By Regain’s ecclesiologist in residence
I don’t believe there is much in common between the Opus Dei and the Jesuits, or St. Ignatius and Escrivá; though the Opus’ gestation may have been influenced by the Jesuit phenomenon, and the Legion may have gathered some elements from the Opus. Escrivá founded his “Work” in the 1920s in Spain during the political leadership of Primo de Rivera and it went on to prosper during Franco’s dictatorship.
Neither do I think there is anything particularly original or charismatic in Opus spirituality. The notion of sanctifying oneself by means of one’s daily work could hardly be considered a new or revolutionary idea to regular Christians. Maybe it was in the case of the nobles and aristocrats to whom Escrivá directed retreats in the twenties in Spain. The Spanish aristocracy traditionally derived its wealth and status from land ownership and looked down on “servile work”. So, the notion of sanctifying oneself by means of work would have been a novel idea to them, not to regular blue collar Christians.
It would also appear that at the same time a number of Jesuits in Spain were organizing groups of lay people in associations later called Marian Congregations. So, I would guess that Escrivá copied them. Never mind the myth that he had some mystical vision during a Mass and so forth. So great was Don Jose Maria’s interest in nobility that in 1969 he bought a title (Marques de Peralta) from the Franco regime. Like Maciel, he apparently had his own burial crypt built during his lifetime. Maciel may have picked up something from him in 1948 when they had some brief contact.
In the same year that Pope Pius XII published “Provida Mater Ecclesia”, which, at least in part, did accommodate the ‘Work’, Opus leadership claimed that it did not fit their “charism”. This may have been because several other groups, calling themselves ‘secular institutes’, were springing up at that time. Thus, the OD did not feel sufficiently exclusive or original, which it now is as a Personal Prelature. They began their campaign to become a Personal Prelature in the fifties. Pope Paul VI, Giovanni Battista Montini, had little time for Escrivá because of OD involvement in the Franco dictatorship. Remember that Paul VI’s father was a leader in the Partito Populare, later the Italian Christian Democracy, and he did not appreciate dictatorships.
The OD seems to have canvassed John Paul II already when he was bishop of Krakow. On arriving in Rome for the Conclave which elected him, he went to Viale Bruno Bozzi, headquarters of the OD and a place of pilgrimage, to the tomb of Escrivá and paid his respects there before entering the conclave. At that time Cardinal Baggio, later Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, was close to OD. So, with this and other contacts, they achieved the status of Personal Prelature; this creation, incidentally, appears clearly contrary to the ecclesiology of Vatican II, as it involves having a bishop with a worldwide community without a local diocese. The Church, by its nature, is local and Eucharistic, so I see no place for such a ‘prelature’.
By way of a footnote, it is worth mentioning what Hans Urs von Balthasar, the gifted Catholic theologian, commented after reading Escrivá’s handbook Camino: It is original and Christian; but what is original in it is not Christian, and what is Christian is not original.’
Editor’s note: Could the same be said of Father Maciel’s writings?