Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shining new light on Opus Dei’s mission

By Erica Noonan, The Boston Globe, November 19, 2009

Opus Dei means “work of God’’ in Latin. At the Montrose School in Medfield, it means educating girls to be leaders with “faith, character, and vision,’’ said the independent Catholic institution’s head, Karen E. Bohlin.

For Mary Brennan, a Franklin mother of six, it is a search for divinity in everyday life as she cares for her children and works part time. “It’s faith in practice,’’ said Brennan, who prays several times a day, using a rosary, Latin readings, and the New Testament. “As Catholics, it’s making a connection between work and faith.’’

Eighty years after being founded in Spain by St. Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei remains an under-the-radar extension of Catholicism that is often misunderstood, adherents say. Yet it maintains a thriving presence in Greater Boston, with about 300 members, centers in Chestnut Hill, Boston’s Back Bay, Cambridge, and Pembroke, and the affiliated school in Medfield for girls in grades 6 through 12.

It took an image crisis - spurred by a 2003 novel by Dan Brown, “The Da Vinci Code,’’ featuring a monk-assassin with ties to Opus Dei - to put the prelature front and center in popular culture, and not in a positive light.

Finding many misrepresentations in Brown’s book, particularly about how Opus Dei treats women, who make up more than half of its membership, Boston College graduate Marie Oates started work on her own book, a pioneering collection of essays by two dozen women proclaiming the group’s egalitarian nature.

“We realized we had to tell the world about ourselves,’’ said Oates, who co-edited “Women of Opus Dei’’ with Dr. Jenny Driver, a physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. “Saint Josemaria loved women, and had great respect for them and everything they do in the world.’’

About 20 percent of the organization’s 87,000 members worldwide are “numeraries,’’ who live celibate lives, primarily work in service to the church, and live in Opus Dei residences.

Roughly 2 percent of its members are priests, according to Opus Dei, and the remainder are regular churchgoers with secular jobs and families, like Brennan, who attends Mass daily when possible. But her deepest relationship with God, Brennan says, is outside the sanctuary while doing her everyday work “with great love’’ - raising children, doing freelance design at night, and in her part-time job in the cafe at Dean College in Franklin.

Opus Dei’s mission was also the inspiration behind the three-decade-old Montrose School, though today 25 percent of the girls and faculty are not practicing Catholics; several are Muslim, Greek Orthodox, or unaffiliated. The school is financially independent from Opus Dei and the Archdiocese of Boston, though it maintains a warm institutional relationship with both.

“I guess you could say our secret weapon is prayer,’’ said Bohlin, a scholar at Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character and an Opus Dei member. “We don’t have a corner on that market, but we do integrate it into all we do. And because we respect every person as a child of God, it’s easier to appreciate people, gain perspective under pressure, and laugh at ourselves.’’

The “Work,’’ as members call their faith, has historically been outside the direct purview of the Vatican, contributing to longstanding internal Church tensions between strict followers of papal hierarchy and Opus Dei, which some critics have called “a church within a church.’’

National Public Radio’s Vatican correspondent, John L. Allen Jr., described Opus Dei as an especially intense form of Catholicism, calling it “the Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church.’’

“A strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone,’’ Allen wrote in his 2005 book on the group, which he billed as “the most controversial force in the Catholic Church.’’

Opus Dei might have remained out of the limelight indefinitely if not for Brown’s novel, which in 2006 was made into a hit movie starring Tom Hanks. Suddenly tourists were appearing on the doorsteps of Opus Dei residences around the world, asking questions about medieval torture chambers and ancient corporal mortification practices like self-flagellation, as performed by a character in the novel.

“We didn’t think anyone could really think what was in the book could be true,’’ said Oates, a Duxbury native who lives in New York. “But so many people did.’’

The most devout men and women in Opus Dei do wear a cilice, a small metal chain, around their upper thigh under their clothing for a few hours per day, as a reminder of the pain endured by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. Slightly uncomfortable, it does not draw blood or torture the wearer, Oates said.

Her book, put out this summer by Crossroad Publishing Co., features narratives of conversion and faith in practice from a variety of women - stay-at-home mothers, academics, business leaders - from around the country.

