Why Opus Dei?
Would you explain the central mission and objectives of Opus Dei? On what precedent did you base your ideas for the Association? Or is Opus Dei something unique, totally new within the Church and Christianity? Can it be compared with religious orders and secular institutes, or with Catholic organisations like the Holy Name Society, the Knights of Columbus or the Christopher Movement?
Opus Dei aims to encourage people of every sector of society to desire holiness in the midst of the world. In other words, Opus Dei proposes to help ordinary citizens like yourself to lead a fully Christian life, without modifying their normal way of life, their daily work, their aspirations and ambitions.
As I wrote years ago, you could say that Opus Dei is as old and as new as the Gospel. It intends to remind Christians of the wonderful words of Genesis: God created man to work. We try to imitate the example of Christ, who spent almost all his life on earth working as a carpenter in a small town. Work is one of the highest human values and the way in which men contribute to the progress of society. But even more, it is a way to holiness.
With what other organisations can Opus Dei be compared? That question is not easy to answer. When one compares organisations which have spiritual aims, there is always a risk of considering external features or juridical status to the detriment of what is more important, the spirit that animates them and is the raison d'etre of all their activities.
I shall merely say that with respect to the organisations you mentioned, Opus Dei is very far removed from religious orders and secular institutes and close to institutions like the Holy Name Society.
Opus Dei is an international lay organisation to which a certain number of secular priests belong, although they are a small minority. Its members are people who live in the world and hold normal jobs. They do not join Opus Dei to give up their job. On the contrary, what they look for in the Work is the spiritual help they need to sanctify their ordinary work. Thus their work becomes a means to sanctify themselves and help others to do the same thing. They do not change their status. They continue being single, married, widowed or priests. What they try to do is serve God and their fellow men in their own state in life. Opus Dei is not interested in vows or promises. It asks its members to make an effort to practise human and Christian virtues, as children of God, despite the limitations and errors that are inevitable in human life.
If you want a point of comparison, the easiest way to understand Opus Dei is to consider the life of the early Christians. They lived their Christian vocation seriously, seeking earnestly the holiness to which they had been called by their Baptism. Externally they did nothing to distinguish themselves from their fellow citizens. The members of Opus Dei are ordinary people. They work like everyone else and live in the midst of the world just as they did before they joined. There is nothing false or artificial about their behaviour. They live like any other Christian citizen who wants to respond fully to the demands of his faith, because that is what they are.
I would like to insist on the question of secular institutes. I have read a study by a well-known canonist, Dr Julian Herranz, which affirms that some secular institutes are secret and others are practically indistinguishable from religious orders since their members wear habits and give up their professional work to dedicate their lives to the same aims as religious, up to the point of having no objection to being considered religious. What do you think about this?
The study of secular institutes which you mentioned has been widely read and discussed by specialists in the field. Dr Herranz undoubtedly brings to bear a great deal of evidence to support the thesis he personally defends, but I prefer not to comment on the conclusions he draws. I can only say that that way of acting has nothing whatsoever to do with Opus Dei. The Work is not secret and neither its activities nor the life of its members make it in any way comparable with religious orders. The members of Opus Dei, as I just said, are workaday citizens, exactly the same as other citizens, who practise freely any honest profession or occupation.
Would you describe how Opus Dei has developed and evolved, in character and objectives, since its founding, during a period that has witnessed enormous changes within the Church itself?
From its very beginning, Opus Dei's only aim has been what I have just described: to contribute to there being in the midst of the world men and women of every race and social condition who try to love and serve God and their fellow man in and through their everyday work. Since the foundation of the Work in 1928, my teaching has been that sanctity is not reserved for a privileged few. All the ways of the earth, every state in life, every profession, every honest task can be divine.
This message has numerous implications which the life of the Work has helped me to grasp with ever greater depth and clarity. The Work was born small and has grown up normally, little by little, like a living organism, like everything that develops in history.
But its objectives have not changed. Nor will they change, no matter how greatly society may be transformed. The message of Opus Dei is that, under all circumstances any honest work can be sanctified.
People of all walks of life belong to Opus Dei: doctors, lawyers, engineers and artists, as well as bricklayers, miners and farm labourers. All professions are represented, from film directors and jet pilots to high-fashion hairdressers. It is perfectly natural for the members to be up to date with modern developments and to understand the world. Together with their fellow citizens, who are their peers, they are part of the contemporary world and make it modern.
