What is Opus Dei, and what role does it play at Franciscan University?

by Richard Gordon

Four years ago, while a freshman at Franciscan University, a friend introduced me to the spirituality of Opus Dei, and this was unquestionably for me a most providential encounter. I have kept in close contact with “the Work” ( as it is often called by many of its members and associates) ever since my first formal introduction. Subsequently, I have developed close friendships with many members of Opus Dei and even closer friendships with fellow students at the University through this common interest in a common, some might say a quite “ordinary”, spirituality.

Nevertheless, despite the numerous spiritual benefits it confers on so many, there is perhaps no organization within the Church today that has been the focus of as much confusion and misunderstanding as Opus Dei has been in its short 68 year history.

On the one hand, Opus Dei has received the unabashed praise of every pope since Pius XII. In May of 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified its founder, Blessed Josemaria Escriva before some 300,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, and on numerous occasions he has praised “the Work” for its service to the Church in fostering the dignity of the lay vocation as a genuine and authentic path to sanctity.

At the same time, Opus Dei has had its share of detractors. The vast majority of these come “from without”, i.e. from people outside the heart of the Church, who ridicule Opus Dei simply because of its doctrinal orthodoxy and its more traditional type of Catholic piety. This form of “bad press” does not concern me. Any person or community who lives out the Gospel faithfully will inevitably become a “sign of contradiction”. Franciscan University is itself a sign of contradiction for the very same reason. In this we find a point of common ground (at least a ground for common critics) between the spirit of Opus Dei and the mission of our University.

There are, however, other murmurings against Opus Dei, coming not from those disgruntled about the demands of orthodoxy, but rather from faithful Catholics. Even at this University, I have seen people react with hesitation or suspicion at the mere mention of Opus Dei. This is somewhat understandable. Opus Dei has often been accused of being a clandestine organization; of being elitist in nature; of ambitiously seeking positions of power within the Church and in the world.

Had I heard such accusations before experiencing it for myself, I too would have approached it with greater caution and reservation. However, having come to it with an unprejudiced point of view, I can now see that such notions are rooted in misunderstanding about what Opus Dei really is. It is my hope in this article, first, to clarify some of the confusion surrounding this unique organization, so that it might be recognized as a work of the Spirit and as a gift of God to the Church in the twentieth century, and secondly to comment on the role Opus Dei plays on our campus and in the lives of those students who participate in the spiritual formation which it offers.

What Is Opus Dei?

In answering this question I find it most helpful to say that, fundamentally, Opus Dei is a “spirit”, a spirit which animates all that a member does in his life. There is nothing so mundane about our day to day lives that can’t, with a supernatural purpose, be made holy. An hour of study, a game of football, cleaning dishes—the small sufferings of each day done or endured with love, provide us with the means for our own sanctification. It is not just the expressly religious dimension of our lives (attending Mass, praying the rosary, doing spiritual reading etc.) which makes us holy, but rather everything, every minute of our day provides us with a new opportunity to serve and to please God. In short, the spirit of Opus Dei is a quest for sanctity, achieved not by leaving the world, but by working, suffering and persevering in the world; loving it so much as to transform it for the glory of Christ. Blessed Josemaria puts it this way:

“God is calling you to serve Him in and from the ordinary, material, and secular activities of human life. He waits for us every day in the laboratory, in the operating room, in the army barracks, in the university, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.”

A Lay Spirituality

Opus Dei is not a religious order, but a lay spirituality. Today, to speak of a lay spirituality seems like nothing extraordinary, but in 1928, when Blessed Josemaria founded Opus Dei amidst a climate of severe Spanish clericalism, to speak of a “lay spirituality” was very close to speaking heresy.

Many feel that one of the most significant achievements of the Second Vatican Council was its recognition of the universal call to holiness. All people in virtue of their baptism are called to sanctity, “to be holy as your heavenly Father is holy”. The lay person’s path to sanctity is different from a priest’s or religious person’s, but we are all called to the same end, which is holiness of life.

One of the first things that impressed me about Opus Dei is the seriousness with which it takes this universal call to sanctity. So much of the spiritual formation one receives in Opus Dei is directed along these lines. It is very simple and very practical. How can I improve in this area of my life or in that relationship or in my work as a student? In short, how can I better achieve sanctity of life within the circumstances in which God has placed me?

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council seemed to confirm what had been the teaching of Opus Dei since 1928: The lay vocation is a vocation to holiness; a holiness attained in the middle of the world through the ordinary perfection of one’s duties in a true spirit of Christian optimism and joy.

It is the distinctly lay character of Opus Dei’s spirituality that has, at the same time, been the cause of some of the misunderstandings about the Work. So much is written about Opus Dei in the Catholic press that some might expect its members to be more public about their association with the Work. They certainly do not hide their affiliation, but they wear no religious habit or any outward sign announcing their membership. They see a less ostensible but a no less zealous apostolate as being more proper to their particular vocation.

Their’s is, as the founder expressed it, “an apostolate of holy friendship”. By first becoming a friend to their co-workers, the apostolate can proceed in a very natural manner. As a friend, your very life will become a witness to them; you will be called upon for help in a time of need; you will be asked for advice in uncertainty. It is by such simple and unassuming means that souls are led closer to Christ. This is how the apostolate of Opus Dei is carried out. It is very much a grassroots organization spread by word of mouth from one friend to another. A friend of mine once mentioned the following as a certain motto for members of the Work, namely, “to do the work of 3,000 and to make the noise of 3.” In other words, Opus Dei seeks to be like “leaven” in the midst of the world, itself going almost unnoticed, while bearing great fruit for the service of God and His Church.

