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Founder of Opus Dei Becomes Newest Saint

Religion: Influential Catholic group has fielded criticism for its methods of recruitment and practices such as self-flagellation.


VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II raised to sainthood Sunday the founder of Opus Dei, in effect giving the ultimate seal of approval to an influential but much criticized Roman Catholic group that calls for holiness in everyday life.

Spanish-born Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer "was a master in the use of prayer, which he considered an extraordinary 'weapon' with which to redeem the world," John Paul said in his homily at the canonization service in St. Peter's Square.

Escriva ceaselessly reminded his followers that their spiritual life and their family, professional and social lives "should not be separate but should constitute a single existence 'holy and filled with God,' " the pontiff said. "His teaching is relevant and urgent today.... He continues to remind us of the need not to let ourselves be daunted by the materialistic culture that threatens to dissolve the more genuine identity of Christ's disciples."

An orderly and well-dressed crowd that police put at 300,000, made up largely of people from around the world associated with Opus Dei, filled the square and extended down a major street to the Tiber River.

"We try with all our heart to get to heaven, to go with God and to work to get people to God," explained Rosa Marcela Ojeda de Lozano, 58, an Opus Dei member who came from Mexico City with her husband. "All the people in Opus Dei win heaven through their professional work.... I'm the general manager in an institute of the family. I try to make the world better."

Opus Dei, which means "God's Work," claims 84,000 members worldwide, including 1,800 priests. It also has hundreds of thousands of "cooperators" who take part in some activities but have not formally joined. Most members live independently whether married or single, but thousands are "numeraries" who commit themselves to celibacy, live in group houses for men or women, donate their salaries to the organization and live off stipends from it.

Most of the criticism of Opus Dei focuses on how these numeraries are recruited, how they live and whether they really feel free to leave. Particularly controversial is the practice of mortification by self-flagellation or by wearing around the thigh for up to two hours a day a "cilice," a centuries-old aid to spirituality that can range from a belt of prickly cloth to a band with dull spikes.

The canonization of Escriva, a Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei in 1928, came just 27 years after his death, in one of the quickest passages to sainthood in Catholic history. He is the 468th saint proclaimed by John Paul, who has declared more saints than all his predecessors in the last four centuries combined.

John Paul, 82, has consistently shown support for Opus Dei. In 1982, he made it the church's only "personal prelature," a term for a jurisdiction that governs people rather than a geographical area such as a diocese. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is one of the group's most prominent members.

Many educated professionals are in Opus Dei. Toward the end of Gen. Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship in Spain, many of the technocrats in his government were Opus Dei members. Reflecting its growing strength in the United States, Opus Dei opened a $43-million New York City headquarters last year.

The group has also been accused of using financial clout to wield disproportionate influence within the church--with the rapid canonization of its founder often cited as one example.

Critics charge that Opus Dei numeraries make friends with young Catholics, introduce them to group activities and induce them to take the initial steps of joining before they are made fully aware of what is involved.

Elizabeth Louise Heil, 26, a California woman living in Rome who works at the Vatican Museums and the Opus Dei press office, said she joined the group during her senior year of college, although not as a numerary.

Opus Dei "gives me a very concrete way of making my faith real in my everyday life," she said. "It makes you realize that everything you do can be for the glory of God and also helping others."

Heil said that recruiting friends and relatives to join Opus Dei is simply a way to help them.

"If you firmly believe people are happy only if close to God, then you want your friends and family to be happy," she said. "It's a very linear process. It's nothing Opus Dei made up. Early Christians brought their friends to meet Jesus."

Wearing the cilice, Heil said, helps people learn to care less about their own comfort and more about helping other people.

People take classes before becoming numeraries, she added, so "it personally surprises me that [some] people don't understand what they're getting into."

Mary Claire Jensen, a librarian from Thousand Oaks who was present for the service, blamed the criticism on "misunderstanding" and predicted that now "maybe some of the controversy will die down."

"When I met my husband, who was already a member of the Work, I thought this was just another funky group. I didn't understand. Then I learned it wasn't," said Jensen, who remains a cooperator. Jensen said she credits Escriva's intercession with saving the life of her son when he was born 17 years ago with cardiac and respiratory arrest.

The canonization "will leave no doubt in anybody's mind that Opus Dei is fully blessed by the church," said Father Thomas Bohlin, chancellor of the Prelature of Opus Dei. "It will put to rest a lot of silly things that have been said."

Maria De Cristofaro of The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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