Opus Dei, formally known as the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, is an institution of the Catholic Church. Its members seek personal Christian holiness and strive to live with Christian principles.
The majority of its membership are lay people, and the remainder are secular priests under the governance of a prelate elected by specific members and appointed by the Pope.
Founded in Spain in 1928 by Catholic priest Josemaria Escriva, it was given Catholic Church approval in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. John Paul II made it a personal prelature in 1982 by the apostolic constitution.
As of 2018, there were 95,318 members of the Prelature, 93,203 lay persons, and 2,115 priests. The best-selling book The Da Vinci Code, talks a bit about the Catholic organization Opus Dei.
The name itself is Latin for “Work of God”. Their mission is to spread Christ’s teachings on the universal call to holiness.
Opus Dei has sometimes been better at explaining what it is “not” rather than what it “is”. Escriva strongly suggested that Opus Dei is not a religious order.
Because of that, they are not comparable to the Franciscans or the Dominicans. The members of Opus Dei remain fully immersed in the world and do not retreat to monasteries or cloisters.
Members of this Church within the Church find God through the mundane details of daily secular life. They have been vigorous in proving they are not a “lay movement”. Their explanation is because it includes clergy.
And this is what gives Opus Dei its unique character. It is an institution of laypeople and priests together, men and women, sharing the same vocation, yet playing different roles.
Over the years, they have been classified in a variety of ways, including a pious union, priestly society of common life without vows, a secular institute, and since 1982, as a personal prelature.
Over the years, the organization has insisted that the existing structures within the 1917 Code of Canon law, which was the official body of law for the Catholic Church prior to 1983, were inadequate to reflect the group’s true nature.
So, they came up with an entirely new concept, something like the personal prelature.
History and foundation
The group’s foundation dates back to October 2nd, 1928, when Josemara Escriva, a young Spanish priest, made a retreat at a Vincentian monastery in Madrid.
He experienced a vision, which according to the members, revealed to him “whole and entire” God’s wish for what would later become Opus Dei.
The vision did not answer every question, but it required subsequent inspirations to demonstrate to Escriva that there should be a women’s branch to Opus Dei. That came in 1930.
Opus Dei also includes a body of priests, the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross since 1943.
According to Escriva, the blueprint for Opus Dei was contained in the original experience on the Feast of the Guardian Angels in 1928.
This is how he 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”.
According to the members of Opus Dei, the organization is rooted in God’s will. Even Escriva said, “I was not the founder of Opus Dei. Opus Dei was founded in spite of me”.
Originally, he did not come up with the name. Instead, it came from an offhand comment from Escriva’s confessor, who once asked him, “How’s that Work of God going”.
And since then, members of the group refer to Opus Dei as The Work.
Practices and beliefs
The best description for this “church” is “a personal prelature of the Catholic church that helps people seek holiness in their work and ordinary activities”.
So, in other words, they try to help others through regular life and day-to-day life. Joining the organization is a long process, and more on that later on.
They are a strong advocate of traditional Catholic values, focusing on spreading the Catholic teaching that every individual is called to become a saint and an apostle of Jesus Christ and that ordinary life is a path to sanctity.
Because it is an organization of the Catholic Church, it shares the doctrines of the Catholic Church. It has no other teaching than the teaching of the Magisterium of the Holy See.
But they place special emphasis on certain aspects of the Catholic doctrine. A central feature of the theology is the focus on the lives of the ordinary Catholics who are neither priests nor monks. They emphasize the universal call to holiness and the belief that everyone should aspire to be a saint, as per Jesus’ commandment to “Love God with all your heart”.
There are no monks or nuns. Instead, only a minority of the members are priests. All members, whether married or unmarried, priests or laypeople, are trained to follow a plan of life and norms of piety.
They also focus on performing sacrifices pertaining to normal duties and to its emphasis on charity and cheerfulness.
There is a lot of attention on their practice of mortification, the voluntary offering up of discomfort or pain to God, including fasting or for its celibate members.
Can you become a member?
There are three types of members of Opus Dei, and priests are minority. The three types are numeraries, associates, and supernumeraries.
The first two make up between 25 and 30 percent of the members. They are celibate, live with other members, and on occasion, practice corporal mortification.
As the organization has become more prominent, people want to join. But aspiring members are advised to learn a little something.
For starters, membership doesn’t work like walking in an office and becoming a member. Membership usually arises out of getting to know Opus Dei, through a family member, or by exposure to corporate works.
Because it is not a religious order, members are not asked to take vows. Their status under Church law does not change when they join. Laypeople remain laity. What they do is they affiliate themselves by means of a quintessential secular instrument, a contract. Members strike a deal with Opus Dei, which means they agree to live in the spirit of Opus Dei and support its apostolic activities.
In return, Opus Dei agrees to provide spiritual and doctrinal formation. Members remain free outside the terms of this contract. They have no right to represent Opus Dei in their professional work or act on its behalf.
According to the contract, Opus Dei does not seek to influence its members beyond spiritual growth.
Yet, because it was designated a personal prelature in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, some critics have referred to its position as being similar to that of a “church within the Church”. It is a unique position to be in.
Personal prelature is “a canonical term meaning that the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church over Opus Dei covers the members of Opus Dei rather than a geographical area like a diocese”. It operates in a similar way to a religious order, but there are no geographical limits. Members are lay people instead of monks and nuns.
Relationship with the Catholic Church
Let’s talk a bit about the history of the organization and how the relationship with the Catholic Church evolved over time.
Leopoldo Eijo y Garay, who was the bishop of Madrid where the organization was born, supported Opus Dei and even defended it. In 1940s, he said that “this opus is truly Dei”, which means this work is truly God’s.
In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII told the most senior Australian bishop, Cardinal Norman Gilroy, that “Escriva is a true saint, a man sent by God for our times”. He also gave the organization the canonical status of pontifical right, an institution depending directly and exclusively on the Vatican in its internal governance.
In 1960s, Pope John XXIII commented that the organization “opens up unsuspected horizons of apostolate”.
Then, in 1964, Pope Paul VI praised the organization and wrote to Escriva, saying, “Opus Dei is a vigorous expression of the perennial youth of the Church, fully open to the demands of a modern apostolate. We look with paternal satisfaction on all that Opus Dei has achieved and is achieving for the kingdom of God”.
Yet, there were some like Pope John Paul I. A few years before his election, he wrote that Escriva was more radical than other saints who taught about the universal call to holiness.
John Paul II was one of the most prominent supporters, citing their aim of sanctifying secular activities as a great ideal. He said that Escriva’s founding was led by divine inspiration, and he granted the organization its status as a personal prelature.
Pope Benedict XVI was a strong supporter, and when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he wrote that The Lord simply made use of Escriva and allowed God to work”. He cited Escriva for correcting the mistaken idea that holiness is reserved for some extraordinary people who are different from ordinary sinners.
Pope Francis is also a friend of Opus Dei. He admires their emphasis on the dignity of the laity.