Opus Dei: Who? How? Why? by Giuseppe Romano. Translated by Edmund C. Lane, S.S.P., (Alba House, New York, 1995, 197 pp., $9.95)
A Gift of God: Blessed Josemaria Escriva (videotape produced and distributed by REYMAX, White Plains, N.Y., 1994, 57 minutes)
EVEN A CASUAL knowledge of its ideals shows that Opus Dei is in harmony with many of the important initiatives of the Second Vatican Council. It's characterization as a secretive and somewhat controversial group will probably not prejudice sensible people, especially on this side of the Atlantic. Still, there remains the need for reliable information about Opus Dei. A book, Opus Dei, Who?, Why?, How?, and a video, A Gift of God: Blessed Josemaria Escriva, try to satisfy this need.
The book's author, Giuseppe Romano, is clearly identified as a member of Opus Dei. A foreword by Cardinal James Hickey of Washington recommends the book, Opus Dei itself, and its “world-wide apostolate” (in 1990 it reported 1,350 priests and some 72,000 lay people in about 80 countries). The initial chapters contain some epistemological posturing about what the “well-intentioned observer” knows about Opus Dei, which may only serve to make something sound fishy that wouldn't otherwise.
The book is divided into three parts. The first contains a brief biography of the founder, Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. The important events in his life are cited but little effort is made to trace the major influences on his life and thought, be they teachers, theologians, spiritual writers, etc. Romano is satisfied to put the Opus Dei founder's prophetic vocation down to divine intervention. He also likens the inspiration behind Opus Dei to Holy Scripture itself, which may come across as a bit presumptuous.
Romano goes to great lengths to distinguish between the “message”— the philosophy and spirituality of Opus Dei—and the “instrument”—its institutional structure. These then become the themes of the book's second and third parts. This plan is somewhat hard on the reader, as there are many places where the theory begs illustration. By book's end, however, the reader will have a good sense of what Opus Dei is about. There is also an appendix of questions and answers that deal with the controversies involving Opus Dei.
A book on the “message” and “instrument” of Opus Dei leaves one curious about the “people” of Opus Dei. The video, A Gift of God: Blessed Josemaria Escriva, happily takes a more personal approach to its subject. Made in 1994, A Gift of God focuses on the founder, who died in 1975. The production-quality is good, it's well-paced and the music is tasteful.
Along with a standard biographical approach to the founder's life, the video profiles some Opus Dei members, mostly Americans. A South Bronx teacher relates how Opus Dei helps her transcend the prevailing despair of that environment. ABoston child psychiatrist says that Opus Dei helps support her faith amid the secularism of her profession. A Chicago couple with seven children testify to the way Opus Dei helps them as a family: “Many people today think that having a large family is a burden too difficult to accept, but I would say that if a husband and wife trust in God, and accept the children He wants to send them, then God will also give them the help they need to care for them.” Such evidence of real faith is rare, proof that Opus Dei succeeds in positively affecting people's lives.
Both the book and the video emphasize that Opus Dei concentrates on forming and spiritually directing its members. Opus Dei apparently provides support on the fraternal and cultural level, yet there is almost no description of how it does this on a day-to-day basis. Where Christian culture has evaporated, the fraternal and cultural roles of Opus Dei take on more importance and we would benefit from hearing about them. As they realize that practicing their faith requires support from mediating institutions that build community and Christian culture, it is likely that more Catholics will be looking into Opus Dei. This book and, even more so, the video, are good places to start.
Brother Clement Kennedy, O.S.B., is a monk at the Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif.