It’s 25 years since Opus Dei became the Church’s first and, so far, only personal prelature — an ecclesiastical juridical structure established to carry out special apostolic tasks.
In November 1982, Pope John Paul II assigned Opus Dei the status of personal prelature in the apostolic constitution Ut Sit (That It May Be). The document not only situated the organization within the hierarchy of the Church, it gave Opus Dei flexibility needed to fulfill its apostolic mission without being limited to a geographical area.
John Paul named Opus Dei’s head, Father Alvaro del Portillo, as Opus Dei’s first prelate. He became a bishop in 1991.
Today, Opus Dei is made up of 86,000 members throughout the world, including 21 bishops.
Speaking at a Rome seminar March 12 to mark the anniversary, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, praised how the personal prelature has served “in favor of dioceses worldwide and in a special way that of Rome.”
That has been achieved, Cardinal Ruini said, primarily through the striving for holiness and apostolate by each Opus Dei member.
The current prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarría, said the personal prelature is perfectly suited to the vision of St. Josemaría Escrivá, Opus Dei’s founder, who died seven years before the prelature was instituted.
Opus Dei, Bishop Echevarria said, “is made up of everyday Christians” working to spread the message “that faith can and must impregnate, from within, all human existence with all its realities: in the first place, the needs of professional work and, in general, family and social life.”
The Right Structure
John Paul’s establishment of Opus Dei as a personal prelature constituted a “key component” of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its “universal call to holiness and the need for the baptized to transform this world through their own personal sanctification in the world,” Father Robert Gahl, associate professor of ethics at Opus Dei-run Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome, said.
The American priest added it showed how the Church gives “top priority” to the salvation of souls and, in continuity with apostolic tradition, is “ready to create new structures within the Church in accord with new historical developments.”
But formalizing Opus Dei within the hierarchy of the Church wasn’t always easy.
“Sometimes when there’s something new in Church, it takes time to understand it,” said Father Luis Felipe Navarro, dean of the canon law faculty at Santa Croce. “This was the case with Opus Dei from the very beginning as a new pastoral phenomenon, and I think it has happened in relation to the personal prelature, even though it was discussed during the Second Vatican Council.”
Father Navarro said the main challenge when setting up the structure was to establish a legal entity that managed to combine two jurisdictions — Opus Dei’s and the local diocese’s — in a way that that “complemented yet presented no obstacle to the other.”
That meant, in accordance with St. Josemaría’s wishes, the presence of Opus Dei members in a diocese had to avoid any weakening of the authority of the local bishop. Extensive consultations, particularly within the Congregation for Bishops, were carried out before Ut Sit was promulgated to ensure the new structure would harmonize with existing Church structures.
Ut Sit specifies that with respect to Opus Dei’s apostolic activities, the “persons” belonging to Opus Dei — both priests and lay members — “are under the authority of the prelate in carrying out the pastoral task of the prelature.”
St. Josemaría had yearned for some kind of adequate canonical solution for the organization back in 1935, seven years after it was founded. Until that happened, Opus Dei was “like a person who was wearing an ill-fitting suit,” said Father Navarro. “[Ut Sit] achieved the final configuration that was needed.”
Now the question is whether other groups with special apostolic tasks can be incorporated into a similar structure.
“In a world characterized by greater mobility, establishing a personal prelature could be the solution to migrants and gypsies and other Christian groups that need special pastoral care,” said Father Navarro. He said migrants “have a specific situation that doesn’t fit completely well in local churches; they may not be integrated in a country and are perhaps planning to go back. A personal prelature for them would be a way of giving right pastoral care — to be in harmony with the local church.”
The adaptability and flexibility of a personal prelature offers many possibilities, Father Navarro suggested.
Said Father Navarro, “It’s like a box in which you can place many things, not only one.”
(Zenit contributed to this story.)
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.