ONE OF the best ways of understanding what members of Opus Dei are striving to do is to imagine oneself in the company of the very first Christians — and then take a look around, transferring the scene and the lessons to today's world.
There would be men and women, young and not so young, married and single, healthy or ill, and from all sections of society, with eye-catching jobs and very ordinary ones, some unemployed, some retired.
How did they become Christians? They would all have their own story, but each would have met a practising Christian, one who took his or her faith seriously. Gradually they would realise that Christ's invitation, "Follow me", was not only directed to the apostles, but to each one personally.
How did they remain Christians? "Remaining faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to prayers", we read in the Acts of the Apostles — continuing their formation, living charity and sharing what they had received with others, frequenting the sacraments and making time to pray. And all this in the context of their daily life in the home, at work, in their place in the world. They were known by what they were trying to do rather than by some insignia.
Doubtless had the Antioch Daily Herald used the language of power structures or political intrigue to describe them, or made a sociological survey of the first Christians, its readers would have been baffled! And no nonChristian would understand the mission the Christians had received. The same is true of any Church institution today, including Opus Dei.
Opus Dei aims to spread, in all spheres of society, a deep awareness of the universal call to holiness and apostolate, in the fulfilment of one's ordinary professional work. Opus Dei provides its members with the formation and the spiritual means they need in order to live, in a specific manner and with personal freedom and responsibility, in the midst of the world, among the realities that make up their ordinary work, a life proper to a Christian who seeks to live up to the implications of his faith.
One anecdote will perhaps illustrate that the 75,000 members of Opus Dei are to be found in all walks of life. Tom, a cab driver, relates an encounter when his fare were two ladies, talking about Opus Dei and its "sole interest in the middle classes". With a smile Tom turned to them: "If you don't mind my interrupting, you good ladies have got it all wrong. I happen to be a member of Opus Dei, and as you can see . . . I learnt about it through a neighbour — a taxi driver like myself."
For me Opus Dei has meant my happiness. The change it has made in my whole attitude to work is fantastic . . . I used to look at my work as something rammed down my throat. Now I see it as the means to my own holiness, and the sanctification of those around me. My friends? My fellow taxi drivers naturally. Also many people from the countryside, as I was formerly a farmhand . . . Yes, of course they know I'm a member of Opus Dei, because they know me full well and, on various occasions we've discussed Opus Dei."
Members are ordinary Catholics who have received a personal calling from God to seek holiness through their daily activites — work, family life and their social relationships. The Church and society respect their right to privacy, just as every parish respects the privacy of the ordinary Catholic parishioner. A Catholic is known to be one to his friends; if he is a public figure then we all get to know it. The same holds for a member of Opus Dei. It seems to be a point easily understood by the public at large.
Speaking some years ago to the editor of a Sunday newspaper Mgr Escriva said: "I hope the time will come when the phrase `Catholics are penetrating all sectors of society' will go out of circulation because everyone will have realised that this is a clerical expression. In any event it is quite inapplicable to the apostolate of Opus Dei. The members of Opus Dei have no need to 'penetrate' the temporal sector for the simple reason that they are ordinary citizens, the same as their fellow citizens, and so they are there already."
Another characteristic of Opus Dei's spirituality is the harmony among all aspects of one's life the natural with the supernatural. This unity of life which is fostered is based on the principle that grace builds on nature. The supernatural virtues like faith and hope find fertile ground where one is striving to live the human virtues like loyalty, sincerity and generosity.
"Those who are pious, with a piety devoid of affectation, carry out their professional duty perfectly, since they know that their work is a prayer raised to God," says Mgr Escriva, in Furrow published last year as a sequel to The Way. Religion cannot be separated from the pressures of ordinary living, either in theory or in reality.
In The Forge, a posthumous work published this month, the founder of Opus Dei, Mgr Josemaria Escriva says: "Live your Christian life with naturalness. Let me stress this: make Christ known through your behaviour, just as an ordinary mirror reproduces an image without distorting it or turning it into a caricature. If, like the mirror, you are normal, you will reflect Christ's life, and show it to the others."
Within a few years of the foundation of Opus Dei in 1928, the Abbot Coadjutor of the Monastery of Montserrat, thought it wise to write to the Bishop of Madrid to ask for first hand information on Opus Dei. Monsignor Eijo y Garay replied: "I know that a storm has been unleashed against Opus Dei in Barcelona. The sad thing is that it is persons (creating a storm) who have given themselves very much to God should be instruments of evil; of course it is thinking are rendering a service to God."
"I do indeed know everything about the matter, for Opus Dei has been so much in the hands of the Church since its foundation in 1928 that the Ordinary of the diocese — either my VicarGeneral or myself — knows and, if necessary, can direct each step it takes; so that its first whimpers of infancy, right up to its present groans of pain, echo in our ears and in our heart. Believe me, Most Reverend Fr Abbot, this Opus is truly Dei from its very conception, in every step and every action it has taken.
"Escriva is a model priest, chosen by God for the sanctification of many souls; he is humble, prudent, full of a spirit of self-sacrifice, extremely obedient to his prelate and possessed of a rare intelligence, a very solid doctrinal and spiritual formation and in ardent Zeal . . . I am aware of all the accusations that are being bandied about, and I know that they are false . . . I know, too, that they are causing distress to the mothers and fathers of the students . . . From all this Our Lord will draw only good for Opus Dei. But it is sad to see 'good people' discredit themselves in persecuting this good work."
As this incident shows, Opus Dei has grown under the mantle of affection of Church authorities, from local dioceses to each of the Popes who have know the Work. It is only five years now since the Holy See concluded a three year study into all aspects of Opus Dei.
Following consultation with some 2000 bishops in whose dioceses Opus Dei has centres, Pope John Paul H established it as a personal prelature. "This clear recognition of the foundational charism and the genuine characteristics of the spirit, organisation and apostolic methods of Opus Dei," said the head of the Congregation of Bishops at the time, "cannot but further facilitate and strengthen the pastoral service which this well-deserving institution has
been providing for over half a century in hundreds of dioceses all over the world."
An unorganised organisation is how Mgr Escriva described Opus Dei's structure to a Le Figaro journalist. For the principal work of the Directors of Opus Dei is to see that all the members receive the genuine spirit of the gospel, by means of a solid and appropriate theological and apostolic training. Beyond this each member acts with complete personal freedom.
It is left to the individual to identify problems in society, and to find adequate solutions to them. It is not surprising then to find members of Opus Dei in different groups, perhaps trying to reach the same goal, but in very different ways.
A conspiracy theorist would find it difficult to understand that there are people with noble ambitions who work in different ways serving the Church and society: their work is based on love for God and for their fellow creatures; their enthusiasm is founded in their trust in providence and in a deep understanding of the vocational nature of their calling to Opus Dei.
This article has been supplied by the Very Revd Philip Sherrington, the Regional Vicar of the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei.