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"A fascinating and disturbing book. . . a literary grenade seeking to blow apart Opus Dei's benign and exalted image. . . a picture of an obsessively secretive, manipulative and sexist organization with a virtual cultlike veneration of its founder."-Boston Globe Tapia's book is a comprehensive account of the inner workings of the women's branch of Opus Dei. It should fascinate sociologists and feminist and contribute to needed self-criticism in the Roman Catholic Church. . . A best seller in Spain, and a success in Germany, Portugal and Italy,
"A fascinating and disturbing book. . . a literary grenade seeking to blow apart Opus Dei's benign and exalted image. . . a picture of an obsessively secretive, manipulative and sexist organization with a virtual cultlike veneration of its founder."-Boston Globe Tapia's book is a comprehensive account of the inner workings of the women's branch of Opus Dei. It should fascinate sociologists and feminist and contribute to needed self-criticism in the Roman Catholic Church. . . A best seller in Spain, and a success in Germany, Portugal and Italy, Tapia's book has important lessons not only for John Paul II and other Catholics, but for all who wish to see religion freed from the tyranny of self-proclaimed saints."-Christian Century"
The little I knew about Opus Dei before reading this book was enough to make me feel uneasy about the increasing strength and visibility of the organization in the Catholic Church. Tapia's book deepened my wariness into something akin to dread. Her book, however, is not a cheap or sensational expose. It is the chronicle of an intelligent and sensitive woman who served the organization in responsible positions during her 18 year sojourn as a full member." -National Catholic Reporter
Copyright © 1998 Maria Del Carmen Tapia
All right reserved.
MY ENCOUNTER WITH OPUS DEI
Opus Dei is a socio-religious phenomenon bound up with the political situation following the Spanish Civil War (July 1936 to April 1939). By the end of the war, the hopes and dreams of the country's youth had overcome the animosities and hatred of the adults. We were filled with personal, political, and religious aspirations. We had grown up during the Civil War years, remembering years of hunger, bombings, and often the destruction of our own homes. We had suffered the loss of loved ones, not on a "glorious" battlefront that seemed less and less "glorious" as time went on, but by the deadly butchery wrought by fanatics and criminals of the lowest type, whether communists or fascists.
If only the warm waters of the Mediterranean, the cemetery walls, the river banks, the outskirts of many towns, the park trees, the dirt roads could talk! They would tell the story of mass executions, of anonymous corpses whose families even to this day cannot have the consolation of crying at their graves. There were also isolated places whose mute solitude hid those unjust firing squads.
I still remember one morning in December 1936 during the siege of Madrid by Franco'stroops. Our house had been destroyed in one of the bombardments; we had lost more than thirty close relatives to the so-called communists. My mother was pregnant and the communists were looking for my father, an engineer for the Spanish railroad. We were staying with friends (Carlos Anne, a colleague of my father's, and his family) in a neutral zone--so-called because of the belief that Franco would not shell it. The zone included Serrano Street, a few adjacent streets, with residential neighborhoods like El Viso, Colonia de la Residencia, and Cruz del Rayo. I left home very early that day to look for some food for my family; since I was only eleven, I was glad to have the company of two older friends, Elvira (Viruchy) Bergamin and Chelo Sanchez-Covisa, who were both fifteen. We took a shortcut through a street that had only been opened a few months before the war started. We walked silently, remembering that people had recently been killed in the area at night. Suddenly someone said, "Watch out!" There was a pool of blood in the middle of the street. I had to look away but I had already seen something I shall never forget: a murder had been committed at dawn by the communists.
We kept going, soon arriving at the place where we were to collect the food. Several times we had to drop to the ground, once because there was a sniper who was prepared to kill anyone in his line of fire, and twice to avoid the artillery shells from Franco's troops besieging the city, which apparently occurred every morning in that area near a garrison.
