By Peter Bancroft

"The Da Vinci Code" has created enormous interest and misinformation about Opus Dei. what really is Opus Dei?

Conspiracy buffs intrigued by "The Da Vinci Code" version of Opus Dei may find the real deal a bit bland. No monks, no murders, no masochism, no misogyny. But for ordinary Catholics trying to live out their faith in the secular world, the real Opus Dei can be quite interesting.

One of the central teachings of the Second Vatican Council was the "universal call to holiness". God calls all people - priests, religious and the laity - to seek spiritual union with Jesus Christ and to participate in the evangelizing mission of the church. Opus Dei is a Catholic institution whose mission is to help people fulfil this call.

Opus Dei's name is Latin for "Work of God". It was founded in 1928 by St. Josemaría Escrivá, and approved by the Holy See in 1947. Since 1982, Opus Dei has been a personal prelature. The church establishes personal prelatures to carry out specific pastoral missions: in Opus Dei's case, to spread the ideal of holiness in the middle of the world.

As Pope John Paul II put it, Opus Dei "has as its aim the sanctification of one's life, while remaining within the world at one's place of work and profession: to live the Gospel in the world".

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Opus Dei's main activities are classes, retreats, and spiritual direction. The focus is on finding practical ways to grow in holiness. How can I develop my spiritual life, even though I am very busy? What do I need to do to carry out my work and other daily activities with a more Christian spirit? What bearing does the Catholic faith have on my family life, friendships and social activities?

Opus Dei's formation helps people find practical answers to these questions, so that they can better integrate their faith with the rest of their life. Other key points Opus Dei emphasizes in its formation are prayer, charity, and awareness that one is a son or daughter of God. This spiritual formation is meant to complement the pastoral care given by Catholic parishes, not substitute for it.

Opus Dei always carries out its activities with the knowledge and permission of the local bishop, and places an emphasis on love for the church and obedience to her leaders. While all are called to holiness, there are many ways to fulfil this call: being a member of Opus Dei is not for everyone.

Membership, in fact, is seen as a vocation. It involves a commitment to receive one's spiritual guidance from Opus Dei, as well as a commitment to frequent reception of the sacraments, prayer, apostolate and, in general, a humble and constant effort to acquire virtue and strive for holiness in the spirit of Opus Dei.

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One can join Opus Dei as an associate, a numerary or a supernumerary. Most members are married supernumeraries, and they strive to follow Jesus Christ by sanctifying their work both in the home and outside, maintaining a youthful love, generously receiving and educating the children God sends them, and sharing their faith with their children and friends.

Numeraries and associates share the same vocation of seeking holiness through their work, friendships and ordinary secular activities. They commit themselves to celibacy, however, so that they can dedicate themselves more fully to carrying out Opus Dei's activities of spiritual formation.

Numeraries and associates are not monks or nuns: joining Opus Dei does not involve any change for them in their professional work or their lay condition. As of 2005, Opus Dei had 86,000 members. Around 98 percent of the members are laypersons; the rest are priests who have been ordained from among the lay members. The members are fairly evenly split between men and women. There are no educational, professional or income requirements to be a member.

(For more information on Opus Dei, visit www.opusdei.org)

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What the Prelate says

OpusDei01.jpgBISHOP JAVIER ECHEVARRIA RODRIGUEZ (photo), the head of Opus Dei, said "The Da Vinci Code" had exploited his organization and launched "grotesque" accusations against the Catholic church. He said the novel's author, Dan Brown, had joined a long line of critics who attack Opus Dei in order to make points against the faith.

"That imaginative man made a profit on us - and not only in dollars - like so many others who attack us. Following the teachings of our father, we pray with the same fervour for those who praise us and those who defame us," Bishop Echevarria said.

When asked if he had read the book, he said he had leafed through it but had not read it. "I don't have time to waste on little novels for brainless people," he added.

In the novel, Opus Dei is portrayed as a power-hungry and sinister organization whose members are willing to murder in order to obtain ancient secrets about the church. 

Q&A

Do Opus Dei members practice "corporal mortification"?

Yes. Like other Catholics, members try to incorporate an element of sacrifice into their lives. In accord with its emphasis on finding God in everyday activities, Opus Dei encourages small sacrifices like carrying out one's duties conscientiously, putting othersʼ needs before one's own, finding a smile in annoying circumstances, and practice small physical mortifications occasionally, such as giving up certain items of food or drink.

