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Students’ Opus Dei experiences vary

Janice Flynn | Friday, October 29, 2004

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series exploring South Bend’s Opus Dei community.

Students have taken an array of paths through Opus Dei. Some have deepened their spiritual lives. Others have had emotionally distressing experiences.

All have been profoundly affected by the influence of Opus Dei while at Notre Dame.

“An awesome experience”

Brothers Rich and Phil Moss, a senior and a sophomore, were raised by Opus Dei parents in a Washington D.C. suburb, and attended one of the country’s five Opus Dei-sponsored high schools. Their family life, they said, was like that of a normal, devout Catholic family: Sunday Mass, saying the Rosary, grace before meals. As adolescents, their parents never forced them to pay visits to the local center – they went because they enjoyed it.

“It was just one of the things I looked forward to every week, the nights I went down to the center and got to hang out with the priests and the guys there,” Phil Moss said.

Senior Cara Farr converted from Methodism to Catholicism with her family. Although familiar with Opus Dei in high school, she did not attend a center until she was a freshman at Notre Dame.

“I knew that Opus Dei was very serious about Catholicism, and coming into college I knew that I really wanted to develop my faith,” Farr said. “It really emphasizes personal holiness, and that was something that I was also interested in.”

Classmate Dave Cook heard about the men’s Opus Dei center soon after he began dating Farr. He was struck by the genuine hospitality of director Jeffrey Langan and the other students at a Friday meditation. He continued going for spiritual direction with the Opus Dei priest once a week.

“[We would] just talk about small things, like what time do I get up in the morning, how much do I pray each day, how are my relationships, stuff like that. Just half an hour a week, but so much good came out of that,” Cook said. “Just to grow in virtue and to learn the Catholic faith more, it’s just been an awesome experience.”

Cook, Farr and Phil Moss attend the South Bend centers regularly, but they are not members of Opus Dei. According to Langan, in the 10 years he has been Windmoor director fewer than 10 students have formally joined Opus Dei; many more have simply lived devout Catholic lives apart from Opus Dei or have joined the priesthood of another religious order.

However, many more students become involved in Opus Dei while at Notre Dame. Like these three, students attend activities and receive formation offered at the center. Meditations at Windmoor bring about 30 men each Friday night.

The students say the amount of participation at the center is up to each individual, and the range of the centers’ activities varies.

“At any given moment, [somebody would] be in the study room, there’d probably be a talk going on upstairs and there’s probably be a whole bunch of guys watching TV,” Rich Moss said. “So all three things go on at the same time really. And a lot of the guys participate in all three – the spiritual, the study and the fun.”

Rich Moss lives at Windmoor, and has taken the first of several promises to become a supernumerary, an Opus Dei member who lives the spirit of Opus Dei through dedication to family.

“I’ve made a commitment.” Moss said. “Joining Opus Dei, it’s not a club – there is a vocation to Opus Dei, and I believe that. It’s like a calling.”

While the parents of Farr and the Moss brothers were familiar with Opus Dei, Cook said at first his father was not receptive to his participation.

“I think [my dad’s negative reaction] was based on what most people say about Opus Dei,” Cook said. “I think now he’s seeing that what he thought about Opus Dei at first is kind of unfounded, and he’s seeing me grow and mature. I think he thinks now ‘How can it not be good?'”

The students take the call to apostolate seriously. All say they occasionally invite friends to come to the center, mostly because they enjoy going themselves.

But they fall short of calling Opus Dei a recruitment effort.

“The goal of Opus Dei isn’t to be a presence on campus as Opus Dei, we don’t go around vocalizing the fact that we are Opus Dei,” Cook said. “I think the point is … to spread living a Christian life, being a good example and really developing strong relationship with your dorm, with your teachers, with whomever.”

“Opus Dei is a means of formation basically,” added Rich Moss. “It’s a way of getting people to be closer to God, and anyone in Opus Dei will tell you that it is not the only way.”

“A crisis of faith”

Junior John Schneider began attending Friday night meditations at Windmoor in late October of his freshman year.

Schneider had interest in a vocation to the priesthood since he was a sophomore in high school. He was attracted by the disciplined life Opus Dei offered, the regular access to a priest and strict adherence to Church doctrine.

Over the next several months, at the encouragement of a numerary undergraduate, he steadily increased his involvement at Windmoor: he started receiving spiritual direction, he took a small theology course called a “circle” and he went on a center-sponsored retreat.