I cannot catalogue all the sufferings. There was hunger, lack of housing, financial hardships, and when the war was over there were purges, the need for political affidavits, the discovery of betrayal by former friends; for many there was an even greater torture: banishment. Many were expelled from Spain, and others from their own home towns. A human being can put up with incarceration and even face death, but the torture of banishment can break even the strongest.
As children of those years, we had to put away our toys and grow up ahead of our time. We had learned that a careless word could mean danger or even death to our parents and friends. But we did not become callous and cynical; having learned to overcome our fear we were ready to sacrifice our own lives for a noble ideal. Our personal experience made us want to end violence and betrayal; wealth seemed less important than kindness and loyalty to a noble cause. We were religious. Although we had great ambitions we knew how to be happy with very little; we were poor and deprived due to shortages caused by World War II. Because of Franco's political ideology, Spain was boycotted by all European countries except Portugal.
The disruptions of the Civil War had caused young people to lose years of school; we were now eager to learn and rushed to take advantage of crash courses that were being organized everywhere in the country. We had lost the habit of study, but not the eagerness to learn. We did not have the money to buy new books; we had to sell the book we used in one course in order to buy another for a subsequent course. We would break books into sections so that several of us could copy it by hand (there were no copying machines at that time). Sometimes, we even went to the trouble of copying an entire book for a companion who did not have the time to do it. Many young women made extra sacrifices, surrendering their chance of going to college or university in order for their brothers to continue their studies.
Perhaps some of those reading these lines will find aspects of their own lives reflected in some portion of this odyssey. Those children and adolescents of the Spanish Civil War--youngsters from 1940-1950--initially filled the ranks of Opus Dei.
At that time, Opus Dei was practically unknown. Father Escriva's recently published Camino was a provocative invitation to postwar youth with practically no literature available other than religious books and the required textbooks approved by Franco's censorship. I did not know then that Father Escriva was the Founder of Opus Dei nor did I then see the internal contradiction in this book where the frequent use of military language was combined with passages from the Gospel.
Father Escriva offered the great adventure: to give up everything without getting anything in return; to conquer the world for Christ's church; a contemplative life through one's everyday work; to be missionaries, without being called such, but with a mission to accomplish. Students were challenged to excel in their chosen endeavor, turning study time into prayer, with the aim of attaining a high position in the intellectual world, and then offering it to Christ.
It was not a question of becoming nuns or monks, but a real challenge to lay people who had never considered a religious vocation. Our apostolic field was our own environment, among our friends. There were no special headquarters and nothing needed to be said. What counted was example, silence, discretion. Escriva's book, The Way, reflects this approach. All these factors constituted a distinctive style that helped create a genuine ebullience among the young men and women who joined Opus Dei during the decade of the 1940s and who, in Opus Dei jargon, are known as "the first" or "the eldest." Indeed, the phrase is a kind of badge of honor within Opus Dei.
Sometime around 1945, I heard references to Opus Dei for the first time. They were very negative. Several people suggested that it represented a subtle danger to the Roman Catholic Church. More than one acquaintance, playing on the widespread Spanish hostility to Masons as members of a secret society, used the expression "white freemasonry." Some alleged that Opus Dei was envious if not hostile to the two most significant Spanish Catholic lay groups, Catholic Action (Accion Catolica) and the Spanish National Association of Propagandists (Asociacion Espanola Nacional de Propagandistas). I even heard stories of young men from Opus Dei who courted young women, with no intention of marrying them, merely for the purpose of recruiting new members for the association!
Because of what I had heard and because of my personal concern for the church, I asked about Opus Dei during a conference at St. Augustine, my parish church in Madrid. The pastor, Father Avelino Gomez Ledo, said that he did not know enough to offer an opinion and would rather not discuss it. It was a discreet reply that somehow hinted at an unfavorable judgment on the group.
A few months later, in October 1946, I finally met someone from the mysterious Opus Dei, a priest named Pedro Casciaro, who officiated at the marriage of my first cousin in Albacete. He was a friend of the bridegroom, Javier Sanchez-Carrilero. The priest spoke in such a low voice that only the bride and groom could hear his homily, and he slipped away before the wedding luncheon was over without saying goodbye to anyone except the newlyweds.
