Monday 26 June 2023

In Proposing The Universal Call To Holiness

Today is the Feast of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. Pope Francis, who is the first Pope to have dealt closely with Opus Dei while he was a diocesan bishop, has called Saint Josemaría “a precursor of Vatican II in proposing the universal call to holiness”. I am a convinced admirer of Opus Dei, both as a practising Catholic and as a man firmly of the Left. 

Corporal mortification, to get that out of the way, is an integral part of Catholic spirituality. Catholics need to re-learn moderate self-denial on Fridays, on the Wednesdays of Lent, during Holy Week, on the eves of the Church’s greatest Solemnities, and before receiving Communion, as well as the considerable exigencies of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

These are of a piece with the cilice, which is a spiked chain worn around the upper thigh, and with the discipline, which is a small whip used on the back. Convents manufacturing such items still do a roaring trade, and the rise of Opus Dei is itself a sign that the decadent period of disdain for asceticism even within the Catholic Church is an aberration now mercifully coming to an end.

In any case, people who suggested that Ruth Kelly wore the cilice to work merely demonstrated their own ignorance. Both the cilice and the discipline are used by numeraries, who are celibate, live in Opus Dei centres, and give most of their salaries directly to Opus Dei. Kelly was and is clearly a supernumerary, as are 70 per cent of Opus Dei members, and so presumably mortifies the flesh in ways more acceptable to clever-clever opinion, though none the worse for that. 

Opus Dei believes in the sanctification of the world, thus first anticipating and then implementing the Second Vatican Council. By contrast, its opponents believe in the secularisation of the Church, falsely presenting that as “the Spirit of Vatican II”. Therefore, they oppose corporal mortification as they oppose other Opus Dei practices: beginning the day by offering it to God, daily Communion, the Rosary, the Angelus, daily examination of conscience, invocation of the Angels and the Saints, ejaculatory prayer, use of holy water, and so forth.

That is because they disagree profoundly with Opus Dei about sanctification of and through ordinary work, not least because they so look down on the people who do a great deal of ordinary work. They disagree with Opus Dei about living a contemplative life in the middle of the world, taking everything one does with liturgical seriousness, and recognising, as any orthodox Catholic must, that every experience of the true, the good and the beautiful is in fact a religious experience.

Instead, they would rather that even the Liturgy were treated with no more, or even rather less, seriousness than most people attach to a pop concert or a football match, and that even the most obviously ecstatic mystical experiences were somehow explained away by pseudo-scientific, avowedly anti-Christian means.

They disagree with Opus Dei’s, which is the Catholic Church’s, definition of Christian freedom in the Aristotelian yet profoundly Biblical terms given definitive Catholic and commonsensical articulation by Saint Thomas Aquinas, according to which the only true freedom is in accordance with the Will of God. Instead, they would define it in secular and Modern terms, as the freedom of the individual to do as he will, provided that he agree with them, and that he do so as the end in itself.

They disagree with Opus Dei’s (again, simply the Church’s) doctrine of divine filiation, of recognising oneself and every other human being as a Child of God. Adopted by God’s grace and thus in some sense ipse Christus, “Christ Himself”, everything we do is therefore in some sense part of the world’s redemption: the mundane is transcendent. Instead, they would rather make the transcendent mundane. 

They disagree with divine filiation’s very high understanding of the dignity of each and every human life, and with its strong imperative towards evangelisation. And they disagree with its inherent imperative, both to take up the Cross, and to experience a profound joy quite unlike any momentary chemical or sexual “high” of their own formative years. 

Instead, they would rather “modernise” on abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell “research”. They would rather trim Christianity and Catholicism to suit every other system of belief, though even then not with a view to converting anyone. And they would rather have instant gratification, on the cheap in every sense. 

Sanctification through work, the living of a contemplative life in the middle of the world, Christian freedom correctly defined, and the recognition of divine filiation: these are the principles calling all Catholics to rediscover and renew, ever-more-deeply, our beginning the day by offering it to God, our frequent Communion, our daily examination of conscience, our ejaculatory prayer, our use of holy water, and our devotion to the Mother of God, to the Angels and to the Saints. And, yes, our practice of corporal mortification. 

All of this is whether or not we experience any vocation to join Opus Dei, undoubtedly God’s instrument in renewing the Church in this way, but even more clearly so if this renewal becomes the norm among Catholics generally, including our witness to ecumenical partners. 

So much for admiring Opus Dei as a Catholic. But how can a man of the Left possibly do so?

Far from being indifferent or hostile towards the poor, Opus Dei runs ELIS in Rome, the Midtown Center in Chicago, the Moluka medical clinic in Kinshasa, the Los Pinos educational centre in Montevideo, the Braval programme of professional formation for immigrants in Barcelona, the Laguna care centre in Madrid, the Harambee 2002 project, Condoray in Cañete, the Institute for Industrial Technology in Lagos, the Guatanfur agricultural and stock raising school in Temza, the Anauco medical dispensary in Caracas, the Centenario medical clinic in Monterrey, the Informal Sector Business Institute in Nairobi, and many more besides. Google them. 

Ruth Kelly was the most prominent Opus Dei politician in the world; I am not sure who now is, but it ought to be emphasised that Rick Santorum is not a member. The United Nations Secretary-General, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and former President of the Socialist International, António Guterres, has a long history in Opus Dei.

Its ranks included the late Squire Lance, Saul Alinsky’s chosen successor in Chicago. They also included the late Jorge Rossi Chavarría, sometime Vice President of Costa Rica, and co-founder of that country’s National Liberation Party (PLN), the Costa Rican vehicle for social democracy, affiliated to the Socialist International. Rossi co-founded the PLN as an outgrowth of his work as legal advisor to the Costa Rican Confederation of Workers of Rerum Novarum, Rerum Novarum being the 1891 founding text of Catholic Social Teaching with its very strong critique of unbridled capitalism, a critique continued and expanded by every Pope since. 

