National Catholic Reporter ®

October 11, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.7

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Incomprehensions about Opus Dei; a need to know about the norms; two gestures that speak louder than words; a report on sex abuse

 . . . it cannot be said often enough how urgently we Catholics need to rediscover the art of talking with each other. . .  that’s a form of spiritual discipline I do recommend.

This week’s mega-event was the canonization of Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escriva, a Spanish priest born in 1902, which brought 300,000 pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 6, and 200,000 the next day for Mass with the head of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarría, followed by a papal audience. Over the next three days there were some 29 other thanksgiving Masses, in 20 languages, held in 16 Roman churches and basilicas. On the evening of Oct. 8, for example, the Basilica of St. Mary Major was filled to capacity by more than 4,000 American pilgrims, plus other English speakers, for a Mass celebrated by Archbishop John Myers of Newark. (Myers is a member of the Priestly Society of Holy Cross, a group sponsored by Opus Dei). 

     Finally, on Thursday, Oct. 10, a concluding thanksgiving Mass was held at the Rome parish entrusted to Opus Dei, Sant’Eugenio. At the end of the ceremony, Escriva’s remains, which had been on display before the altar at Sant’Eugenio for the veneration of his faithful, were ported back to the church of Santa Maria della Pace, the church at Opus’ Rome headquarters on viale Bruno Buozzi.

     Among related activities during what we might call “Escriva week,” it’s worth noting the “Harambee 2002” collection. “Harambee” is a Swahili word meaning “everyone together,” and the idea was that pilgrims who came to the canonization Mass would each donate $5 to finance educational projects in Africa. If everyone came through, it would mean a haul of some $1.5 million. Organizers say any African organization involved in education can appeal for funding, with special preference going to those who emphasize women’s development. To promote the project, Opus Dei held an event Oct. 4 featuring Mama Ngina Kenyatta, the widow of Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya after independence. (As a footnote, I recently learned that Escriva was responsible for opening the first racially integrated university in Kenya, called Strathmore, in 1961).

     I spent the sunny, cool Sunday morning of the canonization at the CNN studio, about 15 minutes away from the Vatican, doing some commentary for CNN International. Judging from the live Italian TV feed from St. Peter’s, it was a fairly white-collar crowd. People were well dressed and orderly. Instructions handed out to organizers before the event had discouraged banners or flags, as well as excessive displays of emotion, and stressed that pilgrims should pick up after themselves. 

     There was an all-star VIP turnout, including seven ministers of the current Italian government plus a coterie of leaders of the center-left opposition, former Polish President Lech Walesa, and even Italy’s national soccer coach Giovanni Trappatoni. Some 400 bishops showed up from around the world, including 42 cardinals. For the record, the U.S. prelates included Myers, Archbishop William Levada (San Francisco), Bishop Donald Wuerl (Pittsburgh), Bishop William F. Murphy (Rockville Centre), Auxiliary Bishop José Gómez (Denver), and Auxiliary Bishop Robert McManus (Providence). 

     What struck me watching all this unfold, aside from the way Spanish became the de facto language of Rome for a few days, was the marked difference in press coverage in comparison with Escriva’s May 17, 1992, beatification. That event unleashed an avalanche of largely hostile commentary, featuring accusations of secrecy and mind control from former Opus Dei members, of bizarre spiritual practices and cult-like recruiting techniques, and rumors of vast wealth and power. News stories that read more like spy novels depicted Opus as a crypto-fascist fifth column spreading its tentacles throughout the Vatican and across the Catholic Church. 

     Reactions this time were far more restrained. To be sure, media outlets again rolled out point/counter-point treatments under headlines like “Pope backs powerful conservative group,” but most had a rather pro forma feel. As Opus Dei has learned to become more transparent, much of the darker, more conspiratorial edge to the criticism has abated. People may still regard the group as too conservative, male-dominated, elitist, etc., but at least they no longer fear it’s scheming to take over the world.

