An Interview with Ex-Opus Dei Numerary Eileen Johnson – Part 1
The following interview with ex-Opus Dei numerary, Eileen Johnson, was conducted over a period of several months in 2020 and 2021. Eileen is a native of Yorkshire, England, where “a spade is called a spade, and not a bloody shovel.” And indeed, she obliges us with her extraordinary candor and honesty in response to my in-depth questions concerning her more than ten-years-experience as an early high-level member of Opus Dei in the United Kingdom (UK) in the 1960s.
– Randy Engel, Catholic investigative reporter and editor of ODWATCH
Engel: By way of introduction Eileen, would you give our readers some background on your family and education, and how Opus Dei entered your young life?
Johnson: Yes, of course. I was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1943, into a Catholic family on my mother’s side. My father was an agnostic. I have two older brothers. As the youngest and only girl, I attended a Catholic primary school and later a convent Grammar school, which I think your American readers would call a Catholic high school. I was a pious child with a lively spirit who loved to sing and dance. At the age of 15, I seriously considered a religious vocation.
It was about a year later, at age 16, when Opus Dei entered my life – surreptitiously, I might add.
I was an excellent student and class leader. French was my favorite subject. So, it was not surprising when our new young French teacher took a special interest in me and took me under her wing. I was flattered. She was aware of my regular lunchtime visits to the school chapel as she also frequently visited the chapel.
One day she invited me to join her at an international summer school for girls at the Rydalwood University hostel in Manchester where, she said, I could “teach English” and also practice my French. My parents, especially my father, encouraged me to take advantage of this opportunity. They trusted my teacher. I had just turned 17, and this was my first trip away from home on my own. Naturally, I was excited!
Engel: Was the venture successful?
Johnson: As it turned out, I was invited to Manchester under false pretenses.
First of all, I was unable to practice my French because there were no French students taking the course. I wasn’t qualified to teach English either. The invitation was, in fact, a ruse to introduce me to Opus Dei within a closely-controlled Opus environment apart from my family. But I was oblivious to the reality.
Engel: Wasn’t there a visible sign designating Rydalwood as an Opus Dei University hostel when you entered the building?
Johnson: No. The centres have secular names and are not openly identified as being run by Opus Dei. It wasn’t until my French teacher, herself an Opus numerary, started to explain to me what Opus Dei was, that I began to understand the real reason for the invitation. You see, neither I, nor my family or friends, had ever heard of Opus Dei. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Opus was just getting established in the UK. So, it was all quite new. After a few days, at Rydalwood my teacher told me I had a “vocation” to Opus Dei.
I resisted the pressure to join “the Work” at first. However, a few months later, after I had attended an Opus weekend retreat back in Manchester, I changed my mind.
Engel: What attracted you most to Opus Dei?
Johnson: Bear in mind that I was only 16 when Opus’s grooming and “love bombing” began. I came from a comfortable, happy home, but hadn’t been exposed to cosmopolitan ways. I was on the threshold of my newly-discovered independence and found the Opus members and the beautiful atmosphere at Rydalwood very appealing. I took my Catholic faith very seriously and had already been thinking of becoming a nun. I was attracted by the fact that the numeraries at Rydalwood were lay women fully dedicated to God.
Also, as a language student, I was immediately drawn to the Latin flavor of the centre and the gaiety and friendliness of the numeraries, most of whom were Spanish. They were well dressed, well groomed, well perfumed. And they made such a fuss over me – something I wasn’t used to as I was a lonely child and teenager.
Looking back, I remember the first time that my parents drove me to the Manchester campus and visited Rydalwood. As they were leaving my mother asked me, “Do you think you would like it so much if it wasn’t so attractive?” It was a rather prophetic question.
Engel: So, you initially joined Opus Dei as a supernumerary, not as a numerary, correct?