I was intrigued about Opus Dei, and discussed it at length with my fiance. He told me that he had heard the same rumors as I had, but that one of his classmates at his engineering school was a member and seemed perfectly normal, though he did not socialize with women. My fiance admitted that nobody at the engineering school knew what membership in Opus Dei entailed or what life was like at the group's student residence.
In 1947, a year before our intended marriage, my fiance, now a forestry engineer, accepted his first job in Morocco. To relieve my boredom during his absence and to pursue my own intellectual interests, I accepted a position at Arbor, the general cultural journal of the Council of Scientific Research, CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas) in Madrid. I was an assistant to Arbor's associate director, Raimundo Panikkar.
When I was introduced to him, I was quite surprised to find a priest in such a major cultural post. I was even more surprised that he was an Indian with a Catalonian accent. Although only recently ordained and still a young man of twenty-eight, he was highly regarded at the CSIC as one of its founders. Everyone considered him brilliant; he had an astonishing capacity for work I was told of a number of articles he had written for Arbor, in particular an essay on the thought of Max Planck. He was well known for his mastery of languages, modern and classical. As an Indian, he was a British citizen. He wore the usual cassock like any other priest at that time. He was kind, although extremely serious with the staff of Arbor, with whom he very seldom used more words than those essential for greetings and work.
I began work at eight o'clock, an hour earlier than the other members of the staff, and I also left an hour earlier. One morning I was called by Dr. Albareda, the general secretary of the CSIC. His own assistants were not due to arrive for at least an hour and he had an important and confidential letter to write immediately. When he started dictation I was very surprised that the letter was addressed to Monsignor Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, the author of The Way.
Absorbed in my own thoughts I went back to my office. By then, my two co-workers were there, and they started pulling my leg with typical Iberian irony and asked me if I had been promoted.
"Promoted?" I replied. "What I was doing was taking a letter for the author of The Way.
"Of course," they said, "as a member of Opus Dei, Albareda has to send a report to its Founder."
"What did you say?" I asked, astonished. "That Escriva, the author of The Way, is the Founder of Opus Dei and Albareda is a member?" Everybody laughed at my ignorance.
"Didn't you know," they went on, "that Florentino Perez Embid, the secretary to Arbor, is a member, too, as well as Rafael Calvo Serer."
"No, I did not know any of this."
"And that Dr. Panikkar is a priest of Opus Dei?"
"Are you sure about Dr. Panikkar?"
"Positive. And so is the director of Arbor, Sanchez de Muniain."
"But Sanchez de Muniain is married," I protested.
"So what? He is a member too. He belongs to the married ones."
"What is going on here?" I asked angrily. "Is everybody here part of that organization? Are you two members too?"
"Certainly not." They laughed. "But almost everybody on the top levels here at the Council is a member."
I was appalled at the news that the author of The Way, a book read by many young people at that time, was the Founder of such a dubious group as Opus Dei and that the CSIC, the main Spanish center for research, was a platform utilized by Opus Dei. And since I had such a positive opinion of Dr. Panikkar, I was angry to learn that he was an Opus Dei priest.
The possibility of talking directly with Dr. Panikkar regarding Opus Dei and its control of the CSIC was little less than utopian. I had worked at Arbor for five months and the only words I had exchanged with Dr. Panikkar were formal greetings on arrival and departure and bits of information about work. So, a serious conversation on this matter seemed out of the question.
An opportunity presented itself, however, when Dr. Panikkar asked me to work the following Saturday, since he had a backlog of correspondence that had to be answered. After three hours of dealing with his correspondence, Dr. Panikkar suddenly said: "May I ask you why you work here?"
Astonished at the question, I said that I was planning to get married the following year and hoped to make my fiance's absence more bearable by working at something that interested me.
Dr. Panikkar made no comment, and we resumed our work. When we finished at lunch time, and I was locking the doors, he started another conversation, this time about Barcelona, where he had been recently.
