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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 21:16 GMT 22:16 UK
The rise of Opus Dei
Priests praying over coffin
Priests pray over the remains of Josemaria Escriva

The creation of a new saint by the Pope has become such a regular event at the Vatican that it does not usually cause a stir.

During his papacy, John Paul II has canonised more than 450 men and women - more than any other pope in history.

But the latest ceremony, due to take place in St Peter's Square on Sunday, is being seen as highly significant.

Any kind of secrecy is expressly forbidden

Opus Dei website

The new saint is Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of the controversial lay organisation Opus Dei.

Within the Catholic Church, this movement is viewed with admiration by some, with suspicion by others.


In Latin, Opus Dei means "Work of God". The organisation is relatively small, with just over 80,000 members in 80 countries around the world.

Josemaria Escriva
Fast track to sainthood: Josemaria Escriva
Its members, many of them well-educated professionals, adhere strictly to the teaching of the church.

The papacy of John Paul II, which has upheld traditional moral values, has enabled the organisation to flourish, and its influence to spread.

Some members of Opus Dei, though not priests, choose to remain celibate. They donate their salaries to the organisation, and often live in group homes where men and women are segregated.

They practise "self-mortification" - including fasting and flagellation - as a way of reminding themselves of how Christ suffered.

Opus Dei was founded on the principle that ordinary Catholics can achieve holiness in their everyday lives.

Critics accuse the organisation of being secretive and elitist. They have expressed concern over its recruitment methods, likening it to a religious cult.


Bankers, lawyers and politicians are among its members. Nobody applies to join Opus Dei; membership is by invitation only.

Josemaria Escriva
Born: 1902
Died: 1975
Beatified: 1992
Canonised: 2002

But while the organisation has attracted criticism, many admire the piety of its members.

John Paul II clearly approves of the way the organisation defends traditional moral values, seen as under threat in a modern world.

Given his own background, he has also been impressed by its support in opposing communism in countries like Poland.

The Pope has rewarded Opus Dei by giving it special status in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, allowing it an unusual degree of independence.

This papal seal of approval represents remarkable progress for an organisation that was only founded in 1928.

Now, by making the founder of Opus Dei a saint, the Pope is giving further recognition to the group, and underlining its growing influence at the highest levels of the church.

Fast track

The views of Opus Dei are now listened to at the Vatican, and the Pope's official spokesman is a member.

Pilgrims reading book about Escriva
A big crowd is expected for the ceremony
But the speed of its founder's canonisation has raised eyebrows.

Once the process took centuries, but Josemaria Escriva has been on the fast track to sainthood.

The Spanish priest died as recently as 1975, but he was beatified, the first step towards canonisation, in 1992. Only 10 years later, he is being promoted to the ranks of the saints.

Even allowing for the enthusiasm of the present pope for creating saints, Escriva's progress has been meteoric, and some Catholics have protested that negative aspects of the saint's life have been glossed over.

A group describing itself as former members of Opus Dei has sent a letter to the Pope attacking Escriva for his "arrogance and malevolent temper... his indifference to the poor, his love of luxury and ostentation".

And it accuses Opus Dei of causing "moral damage" through its culture of secrecy.


The ceremony in Rome will be a very public celebration for an organisation that usually avoids the limelight.

Pilgrims praying
Pilgrims pray by the remains of the saint
A quarter of a million pilgrims, many of them young people, are expected to gather in St Peter's Square for the occasion.

Opus Dei is strongest in Spain, but there is also a big following in Latin America. Among those coming to Rome for the ceremony are 300 Peruvian farmers.

An Opus Dei website is now trying to change the perception of the organisation, both inside and outside the church.

Membership is not secret, it insists. But there is no reason for people to publicise their membership. It continues:

"A lay person's approach to holiness in Opus Dei is something personal, an aspect of his or her private life."

And the website says that Opus Dei has been "misunderstood".

"Anyone familiar with history will hardly be surprised to find some controversy surrounding a relatively new institution of the Church," it says.

"In fact, Jesus Christ repeatedly warned his followers to expect such criticism."

The BBC's Claire Marshall
"Thousands of visitors come to northern Spain to pay homage to the founder of Opus Dei"
See also:

16 Jun 02 | Europe
21 Dec 01 | Europe
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