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Mystery, faith surround Opus Dei

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The DaVinci Code, the controversial American novel that has topped best-seller lists for well over a year, has stirred conversation and controversy about Christian history and theology, generating particular interest in an organization that several Notre Dame students and faculty belong to – Opus Dei. In casting the novel’s villain as an Opus Dei member, author Dan Brown heaped more confusion onto the lay organization whose publicity in the last several years has spanned the extremes, from the canonization of its founder in 2002 to the arrest of member Robert Hanssen, the FBI-agent turned Russian spy, in 2001.Brown’s descriptions were often inaccurate, including the portrayal of Opus Dei as a monastic order and its exaggeration of corporal mortification practices. The reality is far more complex.Unbeknownst to many, Notre Dame is one of few universities that has Opus Dei houses, called “centers,” near its campus. Windmoor, the men’s center, has been on Notre Dame Ave. since 1960. Southold, a women’s center, is marking its tenth year in South Bend.Opus Dei’s presence near campus is not well-known, due in part to its small membership that grows slowly through word-of-mouth invitation. In the United States, there are only 3,000 Opus Dei members.However, activities at both centers attract undergraduates on a weekly basis.Windmoor director Jeffrey Langan, one of a handful of Opus Dei faculty members at Notre Dame, says the invitation is extended to anyone interested, as the organization is private – but not secretive, a critique alleged by many on the national level.”We don’t hide who we are,” Langan said. “But we don’t make a big deal of it either.””The Work”Opus Dei, Latin for “The Work of God,” was founded in Spain in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva. Escriva envisioned a way that ordinary lay people could seek holiness in their everyday activities, especially through work. Members are called upon to live the Opus Dei spirit that Escriva imparted. This is a spirit of prayer, charity, sacrifice and Christian love. In 1982, the Vatican granted Opus Dei the unique status of a personal prelature, meaning that it is defined by individuals rather than geographical areas. Opus Dei is more structured than other lay organizations. Members are classified most generally into two groups: numeraries and supernumeraries. Numeraries are laymen and women who live a celibate and ascetic lifestyle in centers, and give their salary and time to Opus Dei.Supernumeraries, also lay men and women, live out the Opus Dei spirit through fulfilling their duties to their family, the most important aspect of their Christian lives.Priests are in a third category, but compose only a small fraction of the membership.Lay members work in the secular world, but receive strict spiritual direction from Opus Dei. They follow a spiritual routine including daily Mass, rosary, spiritual reading and personal prayer, as well as Opus Dei prayers and customs.Spiritual formation consists of regular talks with either an Opus Dei priest or center director. Members strive to improve on day-to-day details: personal well-being, such as sleeping habits and relationships, as well as spiritual matters.Senior Rich Moss, who attended an Opus Dei-sponsored high school and who now lives at Windmoor, said the Opus Dei spirit is relatively simple and straightforward.”Opus Dei is all about sanctification of work and apostolate,” Moss said. “Basically, do what you do on a daily basis for God, and help other people do the same.”Opus Dei in South BendThroughout the week, Windmoor opens its doors to many male undergraduates attracted to the spiritual formation and collegiality the center offers. Friday night meditations draw the largest crowd, usually around 30 students. After Eucharistic adoration and a brief homily, dinner is served. After dinner, a faculty member is often invited to speak to the group on his area of expertise. Southold, the women’s center, is neither as organized nor as well attended, said senior Cara Farr.She added that the center provides a place for spiritual formation, as well as a longer day of reflection once a month.While students are often friends with those at the center of the opposite sex, the two centers maintain very little contact in terms of formation.”[Escriva] wanted men and women to be independent, to have no collaboration,” Langan explained, referring to the spiritual growth of Opus Dei members. “We can be assured that if we are one in the spirit, we are doing the same thing. The priests are meant to be the glue. They are in constant contact with the men and also the women.”The presence of Opus Dei at elite colleges such as Notre Dame is vital to its apostolate mission. Students at such universities – which include Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia and Georgetown – will influence the future through their leadership, Langan says.”From universities, you can find people who are the most idealistic, the most capable of going all over the U.S. and the world, if that’s what is asked of them,” Langan said. However, Opus Dei activities have never been permitted on campus because the Congregation of the Holy Cross is exclusively entrusted with the pastoral ministry of students, said Father Richard Warner, the director of Notre Dame’s Campus Ministry for the past 16 years.Participation in Opus Dei is not mutually exclusive with other activities, including Campus Ministry. Students and faculty lead active lives outside of the Opus Dei centers.”[Opus Dei] is an approved way of life for people who are looking to deepen their spirituality and their commitment to God,” Warner said. “The faculty members I know who are members of Opus Dei, I have, personally, a great deal of respect for … I think they’re very good people who have a deep spiritual life and have found in Opus Dei a means to sanctify their life and their work.”ControversiesWarner acknowledged that the relationship between some students and Opus Dei has caused concern in the past.”Over the course of the years that I’ve been director of Campus Ministry,” Warner said, “there have been occasions where situations have arisen because … some of the students in Opus Dei … had a harder time than they should have in getting out when they wanted to.”Warner could not comment on any specifics, but said the latest incident occurred almost two years ago. He cited a frequent lack of transparency as a cause of confusion.”I’m not always convinced that … people know exactly what they’re dealing with, what the organization is really all about,” Warner said. “I wish it were more up front in terms of an approach where things would be laid out ahead of time, and not just the general invitation to pray together or teach catechism.”Langan said a layered discovery process is intrinsic to the nature of relationships, including one with Opus Dei.He compared joining Opus Dei to marrying a spouse.”There are some things about your spouse that you can’t possibly know until after you’re married,” he said.”We tell people before they join Opus Dei that there will be things demanded, it will be challenging. These will be revealed in talks and as you are getting to us and we are getting to know you.” National critics accuse Opus Dei of being less than forthcoming about the organization’s practices and recruitment. Others say Opus Dei retains too much control over its members, particularly students.”Anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of the Catholic scene is more likely to have a highly critical estimation of Opus Dei,” said Father Richard McBrien, a professor in theology department. “Opus Dei prohibits its students from taking courses from certain professors or from seeking spiritual counsel from certain priests on the faculty or staff of the University,” McBrien said.Langan denied such an imputation, saying that no one is advised against taking specific courses, only that students are encouraged to be prudent in their selection. There is a list of books for directors to reference, so that if a student is required to read such material, they can seek out additional articles to supplement the reading, he said.Langan added that all students are free to receive counsel or sacraments from whomever they choose, but he recommends that students talk to an Opus Dei priest if they have been receiving Opus Dei formation.”We do tell [students] that the person who can best give you advice in confession is a priest of Opus Dei because they understand the spirit and are receiving the same formation,” Langan said. “They know what’s being asked of you and can give the best advice on how to put into practice the things you are hearing.”Students and faculty involved with Opus Dei say that reaction they receive on campus is generally positive, even after the publication of Brown’s book. “The DaVinci Code has been an occasion to have a lot of good conversation with people,” Langan said.