"The weather was beautiful there," he said.
"I know," I replied, "my parents just returned from Barcelona and said the same thing."
"Why didn't you go with them?" he asked.
"For the simple reason that I am working here."
"I would always give you time off to go to Barcelona," he said, half-jokingly.
"I am so busy this year," I answered seriously, "that I do not even have time to make my spiritual retreat."
"I am going to lead two groups next month, so if you would like ..."
"With you? No thank you."
"I am not asking you to make your retreat under my guidance," Dr. Panikkar continued calmly. "What I meant was that you can have a week off at that time."
There was an embarrassed silence on my part. I did not know whether I should apologize because of my reply or how to pursue the conversation.
Finally Dr. Panikkar broke the silence with the question:
"May I ask why you said 'not with me'?"
"Because you are with Opus Dei," I answered frankly.
"Oh! I see. And what do you have against Opus Dei?"
"Personally nothing, but I think it is against the church."
"All right, all right," Dr. Panikkar said slowly. "Thank you for coming today. I think that we will have to talk about this matter again." And with his usual formal smile, he walked away.
Over the weekend I worried about whether I had been rude. I had been brought up to show reverence for the clergy and had never before challenged a priest so directly. But when I came to work the following Monday, Father Panikkar greeted me affably, saying he was ready to resume our discussion.
"Would you please explain to me your negative attitude to Opus Dei?" he asked gently.
I recounted all the things I had heard about Opus Dei: that it was a "freemasonry" because of its mysterious way of doing things such as not disclosing the identity of its members, where its residences were located, or who in those residences were members and who were not. That Opus Dei plotted to "capture" chairs at the university, hoping to preserve them for members and were ruthless about getting rid of anyone who was in their way. I even mentioned Father Casciaro's strained behavior at my cousin's wedding, and repeated the stories of male members who courted young women simply to recruit them for Opus Dei.
Father Panikkar heard me out without betraying any emotion, but his reply, when it came, was forceful:
"Do you know the meaning of slander?"
"Yes," I answered haltingly.
"Well, everything you have heard, everything you have repeated here, is nothing but slander."
Somehow, the assurance with which Father Panikkar spoke was more convincing to me than the accusations I had just made.
Excerpted from Beyond the Threshold by Maria Del Carmen Tapia Copyright © 1998 by Maria Del Carmen Tapia. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 2, 2002
For anyone that has been a "numerary" member of Opus Dei, the facts that the author describes constitute no surprise. In different countries, in different times, the story of strong psychological pressure and manipulation on potential recruits and on members has been repeating itself for decades now. The very detailed description of places, names, and practices, has made me so vividly recall the asphyxiating atmosphere that I once lived when recruited by Opus Dei at the age of fourteen. The book reflects the great fraud of the Opus Dei praxis which consists in presenting to the catholic people the attractive message of being a way to help them live their faith from within the society as citizens and professionals; however, once inside, the numerary member gradually becomes just a component of the recruiting machinery of Opus Dei. Without physical violence but via tremendous though subtle psychological pressure, the member gradually abdicates his/her own will and renounces to making his/her own decisions even on very small details of his/her life. Once the mind of a person has been manipulated to make him/her convinced that "the will of God is transmitted to him through the directors of Opus Dei", the degree of control over that person is complete. The book very well describes this process which is common to all "numerary"" members. The last part, describing the last stay of the author in the Opus Dei headquarters in Rome, is very impressive and demythify the figure of the founder of Opus Dei but does not constitute the key argument against the Work. It is all the previous chapters, showing how, in the name of the father, very young persons are recruited and converted into instruments of the Opus Dei organization through a process that finally makes them convinced that it is God's will that they become obedient members. With all my love for current and former Opus Dei numerary members who at very early age have undergone a recruitment and indoctrination process that has caused them anxiety and distress, I want to say that "Beyond the Threshold" is a true testimony of what Opus Dei has meant in the life of many.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.