Sunday, May 21, 2006

A most vilified group

Opus Dei chapel at my school

The recent brouhaha concerning the controversial movie 'The Da Vinci Code' has, among other things, brought an unprecedented amount of transparency to the mysterious Opus Dei prelature. Portrayed as the villain in Dan Brown's overhyped book, the author claims that 'The Work', as the prelature is colloquially referred to by those close to it, is a murderous, Machiavellian group, a mafia shrouded in white that would do anything in its power [ and financial clout ] to further its agenda in the Roman Catholic Church. Among the myths surrounding Opus Dei are that it is a power-hungry cult, with connections to many a government in the world. It is also claimed that Opus Dei members are masochists, that it is a Judeo-Masonic organization, that it brainwashes. . . ad infinitum.

Opus Dei seems to be universally hated by Leftists-- apparently because they are seen as a reactionary movement that is hostile to progressive factions in the Church-- and surprisingly by tradionalits, who decry the group's alleged secrecy and 'prima facie reverence'. They are also opposed to its secular mentality, and say that it blurs the line between the laity and the priesthood.

As one who spent eight years in an Opus Dei run school, let me help set the record straight.

1) What is Opus Dei, and what is its mission?

Opus Dei is a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, meaning, in the broad sense, a diocese without borders. It is obviously a part of the Universal Church. Opus Dei is largely composed of lay members: some, who are married, called supernumeraries, make up some 70-80% of the membership. Numeraries, who are laypeople who live celibate lives and live in Opus Dei centers, are the next largest group. The smallest group is composed of priests. Currently, Opus Dei is governed by Bishop Javier Echevarria.

The mission of Opus Dei is to 'Christianize the world'-- without ever leaving it. St. Josemaria Escriva taught that everyone, including laymen, are called to be saints. Obviously these laymen cannot be in church all the time. St. Josemaria taught that we can sanctify out lives by offering our sufferings, works and intentions for the glory of God. Recall that the Holy Family led ordinary lives, and part of that was work. The frown we supressed when we were reprimanded by the boss, the glass of water we momentarily did not drink, that last slice of pizza you did not eat -- all of these can be offered as a pleasing sacrifice to God. St. Josemaria often noted how the world thinks so very little of small sacrifices. Opus Dei aims to help its members live out their daily lives for God.

Most important, however, is making the Holy Mass 'the root and center of our interior lives'. St. Escriva had a great love for the Mass, and he encouraged everyone to attend daily. Remember, the Mass is the most pleasing prayer we can offer God-- it is the Sacrifice of His own Son, the same Sacrifice of calvary, made present for us for the expiation of our sins and our spiritual nourishment. In the Mass, the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Blessed Lord and Savior. It is truly the supreme oblation, the most sublime tribute we can offer to the divine majesty of God and the source of infinite graces.

There are no monks in Opus Dei.

2) Do Numeraries really whip themselves?

Yes. Corporal mortification, specifically the cilice, has always been part of traditional Christian piety. St. Serafino da Montenegro, for example, is one saint known to have used the cilice. However, the pain and discomfort that they cause have been widly exagerrated in Dan Brown's novel. For example, the cilice induces only minor itching to most people who wear it. These tools are not for masochistic purposes, rather, they help us to share in the agony of Our Lord more intimately. However, these are not the only acceptable forms of mortification. St. Josemaria Escriva always taught that any discomfort can be offered as a sacrfice to God. Thus, refusing a glass of water or abstaining from one's favorite snack can also count as mortification.

3) I've heard that Opus Dei is an elitist organization. Is this true?

Certainly not. In Latin America, for example, Opus Dei is more associated with the working class. There are members who are taxi drivers, firemen, police officers. Opus Dei does not look at a person's financial background as most people would think. Granted, there are many in Opus Dei who belong to the upper crust. Businessmen, senators, lawyers, journalists-- admittedly Opus Dei has them for members. However, this is only a misconception. Here in the Philippines, Opus Dei runs several schools in the provinces for children of less fortunate background. Here the children are taught the basics of farming, for example, or in engineering. AS well as this, they are also given sound doctrinal formation, and Mass is celebrated whenever possible.

St. Josemaria once remarked that a gift of bread will sustain a child for a day-- a gift of books will sustain him for a lifetime. Although admittedly Opus Dei also has schools for the wealthy, they also teach street children in afternoon sessions in the same schools. This allows less fortunate students to have the same education as their wealthier counterparts in the day sessions.

Corporal works of mercy are held traditionally in December. Many numeraries also volunteer to teach catechism to the urban poor.

4) I've heard that Opus Dei brainwashes people. Is this true?

Far from it. Love for freedom is a central doctrine of Opus Dei. If one does not wish to join, it is his choice, and Opus Dei members cannot change that. My own experience with the Work has been very positive. The people are friendly and highly respectful of each other.

5) What about the testimonies of former members and allegations of it being a cult?

One should recall that the Jesuits were originally met with hostility upon their inception. In fact, up to a few years ago, the Society of Jesus was the favorite target for conspiracy theorists and overzealous Fundamentalist Protestants. Opus Dei is new, therefore many people will naturally be suspicious of it. These are normal feelings, and the members of Opus Dei will be more than happy to answer.

Many people have left the Church-- laymen and clergy alike. But do their testimonies validate the claim that the Church is the 'whore of Babylon'? Certainly not. The priest-apostate, Martin Luther, called the Church many a derogatory name: stench-church of the devil, arch-whore of Babylon, among others. Does this, then, make Lutheranism true? No. We know that the Church is true, because anyone who examines Scripture closely will find the Church's teachings in them. Admittedly, the spirituality of Opus Dei is not for everybody, and the Work makes no pretensions that not everybody should join it.

Expect updates on this post