Both Oates and Driver said they were sure as young women that they wished to forgo traditional marriage and children and commit themselves to the church and Opus Dei. There are no regrets, they said.

“You feel loved. This is a family,’’ said Driver, who lives at Bayridge, the prelature’s Back Bay facility.

Being a numerary is not the same as being a nun, and they do not wear special garments or accept orders from the Archdiocese, they said.

“I guess you could say my heart dedicated itself to Jesus. He is my significant other,’’ said Oates, a public relations consultant who serves on Boston College’s Council for Women.

Because Opus Dei is a personal calling, without typical Vatican top-down hierarchy, its members have autonomy to teach, speak, lead small groups of discussion, and travel the world assisting the sick and needy as they see necessary, Oates and Driver said.

Free of traditional church structure, aside from the traditional morning Mass celebrated by a male priest, the umbrella of intellectual and spiritual opportunities offered by Opus Dei is especially empowering for women who may feel constrained by the church’s male-dominated bureaucracy, the co-editors said.

Their book has drawn praise from progressive religion writers and scholars, including Phyllis Tickle, author of “The Divine Hours’’ and “The Words of Jesus.’’

Tickle said longstanding suspicion toward Opus Dei’s emphasis on a personal relationship with God, especially within the Catholic Church in Europe, has hurt the group. “They have a bad rap not just among non-Catholics, but even among Catholics,’’ she said.

“There are many people out there asking how do you rein it in?’’ Tickle said in a telephone interview from her Tennessee home.

Yet Opus Dei has much to offer contemporary religious debate, said Tickle. Many faiths acknowledge the mundane and ordinary parts of life, but seeking the divinity within them, as experienced by women, is the “great strength’’ of Opus Dei, she said. “It takes life where it is, so that it may be lauded.’’

In Greater Boston, nearly 100 young women, mostly college students, live at Bayridge, a historic Commonwealth Avenue mansion designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Opus Dei also runs the Chestnut Hill Center on Hammond Street in Newton, and the Elmbrook Student Center in Cambridge, offering educational programming for young men in high school and college, as well as the Arnold Hall Conference Center in Pembroke, offering job training and retreats for adults.

The Montrose School was established 30 years ago in Brookline by Catholic parents and educators who were also Opus Dei members. This year it made Boston magazine’s list of the area’s best private schools, outranking Belmont Hill School, Concord Academy, the Rivers School, and Milton Academy.

Attendance at Montrose has been growing steadily, and three years ago the school moved from a rented building in Natick to the 14-acre campus, with an athletic field, in Medfield.

Religious education remains part of the school’s core curriculum. Students can choose between attending daily morning Mass or spending 45 minutes in quiet reading sessions, with a long list of approved books that include Plato, Jane Austen, and even Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.’’

Montrose students travel to Rome to study Dante’s “Inferno,’’ are the only high-schoolers invited to present their writing and research on ethics and philosophy at a Notre Dame college competition, and are regularly accepted to Ivy League colleges.

“The most consistent feedback I get from visitors, community members, and parents is, ‘This is a happy place. Your students are genuinely happy,’ ’’ said Bohlin. “That’s refreshing.’’

The prayercard of the St Josemaria in English and in other languages.

The Wives, Mothers and Daughters Who Live the Charism

The Women of Opus Dei

By Miriam Díez i Bosch

NEW YORK, OCT. 19, 2009 ( We tracked down Marie Oates in Opus Dei headquarters in New York. Her desire to show how women live the Opus Dei charism resulted in her book “Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words."

Coedited with Linda Ruf and Jenny Driver (Crossroad Publishing, 2009), the book's profiles range from a Harvard doctor, to stay-at-home moms, to an MIT graduate; it aims to introduce "the women in Catholicism's most intriguing organization."

ZENIT: Finally someone is talking about women in the Opus Dei. Women make up half -- some believe more than half -- of the total number of members of Opus Dei in the United States and worldwide, but most people do not know you. Why this lack of protagonism?

Oates: As part of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei exists to help lay men and women find and love God through their work -- whatever that may be -- and the everyday events that fill a normal life. But having a vocation to Opus Dei does not change the fact that members are still simply lay faithful, the same as other lay faithful in the Catholic Church.

