Catholic group tries to explain itself

Normally low-profile Opus Dei rebuts the way it's portrayed in `Da Vinci Code'

May 14, 2006|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

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.

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