Saturday, February 25, 2006

Testimony: A Liberating Point of Departure

I was moved by this article which I shamelessly took it from the January 2006 issue of Traces, the monthly magazine of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation. I am not "pushing" Communion and Liberation, but that is where the author below encountered Christ.

The hyperlink in the article was added by me, as I am not sure that all readers would know what "School of Community" refers to.

A Liberating Point of Departure

A Spanish doctor tells about the change in her way of facing both the pain of her patients and the things of day-to-day life

by Teresa Suarez Del Villar

I am a doctor, specializing in family and community medicine. I work mornings in a public health center and afternoons as a family therapist. The Movement is the form that the Presence of Jesus takes on for me, the place where He makes Himself concrete, becoming flesh. Being in the Movement means belonging to this historic place that enables me to recognize Christ present at every moment, now, while I am writing these lines.

School of Community work over these years with Fr. Carrón has taught me a use of reason that has changed my way of putting myself in relationship with things, and thus also my way of being at the doctor’s office. My desire to do things well, to make no mistakes, made me more attentive to the results of what I was doing, rather than to the person I had before me. Now, my experience is that if I keep Jesus in the corner of my eye, it is always possible to put myself in relationship with Him, moment by moment, in everything that I do–when I have to see a patient, when I have to tell someone that he has cancer, or when I prepare a meal at home. The most concrete consequence is that my entire “I” is present to what I am doing, and I don’t waste energy calculating other things; I simply look at and embrace what is given me, when it is given me, and how it is given me.

In this way, work is more intelligent because I manage to see more things; I enjoy it more, and my heart is at rest because there is no greater satisfaction than putting yourself in relationship with the One who prefers you.

I am learning not to fear my desires, to look at them deep down, to remember that my sin is not the final word on me. What is true for me is also true for my colleagues and patients. This certainty gives me a totally liberating point of departure: when I get up in the morning, I can recognize a definitive, eternally faithful embrace, which fills life with passion and gladness.

I would not be capable of accompanying an AIDS patient all the way to his death, or his suffering family, if I thought that the responsibility for his gladness or comfort was on my shoulders. I have learned that I am an instrument for his health, but not the response to his needs, and when this “pressure” to measure up to this challenge, to make no mistakes, disappears, then an “ingenuous self-confidence” arises, as Fr. Giussani said, for going to the depths of the heart, my heart, the heart of my companions and of my patients, and to look at them, keeping in mind their desire for happiness and collaborating in awakening the questions that only He can answer.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Opus Dei and Me

This entry was triggered by Megan’s comments on my previous blog entry.

This happened more than 20 years ago. I was working in lower Manhattan at the time.

One afternoon, I walked from my office building to go to the nearest Catholic Church (Our Lady of Victory) in order to receive confession. I went specifically to receive the Sacrament face-to-face, rather than use the traditional screen. It was obvious to me that the priest who heard my confession was a “heavy hitter.” He was very serious, very spiritual, and ultra-orthodox—exactly what I needed and wanted. To say that he was passionate about the faith would be an understatement. I sensed all this immediately from my brief, routine confession. He also asked me questions about my moral behavior at work—no one had ever asked me that before. That struck me as very conscientious on his part—somebody that really cared about my soul.

After confession, I was brimming with curiosity about who and what he was, and so I asked him, “What order do you belong to?”

“Oh, I don’t belong to an order.”

I looked at him with stunned curiosity. He was like no Diocesan priest I had ever run into before. Moreover, now that my confession was over, his manner of speaking, overall body language and demeanor was one of humility and self-effacement.

Quietly, he said, “I belong to the Prelature of Opus Dei.” I’m sure he saw the look of recognition on my face, at the mention of the name. His body language and facial expression changed to a cringe-like look of someone that had experienced undeserved hurt before and was anticipating more-- I had previously read reports in the mass media about Opus Dei (of course, I sensed that most, if not all, of the talk of conspiracies, of them being a cult, of manipulative recruiting and of being a secret power within the church was sour grapes and bunk.)

In my need to try and say something intelligent, I blurted out, “You guys are controversial.”