     Still, the fact remains that for the better part of twenty years, no cause for sainthood (with the possible exception of Pius XII) has generated more controversy than Escriva, and certainly no force within the Catholic Church has been more talked about than Opus Dei. As the canonization approached I was asked by media organizations to comment, and pondering their questions, I came to the conclusion that reactions to Opus over the years have been exaggerated by two kinds of incomprehension among observers (such as myself) who stand on the outside looking in. I’ll try to unpack them for the sake of perspective.

     First, I think Opus Dei crystallizes a basic difficulty many post-modern people, suspicious of absolutes of any sort, have in understanding the way religious commitment can impel people to “unusual” behavior that seems to smack of fanaticism. The leading case in point is usually Opus Dei’s taste for “spiritual discipline,” meaning imposing physical pain on oneself as a means of promoting holiness. 

     This fascination is endlessly frustrating for Opus Dei members themselves, who insist that such practices represent a marginal, and always optional, facet of their spirituality. Nevertheless, lashing oneself with a whip, or wearing a leather band with spikes, or even taking cold showers, is part of the spiritual life of many people in what insiders simply call “the Work,” and it can seem alien and baffling. 

     The “no pain, no gain” spirituality of Opus Dei goes straight back to Escriva. In preparation for my CNN gig, I read a new biography by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, Vatican writer for the local paper Il Giornale and someone with whom I’ve shared papal travel. He describes a moment in 1937, in Madrid during the Spanish civil war, when Escriva and his early band of followers were stuck in the city’s Honduran consulate (their previous hiding place from the Republican anti-clerical forces having been a madhouse). Typically, Tornielli writes, Escriva would ask for the use of the bedroom alone when it was time for his spiritual practices. Once, however, his chief aide, Fr. Alvaro del Portillo (who would later succeed Escriva as head of Opus Dei), was sick and could not leave the room. Escriva thus told Portillo to cover his head with his blanket. Portillo described what followed: “Soon I began to hear the forceful blows of his discipline. I will never forget the number: there were more than a thousand terrible blows, precisely timed, and always inflicted with the same force and the same rhythm. The floor was covered with blood, but he cleaned it up before the others came in.”

     I confess I strain to find this scene edifying. Yet it is a fact that some of the greatest saints engaged in similar practices, from Philip Neri to Thomas Aquinas. Taken in limited doses under the guidance of a qualified spiritual director, the experience of the church suggests this form of self-mortification (literally, “dying to self”) can be positive, or at least basically harmless; one could perhaps compare it to the “high” obtained from a vigorous workout. 

     In any event, I suspect that the discomfort many of us feel may say at least as much about “us,” i.e., post-Enlightenment rationalists, than it does about “them,” i.e., the people taking cold showers for the glory of God. If religion is one’s “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich suggested, should it be any surprise that people who take it seriously sometimes do things that test the limits of what we regard as normal?

     The second kind of incomprehension is more intra-Catholic, driven by the “conservative” and/or “traditional” labels generally assigned to Opus Dei. Again members object, and again I understand the reaction. Most people who belong to Opus Dei do not experience being “conservative” or “traditional” as their motivation. Moreover, Escriva’s insight about the lay vocation to holiness coming in and through ordinary work could actually be seen as revolutionary, coming as it did decades before the Second Vatican Council.

     Still, it’s certainly fair to say the corporate personality of Opus Dei leans to the right. One small example: A journalist colleague of mine, a veteran of some 20 years on the Vatican beat, reported that Escriva’s canonization Mass was the first time he had ever been refused communion in the hand in St. Peter’s Square. The priest insisted on administering it on the tongue. 

     The internal culture of Opus Dei emphasizes loyalty to the pope and the hierarchy. Escriva’s phrase was that Opus Dei should “serve the Church as it wants to be served.” Tornielli quotes Italian Cardinal Giovanni Cheli, former head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, who said he spoke with Escriva shortly after Pope John XXIII died. Cheli said he started to speculate about who the new pope might be, and Escriva cut him short. “Even if the man elected pope were to come from a tribe of savages with rings in his nose and ears, I would immediately throw myself at his feet and tell him that the entire Work is at his unconditional service.” That’s the Opus spirit.

