Yes, Opus Dei does have a hidden agenda

Last month we published a piece on the Catholic organisation Opus Dei. Here, Richard Stork, regional vicar of Opus Dei in Britain, replies to our criticisms
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Five bishops, 34 priests andmore than 1,000 other people squeezed into a London church a few weeks ago for the funeral of Mgr Philip Sherrington, a Catholic priest who was regional vicar of Opus Dei in Britain.

Office workers took an afternoon's leave to be there. Youngsters got the day off school. Whole families shared in the farewell to a priest whose patient and understanding smile had brought many closer to God.

They would not have recognised the organisation that helps them live out the truths of the Christian faith as the secretive, sinister, right- wing cult portrayed in last month's Independent article, "What in the name of God is going on here?"

For them and for many other Catholics, Opus Dei's message is simple: it seeks to remind them that God calls each one of us in our everyday life to a deep, loving, personal relationship with Him. Far from being an obstacle to finding God, our work, our family life, our hobbies are precisely where He can be found.

Opus Dei is saying nothing new. The early Christians were ordinary people of their time - fishermen, slaves, tentmakers, soldiers - who were unequivocally committed to Christ. But down the ages the vision dimmed. Passionately loving Christ in the world came to be seen as an insoluble conundrum: either you stepped out of the world into religious or priestly life, or you resigned yourself to a kind of second-class lay spirituality.

Opus Dei was founded to help ordinary Catholics rediscover the ethos of early Christianity and break down the false divide between religious "duties" and real "life". To discover, as CS Lewis said, that "we have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious".

Those who come close to Opus Dei will find that they are encouraged above all to pray; to know and study the doctrines of their faith; to put them into practice and to get strength for all of this from the sacraments. They will be helped to see the many specific ways in which their faith can be lived in the ordinary circumstances of daily life.

Some of those who come close to Opus Dei will find that its spirituality is for them, that it is the way that helps them be closest to God. These people may then ask to be "members" of Opus Dei or, as the published statutes state, one of the faithful of the prelature. This terminology signals that Opus Dei cannot be understood as an organisation with a paid-up membership. The Opus Dei prelature, like the dioceses, is composed of all kinds of people whose only link is a spiritual one - because, as has been stated on numerous occasions, Opus Dei's only goals are spiritual. It does not have its own political, economic or even theological agenda.

Opus Dei has been established as a personal prelature with the special pastoral task of spreading the message of the universal call to sanctity in ordinary life. It complements the attention that the faithful receive through the diocesan and parochial structure. As a worldwide institution, it serves the universal church by offering a service to the local churches.

Many of those who come close to Opus Dei will not join but will continue to benefit from its spiritual services, be they Catholics or non-Catholics. Most people will get to know Opus Dei through a friend. Not because friendship is some kind of "bait", as is sometimes alleged, but simply because friendship is a normal part of human relationships. A person in Opus Dei who could use friendship as a bait has not understood the first thing about Opus Dei or about friendship.

Of course Opus Dei welcomes new members. It would be a strange Christian institution that did not actively seek new people. Quite apart from Christ's injunction to his apostles to be fishers of men, the survival of any organisation depends on it.

But brainwashing is certainly not a weapon in Opus Dei's armoury. The thought of 80,000 people, most married and living with their families, and including journalists, hairdressers, lecturers and agricultural workers, all brainwashed into praying and receiving the sacraments is really quite comical.

The few who have a special calling to be celibate do not despise their sexuality; they have chosen this way of life because they want to be totally free to serve others, available for whatever God wants. However, they form only a small percentage of the total membership of Opus Dei.

If the truth about Opus Dei is not always clear to its critics, then that may be because it is difficult to ask ordinary people to proclaim the intimacies of their faith. Perhaps Opus Dei members should take courage from the great Anglican churchman and Catholic convert John Henry Newman who decided the only effective response to an attack on his integrity would be to "give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am, that it may be seen what I am not". Otherwise Opus Dei will always be portrayed in the media through the eyes of the same three or four discontented former members.

The demands that Opus Dei makes on everyone to put Christ at the centre of their lives will always make it controversial. But the prelature will continue to serve the Catholic Church with vigour and commitment because it believes in what it is doing. This is Opus Dei's hidden agenda and it is one that some people will always find hard to accept.