Members of Opus Dei date the group’s foundation to October 2, 1928, when Josemar’a Escriva, then a young Spanish priest making a retreat at a Vincentian monastery in Madrid, experienced a vision, revealing to him “whole and entire” God’s wish for what would later become Opus Dei. Obviously the vision was not “entire” in the sense that it answered every question, since it required subsequent inspirations to demonstrate to Escriva that there should be a women’s branch to Opus Dei (that came in 1930) and that Opus Dei should also include a body of priests, the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross (1943). Yet in some sense, Escriva insisted, the blueprint for Opus Dei was contained in that original experience on the Feast of the Guardian Angels in 1928. Here’s how he once described it: “On October 2, 1928, the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels — by now nearly forty years have gone by — the Lord willed that Opus Dei might come to be, a mobilization of Christians disposed to sacrifice themselves with joy for others, to render divine all the ways of man on earth, sanctifying every upright work, every honest labor, every earthly occupation.”
Escriva and the members of Opus Dei are thus convinced that their organization is rooted in God’s will. As Escriva himself once put it, “I was not the founder of Opus Dei. Opus Dei was founded in spite of me.” Originally Escriva did not even give this new reality a name; “Opus Dei,” which is Latin for “work of God,” came from an offhand comment from Escriva’s confessor, who once asked him, “How’s that Work of God going?” This is why members usually refer to Opus Dei as “the Work.”
The core idea revealed to Escriva in that 1928 vision, and unfolded in subsequent stages of Opus Dei’s development, was the sanctification of ordinary life by laypeople living the gospel and Church teaching in their fullness. This is why one of the leading symbols for Opus Dei is a simple cross within a circle–the symbolism betokens the sanctification of the world from within. The idea is that holiness, “being a saint,” is not just the province of a few spiritual athletes, but is the universal destiny of every Christian. Holiness is not exclusively, or even principally, for priests and nuns. Further, holiness is not something to be achieved in the first place through prayer and spiritual discipline, but rather through the mundane details of everyday work. Holiness thus doesn’t require a change in external circumstances, but a change in attitude, seeing everything anew in the light of one’s supernatural destiny.
In that sense, admirers of Escriva, who included Pope John Paul II, believe the Spanish saint anticipated the “universal call to holiness” that would be announced by the Second Vatican Council. The late cardinal of Florence and right-hand man of Pope Paul VI, Giovanni Benelli — who crossed swords with Escriva over the years–nevertheless once said that what Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was to the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, Escriva was to the Second Vatican Council. That is, he was the saint who translated the council into the life of the Church.
In a December 2004 interview, the number-two official of Opus Dei, Monsignor Fernando Ocariz, a Spanish theologian who has served since 1986 as a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, explained that Escriva’s understanding of the “universal call to holiness” had two dimensions, subjective and objective. The subjective is the invitation to individual persons to sanctification, meaning that all people, regardless of their station in life, are called to become saints. The objective is the realization that all of creation, and every situation in human experience, is a means to this end.
“All human realities, all the circumstances of human life, all the professions, every family and social situation, are means of sanctification,” Ocariz said. “It’s not just that everyone is supposed to be a saint despite the fact of not being priests or monks, but precisely that all the realities of life are places that can lead one to the Lord.”
– Excerpt from Opus Dei : An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church by John L. Allen, Jr. Published by Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, Inc.
This post was last updated: Jan. 4, 2006
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