Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Opus Dei has always been plagued by rumours, innuendos and conspiracy theories, most recently in the blockbuster film, The Da Vinci Code. There is a feeling, even among fellow Catholics, that the Order (which means 'Work of God') is a law on to itself, a secretive church within a church - powerful, influential and overly secretive.
That I could ever be granted an interview was considered by some a long shot, but my request was immediately accommodated, surprisingly. Within a week, I was standing inside its New York prelature on 34th Street in Manhattan. Befittingly, it is an imposing modern edifice, serene and imposing with an unmistakable feeling of austerity and power.
Brian Finnerty, the organisation's communications director, was all too willing to clear the air, to dispel an image of Opus Dei that has not been wholesome.
"Compared to the Jesuits and the Franciscans, we are the new kid on the block, only established in 1920," he noted. He attributed its short history and its defining creed that lay persons - not only priests - can attain spiritual perfection, as the root of the resentment.
He acknowledges the historical tension with the Jesuits, who once used the term, "heretical," to describe Opus Dei.
"In that era, the keys to spiritual realisation were held by the priesthood. Opus Dei's approach collided with traditional beliefs, he explained. The quick canonisation of its founder, Josemar'a Escrivá de Balaguer, only fuelled suspicions and fanned rumours of the order's extraordinary political clout.
Finnerty was quick to point out that Pope Francis, a Jesuit, had publicly praised the founder of Opus Dei, and "had shown deep affection for the work of its mission". In fact, its founder was referred to by John Paul II as the "Saint for ordinary life." Finnerty viewed this as a "genuine expression of love and respect for the ideals of Opus Dei".
Finnerty is a celibate who resides at the 34th Street prelature. He described an organisation steeped in experiencing God in the most pedestrian activity. "Every endeavour can be a pathway to God. Whatever the task, a member is obligated to perform it to the best of his or her ability. You must cultivate an awareness of God in daily pursuits."
98 per cent lay Persons
With a composition of 98 per cent lay persons (most of whom are women), and of which 30 per cent have taken a vow of celibacy, Opus Dei has distinguished itself from other Catholic orders. Celibate members, called numeraries, live in residences and are the backbone of the organisation. "Being celibate, they are able to advance the mission of the organisation," Finnerty said. Non-celibate members, called supernumeraries, discharge their daily responsibilities of secular work and family life while upholding their prescribed spiritual principles.
Opus Dei, with some 95,000 members worldwide, has a quiet presence in Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela and Jamaica. The organisation is noted for its evangelical work that is undertaken with little fanfare. Friends or colleagues at work may be invited to events and told about its mission. "Sometimes we receive letters from people seeking membership after coming across our literature," Finnerty stated.
Prospective members are expected to understand the spiritual requirements. These include reciting the rosary, contemplation, and the reading of the gospel on a daily basis. Weekly confession is also mandatory. So, too, is attending meetings and retreats. Finnerty reiterated that perfecting communion with God in the most menial of tasks is the definitive element - the sui generis of the order.
He fired back at critics who have branded Opus Dei a secret and cult-like order with allegations that numeraries must account for every penny spent and do not have personal accounts; that in-going and out-going mail is read by directors; that they have little time for leisure; that everyone is expected to accept the teachings without question and that they are allowed brief visits to family members and accompanied by a chaperone. He denounced ex-members such as Sharon Clasen whose testimonial 'My Nightmarish Experience in Opus Dei', unleashed a firestorm. He answered detractors by arguing that marginalised or ex-members of any group are usually disgruntled and disillusioned and that any allegation of unethical practices by his organisation contradicts its mission of compassion and service.
Finnerty saved his most scathing comments for the movie, The Da Vinci Code, that portrayed Opus Dei in a sinister light, with an appetite for the most egregious of acts to achieve its objectives. "We have never had a political agenda, and having a villainous monk supposedly belonging to Opus Dei in that movie is ludicrous. We do not have monks in our organisation," he stressed.
"These distortions and misrepresentations are unfortunate and have caused some people to turn their back on the Christian faith as a whole."
Finnerty dismissed rumours that only the powerful and wealthy are members and derided those who strive on sensationalism. "Honestly, some of the persons who are said to be members, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and top judicial figures, are not."
When questioned about the organisation's controversial practise of corporeal mortification, (also highlighted in The Da Vinci Code), that requires members to tightly fasten a metal strap (a cilice) around the thigh causing pain and bleeding, Finnerty was equally dismissive, citing sacrifice as an integral part the Church doctrine.
"The cilice," he exhorted, is a reminder of Christ's suffering and is not meant to cause injury. He added that the practice predated Opus Dei and was used by notables such as St Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, St Theresa of Avila, and Pope John Paul II. "The masochism depicted in The Da Vince Code is a gross exaggeration, in fact, a fabrication," he explained.
He presented a picture of an organisation engrossed in social work, ever striving to experience the spirit of God as prescribed by the Christian Saviour. That Opus Dei is manipulative, insidious, with an overarching political agenda was never borne out by Finnerty's words, its literature and its many charitable projects. Was I won over? I am not quite sure. On leaving, Finnerty invited to me to a few of its programmes. I accepted. Only then can I be closer to an answer.
Dr Glenville Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council International. Send feedback email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby.