Most sects practice the cult of the founder. In Opus Dei’s case, it is determined to have Escriva, who died in 1975, declared a saint before the millennium. But a number of prominent Catholics have protested, claiming that canonisation would weaken the credibility of the Church. One of Spain’s leading theologians, Juan Martin Velasco, remarked: ‘We cannot portray as a model of Christian living someone who has served the power of the state and who used that power to launch his Opus, which he ran with obscure criteria – like a Mafia shrouded in white – not accepting the papal magisterium when it failed to coincide with his way of thinking’.
Such weighty protests have not moved John Paul II, whose views on Escriva’s saintliness, and regard for Opus Dei in general, are well known. A few days before the first 1978 Conclave after the death of Pope Paul VI (which elected John Paul I, who died after only 33 days in office) the future pope paid a visit to the Villa Tevere headquarters and prayed at Escriva’s tomb. After the death of the founder’s successor, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, in 1994, John Paul II returned to the prelatic church and knelt before the prelate-general’s funeral bier. This bending of protocol – a pope only kneels before the earthly remains of a cardinal – was regarded by many as a sign of fidelity to the organisation that had done everything in its power to raise him to the papal throne.
In spite of opposition from Paul VI’s closest adviser, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, in November 1982 John Paul II elevated Opus Dei to the unique status of personal prelature. Benelli had died of a sudden heart attack the month before. Since then the papal household has increasingly come under Opus Dei’s domination.
On the secular front, Opus Dei is well represented throughout Latin America, where it has penetrated all levels of government, the military, and the business and financial establishments. In Peru, for example, Opus Dei forged a coalition of business and banking leaders with high-ranking bureaucrats that gave its backing to President Alberto Fujimori. When Tupac Amaru rebels seized the Japanese embassy last December, creating the 126-day hostage crisis, Fujimori called upon Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, from the mountain diocese of Ayacucho, to mediate – over the head of the Archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Augusto Vargas Zamora, a Jesuit. Cipriani, one of seven Opus Dei bishops in Peru, is now favoured to succeed Cardinal Vargas, who is past the retirement age, as archbishop of Lima, which traditionally means promotion to the cardinalate.
Opus Dei’s American influence blossomed during the Reagan administration. The prelature placed its agents inside the White House and recruited among the middle ranks of the Pentagon. Under Clinton, the situation is more ambiguous, with the exception of the FBI, whose director, Louis Freeh, is said to be a supernumerary (non-celibate) member. When asked for confirmation, Freeh declined to respond, having an FBI special agent reply in his stead. (The official FBI spokesman in Washington had never heard of Opus Dei.) ‘While I cannot answer your specific questions, I do note that you have been ‘informed’ incorrectly,’ John E Collingwood stated, without giving further details.
However it seems that Special Agent Collingwood was himself ‘misinformed’, as Opus Dei subsequently admitted that Freeh’s brother, John, was indeed a celibate director of the Work’s large centre in Pittsburgh.