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Former Follower Slams Opus Dei's Saint-To-Be

By Emma Ross-Thomas
Reuters - October 5, 2002

MADRID (Reuters) - As Catholics prepare to celebrate the canonization of Opus Dei's founder, a former follower has published a book comparing the conservative religious movement to a personality cult and warning others against joining it.

Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer founded the Opus Dei or "God's Work" movement in 1928 around the idea that people could be paragons of holiness and live completely ordinary lives, whether as a banker or a baker.

Pope John Paul ( news - web sites), whose spokesman is a Spanish member of Opus Dei, will make Escriva a saint Sunday in a ceremony in St. Peter's Square expected to be attended by more than 250,000 people.

But to former follower Isabel de Armas, Opus Dei is like the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies after its leader Sun Myung Moon. De Armas says she even wondered during one Opus Dei meeting if she was in revolutionary Cuba.

When de Armas heard the Pope had recognized a miracle in the name of Escriva paving the way to sainthood, she decided to publish a collection of letters she had written to a young woman trying to dissuade her from joining the movement.

In one letter in the book "Being a Woman in the Opus Dei," she says the most striking comparison between Opus Dei and some modern religious cults was the "overvaluation of the guru."

After a discussion with Escriva, de Armas describes being asked how she had found the experience.
"The measure was if you had trembled a lot or a bit with the so-called spirit of the Opus," writes the quiet but firmly spoken gray-haired woman.

CHASTE LIVING

De Armas, now a journalist, describes her disillusionment as she came to believe that Escriva was surrounded by an "obsessive myth" and that he seemed to be "the captain of captains, the messiah, the savior, the anointed one."

De Armas joined Opus Dei, which now has some 85,000 members across the world, in the 1960s as a "numerary," making a commitment to be chaste and living in an Opus center.

For the first couple of years, numeraries study religion and Escriva's writings. While many have careers outside the organization they devote much of their time to Opus Dei.

Escriva, who died in 1975, was beatified in 1992. His group is widely believed to wield considerable influence in political and financial circles, but its inner workings remain shrouded in mystery.

Opus, which says it counts Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo as one of its members, is based on the principle of finding holiness through work and everyday life.

Opus runs universities and benevolent projects around the world, and offers religious education to young people.

Beatriz Comella, 44, a numerary since 1975, strongly defends the movement. A church historian writing her doctorate, Comella dismisses the suggestion that Escriva was more important within the organization than the founder of an any other order.

"Opus Dei cannot be a sect because we are all adults. You can't confuse Christian education with not respecting people's liberty," she told Reuters.

"In the 20th and 21st centuries you can't deceive people for long."