Dei has stake in new pope
Matthew McAllester, Newsday, April 15, 2005
by Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis
cilice is a barbed wire -like spiked chain worn around the upper
thigh for two hours each day, except for Church feast days,
Sundays, and certain times of the year. This is perhaps the
most shocking of the corporal mortifications, and generally
Opus Dei members are extremely hesitant to admit that they use
-- Sure, Peter Bancroft said, he does use a small, cotton whip to
lash his back or buttocks once a week (in private). And yes, most
days he wears an abrasive metal chain around his thigh for a couple
of hours that causes him discomfort but no lasting damage.
no, neither he nor anyone in Opus Dei is a pain-loving murderer
like Dan Brown's villain in the enormously successful novel "The
Da Vinci Code."
soon as you meet an Opus Dei member," said Bancroft, sitting
in an ornate room in the headquarters of the conservative Catholic
lay group and showing no signs of self-mutilation, "it doesn't
take long to figure out that not all Opus Dei members are masochistic
part of the Church has been so shrouded in conspiracy theory in
recent years as Opus Dei, which has 85,000 members worldwide and
espouses a very conservative form of Catholicism. Critics within
the Church worry about its wealth and influence; Web sites accuse
it of being a cult, and Brown's best-seller casts it as a dark,
violent force within Christianity. Even its own members acknowledge
it is too secretive and defensive.
it faces a new challenge far from the realm of fantasy: As 115 cardinals
meet in conclave Monday, there is no guarantee the next pope will
treat Opus Dei with the favor Pope John Paul II bestowed upon it.
Opus Dei members, "Their basic concern is that they might actually
end up among the big losers," said John Allen, Vatican correspondent
for the National Catholic Reporter and author of a forthcoming
book on the group. But the men and women within Opus Dei insist
its future is secure. Bancroft, a group spokesman, dismissed the
possibility a new pope will turn against it. Opus Dei's vision of
involving lay people further in the Church "is part of the
DNA of the Church," he said, and part of the reason for John
stake is the influence of an organization that Allen estimates has
assets worth $2.8 billion worldwide and $344.4 million in the United
within the Church usually prefer to speak anonymously about Opus
Dei, citing fear of retribution and an unwillingness to make tense
relationships worse. "They're very, very powerful. ... They're
so powerful it frightens people," said a priest in Rome who
has regular contact with Opus Dei. Critics say the group deliberately
sets out to recruit elites -- politicians, executives, journalists,
lawyers and, of course, senior churchmen. Chief Vatican spokesman
Joaquin Navarro-Valls is a member. Two of the 115 cardinals expected
to vote in the conclave are members and two top candidates for pope
-- Joseph Ratzinger and Dionigi Tettamanzi -- are said to be close
to the group.
John Paul, Opus Dei made important gains. In 1992, he beatified
its founder, Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. Ten years
earlier, the pope had given the group the status of a personal prelature,
essentially turning it into the Church's only diocese without geographical
spite of Opus Dei's privileged status, some observers say its influence
is overstated. "I think there's a lot of fantasizing about
Opus Dei but I don't think there's so much grounds for that,"
said a Colombian priest, the Rev. Sergio Bernal, a professor of
social doctrine at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and
a Jesuit, one of the clerical groups considered to be at odds with
Opus Dei. And Allen said he didn't "see in any direct way how
Opus Dei is exercising any influence on the conclave."
Opus Dei appears murky and alien to the world, that's partly because
some of its practices can come across as throwbacks to the Middle
Ages. "For people who aren't part of that world it's a little
strange, but I don't think there's anything nefarious or dangerous
about it," Allen said. "I think it's a very traditional,
straight-laced, buttoned-down version of Catholic life and spirituality."
the first-time guest, a visit to Opus Dei headquarters is a slightly
unsettling, but harmless, experience. It does not come across as
secretive. Without an appointment, two visitors were welcomed by
a Spanish-speaking young woman and given a tour of a series of small
chapels and crypts below street level. Marble of nearly every color
blended in a lavish, neo-baroque style with granite and other perfectly
is a custom-made network of modern design built in the 1950s and
after, but reminiscent of an ancient place of worship.
was also entirely unsecretive. Usually based in the organization's
New York center, he is a numerary, a layman committed to a life
members are supernumeraries, many of them married. Only about 2
percent are ordained priests, he said.
readily acknowledged that Opus Dei had made "mistakes"
by putting "too much pressure" on some new members during
initiation rites. Some former members have publicized what they
saw as cult-like brainwashing techniques. "We feel bad about
it," said Bancroft, 35, of Stow, Mass., referring to any mishandling
of new members.
seemed a little embarrassed to talk about the whip, known as a discipline,
and the chain -- a cilice -- he wears around his thigh, but said
both are "a symbolic way of uniting yourself with Christ."
Rev. John Paul Wauck, a professor at Opus Dei's pontifical college
in Rome, Holy Cross, noted that such acts, known as physical mortification,
have long been practiced by Church members, including Mother Teresa
numeraries practice physical mortification, Bancroft explained.
Married members of Opus Dei, supernumeraries, are exempt. "They
already have enough mortification," he said, laughing.
the publication of "The Da Vinci Code" in 2003, Bancroft
has been unprecedentedly busy explaining Opus Dei to people. "It's
introduced lots of silliness into my job," he said. But ironically,
the novel's dark portrayal of the organization has led some people
to join, he said. "We think the more light that gets shed on
us the better," Bancroft said.
remains to be seen if the next pope agrees.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.
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