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Opus Dei’s New Head: ‘A First-Class Mind’
Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz Braña is a founding professor of Rome’s Santa Croce University and has served as a consultor to several Vatican offices.
By Edward Pentin
VATICAN CITY — The new head of Opus Dei is a humble, hard worker with a “first-class mind” who has immense loyalty to the Church and the personal prelature.
This is according to Father Thomas Bohlin, regional vicar for Opus Dei in the United States, in Feb. 3 comments to the Register about Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz Braña.
“Like his predecessors, I think he will provide a continuous source of encouragement for all the members and their friends in their ongoing efforts to grow in holiness and to be more effective in the work of evangelization,” Father Bohlin said.
Msgr. Ocáriz, 73, was elected the new prelate of the personal prelature Jan. 23, succeeding Bishop Javier Echevarria, who died Dec. 12 at the age of 84, after leading the organization founded by St. Josemaría Escrivá since 1994.
The Jan. 23 election was not just of the new prelate, but also introduced new leaders to the personal prelature. Msgr. Ocáriz named three vice secretaries, a prefect of studies and an administrator general to look after the different areas of the formative and apostolic activity of the men of Opus Dei. Among the new vice secretaries is 36-year-old Matthew Anthony of St. Louis, who has done much to help young people in the personal prelature.
Highly Qualified to Lead
Born in Paris in 1944 to a Spanish family exiled during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Msgr. Ocáriz’s election came as little surprise to members of Opus Dei, as he had worked closely alongside Bishop Echevarria as vicar general of Opus Dei from 1994 until 2014, before being named auxiliary vicar in 2014. That experience, members of Opus Dei say, makes him highly equipped to lead the global institution founded by St. Josemaría in 1928.
“He has a deep knowledge of the reality of Opus Dei, having traveled with the prelate around the world,” said Manuel Sánchez Fandila, the personal prelature’s spokesman in Rome. “He spent 22 years with Bishop Echevarria, almost every day with him, and was with the prelate during his last days in hospital.” The last trip they both made was to Finland and Estonia, weeks before Bishop Echevarria’s death.
Msgr. Ocáriz quietly assisted the prelate in his work, but “without ever drawing attention to himself,” Father Bohlin said. “In my experience, he is a calm and peaceful man who spreads that peace around him.”
He added that he expects Opus Dei’s new leader to be “faithful to the foundational spirit given by God to St. Josemaría” and noted that the new prelate has already said “many times” that he intends to protect “what is essential to the spirit, while continually adapting it to changing circumstances.”
“He will want to continue the extension of the prelature’s activities to new countries around the globe,” Father Bohlin said, but added that, in general, he expected more of “a spirit of continuity than a spirit of change.”
A key quality singled out by those who know him is his academic prowess. Msgr. Ocáriz has had a reputation as a popular and highly accomplished professor at Opus Dei’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, of which he was one of the founding professors. As well as writing several works on theology and philosophy, he has served as a consultor to several dicasteries of the Roman Curia, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which he had served since 1986.
Most notably, he contributed to the CDF’s 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus, known for emphasis on the Catholic Church being the sole true Church of Christ. He was also a member of a CDF commission set up by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to engage in talks to help bring the Society of St. Pius X back into full communion with the Church. Those talks broke down in 2013, after the SSPX said it could not subscribe to the Holy See’s demands that the society accept the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, in particular those on religious freedom and human rights.
Msgr. Ocáriz, who studied at the University of Barcelona and the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, has written two works on Christology, one of which, El Misterio de Jesucristo, for which he is a co-author, is available in English under the title, The Mystery of Jesus Christ. Another publication, Amar con Obras: a Dios y a los Hombres and Naturaleza, Gracia y Gloria, contains a preface by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
“He is an intellectual of great depth,” said Sánchez. Father Bohlin said his “first-class mind” was “appreciated” by Cardinal Ratzinger, for whom he worked in the CDF. As a professor of theology, Msgr. Ocáriz was “well-known as one of the most clear and effective teachers on the faculty,” Father Bohlin said.
For American Opus Dei Father John Wauck, professor of literature and communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University, Msgr. Ocáriz brings together “two qualities that don’t always go together: a razor-sharp mind and remarkable serenity” — a “wonderful combination for someone in his position to have.”
Although in his 70s, Msgr. Ocáriz also continues to be athletic and has long been an avid tennis player. “When I was in the seminary in Rome in the mid ’90s, he was still able to beat all challengers in tennis, from among faculty or students alike, including me. He still prefers a strong game of singles to a more sedate game of doubles,” Father Bohlin said. “He keeps up a youthful spirit.”
Loyalty to Peter
Msgr. Ocáriz made a point after his election of underlining his and the prelature’s loyalty to Pope Francis. “How often,” he said in his first homily as prelate Jan. 27, did Bishop Echevarria insist, along with his predecessors, “that we pray very much for the Church and the Pope.” He, therefore, stressed making the motto of St. Josemaría — Omnes cum Petro ad Iesum per Mariam! (Everyone with Peter to Jesus through Mary) — “a reality.”
“To be closely united to the Pope is an essential part of the spirit given to Opus Dei through its founder, St. Josemaría,” said Father Bohlin, adding that he felt sure Msgr. Ocáriz would do all he could “to live out that spirit himself and to encourage all the members and friends of the prelature to do the same.”
Sánchez said Msgr. Ocáriz’s relationship with the Holy Father has, so far, been “very serene.” He has known Pope Francis for a number of years, from his visits to Argentina as vicar general, “but there’s not a great closeness or close friendship,” he said. By contrast, the new vicar general of the prelature, Msgr. Mariano Fazio, is Argentinian and is closer to Francis, having known the Pope well for a longer period of time.
Asked how he foresees the new prelate’s relationship with the Pope, Father Bohlin underlined unity with the Pope as an “essential part” of the spirit of Opus Dei. He also noted that, on the Pope’s part, he swiftly approved Msgr. Ocáriz’s election.
“I think that the Holy Father knows of the loyalty of the faithful of Opus Dei to him,” he said. “He has referred to his gratefulness for the apostolic work of members of Opus Dei after his visits in recent months to Kenya and Sweden. So, I foresee that he, like his predecessors, will have a very warm relationship with the Holy Father.”
Father Bohlin said he felt sure Msgr. Ocáriz will want the Holy Father “to know that he can count on the affection and unfailing support of its prelate and all of its faithful.”
That support will be a “continued encouragement” to Opus Dei’s members, he added, also because it means participating in Pope Francis’ call for every Christian “to become a missionary, to touch the wounds of the needy person beside us.”
“The members of Opus Dei and their friends are in daily contact with many souls who need to have the Gospel presented to them in the positive, joyful way the Pope is talking about,” Father Bohlin said.
‘We Are Daughters and Sons of God’
As well as stressing the importance of loyalty to the Pope in his Jan. 27 homily, Msgr. Ocáriz also underscored the need to realize that, as Catholics, “we are daughters and sons of God” — a realization that “brings peace to our soul” and helps us to be “sowers of peace and joy.”
He also highlighted the need for “prudence” for himself and for others, “a deep piety” and “true fraternity” that “stems from Christ’s heart” and which “enables all of us to be united.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
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