Massimo Introvigne

Opus Dei


1902 (January 9)  Josemaría Escrivá was born in Barbastro, Spain.

1928 (October 2)  Now a Catholic priest, Escrivá founded Opus Dei in Madrid as an association of laymen.

1930 (February 14)  The work with women began.

1936  During the Spanish Civil War, Escrivá was forced into hiding due to religious persecution.

1939  Escrivá returned to Madrid and restarted the expansion of Opus Dei to other Spanish cities.

1941  The Bishop of Madrid granted the first diocesan approval of Opus Dei.

1943  Escrivá founded the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.

1944  The Bishop of Madrid ordained three of the first members of Opus Dei as priests.

1946  Escrivá moved to Rome. Opus Dei began to expand into Great Britain, France, Italy, and Ireland.

1947  The Holy See granted Opus Dei the first pontifical approval.

1949  Opus Dei was established in the United States and Mexico.

1950  Pope Pius XII granted the definitive Vatican approval, which inter alia enabled married people to join Opus Dei.

1952  Opus Dei was established in Germany.

1957  The Holy See entrusted the prelature of Yauyos, a mountainous region of Peru, to Opus Dei.

1958  Opus Dei was established in Japan and Kenya.

1965  Pope Paul VI inaugurated the ELIS Centre, a vocational training center in Rome.

1970-1975  Escrivá traveled through Latin America, Spain and Portugal, addressing large audiences.

1975 (June 26)  Escrivá died while in Rome. Álvaro del Portillo was elected to succeed him. The membership of Opus Dei had grown to 60,000.

1982  Pope John Paul II established Opus Dei as a personal prelature, appointing del Portillo as prelate.

1984  Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a lay member of Opus Dei, was appointed spokesperson of Pope John Paul II.

1991  Pope John Paul II ordained del Portillo as bishop.

1992  The Beatification of Escrivá by Pope John Paul II took place in Rome.

1993  Opus Dei was established in India and Israel.

1994  Bishop Julián Herranz became the first member of Opus Dei to head a body of the Vatican curia, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. He became a cardinal in 2003.

1994  Alvaro del Portillo died in Rome. Javier Echevarría succeeded him.

1995  Pope John Paul II ordained Echevarría as bishop.

2001  Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru, became the first Opus Dei cardinal.

2002 (October 6)  Escrivá was canonized in St Peter’s Square, Rome.

2003  Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, became a global bestseller and included attacks on Opus Dei. The organization’s response was regarded by many as a model public relations campaign.

2003  Bishop Julián Herranz became the second Opus Dei cardinal.

2011  Bishop José Horacio Gomez, a member of Opus Dei, was appointed Archbishop of Los Angeles.


Josemaría Escrivá (full name: José María Julián Mariano Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás,1902-1975) was born in Barbastro, Spain, on January 9, 1902. He was the second of six children, of whom three died very young. In 1915, his father’s textile business failed, so the family relocated to Logroño, where he found other work. It was there that Josemaría perceived his vocation to become a Catholic priest for the first time. He began to prepare for the priesthood, first in Logroño and later in Saragossa. Following his father’s advice, he also studied for a law degree at the University of Saragossa. His father died in 1924, and Josemaría was left as head of the family. Ordained on March 28, 1925, he began his ministry in a rural parish, and afterwards in Saragossa. In 1927, with the permission of his bishop, Escrivá moved to Madrid to work on a doctorate in law. There, on October 2, 1928, he founded Opus Dei as an organization for laymen. Laywomen and priests were added later.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 found him in Madrid. Despite the religious persecution, he exercised his priestly ministry in a clandestine fashion. He was finally able to leave the city and, after escaping across the Pyrenees into Southern France, lived in Burgos. At the end of the war in 1939 he returned to Madrid.

In 1946, he moved to Rome. There he obtained a doctorate in theology from the Lateran University and was appointed a consulter to two Vatican congregations, an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, and an honorary prelate (Monsignor). From Rome, he frequently spent time in different European countries, encouraging the development of Opus Dei. It was with that same objective in mind that, between 1970 and 1975, he made long trips to Mexico, Spain, Portugal, South America and Guatemala, holding catechetical gatherings which were attended by large numbers. In the decades after World War II, Opus Dei became phenomenally successful. Despite opposition, Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) granted the Vatican’s final approval to Opus Dei in 1950. Escrivá’s ten books sold over nine million copies in 52 languages. In various phases of Spain’s history, laymen who were members of Opus Dei played a prominent role both in business and politics. An international network of schools and universities spread an Opus Dei approach to education in many countries.

