Holiness for Everyone: Opus Dei Marks Its 90th Birthday

The community St. Josemaría Escrivá founded to emphasize sanctity amid ordinary life continues to impact souls.

A fresco in the Church of St. Nicholas in Valencia, Spain, depicts St. Josemaría Escrivá (l), the Catholic priest who founded Opus Dei, and Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, his successor.
A fresco in the Church of St. Nicholas in Valencia, Spain, depicts St. Josemaría Escrivá (l), the Catholic priest who founded Opus Dei, and Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, his successor. (photo: jorisvo / Shutterstock.com)

NEW YORK — When Marie Oates was a teenager in Massachusetts, she decided that she had to have a moped.

Marie’s mother and father — daily communicants and parents of nine children — were not about to buy her one, so Marie decided to find a job at all costs to buy a moped herself. Little did Oates know that her quest to buy a moped would lead to her vocation in Opus Dei.

“I started working part time as a waitress at Arnold Hall, a Catholic conference center for Opus Dei south of Boston,” Marie Oates told the Register as she recalled the pivotal summer of 1978.

“I knew nothing about Opus Dei,” and yet, “I remember being really impressed with the happiness and cheerful way that people worked. They had joy and peace and worked well together.”

While she was working at the center, Oates began to attend Opus Dei’s classes in Catholic formation.

“Both of my parents worked really hard. The Catholic faith was lived in the home. Opus Dei reinforced everything my parents were living.”

Her parents had never forced their children to attend daily Mass, but when she saw others who seemed to enjoy that regular time of worship, it inspired her to follow suit.

Members of Opus Dei around the world Oct. 2 celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding by St. Josemaría Escrivá in 1928. Canonically, Opus Dei is called a “personal prelature,” which means that it is an international diocese. For the 3,000 U.S. Catholics among the 95,000 members worldwide, as well as the thousands of people who associate with the prelature in Opus Dei activities, retreats and classes every day, Oct. 2 is a time for reflection.

“This is the day when St. Josemaría, a 26-year-old priest making a retreat in Madrid, saw what God had been intuiting in his soul for a number of years. God helped him to see a vast number of souls throughout the ages, of all races and social backgrounds, seeking sanctity in the middle of the world through the ordinary circumstances of their lives,” said Linda Perreault, a member of Opus Dei living in the New York area.

“While not wanting to be a founder of anything, he realized that this was a whole new concept of holiness, not only in the world, but in the Church. It was widely understood up to that time that, if you really wanted to be holy and serve the Church, you had to withdraw from the world in order to accomplish this.”

But the charism of Opus Dei says that a Catholic can be holy by staying in the state of life to which God called him or her: housewife, accountant, schoolteacher, doctor, lawyer, etc. One doesn’t have to be a priest, monk or a nun to be holy.

“The idea is that wherever we are, we can be holy. This gives people more meaning and purpose in their lives. It means we can offer our lives to God,” said Oates.

The idea of “offering up” work is very central to Opus Dei. “When you offer up your work to God, it has divine meaning for the people you are praying for. There is an effectiveness. You are uniting your sacrifice to the cross to co-redeem the world with Christ, even if you are a ‘nobody.’ The first Christians, think of it, were nobodies — but they changed the world. They exuded joy and peace, and that comes from being united to Christ,” said Perreault.

People thought that St. Josemaría was heretical in the beginning.

“They started a campaign against him. Many good Catholics thought that he was crazy. Now, people totally get it because of Vatican II, and the emphasis given to the laity, and Pope John Paul II’s teachings,” said Perreault.

In 1949, Opus Dei put down roots in the U.S., after three of its priests came to Chicago. Today, Opus Dei has 60 centers in 19 cities in the United States, four residences for university students, six highly acclaimed high schools and one business school, IESE, which is based in Spain with an affiliate in Manhattan. Many Opus Dei members have begun programs to help inner-city youth in several U.S. cities, like Chicago, Washington and New York.