He responded sharply, “There’s no point in existing if you’re not controversial!”

This was a man was on a mission from God! (I can't say that about every priest that I've met.)

I just stood there, wanting to know more. After a pause, he very hesitantly handed me a business card with his name, a phone number and the address of the Opus Dei prayer center on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. I still remember his name: Fr. Lamb. The last thing he said to me (very humbly) was that he hears confessions here every Thursday.

This was the most memorable and high quality confession that I have ever had. I have had no contact with him or Opus Dei since. I’ve researched them on the Internet and in the media, including about the conspiracy theories, allegations of being a cult, allegations of being a secret power within the church and government, and of “recruiting.” I’ve made one observation about these negative stories: There are about 150,000 Opus Dei members, worldwide, and it seems like the worst allegations seem to be originating from two or three individuals and some of these are from decades ago. It seems the same stories get recycled over and over by the media. And none of this is to say that the individuals telling these stores have any credibility either.

I am not naïve. I do have some minor, negative opinions of Opus Dei, but again, based only on what I’ve read. I am sure some people have had negative experiences with them. It’s not inconceivable that in an organization of 150,000 people that has existed since the late 1920’s that there may have been some faults, imperfections or horror stories. But that occurs in every organization.

My brother works with a person whose wife is a member of Opus Dei. The woman’s husband says that he has never heard of any of the crazy things the mass media has mentioned.

With regard to The Da Vinci Code: I read and appreciate serious, literary fiction. I purchased the book, a long time ago, to see what the fuss was all about. I’m perfectly capable of reading a book with an open mind, as fiction. However, I started the book twice and couldn’t get past the first chapter. The idea that an Opus Dei numerary would be a cold-blooded, pre-meditated killer is just so flagrantly ludicrous that it made me laugh out loud. Even as a self-contained work of fiction, it had no credibility for me. I conclude that the author is like most of the reporters in the mass media—completely ignorant about anything to do with religion.

I think that any religious organization with a clear sense of mission and highly motivated members is potentially liable to be associated with conspiracy theories or accused of being a cult. I can even understand that for some non-Catholics or non-religious people that a global organization of highly motived people that practices chastity, individual poverty and obedience might conjure up some paranoia.

I do not have any problem with them recruiting. Common sense dictates that if one is a member of an organization and you want that organization to grow and prosper that you are going to try and recruit people and that you are going to try and recruit the very best people you can. In my parent’s generation, in Jesuit run schools, the Jesuits always recruited the top students. No one ever had a problem with that; it was an honor to be the subject of Jesuit recruitment!

I will say this. The organization originated in Spain, from before the Spanish Civil War. It is said that their founder supported the fascists in the civil war. That is water long under the bridge, but it is no surprise to me if the organization reflects or embodies some of the Old World, traditional Spanish attitudes and customs.

There are still many, very conservative, traditional Catholics in America and the world. I think that if they find a spiritual home in Opus Dei, well good for them! It’s a free country.

Around roughly the time that I met Fr. Lamb, I was dating a girl named Vicki. She had a friend who had been a member of Opus Dei. Vicki had taken part in some of their activities but decided it wasn’t for her. She felt that the women were too segregated from and subservient to the men in the organization. Other than that, she had no issues with them.

I think that Opus Dei’s overall purpose, of being a vehicle to help people in the work place achieve sanctity, is one of genius. I’ve read about how so many members are in the professions and the business world. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to encounter a member at work. I would love to have the opportunity to have an Opus Dei numerary as a boss or in higher management.

And after posting this blog entry, I just hope I don’t have any albino hitmen coming after me! (LOL)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Da Vinci Code, ha ha!

Oh, the dramatic irony!

On the trail of the ficticious albino hit man and OPUS DEI numerary named Silas, the only real-life OPUS DEI member named Silas that the New York Times could find was a dignified and happily married black man.

I've read elsewhere that the publicity from the book and movie has resulted in a higher volume of serious inquiries to the organization than they have ever experienced.

The New York Times
February 7, 2006

Catholic Group Says of 'Da Vinci Code' Film: It's Just Fiction


When "The Da Vinci Code" became a publishing sensation, leaders of the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei realized they had an image problem on their hands.

