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300,000 pilgrims turn out for canonization of Opus Dei founder


After one of the most rapid processes in Catholic history, the founder of Opus Dei, Spanish priest Josemaría Escriva, is officially a saint. Pope John Paul II, a longtime supporter of Opus Dei, awarded Escriva the 468th halo of his pontificate in an Oct. 6 ceremony that saw 300,000 people fill St. Peter’s Square and surrounding streets.

Escriva, who was born in 1902, died on June 26, 1975, meaning that a scant 27 years passed between death and canonization. Historically, it is not unusual for sainthood causes to take a century or more to work their way through the system. American St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, for instance, died in 1821 and was not proposed for canonization until 1940; she was declared a saint in 1975.

Some recent cases, however, such a those of Padre Pio and Mother Teresa, have followed an accelerated course, in part due to rule changes made by John Paul II in 1983 that dropped the required number of miracles for beatification and canonization. (In Mother Teresa’s case, the pope also waived a five-year waiting period after death before the cause can begin. A date is expected to be set soon for her beatification.)

Most observers regard the quick action for Escriva as another sign of papal favor, both for him and the group he founded. John Paul gave Opus Dei the unique canonical status of a personal prelature in 1982, meaning that its members are under the jurisdiction of Opus Dei and not the local bishop as regards Opus Dei activities. He also beatified Escriva in 1992.

More than 400 bishops from around the world took part in the canonization, including 42 cardinals. Seven U.S. bishops were on hand: Archbishop John Myers (Newark, N.J.), Archbishop William Levada (San Francisco), Bishop Donald Wuerl (Pittsburgh), Bishop William F. Murphy (Rockville Centre, N.Y.), Auxiliary Bishop José Gómez (Denver), and Auxiliary Bishop Robert McManus (Providence, R.I.).

A cross-section of VIPs from the world of politics and culture was also present, including several ministers from both the Spanish and Italian governments, along with former Polish President Lech Walesa.

A thanksgiving Mass on Oct. 7, followed by a papal audience, brought 200,000 people back to the square. It was followed over the next three days by a series of 29 smaller thanksgiving Masses, in 20 languages, held in 16 Roman churches and basilicas.

A Mass for the approximately 4,000 American pilgrims took place in the Basilica of St. Mary Major Oct. 8. The main celebrant was Myers, a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross sponsored by Opus Dei. He was joined by Gómez, the only American bishop who is formally an Opus Dei member, and by Bishop William Dermot Molloy, an Irishman with a colorful résumé. Born in Dublin, Molloy belongs to the clergy of the Birmingham, Ala., diocese, and is currently the bishop of the Huancavelica diocese in Peru.

Escriva, who founded Opus Dei in response to what he described as a revelation from God in 1928, fled Republican-controlled Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in a much-recounted journey with his early band of followers. In 1946 Escriva moved the headquarters of Opus Dei to Rome, to a facility called Villa Tevere, and lived there until his death.

Today Opus Dei numbers some 85,000 members worldwide, with 1,700 priests, 14 bishops, and one cardinal (Juan Cipriani of Lima, Peru). Another 2,000 bishops and priests are closely related to Opus Dei through the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, and tens of thousands of additional laity have ties as “cooperators.”

Escriva’s guiding idea was the search for sanctity in and through ordinary human work. He stressed the universal call to holiness decades before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) enshrined the idea in Lumen Gentium, and for that reason his devotees regard him as remarkably forward looking. Yet his desire for a “fully Christian laity” was also in some measure a rejection of the modern separation of church and state, a way of asserting anew the church’s right to regulate the secular sphere.

Over the years, Opus Dei has been the object of controversy. Some have accused it of excessive secrecy and control over members, others of questionable spiritual practices such as self-flagellation. Still other critics complain that Opus Dei exercises excessive influence in church affairs, that it is too conservative, and that it places women in a subservient role.

John Paul seemed to refer to the tumult in his Oct. 6 homily about Escriva, saying, “Certainly, misunderstanding and difficulties are never lacking for those who try to serve with fidelity the cause of the gospel.”

Compared to the May 17, 1992, beatification of Escriva, however, the level of controversy surrounding the canonization seemed relatively insignificant.

Certainly Opus Dei seems to have learned the value of good public relations. The press operation provided a never-ending stream of data. Examples: The youngest person at the canonization was Mary Immaculate Ngwengeh Amungwa, born Sept. 22 in Yaoundé, Cameroon; the oldest was Fr. Quirino Glorioso, 99, a priest of diocese of Laguna in the Philippines. The person who came the farthest was Mark Gardiner, who traveled 11,545 miles from New Zealand; the shortest, Fr. Francesco Russo, who walked 20 yards from his home in the Borgo Santo Spirito.

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002