Opus Dei places a strong emphasis on spiritual direction and providing formation on Catholic doctrine.

As members of Opus Dei celebrate this landmark anniversary, they underscore the many challenges Father Escrivá faced as he sought to engage ordinary Catholics. The first crisis was the enormous danger posed by the anti-Catholic violence of the Spanish Civil War, when some 6,800 clergy were killed.

“It is hard to imagine, what we see today, from the beginnings, with just a few guys in a flight for their lives,” said Brian Finnerty, head of Opus Dei’s U.S. communications office, in a reference to the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, St. Josemaría was forced to flee through the Pyrenees to a safer part of the country with a handful of members of the fledgling Opus Dei community.

“St. Josemaría had a sense that God wanted him to found something that would teach people that they could find God in the midst of the ordinary. Pope John Paul II, when he canonized St. Josemaría, called him the ‘saint of the ordinary,’” said Finnerty.

Though St. Josemaría’s ideas were considered radical in the beginning, now they are a normal way of thinking about holiness within the Church.

Perreault recalls that what attracted her to Opus Dei was the genuine warmth of the people she met and that the classes and spiritual formation helped people to learn more about their Catholic faith.

“I spent my first year of university in Sussex, England, and a dear friend of mine who was an Israeli would ask me about my faith. Like most young people at the time, I wasn’t able to really answer her questions because I didn’t know much, although I was still going to Mass,” said Perreault.

“She challenged me one day by saying, ‘Linda, you have to know what you are talking about.’ She made me really think,” she said. “The next year, I transferred to a Catholic college in Boston and met some women who were going to Mass every day. I had never seen that before.”

“They ended up inviting me to a center of Opus Dei in Boston and introduced me to the spiritual exercises conducted there, which started to really enrich my life and help me to understand the reasons behind what Catholics believe,” said Perreault.

Abby Wells, a mother of four children in New York, grew up in New Hampshire and went to Opus Dei summer camps as a child.

“Whenever I was at a center of Opus Dei, I knew it was a different place. I felt that people really cared about you and what you said. When I was older, I started going to days of recollection (mini half-day retreats). It opened up new horizons for me,” said Wells.

In Opus Dei, people are taught that everything people do has eternal value and meaning.

“As a mother, chores can seem thankless. But I can offer up my work to change the world,” said Wells. “All of my work is valuable. This is life-changing. People feel so lost nowadays. They wonder, ‘What is the meaning of life?’”

“I am so thankful that my life has a purpose and value. Because of the continual formation, you are constantly learning. There is always someone who can give me sound advice on doctrine,” she said.

Bill Orchard encountered Opus Dei during his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I wasn’t terribly spiritual when I got to MIT; neither was my family. Honestly, I could have easily lost my faith in college,” Orchard told the Register.

But when he received a mailing from the Boston-area Opus Dei center for men inviting him to some activities, he decided to attend.

The men’s center “became my Christian community. I went on retreats and ski trips,” recalled Orchard.

He joined a fraternity while at MIT, but found himself spending more time with the guys at the Opus Dei center instead.

“It was a better environment for studying, and I made better friendships that had a spiritual dimension,” he said.

What attracted Orchard to Opus Dei was the vision of St. Josemaría.

“He found a way of living Christianity that was ordinary and integrated,” he said. “St. Josemaría had this idea of achieving a unity of life that appealed to me. I had a real sense that God did not want me to get stressed out. He wanted me to live in the moment and do the thing that was in front of me. It made sense to me and was normal,” he said.

The world, for St. Josemaría, was not a place to be afraid of. It was a place where Christians could act as leaven, slowly transforming it from within.

“St. Josemaría said that the world was good, that we have to bring Christ to the summit of all human activities,” said Perreault. “We are seeing this fleshed out now and lived all over the world. Over the years, I've experienced that the centers of Opus Dei are places where people come who want to know more about their faith and put it into practice. Many are moved to want to serve God more through their ordinary lives. That is true sanctity in the middle of the world.”

Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.