Escrivá died in Rome on June 26, 1975. Many thousands of people, including about 1,300 bishops throughout the world, signed petitions to the Holy See to open his cause of beatification and canonisation. He was beatified in 1992 and canonised in 2002 by Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) in St Peter’s Square, Rome.

Álvaro del Portillo (1914-1994) was elected to succeed Escrivá. Born in Madrid on March 11, 1914, he became a member of Opus Deiin 1935 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1944. He was a member of the General Council of Opus Dei from 1940 to 1975, serving as secretary general from 1940 to 1947 and from 1956 to 1975. He had doctorates in civil engineering, history and in canon law. He was a consulter to several congregations and councils of the Holy See. He took part in the Second Vatican Council, first as head of the ante-preparatory Commission on the Laity and then as secretary to the Commission on the Discipline of the Clergy, and also as a consulter to other commissions. His books Faithful and Laity in the Church (1972) and On Priesthood (1974) are largely the fruit of that experience.

When Opus Dei was established as a personal prelature in 1982, he was appointed prelate. This was a significant step in the history of Opus Dei, whose canonical status, despite the 1950 approval, remained somewhat ambiguous. It was not a religious order, nor a movement. The comparatively new idea of personal prelature (see the Organization/Leadership section below) was used in order to clearly establish what Opus Dei was within the Catholic Church, a sort of diocese without a territory.

Pope John Paul II ordained del Portillo as a bishop on January 6, 1991. In 1985 he founded the Roman Academic Centre of the Holy Cross, which would later become the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. During his nineteen years as prelate, Opus Dei started in twenty new countries including Congo, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Sweden, Finland, Cameroon, New Zealand, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Nicaragua, India, Israel, and Lithuania.

He died in Rome on March 23, 1994. Pope John Paul II came to the headquarters of Opus Dei to pray beside his mortal remains that day. He was declared Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI on June 28, 2012.

After the death of del Portillo, John Paul II appointed Javier Echevarría as prelate of Opus Dei and ordained him as a bishop on January 6, 1995 in St. Peter’s Basilica. Echevarría was born in Madrid on June 14, 1932. He holds doctorates in both civil and canon law. Ordained a priest in 1955, he worked closely with Escrivá, acting as his personal secretary from 1953 until the latter’s death in 1975. From 1966, he formed part of the General Council of Opus Dei. In 1975, when del Portillo succeeded Escrivá as head of Opus Dei, Echevarría was named secretary general. Since his election, Opus Dei has started in Estonia, Slovakia, Lebanon, Panama, Uganda, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, Russia, Indonesia, Korea, Romania, and Sri Lanka.

Members numbered 60,000 at the death of Escrivá, and currently (2013) more than 90,000. At the time of writing (2013), Opus Dei includes two cardinals, Julián Herranz – former president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and one of the three members of the commission appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to investigate the so called Vatileaks scandal, where confidential Vatican documents were leaked to the Italian media – and Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, Archbishop of Lima, Peru, as well as the archbishop of one of the most important dioceses in the world, Los Angeles, José Horacio Gomez. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a Spanish lay member of Opus Dei, was spokesperson of Pope John Paul II from 1984 to 2005.


Opus Dei is a prelature within the Catholic Church, and its doctrines are those of the Catholic Church. If anything, Opus Dei particularly insists on following faithfully and literally the Vatican Magisterium. The special aim of Opus Dei is to contribute to the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church. It accomplishes this aim by promoting among Christians of all social classes a life fully consistent with their faith, in the midst of the ordinary circumstances of their lives and especially through the sanctification of their work. Escrivá highlighted the fact that Genesis 2:5 makes it clear that men and women are made to work, and that for that reason it is in work and in everyday activity that God is to be found.

The core belief of Opus Dei is that Christians can aspire to becoming saints in and through the twists and turns of their daily lives, and in particular through the sanctification of their everyday work. Over the centuries, some people in the Catholic Church had come to regard work as a distraction from the development of a deep relationship with God. Immersion “in the world” was seen as incompatible with complete dedication to God. In this vision of things, the risk was to regard laypersons engaged in their professional activities almost as second class citizens in the Church.

