WASHINGTON – The impression of Opus Dei conveyed in Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, is "the complete opposite of what Opus Dei is about," said Brian Finnerty, U.S. spokesman for the international Catholic organization.
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA DE BALAGUER – St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei, is pictured in a 1972 file photo. A Spanish priest, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II Oct. 6, 2002. He died June 26, 1975. (CNS photo/courtesy Opus Dei)
The book portrays Opus Dei as a secretive cult within the church plotting to take over the church and willing to kill those who stand in its way. One of the main characters in the book is a murderous albino Opus Dei monk named Silas.
In fact Opus Dei, headed by a bishop, is a personal prelature – part of the hierarchical structure of the church – and it has no monks.
With the vast public attention given to the book over the past three years, and now with the movie coming out in May, Opus Dei is using the occasion "to get the word out about who we really are," Finnerty told Catholic News Service in a phone interview. He said one of the things the organization has done is provide a brief description of the real Opus Dei for a new Web site funded by the Catholic Communication Campaign, www.jesusdecoded.com.
"Opus Dei" is Latin for "God's work," and members often refer to it simply as "the Work."
And what is the Work really about?
"Coming closer to God and finding God in everyday life," Finnerty said. While the novel portrays it as being in opposition to the world, "Opus Dei is about seeing the world as a place of encounter with Christ," he said.
Founded in Spain in 1928, Opus Dei now has more than 87,000 members in more than 60 countries, including 3,000 in the United States, according to Finnerty.
Members seek to make their faith infuse all aspects of life, including their jobs. Members are expected to attend daily Mass and to pray the rosary and engage in mental prayer, spiritual reading and meditation every day.
About 70 percent of Opus Dei members are supernumeraries, those who are married or who plan to marry, according to Finnerty. The rest, he said, commit themselves to lives of celibacy. Of those members, about two-thirds live in Opus Dei centers and are called numeraries; the other third, called associates, live in their own homes. More than half the members around the world are women.
Russell Shaw, a Washington-based Catholic journalist and former media spokesman for the National (now U.S.) Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNS he joined Opus Dei in 1980 and it has helped him develop "a richer, deeper, more meaningful relationship with God."
He said that even when he first became aware of Opus Dei, perhaps 15 years or so before he joined, he was attracted to its concept of a lay vocation, of seeing one's work in the secular world as a form of service to God.
As an Opus Dei member, "I try to do that, I try to cultivate that intention underlying the work that I do. But it's difficult. It's not 100 percent (successful)," he said.
Catherine Hickey of Larchmont, N.Y., called Opus Dei "a wonderful thing in my life." Now 71, she said she learned of Opus Dei in her late 30s when her oldest boy got involved in a club run by some of its members. "I was very impressed with the young people. I loved their joy and their spirit of giving," she said.
As a busy mother of seven, she said Opus Dei's message that lay people could be "contemplatives in the midst of the world" was a new idea to her. She joined at the age of 39.
For the past 15 years Hickey has worked at the Rosedale Center of the South Bronx Educational Foundation, begun by local Opus Dei members and others to improve the education of girls in the South Bronx, one of New York City's poorest areas.
Staff and volunteers mentor and tutor the inner-city grade-school and high-school girls one-on-one after school and teach classes on Saturdays and in special summer programs, she said. The foundation runs a similar program for boys nearby at the Crotona Center.
Opus Dei's Midtown Educational Foundation in Chicago runs similar programs for disadvantaged boys and girls there.
Father John Wauck, an American Opus Dei priest who teaches at Opus Dei's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, has a personal Web log, known as a blog, on Opus Dei and "The Da Vinci Code." He predicts the cilice and whip will be what moviegoers vividly remember about Opus Dei when they leave the theater.
The cilice (pronounced SIL-is), which is a belt or chain with sharp points, and the whip are used by numeraries for bodily mortifications.
The priest says Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, also used the whip, known as "the discipline," but "everyone knows that's not what the Sisters of Charity are all about. And it's not what Opus Dei's about either."
In contrast to the "heavy knotted rope" that the monk character named Silas uses in the book, Father Wauck said the whip used by Opus Dei numeraries is "small and light enough to carry in a closed fist."
Linda Ruf of Chicago, an Opus Dei member for more than 20 years, has led parish information sessions around the Midwest and appeared on television to discuss the errors in The Da Vinci Code – not just errors about Opus Dei, but about Christianity itself, where author Brown constructs an elaborate two-millennium conspiracy theory that challenges fundamental Christian beliefs.
"I was astounded that women were having faith crises over this," she told CNS.
Of the criticisms of Opus Dei that the novel uses to fashion a picture of a secretive sect within the church, she said, "Opus Dei, I'm sure, has made some mistakes in the past with individuals, and we should learn from some of those possible mistakes."
She said a recent book titled "Opus Dei" by John L. Allen Jr., an American journalist and author who covers the Vatican, "does a pretty good job of saying what some of Opus Dei's problems are and what some of its strengths are," giving voice to the critics but also reporting the organization's response to those criticisms.
Some critics claim Opus Dei recruits people aggressively and excessively controls the lives of members, but Shaw and Hickey described their decisions to join as a free choice without pressure from members. Hickey said that while her children were involved in the organization's clubs they were never asked to join.
Bruce Lachenauer, 46, of Irvine, Calif., a father of five and a partner in a large executive search firm, said that as a student at Northwestern University he was invited to participate in activities at the nearby Opus Dei center. "There was nothing high pressure about it," he said, and he didn't become interested until a couple of years later, after the center moved closer to campus.
He described himself as "a product of the '60s" who went to public school and to parish religious education classes that didn't get much beyond "how Jesus loves us."
"One of the first things Opus Dei helped me with was a theology class, where I learned so much more about my faith," he said.
Lachenauer said as an Opus Dei member he finds his faith "woven into every aspect of life," from his work environment to his relationships with family and friends.
He said he has invited "many, many friends to participate" in retreats, talks, parenting seminars and other activities sponsored by Opus Dei because he thinks they will benefit from those experiences. He said he has invited some people to consider joining Opus Dei, but to his knowledge none have joined, although several friends have become "cooperators" – nonmembers who support Opus Dei financially or volunteer their time for some of its projects.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops