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Pope to Beatify Controversial Spanish Priest

May 16, 1992|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VATICAN CITY — Saints are the icons of their church, but there will be acrimony as well as reverence Sunday when Pope John Paul II beatifies a controversial Spanish priest in what opponents call a rush to judgment.

In perhaps the most contentious beatification in modern times, John Paul will honor Msgr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the disciplined, ultraconservative Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei. Beatification will leave the Blessed Escriva one step short of sainthood.

Escriva's personality, the nature and goals of the secretive organization he created and the speed with which his cause has whizzed through the Vatican bureaucracy have all come under public attack.

Opus Dei expects about 120,000 worshipers in St. Peter's Square--about 2,000 of them Americans--for the opening of five days of ceremony to salute Escriva, the leader of a mostly lay organization whose clout at the Vatican far exceeds its worldwide membership of 75,000, including 1,500 priests.

If Escriva and Opus Dei--Latin for Work of God--inspire awe and outrage within the church, the Pope's own views are plain. He likes saints, having named more than any of his predecessors in the 20th Century. And he likes Opus Dei, applauding its Catholic militancy, welcoming its unquestioning loyalty to him and naming its members to key church posts.

"How can the cause of somebody as controversial as Escriva be rammed through so quickly? The answer is that the Pope wants it. There is no other group in the church that can help him get so much done," an Italian theologian said.

He fears John Paul errs in advancing Escriva's cause so soon after the Spaniard's 1975 death.

Saints normally are proclaimed decades, even centuries, after their lifetime. The traditional route to sainthood distinguishes between martyrs who die in defense of Christian faith or morals and those who display requisite virtues--especially faith, hope and charity--to an exceptional or heroic degree. Intense investigations ensue, and there usually must be "divine signs" of miracles received in response to prayers addressed to the candidate.

Opus Dei, whose members seek to spread the Catholic message through their professional activities, is strongest in Spain and Italy, say spokesmen for the group here. In the United States, there are 3,000 or so Opus members and 54 Opus priests, said William A. Schmitt, the organization's spokesman in New York.

Sensitive to criticism that has been particularly strong in Spain and Italy, the Vatican in recent weeks has officially forbidden some critics in the church to speak publicly about the Escriva case, one of them said.

"Without doubt this cause is controversial. But according to me, these are invented controversies," said Father Flavio Capucci, the Opus priest who assembled the 6,000-page report supporting Escriva's candidacy for sainthood.

Critics range from church members chary of fundamentalism to disaffected former Opus Dei members who knew Escriva, to Kenneth L. Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek magazine and author of a book on saint-making.

In a highly unusual, 10-page statement issued last week in obvious response to the protest against Escriva, who died at age 73, the Vatican stoutly defended its decision to honor him. Cardinal Angelo Felici, who heads the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, called criticism of the beatification "devoid of any foundation."

Felici said the Pope had appointed a special commission to decide whether to proceed with the beatification. "After mature reflection, the commission gave the Holy Father their favorable opinion," Felici said.

Founding the organization in 1928 in Spain, Escriva dedicated it to an ideal of sanctity in everyday life. It is strong among professional men and women, in fields such as teaching, banking, medicine, law, communications and politics. Five ministers in the Spanish government of Gen. Francisco Franco at one point were Opus members, according to one British student of the movement.

With Escriva as its high-profile leader, Opus Dei grew into a powerful lay organization that counts members in 80 countries. Most members marry in the context of a fruitful Christian life. But 10,000 or so senior members, called Numeraries, vow celibacy, as well as other Christian virtues such as poverty, chastity and obedience. They live communally in sexually segregated residences, contributing income earned at everyday jobs to the organization. Some, like Escriva himself, may practice self-flagellation, or wear a barbed ring around the thigh for up to two hours a day.

Disliked and distrusted by liberals and many non-integrationists in the church, Opus is often accused of power mongering and of accumulating and manipulating wealth and influence behind a shadowy curtain of secrecy.

Members normally do not announce their allegiance to a movement that controls their lives. In some countries, Opus has also been accused of brainwashing young recruits with religious indoctrination.

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