Opus Dei included the late Antonio Fontán, the apostle of press freedom against the Franco regime, and the first President of the Senate after the restoration of Spanish democracy under a Constitution that he had co-authored. The strongly anti-Franco academic and journalist Rafael Calvo Serer was also a member of Opus Dei. It still includes, among others, Paola Binetti, Llúis Foix and Mario Maiolo. We may or may not count the Catalan nationalism of Xavi Casajuana as part of the Left, but it is undeniably a very long way from Franco. Most of the Chilean “Chicago Boys” were not members of Opus Dei. Pinochet himself never had any affiliation with it.

So, insofar as it has a political orientation, Opus Dei’s would seem to be towards the Left, if anything. Much like the Catholic Church Herself, in fact. That is yet another reason to hope, work and pray for the Catholic Church at large to become much more like Opus Dei.

After all, it was greatly admired by Saint Óscar Romero, as explained by Filip Mazurczak in an article that I have been quite unable to cut, and to which I have added emphasis:

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero was shot during the celebration of Mass by the death squadrons of El Salvador’s military government. Today his reputation is undergoing a second assassination: Critics have responded to the floating of his name for beatification by wrongly charging the man with supporting violence, communism, and heresy. Those who would make the archbishop a radical hero have offered their own version of these claims in approving tones. Both are wrong.

Murals and t-shirts showing Romero alongside Salvador Allende and Che Guevara are common in Central America, yet his visage sits somewhat uncomfortably beside theirs. Romero did not hesitate to condemn capitalism, but at the same time he was an anti-communist. In his sermons he cautioned against the dangers of atheistic, materialist Marxism. In one of his homilies, Romero chastised leftists for criticizing American imperialism while turning a blind eye to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

While the left has come to glorify Romero, right-wing politicians in El Salvador have accused him of inspiring leftist guerrilla violence. In reality, Romero sought a peaceful solution to El Salvador’s troubles. In his third pastoral letter, written in 1978, Romero condemned leftist guerrilla violence as “terrorist” and “seditious.” In the fourth letter written one year later, the archbishop of San Salvador reminded the nation that violence was justifiable only in extreme situations when all other alternatives have been exhausted, citing Catholic just war theory.

The twentieth century was a difficult one for the Latin American Church. In the 1970s and 1980s, military juntas ruled most of the region. In Argentina, the bishops’ close ties to the dictatorship of Jorge Videla and their silence on the tortures and disappearances in the country led many Argentineans to lose their trust in the Church. By contrast, in Nicaragua many clerics supported armed revolution against the Somoza dictatorship and supported the Marxist Sandinistas.

Even a man as saintly as Dom Helder Camara, he bishop who defended Brazil’s poor against the country’s military dictatorship, believed that Marx should do for Christianity in the twentieth century what Aristotle did for medieval Thomism. By contrast, in a 1978 homily, Romero said: “Since Marxist materialism destroys the Church’s transcendent meaning, a Marxist church would be not only self-destructive but senseless.” 

Romero avoided the blinkered anti-communism of Argentina’s bishops and defended the vulnerable against military violence, seeing the hypocrisy of rulers who claim to be Christians yet persecute the people. At the same time, he understood the dangers of Marxism, condemning the Marxist guerrilla movement that terrorized El Salvador’s ruling class. Ernesto Cardenal, the Trappist monk who in the 1980s was a minister in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, wrote that before becoming a Christian, one first must become a Marxist-Leninist. Romero rejected this: His personal hero was Pope Pius XI for resisting fascism and communism at the same time.

Romero also stood apart from liberation theology, distinguishing between the liberation of communism and the liberation Christ offers. In the 1980s, some Latin American priests inspired by Marxism wanted to deny Communion to the wealthy. Romero resisted this saying in a 1979 homily: “We are not demagogically in favor of one social class; we are in favor of God’s reign, and we want to promote justice, love, and understanding, wherever there is a heart well disposed.” 

Few know that Romero received spiritual direction from an Opus Dei priest and personally knew the future saint and Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva. When the latter died in 1975, he wrote a letter to Paul VI asking the Pope to jumpstart his canonization process, writing: “Monsignor Escriva . . . was able to unite in his life a continuous dialogue with Our Lord and a great humanity; one could tell he was a man of God, and his manner was full of sensitivity, kindness, and good humor.” As recommended by Opus Dei priests, Romero wore a cilice on Fridays as a form of self-mortification until his death. 

One of the firmest supporters of Romero’s beatification has been Pope Benedict XVI. Both before and after his election to the papacy he has expressed his enthusiasm for the cause, going so far as to say that he has “no doubt” that Romero will be declared blessed someday. 

During his 1983 pilgrimage to El Salvador, John Paul insisted on visiting Romero’s tomb despite the pleas of Latin American bishops and the Salvadoran government. John Paul II asked local priests to open the door of the cathedral which was locked up by the military. He immersed himself in prayer for a long time in front of Romero’s tomb.

John Paul II again demonstrated his affection for Oscar Romero by insisting “again against the wishes of many churchmen” that during the 2000 Jubilee Year celebration in Rome’s Coliseum Romero’s name be mentioned among the great martyrs of the Americas.

It is a name we are likely to hear again.

Óscar Romero was indeed beatified on 23rd May 2015, and canonised on 14th October 2018. Ora pro nobis. And Saint Josemaría Escrivá, ora pro nobis.

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  1. My word, safeguard this.

    1. Such persons speak of nothing but the Catholic Church’s definition of Christian freedom in the Aristotelian yet profoundly Biblical terms given definitive Catholic and commonsensical articulation by Saint Thomas Aquinas.