People in Opus Dei do not wear their vocation to Opus Dei on their sleeves. In general, they try to focus on being an "ordinary guy or gal" with their colleagues, family and friends, all the while trying to be more like Christ in their work and with everyone with whom they come in contact. In this way, each one strives to personally give glory to God and to give Christian witness through the way they do their work and through their personal relationships.

Readers will find that there is plenty of "protagonism" -- as well as human imperfections and defects too -- among the women featured in the book.

Each one is the protagonist of her unique and personal effort to live out her calling to holiness as a lay person.

ZENIT: Is there a prototype of a woman of Opus Dei?

Oates: No. As readers will see, the women featured in "Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words" are all unique.

The women in the book, just like all the women -- and men -- in Opus Dei, come from all walks of life. Four of the 15 women featured in the book are converts to Catholicism. Three of the women featured are of African American heritage; several come from Asian and Hispanic backgrounds. Several are stay-at-home mothers -- an important professional work esteemed as such by St. Josemaría Escrivá. Several are mothers who raise their families and have other professions they carry out.

There’s a scientist, a couple of medical doctors -- including one of the founders of the Hospice Movement in the United States, hospitality services professionals, a childcare professional, several educators, the president of a women’s college, the executive director of a non-profit organization, etc.

The majority of the women are married, some are single. What they share in common is their vocation -- which is the same calling regardless of their different circumstances.

Though they each have their own personal shortcomings and struggles like everyone, they all love their Catholic faith deeply and find that their vocation to Opus Dei helps them cherish, live and pass on that faith more readily.

Women (and men) in Opus Dei are normal Catholics who want to respond daily to God’s deep love and goodness.

ZENIT: Is there anything distinctive Opus Dei offers to women in terms of formation, ways of behaving?

Oates: The formation offered by Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, simply echoes the Christian formation recommended by the Church for all the faithful -- men and women. The Christian programs are the same for men and women -- though they are carried out independently of
each other.

The independence of the women’s formation programs from the men’s primarily was part of the foundational charism St. Josemaría received from God. It works effectively for Opus Dei’s formational activities, but it might not for other Catholic organizations.

I guess one of the distinctive features of the formation is that it is offered by lay people and priests. It strives to be practical and to help people live the Christian virtues in their place of work, in their normal daily activities.

ZENIT: In your book it is impossible to find the political affiliation of the women featured. Was that done on purpose or is it simply not an issue?

Oates: That was done on purpose because it is not an issue. Let me explain. Members of Opus Dei, as free human beings, are encouraged to be responsible citizens, to vote, to take an interest in the public policies that affect them and others within their various countries and communities.

That said, members of Opus Dei are completely free in the realm of voting, public policies, political party affiliation, etc. Opus Dei is totally non-political. Its ends are completely spiritual. People in Opus Dei tend to be all over the map in their politics -- some are liberal, some are conservative, some are moderate, etc. As devout Catholics, they often share similar points of view on moral “hot button” issues like abortion, euthanasia, sexual ethics, social justice, bioethics, etc. -- all of which have political repercussions.

Still, they are encouraged to approach and decide on those and other issues of public policy in accord with their conscience. There’s no one approach that people in Opus Dei adopt when considering those and other public policy matters. As Christians, they pray about and ponder the matters, and then come up with their own political decisions based on the options available to them.

ZENIT: Do you think the Opus Dei these women represent is the Opus Dei the founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, envisaged?

Oates: I like to think so. These women are all normal -- they are not perfect, but they are committed to struggle each day to keep Jesus front and center in their lives. We are all “works in progress” until we die.

Our existence on earth is a pilgrimage as we walk in time toward our definitive destiny: eternal life with God. God gives us time here on earth to cultivate the talents we have been given and to make the best of them in his service and the service of souls around us.

I think St. Josemaría would be happy with the dedication, focus and diversity of these women -- and the thousands not included in this book.

Probably, if he had them in a room all together, he would not congratulate them for being in Opus Dei, rather he would challenge them to be more valiant women. He would encourage them to try to be more generous in their love of God and spirit of service. He would urge them to dream apostolically with a world vision, to continue struggling to be better, to convert daily.

He often said that about himself, i.e., that he personally played the role of the prodigal son each day in his own life, and that most of us need to have little and big conversions each day, turning back toward God.

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On the Net:

"Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words":