on the most difficult first.

At noon, Fagan will say the Angelus, a devotion describing the incarnation of God in Jesus, and break for lunch. Ordinarily, he'll pursue the "apostolate of friendship" - dining with a companion. Before returning to his office, he might visit the Blessed Sacrament at St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill.

During the afternoon, he'll take a few minutes for spiritual reading - a passage from the Gospels and whatever book he's reading. On the way home, he'll stop again at the shrine for evening prayer. After dinner and conversation with his family, he'll examine his conscience, say the Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary, and make resolutions for the next day.

Fagan says Opus Dei has been "a huge blessing."

"I have a good wife, I have eight children, and all of my children are very aware of their own vocation, whether it be in 'The Work' or without being a member of any particular thing," he said. "Professional life has gone fairly well. A lot of that has come from an awareness of the need to study and work well."

The experiences of some members have been less positive. Colleen O'Neill was a high school student in 1985 when she began working at an Opus Dei center in Massachusetts. Soon, she says, the center director told her she believed that O'Neill was being called to join.

"I was stupid and young, and I was scared," says O'Neill, a lifelong Catholic. "They told me that if I didn't do what God wanted, I would never be happy."

She became a numerary assistant, committing herself to celibacy and working as a housekeeper in a succession of centers from New York to San Francisco.

"You work seven days a week, basically," O'Neill says. "They told you you have to move here, you don't have a choice. You don't see your family hardly ever, you give up your possessions. They control your life."

Still, she says, she believed she was happy.

"You do know better in the back of your mind, but you think, 'I have to do this, I want to be a saint,'" O'Neill says. "If you don't stick it out, you're afraid you're going to hell."

Last year, her family intervened, hiring an exit counselor to meet with her. She left in April 2005, after 20 years in Opus Dei. She says she was a victim of "subversive coercion."

Finnerty bristles at such characterizations.

"Everything in Opus Dei is firmly rooted in the life and teaching of the Catholic Church, and respect for freedom is very much a part of that," he says. "If the reality in Opus Dei was as those individuals have described it, it would be surprising that it would have the blessings of all the popes."

Allen, in researching his book, heard several such stories.

"There are enough reports from people who say that Opus Dei controlled them excessively, pressured them to join, pressured them not to leave, threatened them with damnation, alienated them from their families, all those kinds of things, that I think you have to take all of that seriously," he says.

"On the other hand, there are also thousands and thousands of current and former members who say the exact opposite, and I think you have to take that seriously as well."

Allen has concluded that supporters and critics are often describing the same experience from very different points of view.

"It is a very structured life, a very demanding life ... and a certain kind of person responds to that extremely well," he says. "Another kind of person tries mightily to meet those expectations, sometimes over the course of years, and just comes up short and ends up feeling ground down by it."

Alvaro J. de Vicente says he would be a "total disaster" without Opus Dei. The numerary member - he lives at a center in Reston, Va. - joined as a teenager in Madrid. He is headmaster of the Heights School in Potomac, one of five secondary schools run by Opus Dei in the United States.

"If the faith is true, then it's worth being very aggressive about how you live it," de Vicente says. "It has really provided me with a direction in my life and a peace, a way to live my life feeling that every day is an important day."

About Opus Dei

What it is: Latin for "The Work of God," Opus Dei is a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, a unique status akin to a global diocese. Its mission, according to the Opus Dei Information Office, is "to help people turn their work and daily activities into occasions for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society."

Founded: Oct. 2, 1928, by the Rev. Josemaria Escriva in Madrid.

Membership: 87,000 men and women, 3,000 of them in the United States

Categories: Supernumeraries (70 percent) generally are married, work in secular professions and live at home; numeraries (20 percent) commit to celibacy, work mostly in secular positions and live at Opus Dei centers; associates (10 percent) commit to celibacy but do not live at Opus Dei centers.

Expectations: Members attend Mass and say the Rosary daily, confess weekly, meet a spiritual director regularly, attend conferences and retreats.

OPUS DEI CONTROVERSIES: Numeraries, a group that makes up about 20 percent of Opus Dei's total membership, are encouraged to practice corporal mortification, including wearing a barbed chain around the thigh for a period on most days and self-flagellation with a knotted cord weekly. Some former numeraries have described center life as excessively controlling. Numereraries committ to celibacy and work mostly in secular positions and live at Opus Dei centers.

[ Sources: Opus Dei Information Office, Opus Dei Awareness Network]

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