The assassin in the best-selling thriller is an albino Opus Dei monk named Silas, and the group is depicted as a powerful but secretive cult whose members practice ritualistic self-torture. In a preface titled "Fact," the author, Dan Brown, said his book was more than mere fiction.

When plans were revealed for a movie based on the book, Opus Dei leaders say they tried to persuade Sony Pictures to excise any mention of their group, sending a letter last year saying the book was "a gross distortion and a grave injustice."

Their effort failed.

With the film starring Tom Hanks now set for release on May 19, Opus Dei is trying to sate public interest and cast the group in a very different light than the religious home of a fictional assassin.

The group is promoting a blog by an Opus Dei priest in Rome, revamping its Web site and even arranging interviews with a member said to be the only "real Silas" in Opus Dei — a Nigerian-born stockbroker who lives in Brooklyn.

Silas Agbim, the stockbroker, said that Opus Dei taught its members to hold themselves to the highest standards. "If you do your work well, it's pleasing to God," said Mr. Agbim, a graying father of three grown children who is married to a professor emeritus of library science. "And if you think you will get holy by reciting 10 rosaries a day and doing your work sloppily, that is wrong."

Still, the "Da Vinci Code" movie is sure to revive a long-simmering debate among Catholics over whether Opus Dei is a positive or negative influence in the church. Critics say that while the group is relatively small, a few members seem to hold important positions in the Vatican, including the pope's chief spokesman.

Questions about whether Opus Dei has outsize influence grew when Pope John Paul II granted the group a unique status in the church in 1982, and 10 years later set the group's founder on an unusually speedy track to sainthood.

Opus Dei's reputation for secrecy developed partly because of the group's tradition that members should not publicly proclaim their affiliation. "Is he or isn't he Opus Dei?" guessing games have focused on prominent figures, particularly in Washington.

A controversy exploded last year in England when it surfaced that Ruth Kelly, the young new secretary of education in the liberal Labor Party, was affiliated with Opus Dei. She did not deny it but never clarified her status with the group, prompting even louder criticism. Robert P. Hanssen, an F.B.I. agent who pleaded guilty in 2001 to spying for the Soviet Union, confirmed that he was a member and acknowledged that he had confided his crimes to his priest.

Opus Dei leaders say they are neither secretive, nor particularly powerful, nor lockstep conservatives. They say the group is a decentralized network of more than 84,541 Catholic lay people and 1,875 priests around the world, relatively small numbers in a church of 1.1 billion.

They say they have no aspirations to control the Vatican and believe their calling is to live out their devotion to God by doing their jobs well, be it janitor, senator or full-time mother. Opus Dei is Latin for "the work of God."

Lynn Frank, an Opus Dei member in Walden, N.Y., mother of seven and the owner-entrepreneur of a business that promotes healthful eating, said: "The determination I have definitely comes from my vocation with Opus Dei, because every single day with Opus Dei, you wake up and say, 'I'm giving 100 percent of my day to you, Lord.' And if you slack off, that's a boss you don't want to answer to."

Since its founding in 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaría Escrivá, the group has found favor with several popes, in particular John Paul II, whose theological emphasis on holiness, the importance of the family and the dignity of work meshed well with Father Escrivá's beliefs. In 1982, John Paul granted Opus Dei the status of a "personal prelature," and it remains the only one in the church, meaning that it has its own bishop who reports directly to the pope.

Then in 1992, Father Escrivá leapfrogged other candidates for sainthood and was beatified a mere 17 years after his death. He was canonized a saint in 2002.

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a spokesman for John Paul and now for Pope Benedict XVI, is a member, as was one of the co-authors of a controversial Vatican document released in 2000, Dominus Iesus, on the primacy of Christianity. When the pope wanted to clean up an Austrian diocese where pornography was found on a seminary computer, he appointed a new bishop from Opus Dei.

Also feeding the impression of influence is Opus Dei's American headquarters, in New York, a 17-story building at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 34th Street on which the group spent $69 million for the property, construction and furnishing.