At the retreat, Schneider said he wanted to talk about his possible vocation to the priesthood. It was suggested to him that he also might want to consider a vocation to be a numerary.

Schneider was not familiar with this term. Nearly 30 percent of Opus Dei members are numeraries, laymen and laywomen who live celibate lives, direct centers and give spiritual direction. That he was unaware of this prompted him to say in retrospect, he “didn’t know which way was up” with the structure of Opus Dei, even after months of going to the center.

This pattern would repeat itself over the course of his second semester of freshman year – Schneider increased his involvement, and was then given more information about Opus Dei.

Though Windmoor director Jeffrey Langan declined to comment on Schneider’s specific experience with Opus Dei, he said Schneider’s experience was not an exception to his general statements about the organization.

Langan said that the unfolding process Schneider felt fits the structure of any relationship, including one with Opus Dei: the two parties embark on a process of better getting to know each other and more information is disseminated through talks.

“The Church requests the talks we give people [after joining],” Langan said. “That way they have enough information to make a good choice.”

Schneider was also invited to read certain books kept under lock and key – writings by Opus Dei for Opus Dei that were not to leave the center.

Langan confirmed the presence of such books, saying that most contain the rules of Opus Dei, and that anyone can learn the spirit of Opus Dei through reading the founder’s published writings.

“It is enough in the beginning to know the spirit,” Langan said. “If you go right away to all the rules, a person may get caught up in all the rules; then they don’t understand the spirit or the rules.”

Schneider said the combination of his inherent trust for Church authority, and the gradual unraveling of the numerary life made it difficult for him to critically reflect on what he was being asked to accept.

It wasn’t until the summer after his freshman year that he began to have serious doubts about Opus Dei.

On a three-week long retreat for new numeraries in Boston, Schneider said he began to reexamine the organization “from top to bottom,” and have misgivings with aspects of Opus Dei philosophy, which he declined to comment on. He felt uncomfortable not being allowed to talk to the women who served him meals, even to say thank you, and with his perception that he might not be able to uphold his duties as the eldest son in a family of six children. His understanding was that a numerary turns over his paycheck to Opus Dei and that Opus Dei did not guarantee (as he felt a religious order did) that they would unconditionally provide should his family need financial support.

Langan said that a numerary only turns over the excess of his paycheck to Opus Dei, and that every effort to provide for family members is made.

The intensity of the previous months culminated during this retreat. Schneider became severely depressed. He had a momentary crisis of faith when he doubted the existence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. This only lasted for 15 minutes, but it was terrifying, he said.

“Things just weren’t making sense anymore,” he said. “I was emotionally distressed.”

Upon returning to school the next fall, Schneider began to consider leaving the organization, and consulted local priests during his deliberation.

During this time, Schneider said he was very worried about the consequences of leaving Opus Dei.

In retrospect, Schneider said he was overly concerned, and that his departure went smoothly. But because he had continually discovered new facets of Opus Dei during his entrance, he said he was not sure how easy it would be to leave.

Schneider is still considering becoming a priest, and says many things about Opus Dei remain appealing, but “it was not worth the trouble.”

He said he believes that better disclosure could have prevented his distress.

“If they had told me in the beginning what would be required of me, and laid out the events which would have followed, I would have said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,'” Schneider said. “Instead, over the course of months, they told me bit by bit by bit.

“Personally, I’m okay if you were to allow someone to direct your life in that way. I have no problem with that.

“My problem is that it is my fear that they do not properly draw people’s consent as they draw them into the organization.”

The big picture

Not all who leave Opus Dei organization have the same experience as Schneider. Opus Dei boasts an estimated international network of 700,000 supporters, called cooperators, who support the Opus Dei mission through work, money and prayer. Many cooperators were once part of the organization.

Furthermore, the intensity of training and commitment of a numerary is vastly different from that of a supernumerary, by virtue of a supernumerary’s main devotion to family, while a numerary more fully dedicates his life to Opus Dei.

But Schneider’s experience is also not unique. Father Richard Warner, director of Campus Ministry, acknowledges that other Notre Dame students have sought the counsel of Campus Ministry, but could not provide names, and because there have been no recent situations comparable to Schneider’s.

The continuous growth of Opus Dei in membership and influence will undoubtedly affect the lives and faith of young men and women, as it has with those at Notre Dame.