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Opus Dei

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Opus Dei (Latin for 'God's Work') is a Roman Catholic prelature which was founded in 1928 by St Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. From very humble beginnings, Opus Dei now counts (at the time of writing) about 84,000 members on five continents (Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa). Their task is to carry out the Evangelical mission of the Catholic Church through prayer and work. The organisation had a keen fan in the last Pope, John Paul II. In October 2002, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was made a Roman Catholic saint, just 27 years after his death.

Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer

Born in Barbastro, Spain on 9 January, 1902, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (henceforth Escriva) was the second child of six siblings and as was typical of men of his nationality and era, he was raised in a strictly Catholic household.

His family moved to Logroño in 1915, and it was here that he received the first inkling of his calling after seeing footprints in the snow left by a barefoot friar. Encouraged by this sign, he embarked on his religious instruction and education. He was ordained ten years later, and in 1927 he moved to the capital, Madrid, to get his law doctorate. It was during a spiritual retreat on 2 October, 1928, that he received his call to carry out God's work - Opus Dei.

For the next five years, Escriva laid the foundations of Opus Dei, recruiting new members and spreading the word of his mission throughout the country. This work was hindered five years later by the Spanish Civil war, during which he meted out his services in secret, until he was forced to flee, seeking refuge in Burgos.1

On his return to Madrid after the Civil War (1939) he finally obtained his doctorate and continued to spread the word of Opus Dei. A shadow has been cast over Escriva at this time for siding with the Francoists to avoid persecution during the establishment of Franco's regime (a time of great civil unrest).

In 1946, Escriva moved to Rome where he was quickly appointed as Consultor to various Vatican Congregations. Towards the end of his life he travelled to Latin America to further broaden the horizons, and membership, of Opus Dei.

Escriva died in Rome on 26 June, 1975, and was beatified by John Paul II in St Peter's Square on 17 May, 1992, in front of over 200,000 people. Escriva was formally canonised as a saint on Sunday, 6 October, 2002 in a ceremony attended by 250,000 people.

The Faithful of Opus Dei

The vocation to Opus Dei is the same for all members. Although people join as supernumeraries, numeraries or associates, these do not represent grades or categories of membership, but rather three ways of living one and the same vocation, with the same spirit and degree of commitment, depending on one's circumstances and state in life. All members try to sanctify their work, find time for daily Mass and mental prayer, and receive religious formation from the prelature.

Opus Dei's aim is to help people find God in and through their work, which must be done to perfection if sanctity is to be sought. Escriva wrote:

In God's service there are no unimportant posts: all are of great importance. The importance of the post depends on the spiritual level reached by the person filling it.

This is the hinge of Opus Dei's spirituality, and the characteristic message in the courses of formation organised in the centres of Opus Dei.

Joining Opus Dei

This takes place as follows: first the applicant requests admission in writing. Admission is granted after a minimum waiting period of six months from the date of the letter of application. After a further period of a year he or she can be incorporated into the prelature by means of a contractual declaration, which must be renewed annually on 19th March, the feast of St Joseph. A minimum of five years after making their first contractual declaration (and thus six and a half years after making their first application) the member may make his or her incorporation definitive (this is the so-called 'Fidelity').

  • Numeraries
    These comprise about 20% of the current membership of Opus Dei. Numeraries are celibate and their home is often - although not necessarily - an Opus Dei centre. There are centres for men and centres for women. Numeraries contribute what they can from their earnings to support the apostolic works, after all their other commitments. They continue working where they were before (in principle). Some go to Rome to study theology at the Roman College of the Holy Cross. Some of the male numeraries are ordained as priests for the prelature (there are about 1,800 priests of the prelature). Most numeraries, however, male and female, continue in their work environment.
  • Supernumeraries
    These make up by far the largest part of Opus Dei, accounting at present for 70% of its faithful. They are usually married men and women, whose principal calling is to sanctify their work and family duties. Like the numeraries, they contribute what they can to support the apostolic works, after all their other commitments; which are usually greater, as they typically have a family to support.
  • Associates
    These are celibate, like the numeraries; but family responsibilities or personal circumstances make them less available for the apostolate of the prelature and they normally live with their own families, or wherever is most suited to their work and other circumstances.


These are not 'members' of Opus Dei. They are men and women who support the apostolate of the prelature with their prayers, their work and their almsgiving. Opus Dei counts among its co-operators not only Catholics, but also men and women of other Christian denominations and of other religions, together with numerous non-believers. What they share is a common desire to participate and collaborate in various initiatives of the prelature.

Other information

In 1982 Opus Dei was established as a 'Personal Prelature' by Pope John Paul II. The term 'Personal' means that membership of Opus Dei is not linked to territory (as is the case in a diocese, for instance), while 'Prelature' means that at the head of Opus Dei there is a 'Prelate' appointed by the Pope. The Prelate of Opus Dei is currently Bishop Javier Echevarria.

Members of Opus Dei belong to the Prelature and thus fall under the jurisdiction of the Prelate. Of course the lay members are also subject to the bishop in the diocese where they live in the same way as other ordinary Catholics.

'Recruiting' and Financial Matters

This holy coercion is necessary, compelle intrare,2 the Lord tells us.
- Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, Cronica, 1971

Opus Dei has come under fire for the dubious nature of their recruiting techniques - indeed, most denominations welcome new members, but it has been claimed that you have to be invited to Opus Dei, and that it is difficult for members to leave. Accusations have been made of brainwashing and manipulation. To these criticisms members of Opus Dei respond that it is easy to leave, and its members are normal people, working in the midst of the world just like anyone else.

The members of Opus Dei earn their living with their work. They give what they can out of their earnings, to help with the apostolic works - i.e. the colleges, residences, universities and social projects run (for the most part) by members of Opus Dei. Some donations also go to meet pastoral needs - i.e. training and maintaining the priests of Opus Dei, who do not earn salaries.

Some observers have questioned where the rest of the money goes, at least that portion of it that goes to the central offices in Rome. Some of it is used in maintaining the colleges there and the central offices themselves, but the rest is invested elsewhere - or at least, there are no published accounts to show that it isn't.


Opus Dei has always provoked many questions, and it is not the purpose of this entry to provide answers to each and every one of them. The organisation tends to engender suspicion and mistrust in those who are already sceptical of the Catholic Church for whatever reason. A search through the internet will turn up opinions from many contrasting viewpoints, from members of Opus Dei itself through to its strongest critics.

Related BBC Link

  • BBC Religion strives to bring insight into faiths of all denomination and background.
1 In the state of Castilla-León, in northern Spain 2 Latin: 'Compel [them] to enter', quoted from the parable of the wedding feast, Luke 14:23

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