Within this spirit, numeraries and associates (celibate members) sometimes practice traditional Catholic penances such as using the cilice and discipline. Unlike the exaggerated picture presented in "The Da Vinci Code", the cilice and discipline do not cause injury. These are practices that Catholics have used for centuries and are commonplace in the lives of the saints.

The motivation for these voluntary penances is to imitate Christ and to join him in his redemptive sacrifice (cf. Matthew 16:24), and they can also be a way to suffer in solidarity with poor and deprived people.

Do women have the same status as men in Opus Dei?

Yes. Women and men share the same dignity as children of God and share the same calling to holiness. Lay men and women in Opus Dei share the same spirit, carry out parallel apostolates, and have the same commitment to sanctify their work and family life; they also undertake identical responsibilities in governing and providing formation within Opus Dei.

Women members of Opus Dei can be found in all sorts of professions, those which society views as prestigious and those which society today tends to undervalue, such as homemaking or domestic work.

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Opus Dei - the facts

  • Currently established in 61 countries, Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928.

  • "Opus Dei" is Latin meaning "God's Work".

  • Members are expected to attend daily Mass, to pray the rosary and engage in mental prayer, spiritual reading and meditation everyday.

  • Opus Dei has approximately 87,000 members; 98% of them are laypeople (most of whom are married), and 2% are priests.

  • 3,000 of the members are in the United States.

History of the Opus Dei

  • 1928 - Spanish Father Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer founded Opus Dei.

  • 1933 - The first center of Opus Dei was opened in Madrid, Spain. Classes in law and architecture were given.

  • 1941 - Bishop Leopoldo Eljo Garay of Madrid granted the first diocesan approval of Opus Dei.

  • 1947 - Opus Dei was the first secular institute to receive pontifical approval.

  • 1975 - Msgr Escrivá died in Rome. At the time of his death, approximately 60,000 people belonged to Opus Dei.

  • 1982 - Pope John Paul II established Opus Dei as a personal prelature.

  • 1992 - Beatification of Josemaría Escrivá in St. Peter's Square in Rome.

  • 2002 - Canonization of Josemaría Escrivá in St. Peter's Square.

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Opus Dei in Singapore

THE OPUS DEI story in Singapore began in 1982 with the arrival of four laymen and two priests from the Philippines. The first Opus Dei centre here was established in October that year and the next centre, for women, the following year.

Today, there are four Opus Dei centres in Singapore - two male and two female -with 10 to 12 numeraries, mostly Singaporeans, living in each. It is not easy to put a number on the size of Opus Dei here because in addition to the numeraries "the associates, supernumeraries and Cooperators are also part of the family," explained Gerry Faigal, who came to Singapore with the first Opus Dei group from the Philippines.

Co-operators are those who assist the educational and social undertakings promoted by Opus Dei through their prayer, work or donation. Opus Dei Cooperators include Catholics, other Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.

Opus Dei is a family, and like all families, the members of Opus Dei move in different circles but also, like all families, they try "to eat together, have excursions together, pray together," Father Michael Chan said.

As an Opus Dei priest, Father Michael's role in the institution is "to do what the layman cannot do," he said, namely to celebrate the sacraments, provide spiritual direction, carry out faith formation classes, preaching, and conducting retreats. He is also required to carry out assignments given to him by the Opus Dei regional vicar, and participates in archdiocesan priestly meetings.

"(To be an Opus Dei member) is a matter of divine vocation; you discover it through prayer," said Father Michael, who discerned his vocation during post-graduate studies in England. Each member who joins Opus Dei has made an informed and free choice, he affirmed.

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Father Michael Chan joined Opus Dei in February 1983 as a layman.

Gilbert Keng, 38, has been a member of Opus Dei for the past 12 years. His wife, Josefina, has been a member for about 14 years. Mr Keng likened his special guidance in Opus Dei to a gymnasium where people who want to keep fit go to find special guidance from a fitness instructor. "(Through Opus Dei) I discovered how to be a better Christian," he declared. â– 

(For more information about Opus Dei Singapore visit www.opusdei.org.sg)

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