Johnson: Yes, in December 1960. At the time, I was still living at home, and studying for my A level exams. I planned to enter Manchester University in the fall. I remember fervently reading and studying The Way and other Opus publications. I even sold copies of the publications to my friends at school. I was obviously totally enthralled with Opus Dei.
Engel: What’s the difference between an Opus Dei supernumerary and a numerary?
Johnson: The degree of commitment.
Male and female numeraries are lay celibates; they live in Opus centres; they hand over their total income to Opus Dei; and are closely monitored and controlled. Supernumeraries are married, or at least free to marry. They are also expected to make significant financial donations to Opus. They have Opus confessors and spiritual directors, and a Plan of Life. Both are fully committed to the recruitment of new members and spreading the message of Opus Dei through their families and their work.
I should mention that there are celibate members who live at home. They are called Associates.
Sometimes they have to care for aging or disabled parents.
Engel: Did you take vows of any kind like religious do?
Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá with Pope John XXIII, Ides of March, 1960
Johnson: When I joined Opus Dei in the early 1960s it was called a “Secular Institute.” Escrivá adamantly wanted to avoid any perceived connection between a “lay vocation” in Opus Dei with a “religious vocation.”
So, to answer your question, I took what were called, “private vows.” For me they were binding, even before I formally took them. From the day I “’whistled” (OD jargon for writing the letter to Rome to request admission), I lived as a committed member in every way. The understanding was that the commitment was for life. The Admission ceremony took place six months later in the Opus oratory in the presence of an Opus priest, my directress, and one other numerary.
After Opus Dei was awarded the unique status of “Personal Prelature” in 1982, the term “vow” was changed to “contract,” but the nature of the commitment remained basically the same.
Engel: Was your family present at the Admission ceremony?
Johnson: Hardly. They didn’t know I had joined Opus much less that I had made a lifelong commitment to the Work that included perpetual celibacy. Neither did any of my close friends. As a new recruit I was told not to tell my parents. From the start, it was explained to me that for our apostolate in Opus Dei to be effective it must “pass unnoticed.” Opus Dei deemed our dedication was to be a very private matter between us and God and our sisters in Opus Dei. What many see as “secrecy,” Opus calls “Holy Discretion.”
Engel: No matter what you call it, for a minor to engage in such deception and be instructed to keep such a life-changing association secret from his or her parents is a violation of the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Didn’t your obvious delicate conscience send up a red flag?
Johnson: If it did, I wasn’t paying attention. As I said earlier, I was just bowled over by this new and exciting version of a secular life so fully dedicated to the Church – the Work of God – yet, so upbeat, so vibrant, so warm, and so friendly.
Engel: We’ll be returning to the issue of secrecy as formal Opus policy later in this interview, but for now I’d like to ask you about your relationship with your boyfriend at this time. Was it serious? Did he know about your commitment to Opus?
Johnson: Yes, to both questions. We were serious. We even discussed the possibility of marriage after we graduated from the University. We also came to share a deep attraction to Opus Dei and we both became supernumeraries.
Like me, my boyfriend kept his membership in Opus a secret from his parents. He resided at an Opus Dei men’s University residence. We both were aware at the time that Opus was grooming both of us, but not for each other. Eventually, Opus was able to manipulate our total separation and he eventually joined as a celibate numerary. I found out that he had become a numerary when the directress told me to speak to the priest in the confessional. I was instructed not to contact him again.
Engel: Did he ever pursue the occupation he studied and trained for at the University after graduation?
Johnson: No, I don’t think so. He was a Physics graduate, but Opus needed him elsewhere for internal work. In his early 20s, he became the Director of a male Opus University Centre in London. Later, he was asked by his superiors to become a priest of Opus Dei. He was ordained in Rome at the age of 26. He later became the Counselor (later called Vicar) of Opus Dei for the UK.
Engel: And you?
