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Their Kingdom Come
Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei
By Robert Hutchison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Robert Hutchison
All rights reserved.
CAUSES OF SAINTS
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Rome had rarely seen anything like the mid-May 1992 influx of pilgrims for a gala beatification that paralysed traffic for days, causing greater mayhem than usual in a city that often knows little else. All hotel rooms had been booked for months in advance. Charter flights landed at Fiumicino airport every few minutes carrying Catholics from sixty countries. More than 200 flights came from Spain alone. Meanwhile 2,500 buses from every corner of Europe converged on Via della Conciliazione, leading from Castel Sant'Angelo to St Peter's Square. And a pair of cruise ships had anchored off Ostia with a full complement of South American pilgrims who during one week were bussed up to Rome daily.
The size of the turnout for raising to the altars one of the Church's most dedicated servants had surprised even the experts, and for the Vatican's right wing it offered heartening evidence that conservative Catholicism was alive, indeed thriving, and certainly thronging. No gathering quite so large had been seen in front of St Peter's since June 1944, when Rome celebrated with delirium its liberation from Hitler's legions. The current celebration was not for the defensor urbis et salvator civitatis, Pius XII, who died in 1958 and still had not been beatified, but for one of his lesser domestic prelates. His name was Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei. Escrivá had begun his lifetime of service to the Church as an ordinary Spanish priest. He died in 1975, when seventy-three, in his office at the Villa Tevere, across the Tiber in Viale Bruno Buozzi, less than five kilometres from the Vatican, and though not even a bishop he held more power than most cardinals.
On the third Sunday in May 1992, John Paul II would confer the rank of Blessed upon him, a distinction that placed the Spanish prelate in the waiting room of saints. Such a spiritual honour was cause for great rejoicing among Opus Dei's 80,000 members and the thousands of others – according to Opus Dei, they could be counted in the millions – from every walk of life who, thanks to the Founder, had encountered Christ. During his own lifetime, Escrivá had encouraged his followers to call him 'Father'. Now he was their Father in Heaven where, assured Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Escrivá's successor as head of Opus Dei, 'he continues to concern himself with all his children'.
Several ecclesiastic authorities have stated that this mystical and even thaumaturgical priest had done more to restore and strengthen the Catholic faith than any other since St Ignatius of Loyola. For these same authorities, it was a matter of grace that Josemaría Escrivá should be beatified in near record time – not quite seventeen years after his death – as even in death he continued through miracles to recast the aura of mystery enveloping the Catholic Church. Furthermore John Paul II was said to be determined to push through Escrivá's canonization during what remained of his pontificate. But why such haste? The record for speedy canonizations is held by Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 and made a saint twenty-six months later. 'But that was a political job if ever there was,' commented Professor Terence Morris of Winchester, a student of fast sainthoods. The same could be said of the Escrivá affair. It was another 'political job'.
John Paul II believed without exaggeration that the Church of Rome was confronted with its most serious crisis since the Protestant Reformation. Papal authority was under attack. He blamed much of the dissension on the Second Vatican Council. Ever since, there had been insubordination and rebellion among the clergy. Leftist-inspired Liberation Theology and notions of a Cosmic Christ were threatening the established orthodoxy. The Pope's authority to appoint the bishops he wanted was roundly contested in many of the more influential dioceses. The role of women was being re-examined against his will, the use of condoms openly recommended by some bishops, and the obligation of celibacy challenged. While dissension reigned within, from without he saw a threat in the worldwide reawakening of Islam.
Under these circumstances, Opus Dei was a valued ally. And so, John Paul II accepted the thesis that Escrivá had founded his Obra with divine assistance, the result of the Aragonese priest's ability to commune with God. The 'divine inspiration' had come in 1928, at a time when the social structure of Spain was facing dislocation. Ideologically, the inspiration was authoritarian. Opus Dei had thrived under Franco. Opus Dei's leadership, one is left to conclude, was only too aware that even the most guileful of strategies is of itself useless unless backed by power and authority to implement it. Opus Dei knows how to create an illusion and it has amassed considerable power. Beatification of the Founder – and hopefully his later canonization – was part of that illusion, for it demonstrated papal approbation and proved it was at the centre of power within the Church. It was understandable, therefore, that as preparations for the Sunday ceremony progressed towards their culmination, the mood at the Opus Dei headquarters in Viale Bruno Buozzi bordered on ecstasy. Only one worrisome hitch existed. The Italian police had been told that the military arm of ETA, the Basque separatist organization, was planning to kidnap the remains of Father Escrivá and hold them to ransom. ETA was the most experienced terrorist organization in Europe. But it was said to be short of funds and so Opus Dei, which it accused of flagrant ostentation, seemed a natural target.
The Italian police took the threat seriously. Although the list of ETA atrocities was long, its most spectacular act had been to place a bomb in the centre of Madrid, a few days before Christmas 1973, which blasted Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the Spanish premier, along with his car, clear over a five-storey building onto the balcony of another building in the next street, killing him, his chauffeur and his bodyguard. Carrero Blanco had been Opus Dei's protector, appointing ten of its members to his last cabinet, while another five of his nineteen ministers were known Opus Dei supporters. His assassination had curtailed – though not for long – Opus Dei's political influence, and this only months before General Franco was due to hand over the reins of state to the future king, Juan Carlos de Borbón.