In the light of Opus Dei's spirit, it was clearly a great joy for us to see the Council solemnly declare that the Church does not reject the world it lives in, with its progress and development, but understands and loves it. Furthermore, the members of the Work are keenly aware of the fact that they are at one and the same time part of the Church and of society, and they assume individually their personal responsibility as Christians and as citizens. This is a characteristic feature of the spirituality of Opus Dei which its members have endeavoured to live since its foundation nearly forty years ago.
Could you describe the differences in the way Opus Dei as an association fulfils its mission and the way the members of Opus Dei as individuals fulfil theirs; for example, by what criteria is a project deemed best undertaken by the Association, such as a school or conference centre, or by individuals such as a publishing or commercial venture?
The main activity of Opus Dei is offering its members, and other people, the spiritual means they need to live as good Christians in the midst of the world. It helps them to learn Christ's doctrine and the Church's teachings. Its spirit moves them to work well for the love of God and as a service to other men. In a word, it helps them to behave like genuine Christians: being loyal friends, respecting the legitimate freedom of others, and trying to make our world more just.
Each member earns his living and serves society in the job he held before joining the Work and would hold if he did not belong to Opus Dei. There are miners, teachers, housewives, shopkeepers, university professors, secretaries, farmers, etc. A member of Opus Dei can carry on any noble human activity, no honest work is excluded. For instance, a publisher or a business man who joins the Work continues to hold the position he held before. And if he looks for a new job, or decides with other business men to form a company of one sort or another, he decides freely, accepting personally the results of his work and answering personally for its success or failure.
All the activity of Opus Dei's directors is based on a great respect for the members' professional freedom. This point is of capital importance. The Work's very existence depends on it, so no exceptions are admitted. A member's job is in no way related to his membership. Consequently, neither the Work nor any of the other members has anything to do with his professional activities. Joining the Work only implies an obligation to make an honest effort to seek holiness in and through one's job and to be more fully aware of the service to humanity that every Christian life should be.
As I was saying, the principal mission of Opus Dei is to give a Christian formation to its members and to other people who wish to receive it. However, moved by a desire to contribute to the solution of each society's problems, which are so closely related to the Christian ideal, it also has some other corporate activities. Our criterion here is that Opus Dei, whose aims are exclusively spiritual, can only conduct corporately, activities which clearly constitute an immediate Christian service, an apostolate. It would be ridiculous to think that Opus Dei as such could mine coal or run any type of commercial venture. Its corporate works are all directly apostolic activities: training centres for farm workers, medical dispensaries in developing countries or areas, schools for girls from under-privileged families. In other words, educational or welfare activities like those carried on throughout the world by organisations of every religious creed.
In these activities we count in the first place on the work of Opus Dei's members who occasionally work full time in them, and also on the generous help of many other people, Christian and non-Christian alike. Some of them help us for spiritual reasons. Others do not share our apostolic motives, but they see that these activities benefit society and are open to everyone, without any kind of racial, religious or ideological discrimination.
Members of Opus Dei are present in all social strata of society and some of them are directors of important companies and groups. Could it be affirmed that Opus Dei tries to coordinate their activities following a particular political or economic line?
No. Opus Dei has nothing whatever to do with politics. It is absolutely foreign to any political, economic, ideological or cultural tendency or group. Let me repeat that its aims are exclusively spiritual and apostolic.
The only thing it demands of its members is that they lead a Christian life, trying to live up to the ideal of the Gospel. Therefore it never becomes involved in any temporal affairs. If someone does not understand this, it may well be because he does not understand personal freedom, or because he is incapable of distinguishing between the purely spiritual ends for which the members of the Work are associated and the vast field of human activities (economics, politics, culture, art, philosophy etc.) in which they enjoy complete freedom and act on their own responsibility.
From the moment in which they first approach the Work, all its members are fully aware of their individual freedom. If one of them ever tried to exert pressure on the others to make them accept his political opinions, or to use them for human interests, they would rebel and expel him without a second thought.
Respect for its members' freedom is an essential condition of Opus Dei's very existence. Without it, no one would come to the Work. Even more. The Work has never intervened in politics and, with God's help it never will; but if it were to, I would be its number one enemy.
Opus Dei places great emphasis on the individual and the freedom of the individual to express his honestly-held convictions. But returning to my previous question from another point of view, to what degree do you feel that Opus Dei is morally obliged as an association to express opinions on crucial secular and spiritual issues either publicly or privately? Are there situations in which Opus Dei will bring its own and its membership's influence to bear in defence of principles it holds sacred, for example in support of religious freedom legislation in Spain recently?