Johnson: I was told before joining Opus Dei that I would be free to pursue my chosen studies and career in languages. That never happened. In February of 1962, at the age of 18, three months after I separated from my boyfriend, I also changed my supernumerary status to that of a numerary (lay celibates who live in Opus centres) so I could devote my entire life to Opus Dei. This meant I had to “whistle” again and write to the Father to ask to be admitted as a numerary. I never spoke to my boyfriend again.
I was also told by my directress that I would make a good journalist. That idea lodged in my mind and I began to perceive a journalistic career as part of my vocation to serve Opus Dei.
Engel: How did Opus Dei influence your academic and campus life?
Johnson: Well, during my three years at the University, I found myself focusing more on my “Plan of Life” and proselytism than on my studies. In my third year, I was appointed Assistant Directress of Rydalwood, which further detracted from my studies. At the age of 22, I was appointed a member of the Advisory in London. This came as a surprise, and I felt very flattered.
Although, theoretically, Opus places a high premium on excellence in academics as well as work, in my case dedication to the internal needs and tasks of Opus and its expansion in the UK took priority over my personal choices and priorities, and jeopardized my career.
Also, when I entered the University, I had hoped to join the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the Scottish Country Dance Society, but these were nixed by Opus because they would expose me to the opposite sex. Going to the theater, cinemas and mixed social events were also prohibited.
Engel: At what point did you reveal your membership to Opus Dei to your parents?
Johnson: In June 1964, after I had graduated from the University, I told them that I had an interest in joining Opus now that I had turned 21, which was the age of majority in the UK back then. That was a lie, of course. I had already been a member for years, first as a supernumerary while I was still living at home, and then as a celibate numerary and as an Assistant Directress at Rydalwood.
Engel: So, your parents helped pay for your college costs for four years not knowing of your life-long commitment to Opus?
Johnson: Yes, my father paid a “parental contribution,” to supplement the grant from my local education authority.
Engel: And Opus, who would benefit from all your educational skills and talents after your graduation paid how much?
Engel: How convenient, I mean, for Opus.
Johnson: I should add a caveat here to say that during my undergraduate at the University, my father had become ill, so my parents were not as aware of my campus life as they might otherwise have been.
I recall my directress telling me that I needed to “get a balance.” “Since your parents don’t know about your vocation, you can’t stop going home for the holidays,” she advised me. I was reminded of The Way, 644: “Be silent! Don’t forget that your ideal is like a newly lit flame. A single breath might be enough to put it out in your heart.”
On the few occasions that I actually spent at home, my mother did express concern about my social isolation and tried to introduce me to a young man, but that was out of bounds for me as a celibate numerary.
Engel: What about your family relations after your graduation in 1964?
Johnson: After graduation I continued to live at Rydalwood. I rarely saw my parents. Not even at Christmas. As for my brothers, I had almost no contact with them or my sisters-in-laws or their children. Opus did permit me to be a godmother to two of my nephews, but that was before I had informed my family that I had joined Opus Dei.
Overall, Opus discouraged members’ attendance at family events like weddings and funerals. When my cousin, who had been my longtime playmate was married, I went to stay at my parents’ home, but on the morning of the wedding, I feigned illness so as not to attend. I felt no remorse. Rather, I was pleased with myself that I had found a way to “obey.” When my aunt, my mother’s only sister died I didn’t go to the funeral. Mum was very hurt. On this occasion I did feel bad as I had started to question my membership in Opus Dei.
Visits with old friends were discouraged unless the motive was to recruit them.
Genuine friendships disappeared. Over my many years as a numerary, I had no real friends. I had fallen prey to the Opus way of using “friendship” as a tactic, in a very manipulative way. By the time I left Opus I was friendless.
Gradually I became more and more emotionally distant from my “blood family” and my old friends. I couldn’t wait to get back “home” to my new “supernatural family” – Opus Dei.
Engel: I’m a little more than curious to learn more about your life as a numerary in Opus Dei. Maybe you can start by describing your early formation or orientation to what is called “the Spirit of Opus Dei,” especially since ex-members are generally hesitant about revealing this type of information to “outsiders.”
