ROME — When Pope John Paul II arrived at Opus Dei headquarters one March day 11 years ago, even members of the ultraconservative lay religious movement long accustomed to Vatican favor saw the visit as a singular moment in the group's ascendancy within the Roman Catholic Church.
The pope had come to pay his respects to Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the prelate of Opus Dei, who had died that day.
"He came over to pray before the body of Don Alvaro, which is a very unusual thing, to have a pope come over to your house to pray," said Father John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, an Opus Dei institution in Rome.
Now with its papal benefactor gone, Opus Dei's influence under the next pope -- and its role in choosing the new pontiff -- have become hot topics in a city awash in speculation as the world's cardinals meet behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel to elect John Paul's successor.
Opus Dei, or "Work of God," was founded in Spain in 1928. It is based on the idea that Catholics, male and female, can live a sanctified life without being priests or nuns. Many of its 85,000 worldwide members work in legal, medical, financial and media professions and profess unquestioning fidelity to the church's teachings and loyalty to the pope. But critics have called the group elitist, and it was depicted as a villainous secret society in Dan Brown's bestselling novel, "The Da Vinci Code."
Officially, Opus Dei has stressed that it is above the fray. Its prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarria, has called for prayer, not politicking. He has also pledged the group's loyalty to whomever the cardinals elect.
"We already love with our whole soul the successor of John Paul II, whoever he may be," Echevarria wrote to the organization's members. "Let us renew our desire to serve the pope, for it was only to serve the church that God wanted Opus Dei."
Others note that for the first time, two of the 115 voting cardinals -- Julian Herranz of Spain and Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Peru -- are members of Opus Dei, giving the group the ability to work inside the conclave.
"They have a chance to lobby the other cardinals from an inside position," said an official with a lay organization that has close ties to the Vatican. "Opus Dei has international connections, they know many cardinals, are appreciated by some. They are entitled to talk to cardinals, to invite them to dinner, all with authority."
Several European cardinals are sympathetic to Opus Dei, among them Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Italian prelate who runs the Diocese of Rome on behalf of the pope, and a contender to succeed John Paul. Ruini last year opened proceedings to declare Opus Dei's Del Portillo a saint.
But recently, several Italian newspapers breathlessly reported that the two Opus Dei cardinals were throwing their support behind the candidacy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German-born traditionalist who has served as chief enforcer of church doctrine for two decades.
Opus Dei flourished during John Paul's pontificate. In 1982, he took the unprecedented step of making Opus Dei a personal prelature of the church, answerable not to local bishops in the dioceses where it operated, but to the pope alone.
In another sign of the group's influence, the pope placed Opus Dei's founder, the Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, on the fast track to sainthood in 1992, leapfrogging over Pope John XXIII. In 2002, Escriva was canonized before a crowd of 300,000 in St. Peter's Square, becoming St. Josemaria a mere 27 years after he died.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of his religious order's magazine, America, says it is undeniable that Opus Dei has a stake in the election of the new pope.
"They would not have grown so quickly and have gained the influence they have were it not for John Paul," he said. "Given that they're ... responsible only to the pope, that is a sword that cuts both ways. If you have a pope who is favorable to you, that's terrific. If you have a pope who does not see things the way Opus Dei does, that's more problematic."
Opus Dei officials have greeted the speculation about its role in choosing a new pope with a mixture of political realism and amusement.
"Opus Dei has no candidate," Wauck said in an interview in the subdued light of an anteroom at the group's headquarters here. He said that he thought the interest had been due in no small part to "The Da Vinci Code," whose depiction of Opus Dei is disputed by the group as inaccurate and misleading.
In an interview before the pope's death, Herranz, one of the Opus Dei cardinals, was asked whether an Opus Dei member could become pope, given its negative reputation in some quarters. Herranz said the organization had been subjected to bad publicity, but that such attacks are attacks on Christianity as a whole, not just Opus Dei.