By contrast, Opus Dei’s message is that, far from being an obstacle to holiness, ordinary work can be the very stuff of sanctity. Here “work” is understood in its widest sense, as all the things (mostly small and routine) that make up one’s daily activity. Some scholars, including Catalan sociologist Joan Estruch, regard Opus Dei as the Catholic response to the thesis by sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) that only certain forms of Protestantism, rather than Catholicism, are fully compatible with the modern economy, since only Protestantism has a genuine appreciation of work. While Opus Dei disagrees with such “Weberian” interpretations of its origin, it is true that, when Escrivá first started talking about sanctification through work in the 1930s and 40s, many in the Catholic Church felt he was preaching something new and impossible to achieve. Some even felt he was misleading Catholics and preaching heresy. His book The Way (1992) was burned in public in Spain by such Catholic critics. As time went on, this changed significantly. In the words of Cardinal Franz König (1905-2004) of Vienna, with his teaching about work, “when he founded Opus Dei in 1928, Mgr. Escrivá already anticipated much of what has become, with Vatican II, the common patrimony of the Church.”

Opus Dei’s main activity is centered on the spiritual formation and pastoral care of its members, encouraging them to carry out, in their place in society and in the Church, a multifaceted apostolic activity, promoting around them the ideal that everyone is called to holiness. Opus Dei also provides spiritual support, including courses and retreats, for all who wish to benefit, members or not. Members of Opus Dei, acting under their own personal responsibility, have created a number of prominent institutions in the field of education and culture.


Opus Dei is a prelature within the Catholic Church and follows faithfully the ritual and order of prayers of the Catholic Church. Members also follow a plan of spiritual activities, which is adaptable to the particular circumstances of each person. This plans centers on daily Mass and Holy Communion; weekly Confession; daily reading of the New Testament and some spiritual books; Rosary; examination of conscience; a retreat every year and a recollection (mini retreat) every month; a continuous effort to seek God’s presence and remain conscious of being a son or daughter of God; short vocal prayers such as spiritual communions. They are also encouraged to acquire a spirit of sacrifice and penance, especially in all those things that help them fulfill their duties and to make life more pleasant for others, as well as sometimes renouncing small pleasures, fasting, almsgiving (for controversies about “corporal mortification” see the “Issues/Challenges” section below).


Opus Dei is a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, with headquarters in Rome. The Second Vatican Council created the juridical structure known as personal prelature “to carry out special pastoral tasks in different regions or among any race in any part of the world.” Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) opened the way for lay faithful to bind themselves to personal prelatures by means of a contract, a bilateral agreement between the lay person and the prelature. The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church sets out the basic provisions covering personal prelatures (canons 294-297), and stipulates that each must be regulated by general Church law and by its own statutes. At the head of a prelature there is a prelate, who may be a bishop, and who is appointed by the Pope.

Most jurisdictions in the Catholic Church, such as dioceses, are “territorial,” meaning that their jurisdiction extends to those who are in a designated territory. However, jurisdiction is not always linked to territory, but may be “personal” when it depends on other criteria, such as employment, religious rite, immigrant status, or an agreement with the jurisdictional body in question. The last-mentioned applies in the case of personal prelatures (and also military ordinariates). While personal prelatures belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, their lay faithful continue to belong also to the local churches or dioceses where they have their domicile. They have the same relationship with the local church as all the other faithful. Their commitment to the Opus Dei prelature refers to the areas in which all faithful are free to pursue their own path to holiness.

Pope Paul VI and his successors decided that a study should be undertaken of the possibility of giving Opus Dei a juridical form suited to its true nature. Work started on this in 1969 and was completed in 1981. The Holy See then sent a report to over 2,000 bishops of dioceses where Opus Dei already had a presence, inviting observations. Opus Dei was then established by Pope John Paul II as a personal prelature of international scope in 1982. He also promulgated the Statutes, which constitute the particular law of the Opus Dei prelature.

Priests of the prelature depend fully on the prelate. He assigns them their pastoral responsibilities, in which they closely follow the pastoral guidelines of the diocese where they live. The prelature is responsible for the financial support of its priests.