Johnson: The so-called “Spirit of Opus Dei” is gradually conveyed to new numeraries in a variety of ways. There was the weekly “Circle” and “Fraternal Chat.” There were meditations given by an Opus priest at the monthly Days of Recollection, and also an annual five-day retreat. At the three-week Annual Course held at an Opus women’s centre, more experienced numeraries gave talks on the “Spirit of the Work” (Discretion, Obedience, Poverty, Divine Filiation, Apostolate, the Norms, and Mortification) and we had regular guided meditations from an Opus Dei priest, who also gave classes on the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Engel: Speaking of mortification did you wear the cilice [a sharp spiked ring worn on the upper leg used to suppress desire]?
Johnson: Yes, I wore the cilice on my upper thigh for two hours a day in the afternoon, and used the discipline [a small whip of knotted cords applied to one’s buttocks] for five minutes on Saturday. These were an obligatory part of my life as a numerary. I should add that these practices were only revealed to us after we became members.
Engel: Let me get this straight, Eileen. These programs of formation and mortification you described were in addition to…
Johnson: … In addition to the other norms and requirements for a numerary that included two half hours – one in the morning and one in the evening – of mental prayer daily; Mass; the Rosary; the Angelus; the Preces; Opus Dei prayers and the examination of conscience. Major Silence was kept from bedtime until after Mass the next day, and Minor Silence during the afternoon.
Engel: And what about your internal work as Assistant Directress of Rydalwood and your part time job teaching English to immigrant children at a local school? And later, your appointment to the Opus Advisory as Secretary of Saint Raphael’s Work, which must have required a great deal of time and energy? Frankly, this doesn’t seem to be in the realm of an “ordinary” or “normal” life for a non-religious. When did you have time to breathe or think your own thoughts?
Johnson: What can I say? I was hooked. My real self was being overshadowed by my newly acquired cultic personality, but not entirely, thank God. At times, I was exhausted. I remember particularly the time when the Advisory worked through several nights, preparing the annual report and contribution for Rome. I had to go to bed (well, to lie on the floor) because I couldn’t work any longer.
In theory, we were supposed to take breaks, in the form of a “weekly walk,” and a “monthly excursion,” but with our work ethic, these down times were often overlooked.
(To be continued)
[Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, March 3]
 OD WATCH was first published in November 2017 by Catholic writer Randy Engel, a long-time critic of the Prelature and its organizational tentacles of numeraries, supernumeraries, associates, and cooperators. It is a free electronic mailing based on background information, news, and commentaries on Opus Dei from around the world. To subscribe, contact Randy Engel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Rydalwood was the first Manchester centre of the OD women’s section. It was a University hostel with accommodations for about 35 students.
 Josemaría Escrivá, The Way: The Essential Classic of Opus Dei’s Founder, containing Scriptural passages and personal anecdotes drawn from Escrivá’s life and work. The booklet presented Escrivá’s 999 points for meditation.
 The Plan of Life comprises the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly commitments of members.
 The Advisory oversee the activities of all the Opus Dei centres of the Women’s Section in the UK, and acts as a go-between or facilitator between local centres and Rome, constantly transmitting instructions. The Advisory is presided over by the Counsellor (or Vicar).
 In 1969, the age of majority was reduced from 21 to 18 in the UK.
 Escrivá claimed the Work is a true family, not metaphorically. And that the bonds in the Work are stronger than those of blood. See “Pastoral Letter of the Prelate,” Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, October 11, 2020, on the restructuring of the Prelature.
 St. Raphael’s Work [Circles] of formation, meditations, recollections, and retreats is directed at young people. Initially, ‘cultural activities’ are organized as a means of attracting young people to the centres. They are then invited to participate in the spiritual activities. Escrivá stated that visits to the poor are one of the traditional means of St. Raphael’s work, although he himself as the founder of Opus Dei was rarely seen among the poor.