Mention of the location in "The Da Vinci Code" has brought a constant stream of the curious and conspiratorial to the door, said the doorman, Robert A. Boone. He says he tells them, "You think I'd be working here if there were people like Silas walking around?"

Some Opus Dei members are incensed about how the three-year-old best seller presents not only Opus Dei, but also Christianity. In "The Da Vinci Code," a pair of sleuthing heroes discover that the doctrine of Jesus' divinity was made up by the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine, and that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children.

Mr. Agbim said he had read the book. "It is poison," he said. "It will lead the people to have doubts."

But Opus Dei leaders are taking a less confrontational approach. Opus Dei's United States leader, the Rev. Thomas G. Bohlin, said, "We don't want the controversy to pump up publicity for the movie." Father Bohlin sent the letter to Sony Pictures asking that Opus Dei be left out of the movie and said he had received a "polite but noncommittal" response.

Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for Sony Pictures, said: "We see 'The Da Vinci Code' as a work of fiction and not intended to harm any organization. At its heart the film is a thriller, and we do agree that it really provides a unique opportunity for Opus Dei and other organizations to let people know more about their work and their beliefs."

After researching Opus Dei for a book, John L. Allen, the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, has concluded that its power and wealth have been largely exaggerated. The group's worldwide membership is about equivalent to the number of Catholics in the Diocese of Hobart on the island of Tasmania, Mr. Allen said.

Opus Dei keeps no central financial records, but Mr. Allen determined its assets to be $2.8 billion, a figure the group's spokesmen say appears accurate. Much of that is tied up in the schools and hospitals worldwide. Half of the expense for the New York headquarters was paid for by a single donation of stock, said Brian Finnerty, a spokesman.

"Opus Dei certainly is a growing force in church affairs, and they probably have a very disproportionate number of those church positions that have impact, but let's not mythologize that," said Mr. Allen, author of "Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church."

Some former members accuse Opus Dei of behaving like a cult, with aggressive recruiting and excessive control over members who choose to live in Opus Dei centers. Tammy DiNicola, who joined Opus Dei as a college student and left in 1990 after two years, said the organization pulled in idealistic and very spiritual people by deceiving them.

"They don't tell you you wouldn't spend any holidays with your family, your mail would be read, you would hand over your salary to them, and you wouldn't be able to watch television or radio or even leave the house without permission," said Ms. DiNicola, who helped found the Opus Dei Awareness Network to help former members.

Mr. Finnerty, the Opus Dei spokesman, said that contrary to accusations by some former members, independence and personal freedom were central to the doctrine.

Seventy percent of Opus Dei's members, like Lynn Frank and Silas Agbim, are working people, usually married, who live in their own homes, a category of membership known as "supernumerary." Although they maintain a rigorous schedule of daily prayer and reading, weekly confession and meetings with a spiritual director, they carry on with their lives and professions.

About 20 percent are "numeraries," who give their lives entirely to the organization, living as celibates in an Opus Dei center. Some hold outside jobs, but many work full time in affiliated institutions, like hospitals and schools. Ten percent are "associates," who are celibate but live on their own and not in Opus Dei centers.

Much of the eerie mystique surrounding Opus Dei comes from the numeraries' practice of "corporal mortification." In "The Da Vinci Code," Silas the murderous monk is shown whipping himself bloody and wearing a spiked chain around his thigh so tightly that it draws blood.

In reality, numeraries do wear a "cilice," a chain with points, under their pants for two hours a day. Once a week, they beat their backs with a small cord while reciting a prayer. Opus Dei says corporal mortification is an ancient Catholic practice that promotes penance and identification with the suffering of Christ.

Ms. DiNicola, the former member, said that wearing the cilice was supposed to be optional but that numerary members were made to feel guilty if they did not. "It does cut and it does leave little blood pricks," she said.

Despite the dismal portrayal of their group in "The Da Vinci Code," Opus Dei leaders acknowledge some benefits from the attention. Doubleday, the publisher of the book, is about to release "The Way," a collection of spiritual writing by Opus Dei's founder. Mr. Finnerty, the group's spokesman, said it was "The Da Vinci Code" that opened the door for the deal.