Mission: Holiness in Daily Life — 100 Years of Opus Dei History
New work in English traces the first century of St. Josemaría Escrivá’s legacy.
The two-volume work Opus Dei: A History (1928-2016) by José Luis González Gullón and John Coverdale has accessed all existing documentation, as well as numerous oral testimonies, about the personal prelature of Opus Dei and its founder, from the movement’s foundation in 1928 through 2016.
Father Gullón is a history professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. John Coverdale has a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate in law from the University of Chicago. He has taught Spanish history at Princeton University and Northwestern University, as well as law at Seton Hall University School of Law. Coverdale has published numerous books and articles about the history of Opus Dei and its early members. From 1961 to 1968, he worked in Rome at Opus Dei’s communications office with Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá.
Coverdale, a numerary (celibate member) of Opus Dei, spoke to the Register via email Dec. 7.
What surprised you in your research?
I can’t say it was a surprise, but one thing that particularly impressed me was the depth of the faith of the early members in God and in the founder.
To many people, at the time, including many influential Churchmen, the idea of complete dedication to God in the world seemed crazy, if not heretical. A well-known member of an important religious order told everyone who was willing to listen to him: “A man who wears a jacket and tie cannot — simply cannot — achieve the fullness of holiness.”
As an organization, Opus Dei (“Work of God” in Latin) was virtually nonexistent. A dozen years after it was founded, it still had fewer than 20 members, and all of them were students or recent graduates. The only building it owned had been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and it had no money. Most people had never heard of it.
Yet despite all this, the early members cheerfully dedicated their lives to God in Opus Dei and sacrificed themselves to make it a reality, with complete assurance that God would make it succeed.
What did not surprise you when writing your book?
Of course, I was familiar with the main outlines of Opus Dei’s history before I started working on this book, so most things did not surprise me. One thing that could have surprised me but didn’t was the depth of the opposition Opus Dei encountered from very good Catholics. I say it didn’t surprise me, because I knew that this sort of hostility toward new developments in the life of the Church is a well-established pattern. It seems to be something God permits to test and purify people.
How novel was Opus Dei when it appeared in 1928?
The core of Opus Dei is the idea that all Christ’s followers are called to genuine holiness and that, for the vast majority, this means holiness in daily life. From the beginning, Opus Dei stressed the importance of day-to-day work in the quest for holiness. Its founder urged people “to sanctify their work, sanctify themselves in their work, and sanctify others through their work.” Far from seeing people’s jobs and family and social obligations as obstacles to holiness, he saw them as positive factors in their quest for sanctity.
These ideas became an important part of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and today they are, at least at the theoretical level, part of the common patrimony of the Church. When Opus Dei began in 1928, however, and for many years after, these ideas were novel. The theoretical possibility that laypeople could attain some degree of sanctity was not unknown, and some writers had stressed it. St. Francis de Sales comes immediately to mind.
Still, most people in the Church thought of the laity as second-class citizens whose life circumstances meant they had to be content with a minimal spiritual life. And even St. Francis de Sales proposed to laypeople a spirituality that was an adaptation of the spirituality of the religious orders.
As Pope John Paul I wrote shortly before his election as pope, Francis de Sales and others proposed a spirituality for laypeople, but the founder of Opus Dei proposed a lay spirituality. Perhaps that is why Pope John Paul II called St. Josemaría the “Saint of Ordinary Life.”
Was it inevitable that Opus Dei would spread beyond the confines of its beginnings in 1920s Spain?
The founder was fully convinced from the beginning that God wanted Opus Dei to spread throughout the world, and he transmitted that conviction to his first followers. But if either the founder himself or his first followers had been less generous in their response to God’s call, they could have frustrated his plans.
How much does St. Josemaría Escriva still influence Opus Dei today?
Opus Dei is essentially about people trying to put into practice and to spread the charism St. Josemaría received. We find that charism expressed in his writings and exemplified in his life, so we try to get to know his writings better and to learn more about his life. In addition, we, like many other people who don’t belong to Opus Dei, have found that St. Josemaría is a powerful intercessor, so we often ask him to pray for us. In all these ways, he is very much present in Opus Dei.
Are you able to give an historic perspective on the current changes proposed to Opus Dei as a result of Pope Francis’ recent motu proprio Ad Charisma Tuendum?
It is far too early to have any historical perspective on a document issued a few months ago. The document calls for two specific changes, namely that Opus Dei report to the Dicastery for the Clergy rather than to the Dicastery for Bishops; and that it sends reports to the Vatican every year rather than every five years. It also clarifies that, in the future, the prelate of Opus Dei will not be ordained a bishop. These are not insignificant steps in Opus Dei’s canonical history, but they do not change anything essential either in Opus Dei’s structure or in the life of its members.
The same day that the motu proprio was made public, the prelate of Opus Dei published a letter to all the members underlining Opus Dei’s filial acceptance of the papal document and our desire of going more deeply into the Work’s spirit and sharing it with many people.
Is Opus Dei still relevant to 21st-century Catholics?
I would say it is more relevant than ever.
It is true that, thanks to the Church’s efforts to implement the teaching of the Second Vatican Council during the past 60 years, many more lay Catholics have heard that they are called to holiness and that they can turn their daily lives into a path that leads to God.
But for those ideas to become a reality, people need guidance, help and encouragement. It is up to the whole Church, starting with the pope, the bishops and the parish priests, to provide that support. But it is very helpful that there be a part of the Church charged specially with that responsibility. I like to think of a professional football team. It has a head coach who is responsible for all aspects of the game, but he counts on specialized coaches who concentrate on one aspect or another of the game. Similarly, the pope, the bishops and the parish priests are called to help the faithful live their Christian lives in their entirety. They can rely on Opus Dei, however, in their efforts to help Catholics living in the world to be aware that God calls them to sanctity and apostolate. Opus Dei provides both its members and people who encounter it the help and encouragement they need in their effort to respond to God’s call to sanctity and apostolate. It offers them a specific secular spirituality and personal guidance in putting it into practice.
Many people in the 21st century seek coaches and mentors in diverse aspects of their lives, ranging all the way from personal relationships to nutrition. Well, Opus Dei is a sort of coach or mentor in the spiritual life.