Commenting on The Song of Songs from the Old Testament, Escriva once put this idea in lyrical form. "I will seek the one my soul loves in the streets and public squares," he wrote. "I will run from one part of the world to the other ... seeking the peace of my soul. And I find it in the things that come from outside, which for me are not an obstacle; on the contrary, they are a path and a stairway to draw closer and closer, to unite myself more and more with God." That instinct to find God "in the things that come from outside," the normal hustle and bustle of the workaday world, is the Opus Dei impulse.Escriva once described Opus Dei as "an intravenous injection in the bloodstream of society." Members would be doctors and lawyers and university professors and barbers and bus drivers, and from the outside they would appear to be exactly the same as everyone else. There's a famous story about the first three priests ordained for Opus Dei — Alvaro del Portillo, Jose Mar’a Hernandez de Garnica, and Jose Luis Mœzquiz — that illustrates this point. Escriva noticed that not one of them smoked, which was rather odd in Spain in 1944. He told them that one of them was going to have to take up smoking, lest people get the impression there was something unwordly about these Opus Dei guys. The choice fell on Portillo, who would eventually succeed Escriva. Opus Dei's lay members would not wear special religious habits, they would not be cloistered, and they would not claim to possess a special state of life. The idea was to redeem the world, not by retreating from it, but by "Christianizing it," carrying out all the tasks of daily living with a new spirit. Escriva's shorthand formula was, "Sanctify your work. Sanctify yourself in your work. Sanctify others through your work."It's worth underlining the revolutionary character of this vision in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s. As Escriva described it, Opus Dei is not supposed to be a clergy-driven enterprise. Laypeople are supposed to share the same vocation with the clergy, in a situation of full equality. The clergy, in his understanding, are more akin to support staff, experts in the spiritual life who offer the sacraments and means of doctrinal and spiritual formation, but the real "action" is out in the world. Only a layperson can decide how a particular lawsuit, or surgery, or newspaper article, can be made an offering to God, carrying others toward sanctification. The idea was to form people and then "turn them loose," trusting them to exercise their freedom. This includes, in principle, a commitment to male/female equality. In Opus Dei, women receive the same doctrinal and theological formation as men, including those men will eventually be ordained priests. All this was a break from a traditional clericalist mentality, and Escriva was denounced in some circles in Spain as an anticlericalist, even a heretic. There was talk of reporting him to the Vatican.Everything about Opus Dei, at least from the official point of view, exists to promote this aim: forming ordinary laymen and women in Christian doctrine and spirituality, so that they may sanctify the world from within, using their own judgment about the best means to do so in their particular profession or walk of life. Officially speaking, Opus Dei is unlike virtually any other organization with which most people come into contact. It is not a lobby or an interest group, has no collective financial or political interests, and has no agenda. Escriva called it "a disorganized organization," in the sense that the home office does not issue memos at 8:00 a.m. with marching orders for the day. Opus Dei is responsible for formation, and its members do the rest. "Opus Dei does not act, its members do" is a frequent mantra.Critics, it should be noted, generally insist that this is a smoke screen, that the "real" aims of the organization — the acquisition of political power, or financial gain, or new recruits — are hidden. For now, however, it's worth stepping through the way Opus Dei organizes its life and describes itself, in part so we can compare that with the criticisms later on.Becoming a MemberAs Opus Dei has become more prominent, it sometimes happens that a person walks in off the street and announces, "I want to be a member of Opus Dei." In such cases, these people are advised to learn a little something about Opus Dei first. Generally, however, it doesn't work this way. Membership usually arises out of getting to know Opus Dei, either through family who are members, or by exposure to one of Opus Dei's "corporate works" such as a school or youth center, or through some other activity that may be run by members even though it's not formally sponsored by Opus Dei, such as a TV news agency or a clinic — anyplace it's possible to form a personal friendship. However it happens, a prospective member usually has been attending evenings of recollection, retreats, and other Opus Dei events well ahead of the decision to "whistle," the insider's lingo for the moment of joining. It is treated as a very serious choice, because belonging to Opus Dei is not seen as being a pastime or a hobby. It is a vocation, thus akin in life-changing significance to the decision to get married or to enter the priesthood.What's the draw? At a supernatural level, the answer is always that God has given someone a vocation to Opus Dei. At the human level, however, various factors can be the points of initial attraction. For some, it may be reading the works of Escriva; in that department, most members say the first thing to catch their attention was the idea that study or work could be their path to holiness. For others, it may be that Opus Dei offers an environment in which a serious, prayerful Catholic can feel supported. For many, it's the example set by the numeraries, who often come across as smart, dedicated, devout, and happy people, living coherent lives based on their faith. In other words, they "walk the walk." Opus Dei centers can also be a lot of fun. When I visited the Windmoor Center at Notre Dame in September 2004, for example, I arrived for their weekly Friday night fried chicken dinner, which was preceded by a meditation and followed by beers and chat. The atmosphere can be infectious, combining prayer and Catholic orthodoxy with a lighthearted, collegial, and intellectually stimulating group of people.
Since Opus Dei is not a religious order, members do not take "vows," nor does their status under Church law change when they join. Laypeople remain laity. Instead, they affliate themselves by means of that quintessential secular instrument, a contract. Essentially, members strike a deal with Opus Dei: They agree to live in the spirit of Opus Dei and to support its apostolic activities, and in return Opus Dei agrees to provide doctrinal and spiritual formation.The formula of the contract is as follows:
I, in the full use of my freedom, declare that with firm resolve I dedicate myself to pursue sanctity and to practice apostolate with all my energy according to the spirit and praxis of Opus Dei. From this moment until next March 19th, I assume the obligation:
First, to remain under the jurisdiction of the Prelate and the other competent authorities of the Prelature, in order to dedicate myself faithfully to everything that has to do with the special purposes of the Prelature;
Second, to fulfill all the duties of a Numerary/Associate/Supernumerary member of Opus Dei, and to observe the norms by which the Prelature is governed, as well as the legitimate rulings of the Prelate and the other competent authorities of the Prelature regarding its government, spirit and apostolate.
Representative of the Prelate
I, representing the Prelate, declare that from the moment of your incorporation into the Prelature, and for as long as that incorporation continues in force, Opus Dei assumes the obligation:
First, to devote constant care and attention to your doctrinal, spiritual, ascetical and apostolic formation, and to provide you with the special pastoral attention of the priests of the Prelature;
Second, to fulfill its other obligations with respect to its faithful, as determined in the norms by which the Prelature is governed.Members remain free outside the terms of this contract, as does Opus Dei. At least in theory, members have no right to "represent" Opus Dei in their professional work, or to act on its behalf, and Opus Dei does not seek to influence them beyond their spiritual growth. To take a concrete example, Luis Valls, a seventy-eight-year-old Spanish member of Opus Dei, recently stepped down as executive chairman of Banco Popular, Spain's third-largest commercial bank with $47.9 billion in assets. Valls, who lives in an Opus Dei center in Madrid, has always insisted that nobody in Opus Dei dictated banking strategy to him, and that at no time were any resources from the bank diverted for Opus Dei purposes. He was not an "Opus Dei banker," but a banker who happened to be in Opus Dei. The impact of Opus on his business career and on his life, he insists, has been of a different order: "Without religious convictions, I would have been a rascal."Excerpted from “Opus Dei” by John L. Allen, Jr. Copyright © 2005 by John L. Allen, Jr. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.