     The intra-Catholic incomprehension hence is this: because Opus Dei is conservative, and because it has risen far and fast under this pope, it has become the leading symbol of the broader culture wars between left and right in the Catholic Church. It is a lightning rod for public discussion in Catholicism. Thus when people react to Opus Dei, they are often reacting not so much to the group per se as to everything they do or don’t like about the drift of the post-conciliar church.

     It works like this. Being critical of Opus Dei marks one as a progressive, pro-Vatican II reformer, while defending Opus identifies someone as a pro-John Paul II, “loyal” Catholic stalwart. In both cases, positions are often based on little personal knowledge of Opus Dei. In my experience, pundits of all stripes are willing to argue endlessly on the subject without personally knowing a single member, without ever having visited an Opus Dei center, and without ever having read one of Escriva’s books. 

     As I said above, much of this ideologically driven reaction seems to have receded in comparison with a decade ago. Now that Escriva has been canonized, I suspect the process of restoring Opus Dei to its proper context, as one among many new spiritual initiatives in Catholicism that have flowered after the council, will continue. One hopes more measured evaluations, accenting both light and shadows, will follow.

     One final footnote. As progressive-minded Catholics get to know Opus, they may find at least one potential bit of common ground. Opus Dei members with long memories know what it feels like to be misunderstood by church authorities – to stand, as it were, under an ecclesiastical cloud. Some of the joy they felt about Escriva’s canonization is related precisely to a sense of being accepted, at long last, by the Catholic “mainstream.” Perhaps rooted in this experience, I have found that even the most fiercely conservative Opus Dei members are sometimes less hasty to make judgments about the motives of other Catholics, more willing to extend courtesy to those with whom they disagree. This amounts to an opening to dialogue, and it cannot be said often enough how urgently we Catholics need to rediscover the art of talking with each other.

     That’s a form of spiritual discipline I do recommend.

* * *

     On the day this column is posted, Friday Oct. 11, Bishops Wilton Gregory and William Skylstad, president and vice-president of the American bishops’ conference, are scheduled to leave the United States for Rome. They will be here for roughly one week, making their regular bi-annual round of meetings in Vatican offices. 

     At least some of this time will doubtless be devoted to discussion of the Dallas sex abuse norms. A letter containing the Vatican reaction should be in their hands before these meetings begin, and it will likely be up to Gregory to decide how to communicate it to their fellow bishops and to the broader Catholic public. A spokesperson for the U.S. bishops’ conference told me that Gregory will want to communicate the response to his brother bishops before making any public comment. 

     Watch the NCR web site for news as it becomes available.

     In the meantime, I’ll make one point. A colleague of mine recently got a phone call from someone who had just returned from a meeting with the head of one of the Vatican offices reviewing the norms. This prelate complained about leaks concerning the Vatican response, citing three news organizations that have obtained information from Vatican sources: the National Catholic Reporter, Associated Press, and Reuters. “Why,” the prelate wondered, “don’t they just let us do our work?”

     At one level, I understand why it is frustrating to see the content of private discussions show up in the newspaper. I would be prepared to observe a certain confidentiality if I could be persuaded that it’s necessary to bring the situation to a positive resolution.

     Yet in addition to complaining about media interest, I hope curial officials will also learn from it. This is a situation that requires clarity, because it is not an abstract theological argument that can be allowed to “mature.” Victims have the right to know if the ecclesiastical tribunals of the Holy See may restore a priest to ministry they thought had been permanently removed. Priests accused of wrong-doing need to know by which standards they are to be judged. Does the canonical statute of limitations apply or not? Do procedural guarantees apply or not? Bishops need to know if they are going to be overturned in Rome for applying the Dallas norms where they conflict with existing canon law. 

    However the answers break, the people involved have a legitimate need for them, and soon.

* * * 

    It is the nature of the Catholic Church that we can always say things with symbols and gestures that we cannot quite put into words. So it was this past week in Rome, with two magnificent ecumenical moments that carried us, if only fleetingly, past the theological logjams that still divide the Christian family.