Opus Dei and Franciscan University

What has Opus Dei to do with the Franciscan University of Steubenville? In addition to misunderstandings about what Opus Dei is in general, there are a number of misunderstandings about why Opus Dei is on our campus at all, and questions about its “hidden agenda”.

First, it should be said that Opus Dei is not here for the sake of bolstering its own enrollment. If vocations sometimes arise as a result of the spiritual formation students receive, this should come as no surprise. But the notion that its purpose in coming here is to recruit new members is simply erroneous. Opus Dei is here primarily to serve those students who find its spiritual guidance beneficial, and to assist them in their efforts to sanctify their daily life. Nothing more, nothing less.

It first came here six years ago at the invitation of several students who had encountered the Work at home or in other places, and who felt that the spiritual guidance it offers would be useful to them personally. After going through all the proper channels, (including a meeting with Fr. Michael), the Work began its apostolate at Franciscan University, and it has been here ever since.

A second misunderstanding comes from those who would place Opus Dei’s reason for being at the University within the context of the charismatic/traditionalist debate. Opus Dei is not here to be pitted against Campus Ministry. It is not here to be a balancing traditionalist influence on an otherwise charismatic campus. To suggest this is to seek controversy where controversy doesn’t lie. It is true that Opus Dei’s liturgical piety is not charismatic. It is more subdued and much less expressive, but the whole question of liturgical practice is not really germane to what Opus Dei is in fact doing on campus.

An Opus Dei priest has said two masses at the University during its six year apostolate here. These masses were not offered in any way as acts of protest to the masses being offered on campus. Rather, they were offered simply to form a certain continuity between the priest of Opus Dei and the students he would meet regularly in spiritual direction. Opus Dei’s activities on campus have always been pastoral and not liturgical in nature.

Furthermore, the presence of Opus Dei on our campus should in no way be construed as being in opposition to the work of the Franciscan TORs, who have been placed in charge of the spiritual dimension of our campus life. The members of Opus Dei who come here to give spiritual direction see their role as one of cooperation with the spiritual formation already being accomplished here. I know how refreshing and encouraging it is for them to see a Catholic university where the spiritual life is alive and well; where the truths of the faith are proclaimed unabashedly in homilies and in classrooms; where the Blessed Sacrament can be adored at any time of the day or night. On most of the other campuses where Opus Dei has a college apostolate, this is simply not the case.

Still, having granted all this, one may still ask what specifically Opus Dei has to offer to the University and its student body, who already receive so much great teaching and formation?

In my opinion, Opus Dei brings a new dimension to the spiritual life on campus in its distinctively “lay spirituality”. Most of us students will be called to the lay life, either married or single. Not every religious community made up of lay people (third orders, for instance) practice and foster a distinctly “lay spirituality”. More often than not, certain devotions and practices proper to the religious life are simply adapted and applied to the life of a lay person. There is certainly nothing wrong with such an approach, but it is something different than what Msgr. Escriva had in mind in founding Opus Dei. He had in mind a “lay spirituality” where the principal means to sanctity was not adapted religious practices but ordinary secular activities carried out with a supernatural purpose; material work itself is transformed into prayer. This is Opus Dei’s unique charism—to help people transform their work into prayer.

In order for work to become a prayer, it must be taken seriously, it must be done well, because it is being done for God. As students, the work which we must sanctify is our study. There is still a strong tendency among some students here to separate their life of prayer from their life as a student. Those who participate in the spiritual formation of Opus Dei often hear that study is a serious obligation for them. We want to study hard and well, not just to receive a good grade, but above all to please God who allows this work to be the means of our sanctification.

The seriousness of the academic life and its intimate connection with the spiritual life is a message that needs to be heard more at the University. Opus Dei’s presence can, (and already does) help stimulate the academic fervor of the students, serving as a kind of catalyst in this regard as the University continues to grow into a true center of Catholic intellectual life in this country.

Perhaps the greatest benefit I have received through my contact with Opus Dei has been the personal spiritual direction offered to me by their priests. Now spiritual direction is nothing unique to Opus Dei. It is just that for the priests of Opus Dei, spiritual direction is one of their primary forms of apostolate; it is something they want to do; it is something that they are very good at doing.

I know that some of the friars and priests on campus give spiritual direction to many students, but they are so often busy with other obligations that it would be impossible for them to give regular spiritual direction to all who desire it. I do not know the extent to which it is true on our campus, but often regular spiritual direction is a thing reserved for seminarians or those in religious formation. Those without a religious vocation are usually left to the ordinary means of spiritual direction, namely, the Mass and the counsel given through the sacrament of Penance. Thanks to Opus Dei, many more students have the opportunity to receive regular and solid spiritual direction. This, I think, can only be seen as an asset to the spiritual opportunities offered to the students at Franciscan University.

Opus Dei is primarily a personal apostolate. Its real fruit and what it most authentically has to offer the university is hidden within the heart of each person who has come in contact with it. If but one person has become holier and has fallen deeper in love with Christ and the Church through the apostolate of Opus Dei, then the Franciscan University should see Opus Dei only as a close friend and a collaborator with her in the fulfillment of her mission.

Richard Gordon is a graduate student in the University’s MA Philosophy program.