The lay faithful also come under the prelate in all that refers to the specific mission of the prelature. They are subject to the civil authorities in the same way as any other citizen, and to other ecclesiastical authorities in the same way as any other lay Catholic.

In governing Opus Dei, the prelate is helped by a council for women (called the Central Advisory) and another for men (the General Council). Both are based in Rome. The prelature is divided into areas or territories called regions. At the head of each region, whose boundaries usually coincide with those of a particular country, is a regional vicar and two councils: a Regional Advisory for women and a Regional Commission for men. At the local level there are centers of Opus Dei. These are dedicated to organizing the pastoral care of the faithful of the prelature in a particular area. Centers may be, separately, for women or for men. Each center is directed by a local council made up of (usually three) lay people.

Opus Dei’s Statutes lay down criteria for ensuring a harmonious relationship between the prelature and the dioceses in which it carries out its specific mission. For example, Opus Dei never begins its apostolic work or establishes any center of the prelature without the prior consent of the local bishop.

Worldwide, there are over 90,000 members. “Supernumeraries,” the majority (70%), are married and live with their families. “Numeraries” (about 20%) make a commitment of celibacy and normally live in Opus Dei centers. Some women numeraries devote themselves professionally, among other activities and apostolates, to the care of Opus Dei centers and other facilities. “Associates” are also celibate members who, unlike numeraries, generally live with their families, depending on personal circumstances. The priests of the prelature come from among the numeraries and associates.


Opus Dei faced considerable opposition in its early years. With time, opposition among Catholic bishops virtually disappeared, especially as a result of the in-depth investigation carried out by the Catholic Church between 1979 and 1981, while studying whether Opus Dei could become a personal prelature. Similarly, many questions related to Escrivá were resolved with the Catholic Church’s lengthy investigation of his life and writings before his beatification and canonization. The Vatican, as mentioned earlier, has appointed members of the Opus Dei to high positions in the Church, including bishops and cardinals. However, while almost non-existent among bishops, opposition to Opus Dei persists among liberal Catholic laypersons and priests, and among non-Catholic media. It also surfaces from time to time in popular culture, as evidenced by Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, although Opus Dei’s response to the book was praised by communication experts as a particularly successful PR campaign.

Secrecy was one of the main criticisms from the very beginning. This criticism is related to the particular status of Opus Dei, which is not a religious order, whose members normally wear a habit, nor a Catholic lay movement, whose members in turn normally proudly advertise their membership. It’s a personal prelature, and the contract connecting it and its members is regarded as private. In an interview with Peter Forbath (1931-1996) of Time magazine in 1967, Escrivá said that the secrecy charge arose initially when “members of a religious society” (a probable allusion to the Jesuits, at one time among the most vocal critics of Opus Dei) “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 came to the completely illogical conclusion that we were some sort of secret society.” Opus Dei’s Statutes actually state that members “must not hide their membership of the prelature, because the spirit of Opus Dei is to absolutely avoid secrecy and clandestinity.” According to Opus Dei, members do not hide their membership, and their friends and family will know all about it, but neither do they publicise it, as they regard it ultimately as more a private than a public matter.

Sometimes calls have been made for Opus Dei to publish a list of members. Opus Dei responds by saying that, as people join for strictly spiritual reasons, there is no reason to ask for public lists; that nobody expects membership lists of parishes, dioceses, sports clubs, trade unions, building societies, and schools to be published; and that misconceptions in this area often arise from a confusion of two distinct concepts, secrecy and privacy.

Another controversy, which came to the fore particularly with Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the corresponding movie,related to “corporal mortification” or self-inflicted physical pain. This involves the use of the cilice, a spiked chain worn around the upper thigh for some time each day, and the discipline, a cord-like whip. Both instruments have been used in Catholic asceticism for centuries. Opus Dei stresses that these are practices which aim to help a person identify with the sufferings of Christ; that they have a long history in Christian spirituality (though practised in a completely different way to that described in that novel and movie); that only some members undertake them, in consultation with a spiritual director; and that they are by no means the only modern Catholics who still use these instruments, mentioning some famous people such as Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), and the popular Franciscan saint Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968).