In Opus Dei, we always strive to be in full agreement with Christ's Church in our opinions and sentiments; sentire cum Ecclesia. Our doctrine is no more and no less than what the Church teaches all the faithful. The only thing which is proper to Opus Dei is its characteristic spirit, that is to say, its concrete way of living the Gospel, sanctifying oneself in the world and carrying out an apostolate through one's profession.
As an immediate consequence, a member of Opus Dei enjoys the same freedom as any other Catholic to form his own opinions and to act accordingly. Therefore Opus Dei as such neither should nor can express — nor even have — an opinion of its own. If on a given question the Church has defined a doctrine, the members of Opus Dei adhere to it. If on the other hand the official teaching of the Church — the Pope and the bishops — has not said anything on a question, each member of Opus Dei holds and defends the opinion he sees fit, and acts in consequence.
In other words, the principle which governs the activity of Opus Dei's directors in this area is respect for freedom of opinion in temporal matters. It is not a form of abstentionism. It is, rather, a question of making each individual aware of his own responsibilities and of inviting him to accept them according to the dictates of his conscience, acting with full freedom. It would therefore be incongruous to mention Opus Dei in a context of parties, political groups and tendencies, or of human enterprises and undertakings. More than incongruous, it would be unjust and incipient libel, for it could easily lead someone to deduce falsely that the members of Opus Dei share the same ideology, outlook or temporal interest.
Undoubtedly they are Catholics, and Catholics who strive to be consistent with their faith, so one can classify them as such if he likes. But he should bear in mind that being Catholic does not imply belonging to a closed cultural or ideological group, and much less to a particular political party. From the very beginning of the Work, not only since the Council, we have striven to live broad-minded Catholicism, a Catholicism that defends the legitimate liberty of every individual's conscience and leads us to treat all men (Catholics or not) as brothers and to collaborate with them, sharing their noble ideals.
We might take as an example the racial problems in the United States. With respect to this problem, an American member of Opus Dei will be oriented by the clear Christian principle of the equality of all men and the injustice of any type of discrimination. Furthermore he will be guided by the concrete indications of the American bishops on the question. He will, therefore, defend the legitimate rights of all citizens and oppose any discriminatory situation or project. Finally he will bear in mind that a Christian cannot be satisfied with merely respecting the rights of others. He has to see in every man a brother to whom he owes sincere love and disinterested service.
These ideas occupy a more important place in the formation that Opus Dei give its members in the United States than in other countries where the problem is less grave or non-existent. But Opus Dei can never dictate, nor even suggest, a concrete solution for the problem. Each member has to decide for himself whether to back or oppose a particular Bill, join one civil rights movement or another (or not to join any at all), participate or not in a demonstration. And in fact in all parts of the world it is easy to observe the pluralism of the members of Opus Dei and to see that they do not act as a group.
These same criteria explain the fact that so many Spanish members of Opus Dei are favourable to the recently proposed religious freedom bill in Spain. Their decision is a personal one, as is that of those who oppose this particular Bill. But all of them have been taught by the spirit of the Work to love freedom and to understand people of every creed. Opus Dei is the first Catholic organisation that (since 1950) has the Holy See's permission to admit as cooperators people who are non-Catholics and non-Christians without discrimination of any kind, with love for all.
You are, of course, aware of the somewhat controversial reputation enjoyed by Opus Dei in Spain in certain sections of public opinion. Could you give your opinion as to why this is so, and especially as to how one answers the charge of 'conspiratorial secrecy' and 'secret conspiracy' often levelled against Opus Dei?
I detest everything that could sound like self-praise, but since you have brought the subject up I cannot fail to say that in my opinion Opus Dei is one of the best-loved Catholic organisations in the world. Millions of people, and among them many non-Catholics and non-Christians, are good friends of the Work and help us in our apostolic activities.
Opus Dei is a spiritual and apostolic organisation. If one forgets this fundamental fact, or refuses to believe in the good faith of the members of the Work who affirm it, it is impossible to understand what we do. And this very lack of understanding can lead people to invent complicated stories and secrets which have never existed.
You speak of charges of secrecy. All that is now ancient history. I could explain, point by point, the origin of those calumnious charges. A powerful organisation, which I prefer not to name but which we esteem and have always esteemed, spent its energies over many years falsifying what it did not understand. They insisted on considering us monks or friars and asked, 'Why don't they all think the same way? Why don't they wear a religious habit or at least a badge?' And they reached the completely illogical conclusion that we were some sort of secret society.