     First came an Oct. 4-5 international congress in honor of the 700th anniversary of the birth of St. Bridget of Sweden, hosted by the Sisters of the Most Holy Savior of St. Bridget, known popularly as the “Bridgettine sisters.” The order has long had an ecumenical emphasis, with its point of reference in overwhelmingly Lutheran Sweden. (I met the current Bishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, the first native-born Swede to hold his job since the Reformation. I also sat next to his predecessor, a German named Hubertus Brandenberg, who told me that when he was appointed he told the papal nuncio that he couldn’t even speak Swedish. “That’s okay,” the nuncio said, “you’ll figure it out.” So he did.)

     The congress featured a vespers service on the evening of Oct. 4, presided over by Pope John Paul II. Beyond the pope, the prelates who vested for the service included a equal number of Catholics and Lutherans, who processed in side by side and for all intents and purposes looked and acted like brother bishops in a united church. An Orthodox and an Anglican bishop for Sweden also took part. 

     “In a spirit of brotherhood and friendship I greet the distinguished representatives of the Lutheran Churches,” the pope said. “Your presence at this prayer is a cause of deep joy. I express the hope that our meeting together in the Lord’s name will help to further our ecumenical dialogue and quicken the journey towards full Christian unity.”

     The second gesture came at the end of a thanksgiving Mass in St. Peter’s Square for Escriva’s canonization Oct. 7. (It was one of the most amusing papal entrances I’ve seen in a while. The pope was in good form, and the piazza was full of babies, which meant a non-stop stream of infants being thrust in the air at John Paul, who managed to kiss or caress the vast majority).

     Towards the end of the audience, applause burst out in the crowd as a tall figure in white, with a shepherd’s crosier and Orthodox headgear, began to approach the stairs leading to the papal chair in the company of Cardinal Walter Kasper. The P.A. system announced the presence of Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Teocist, a visit from whom had been on the pope’s calendar for later in the week.

     The ailing John Paul typically remains seated when people pay their respects during an audience, but as Teocist approached, the pope struggled to his feet in order to wrap him in a brotherly bear hug. A second high-backed gold throne was then produced, so John Paul and Teocist appeared to the public as equals. John Paul spoke first, saying he had wanted Teocist to join in the joy of this day. It seemed equally obvious, though John Paul did not say so, that he wanted to use the high-profile public platform generated by the Escriva event to manifest once again his commitment to ecumenism. 

     The pope said Teocist’s visit marks another “purification of memory” on the way to Christian unity. Teocist in turn thanked John Paul for the invitation, given during his May 7-9, 1999, visit to Romania, his first to a predominantly Orthodox nation. 

     The brotherly symbolism was inspiring. It reminded me of the cheer that spontaneously went up in Romania when the Orthodox crowds saw John Paul and Teocist together in the popemobile: “Unity! Unity!” 

* * *

     Catholics for a Free Choice, a group known equally for its advocacy of reproductive rights and its sharp criticism of the hierarchy, held a Rome press conference October 8 to present a 39-page “shadow report” on “The Holy See and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” It compiles accounts of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy around the world.

     The group has NGO status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and it plans to submit the report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. That body was set up to monitor implementation of the convention by the same name, to which the Holy See is a signatory. The convention stipulates in article 34 that, “States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.” Catholics for a Free Choice wants the U.N. to ask the Vatican to explain what it’s doing about the sexual abuse problem, and perhaps eventually to impose some sort of censure for failing to uphold its treaty obligations.

      Among those on hand for the press conference: Mark Furnish, an American representing the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP); Jorge Barba, a Mexican academic who says he was abused by Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, in the 1950s; Simon Kennedy, an Irish lawyer representing sex abuse victims; and Roberto Blancarte, a Mexican sociologist who used to work at the Mexican embassy to the Holy See. 

     One could argue that asking the U.N. to take on the Vatican is a bit of a publicity stunt (it’s hard to imagine what a sanctions regime, for example, might look like). Yet the report at least has the merit of collecting data from all around the world, thus demonstrating that the sex abuse issue is not just an “American problem.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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