Criticisms were voiced in the past also regarding the somewhat unusual speed of Escrivá’s beatification and canonisation, allegedly due to Opus Dei pressure. In fact, the beatification took place 17 years after his death, and the canonisation 10 years later. Since then, the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and of Pope John Paul II have taken place in just 6 years, reflecting more an acceleration of canonisation processes concerning contemporary figures than a special treatment of Escrivá’s case.

Another controversial subject is Escrivá’s and Opus Dei’s attitude to the dictatorial regime of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) in Spain. A detailed investigation of this charge was made by John Allen, a senior journalist specialized in religion, in his 2005 book Opus Dei – Secrets and Power inside the Catholic Church, whose results were quite favorable to Escrivá. While it is true that members of Opus Dei served as ministers of economy and senior bureaucrats under Franco, Allen also points out that a number of Opus Dei members were leaders in the opposition to the regime, including the publisher of Madrid, Rafael Calvo Serer (1916-1988), who had to go into exile after the government closed that newspaper. The movie There be Dragons (2011), produced by two Opus Dei members and by its director, Roland Joffé, also explores the intricacies of the Spanish Civil War and portrays Escrivá as not particularly favourable to Franco. The fact that Joffé, who greatly admires Escrivá, is Jewish by birth is also mentioned by Opus Dei to counter accusations of anti-Semitism, in addition to the good relationship the prelature maintains with the State of Israel.

Opus Dei is also accused of misogyny, since it includes women, but its top leadership consists of men only. Of course, this is a criticism one can easily refer to the Catholic Church in general. While the leader of the Opus Dei is a male prelate, it is also true, as Allen points out in his book, that women occupy half of the leadership positions in the organization.

Accusations of brainwashing and mind control derived from the anti-cult movement have been used also against Opus Dei, particularly by the U.S. organization Opus Dei Awareness Network, by vocal ex-member Maria del Carmen Tapia and by the French anti-cult priest Father Jacques Trouslard. The debunking of brainwashing theories applied to new religious movements by the academic community has made these charges less frequent in recent years, although they still surface in the media from time to time.

The main controversies, rather than brainwashing, currently concern the charge that Opus Dei, as it includes bishops, academics, journalists, and prominent businesspersons, functions as a sort of an “old-boy” network or a Catholic Freemasonry promoting its members and their careers. In these controversies, it is argued that there is concerted action by Opus Dei as a whole on the political or financial scene. Media often claim that a commercial, political or cultural activity in which a member of Opus Dei is involved, along with others who are not members, is “run” or “sponsored” by Opus Dei. The latter answers, quoting the investigation of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, published when Opus Dei was established as a personal prelature, that “the prelature does not make itself responsible for the professional, political or financial activities of any of its members.”


Allen, John. 2005. Opus Dei – Secrets and Power Inside the Catholic Church. New York and London: Doubleday.

Berglar, Peter. 1995. Opus Dei: Life and Work of Its Founder, Josemaria Escrivá. Princeton: Scepter Publishers.

Coverdale, John. 2002. Uncommon Faith – The Early Years of Opus Dei (1928-1943). New York: Scepter Publishers.

del Porto, Alvaro. 1974. On Priesthood. Chicago: Scepter Publishers.

del Porto, Alvaro. 1972. Faithful and Laity in the Church. Shannon: Irish University Press.

Escrivá, Josemaría. 1992. The Way. Chicago: Scepter Publishers.

Estruch, Joan. 1995. Saints and Schemers: Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fuenmayor, Amadeo de – Valentin Gómez-Iglesias – José-Luis Illanes Maestre. 1994. The Canonical Path of Opus Dei. Princeton and Chicago: Scepter Publishers and Midwest Theological Forum.

Messori, Vittorio. 1997. Opus Dei – Leadership and Vision in Today’s Catholic Church. Washington: Gateway Books.

Pope John Paul II. 1983. Apostolic Constitution Ut Sit, establishing Opus Dei as the first personal prelature.

Rodríguez, Pedro – Fernando Ocáriz – José-Luis Illanes Maestre. 1994. Opus Dei in the Church. Mishawaka, IN: Better World Books.

Vázquez de Prada, Andrés. 2001-2005. The Founder of Opus Dei (3 volumes). Princeton: Scepter Publishers.

Publication Date:
17 April 2013