Now all that belongs to the past. Any reasonably well informed person knows that there is nothing secret about Opus Dei. We do not wear a habit or badge because we are ordinary Christians, not religious. We do not all think the same way because we admit the greatest possible pluralism in all temporal matters and in debatable theological questions. A more accurate knowledge of the facts and the disappearance of unfounded fears have put an end to a situation in which false accusations were lamentably frequent.
It is not surprising, however, that every now and then someone tries to stir up old myths. The fact that we strive to work for God, defending the personal freedom of all men, means that we will always meet with the opposition of all the sectarian enemies of freedom. And they will be all the more aggressive if they are religious fanatics or people who cannot stand the idea of religion.
Fortunately, nonetheless, the majority of publications are not content with repeating old falsehoods and they realise that impartiality does not consist of publishing something halfway between reality and what detractors say, but rather in reflecting objective truth I personally feel the truth can also be 'news', especially when it is a question of giving information about the activities of the thousands of man and women who belong to Opus Dei or who cooperate with it, striving to carry out a task in benefit of mankind despite their personal errors — I commit them and I am not surprised that others do so. Exploding a false myth is always worthwhile. To my mind a journalist has a grave moral obligation to look for accurate information and to keep up to date, even though it may imply changing previous judgements. Is it really so difficult to admit that something is noble, honest and good, without mixing in absurd, old-fashioned and discredited falsehoods?
It is easy to get to know Opus Dei. It works in broad daylight in all countries, with the full juridical recognition of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The name of its directors and of its apostolic undertakings are well-known. Anyone who wants information can obtain it without difficulty, contacting its directors or going to one of its centres. You yourself can testify that Opus Dei's directors and the personnel in charge of taking care of journalists never fail to offer all the necessary facilities, answering questions and giving out printed information.
Neither I nor any of the members of Opus Dei expect everyone to understand us or to share our spiritual ideals. I respect everyone's freedom and I want each person to follow his own path in life. But obviously we too have an elementary right to be respected.
How do you explain the enormous success of Opus Dei, and by what criteria do you measure this success?
When an undertaking is supernatural, its 'success' or 'failure' in the ordinary sense of the word is relatively unimportant. As Saint Paul said to the Christians at Corinth, what matters in the spiritual life is not what others think of us, or even our own opinion of ourselves, but God's opinion.
Undoubtedly the Work has spread all over the world. Men and women of close to seventy nationalities now belong to it. To tell the truth, it is something that surprises me. I cannot provide any explanation for it. The only explanation is the will of God, for 'the Spirit breathes where He will' and He makes use of whomever He sees fit to sanctify men. For me it is an occasion for thanksgiving, for humility and for asking God for the grace to serve Him always.
You also asked by what criteria I measure and judge. The answer is very simple: sanctity, fruits of sanctity.
Opus Dei's most important apostolate is the testimony of the life and conversation of each individual member in his daily contacts with his friends and fellow workers. Who can measure the supernatural effectiveness of this quiet and humble apostolate? It is impossible to evaluate the help we receive from a loyal and sincere friend or the influence of a good mother over her family.
But perhaps your question refers to the corporate apostolates carried out by Opus Dei, supposing that their results can be measured from a human or technical viewpoint: whether a technical training centre for workers contributes to the social advancement of its pupils, whether a university offers its students an adequate cultural and professional formation. If that was your intention, I would say that their results can be explained in part by the fact that they are undertakings carried out by carefully trained professionals who are practising their own profession. This implies, among other things, that these activities are planned in every case in the light of the particular necessities of the society in which they are to be carried out, and adapted to real needs, not according to preconceived schemes.
But let me repeat that Opus Dei is not primarily interested in human effectiveness. The real success or failure of our activities depends on whether, in addition to being humanly well-run, they help those who carry them out and those who make use of their services to love God, to feel their brotherhood with their fellow men, and to manifest these sentiments in a disinterested service of humanity.
Would you describe how and why you founded Opus Dei and the events that you consider the major milestones in its development?
Why? The only explanation for things that are born of God's will is that He has wanted to use them as an expression of His desire to save all men. From the first moment, the Work was universal, catholic. It was born not to solve the concrete problems facing Europe in the twenties, but to tell men and women of every country and of every condition, race, language, milieu and state in life (single, married, widowed or priest) that they can love and serve God without giving up their ordinary work, their family life and their normal social relations.
How was it founded? Without any human means. I was a twenty-six year old priest with nothing but God's grace and good humour. The Work was born very small. It was only a young priest's desire to do what God asked of him.
You asked me for milestones. For me every time the Work helps a soul to draw closer to God and therefore become more of a brother of his fellow men it is an important milestone in the history of Opus Dei.
I could also mention some crucial dates. Although they may not be the most important, I will give you a few approximate ones by memory. Early in 1935 we were ready to begin working in France, as a matter of fact in Paris. But then the Spanish Civil War broke out, and afterwards the Second World War and we had to put off the expansion of the Work.
But since expansion was necessary, the delay was minimal. In 1940 our work in Portugal began. After a few preliminary trips in previous years, practically coinciding with the end of the hostilities it began in England, Italy, France, the United States and Mexico. Afterwards the rhythm of growth and expansion became more rapid. From 1949/1950 on: in Germany, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, Argentina, Canada, Venezuela and the other European and South American countries. Simultaneously we began in other continents: North Africa, Japan, Kenya and the other East African countries, in Australia, the Philippines, Nigeria.
I also like to recall the numerous occasions on which the Popes have shown more tangibly their affection for our Work. I have resided in Rome since 1946, so I have been fortunate enough to know personally Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI. All three of them have always shown truly paternal affection for us.
Would you agree with the statement which is occasionally made that special conditions in Spain during the last thirty years have contributed to the growth of Opus Dei there?
In very few places have we had fewer facilities than in Spain. I don't like to say so, because I naturally love my country deeply, but it is in Spain that we have had the greatest difficulties in making the Work take root. No sooner had it been born, than it met with the opposition of all the enemies of personal freedom and of people who were so attached to traditional ideas that they could not understand the life of the members of Opus Dei, ordinary Christians who strive to live their Christian vocation fully without leaving the world.
The situation in Spain with respect to our corporate apostolates has not been particularly favourable either. The governments of countries where Catholics are a minority have helped the educational and welfare activities founded by the members of Opus Dei far more generously than the Spanish government. The aid that those governments grant the corporate activities of Opus Dei, like that they usually give other similar centres, is not a privilege, but a just recognition of their social function and of the money they save the taxpayers.
In the course of its international expansion, the spirit of Opus Dei has been very well received in all countries. Our difficulties have in large part been the result of falsehoods originating in Spain. They were invented by members of certain well-defined sectors of Spanish society; in the first place, by the international organisation I mentioned before, but fortunately that seems to belong to the past and I do not hold a grudge against anyone. Another sector is composed of people characterised by partisanship, when not by narrow-mindedness or a totalitarian mentality, who do not understand pluralism and who use their reputation as Catholics for political purposes. I don't know how to explain why, but some of them seem to take special pleasure in attacking Opus Dei, perhaps for false human reasons. Since they can finance them amply with the Spanish taxpayers' money, their attacks are reproduced in certain sectors of the press.
I am perfectly aware that you would like me to name concrete persons and institutions, but I hope you will understand why I do not do so. Neither my mission nor Opus Dei's is political; my business is to pray. I don't want to say anything that could possibly be interpreted as an intervention in politics. In fact I would prefer not to have even mentioned the subject. I have held my peace for almost forty years, and if I say anything now it is only because I have an obligation to denounce as absolutely false the distorted picture that has been given of our exclusively spiritual work. And for that very reason, although I have kept silent until now, I intend to speak out in the future. even more clearly if necessary.
Getting back to the main subject of your question, if many people of all social classes, in Spain and throughout the world, have decided to follow Christ with the Work's help, living its spirit, the explanation is not to be found in the environment nor in other external factors. Proof of it lies in the fact that the very people who so lightly affirm the contrary have seen their own groups shrink and the external factors are the same for everyone. Perhaps a partial explanation, from the human point of view, is that they form closed groups, while we do not deprive anyone of his personal freedom.
If in Spain (as in several other countries) Opus Dei is quite well developed, it may well be because our spiritual work began there forty years ago, and, as I mentioned before, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War made it necessary to postpone our extension to other countries. Nevertheless I want to add that for a number of years we Spaniards have been a minority in the Work.
I would not like you to think that I do not love my country or that I am not extremely pleased with the activity the Work carries on there. But it is a shame that falsehoods are occasionally disseminated about Opus Dei and Spain.