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Controversial Figure Canonized

Aired October 6, 2002 - 07:22   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: In St. Peter's Square, the Vatican this morning, 200 pilgrims gathered as Pope John Paul II canonized a controversial priest who founded a secretive organization within the Catholic Church. Father JoseMaria Escriva, now Saint JoseMaria, started the group Opus Dei in 1928 in his native Spain. Opus Dei, God's work in Latin, is made up primarily of laity, whose stated goal was to seek holiness in the mundane moments of work and life.
Opus Dei members take an extremely conservative approach to church doctrine, praying daily, receiving the sacraments of the church frequently, and practicing self-denial, even self-flagellation. You cannot apply for membership in the 85,000-strong organization. Members hand-pick new recruits.

Over the years, critics have labeled Opus Dei a secret sect that is elitist at best, and possibly Fascist. Critics claim Opus Dei is abusive to its own members, and has a hidden agenda.

For more on the organization and its newly canonized founder, we turn to our analyst at the Vatican, Delia Gallagher. Delia, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: Is Opus Dei the Skull and Bones of the Catholic Church?

GALLAGHER: Well, some obviously do see it that way. Part of the problem of this organization is that they do believe in what they call reserves, not secrecy as such, although they don't publish lists of their members, so one major issue is to know who is part of Opus Dei.

Then another issue is that these are all people in professional life, so many of their members are the powerful Catholics that are involved in banking. Here in the Vatican, there are six members in the curia, that work alongside the pope. So that we know that there are members that are working throughout the world, not just in Spain and in Spanish-speaking countries, but even in the States. But we don't know exactly who they are.

So there is a short of shroud of secrecy around the organization, although if you talk to any of the members, they will be quite open and they will tell you that they are members, but they won't volunteer that information without being asked first.

O'BRIEN: They say there is a difference between secrecy and privacy, which is commonly misunderstood. I'm curious, the fact that Father Escriva has now been canonized, what does that tell you about the ascendancy of this organization within the Catholic Church?

GALLAGHER: Well, the fact that he's been canonized and the fact that he's been canonized rather quickly -- it's taken, you know, only 17 years to reach his beautification, and another 21 years to reach canonization, and this is a process which has been speeded up for this pope, not only for Saint Escriva, but also, for example, for Mother Theresa. We see Pope John Paul II really speeding up the process of canonization for saints of this century, and that's important because he's giving an example to Catholics of the modern day, of saints, who -- of people who are living, people who have come here today actually met and know Escriva, and this is quite important to give as an example for the Catholics that don't just want saints from the Middle Ages, but real modern-day saints, and that's what Escriva represents for most of the people of Opus Dei.

O'BRIEN: It is a controversial group, and whenever there is a lot of secrecy or privacy, as they would call it, involved, you're going to get a lot of controversy, and perhaps they would call it misunderstanding, but among the things is self-flagellation. Tell us a little bit about that and tell us what the greater goal is of that sort of thing.

GALLAGHER: Well, self-flagellation is an extreme form of self- denial, what they call mortification, and which, in fact, is not unknown to the Catholic religion, or indeed other religions that practice self-denial and that encourage self-denial, sacrifice, for one's own good. And obviously, there are different extremes. One could skip a meal. Catholics don't eat meat on Fridays, in some of these traditional teachings, which nowadays many Catholics don't do anymore, and Opus Dei, part of their goal is to bring back some of those traditional practices, and obviously some members do take it to extremes, and participate in self-flagellation, but that I think is left to the discretion of each member.

O'BRIEN: Is there some concern that Opus Dei within the Catholic Church offers some sort of agenda that is not fully understood?

GALLAGHER: Well, we can't really find an agenda as such, and in fact, maybe 20 years ago, there was more concern that there was a hidden agenda. But as this papacy has gone on, we've seen really that no agenda has come forward. And the Opus Dei will say, yes, our membership is secret, but there is no secret agenda as such, because the membership, as you pointed out, is really based on this idea of privacy, and since these are people in the workplace, they don't care to wear this on their sleeve as such, so they go around more underground, as it were.

But we haven't seen any kind of an agenda. In fact, they only have one cardinal so far in the curia, so it's which 20 years ago was a concern because people didn't know, but now there's a bit more openness with Opus Dei, and we haven't seen that kind of agenda come out.

O'BRIEN: But Opus Dei has reached the highest levels in the Vatican. Tell us a little bit about that. GALLAGHER: Well, the highest levels, of course, being in the curia, which is the Vatican administration. But if we look, they've got six members, and in curia, there are several hundred. So they do have perhaps what you could say a voice, which is very unified and strong, and this is what some people are concerned about, because they have the ear of the pope. They are the lay group that is most unified and most vocal. So what Opus Dei says and what Opus Dei thinks will be important to people in the curia and to the pope.

O'BRIEN: A final thought. Pope John Paul II has canonized, I read this morning, more people in his tenure than his previous predecessors over the previous four centuries, I believe, something along those lines. Why so many canonizations?

GALLAGHER: Yes. Yes, I believe he's up to 465 with Saint Escriva, and again, I think it's this idea that this pope wants to lead modern Catholics with examples of holiness, and in particular with modern examples. And so you have Padre Pio, you have Mother Theresa, and you have JoseMaria Escriva. So these are -- one of the things that this pope has done is gone around to canonize -- actually, he's also beautified married couples. So we're seeing a movement toward -- he said the third millennium will be the millennium of the lay people, and we're seeing this movement toward that with these canonizations.

O'BRIEN: I guess when you put that into the context with all the travails of the church of recent months, it makes sense?

GALLAGHER: Absolutely. In fact, we can see in the American church the problems that we've had with authority, with the bishops not being accountable, and many people are saying, the lay people must take charge. And Opus Dei is one example, although many would not like to say that thy represent all lay people in the Catholic Church, but they certainly represent one example of a group that has taken charge in that way, and Opus Dei, being a personal (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and this is important, they have a certain status in the church, which allows them to have direct access to the pope. They don't go through a bishop, and this means that they are able to go around the authority of the bishops in a certain sense, which is also, of course, one of the sticking points for many Catholics.

But on the other hand, could be a new way for this millennium.

O'BRIEN: Therein lies some of the controversy. Delia Gallagher, who watches the Vatican for us here at CNN, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

GALLAGHER: Thank you, Miles.


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