Notwithstanding the new ETA threat, on the Thursday before the beatification ceremony the remains of the Founder were removed from the prelatic church in the Villa Tevere and transported to the imposing Basilica of Sant'Eugenio, at the western end of Viale Bruno Buozzi. The simple hardwood coffin, covered by a red mantle and surrounded by thickets of freshly cut roses, was placed on a catafalque in front of the altar where it was to remain on public view during the entire week of celebrations and afterwards returned in public procession to the Villa Tevere for its encasement inside a reliquary under the altar of the prelatic church. The ETA threat never materialized.
From dawn on the appointed Sunday, under a ceramic blue sky, the air scented with pinewood from the Vatican gardens, St Peter's Square began to fill with pilgrims. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, estimated their number at 300,000. Raised six steps above the paving stones, the papal dais was covered by a golden canopy to provide shade for the frail Pope. No less than forty-six cardinals were on hand to assist him and more than 300 bishops. Among the pilgrims were Santiago Escrivá, the Founder's younger brother, Giulio Andreotti, the Italian senator-for-life who had been seven times premier, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The two-and-a-half hour ceremony was transmitted live by Italian television to networks in thirty countries, mainly in Latin America.
Beatified alongside Father Escrivá was a former slave woman, Josephine Bakhita, whose heroic virtues had been hitherto unknown to the world. She was a Dinka from southern Sudan, born in 1869. At the age of ten she had been carried off by slave traders who sold her into a lifetime of misery. The last of her four masters, a Turkish army officer, had offered her as a gift to the Italian consul in Istanbul. The consul brought her to Venice where she became a nun, living in a convent until her death in 1947. At the very moment the Pope conferred the title of Blessed on them giant tapestries fixed to the façade of St Peter's were unfurled to reveal their larger-than-life portraits. A roar of applause broke out and spontaneously the crowd started singing Christus vincit.
Behind the pomp and ritual was an extremely serious message. Wherever the Church of Rome turned in search of new souls she was confronted by a rising Islam, whose leadership, though divided, was relatively rich and resolute. With 1,200 million adherents compared to 965 million Catholics, Islam was growing fast. It had become the second largest religion in France, Italy and Spain. Immigration and proselytizing was adding daily to its numbers throughout Europe and the Americas. More than 5 million Muslims lived in the United States, 5 million in France, 3.5 million in Germany, 2 million in Britain, 1 million in Italy. These figures, however, represented little more than informed guesswork as the flood of illegal aliens made it impossible for legislators to count accurately the number of Muslims moving into the heartlands of Europe and America.
The significance of the Vatican's message was in the identity of the two people chosen for beatification. Sister Josephine Bakhita had been converted by force to Islam and then, freedom restored, had chosen Christianity. Christians in southern Sudan, the Dinkas in particular, were being persecuted by Islamic fundamentalists from the north. News of her beatification was banned by Khartoum. Nevertheless, she became a symbol of hope for oppressed Christians and a warning to Khartoum that the 'harvest of suffering' in the south could turn against it. Nine months later, the Pope would make his visit to Khartoum.
As for Blessed Josemaría, after Communism he would have viewed Islam as the most serious threat to the Church. Coming from Upper Aragon, concern for the Moor was part of his heritage. Escrivá's successor, Alvaro del Portillo, had seen the outbreak of sectarian war in the Balkans as a sign that Islam was again surging westwards, edging Europe closer to the abyss.
Seen from another angle, hurrying the Founder down the road to sainthood fitted perfectly into John Paul II's preparations for the Great Jubilee he planned at the end of the second millennium. He believed that canonizations showed the vitality of the Church in modern times. Making Escrivá a saint was like presenting Christ with a trophy, proof that 2,000 years after His ascension there were still believers who followed His footsteps to the point of perfection. This was esoteric logic of a sort that not everyone could accept or comprehend. Indeed, to many outside the faith the custom of elevating departed servants to heavenly councils might seem a little strange, not to say unreal, and irrelevant to the worship of God. But inside the Vatican the making of saints is a serious business. Those raised to the honours of the altars – Vatican-speak for beatification – become icons of faith. At a time when the Church is losing priests icons of faith are sorely needed. During the previous twenty-four years, since 1969 in fact, more than 100,000 men had left the priesthood, with the result that by the early 1990s, 43 per cent of all Catholic parishes had no-one to administer the sacraments.
In the earliest days, a saint was someone who died for his faith. The first was Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jew chosen by the apostles to care for poor widows in the church at Jerusalem. Stephen was arrested for heresy and brought before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council of the time. At the end of a brave but perhaps unwise speech in his own defence he accused the Jewish leaders of killing God's son. For this blasphemy he was stoned to death.
With Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan (323), unrestricted Christian worship was authorized throughout the empire and the harvest of martyrs significantly decreased, and so saint-making criteria underwent a first important change. Thereafter, saints were mainly recruited from among the leading patriarchs. The first thirty-six popes were made saints, along with a number of outstanding monks and even the occasional hermit. Later, in the Middle Ages, it became fashionable to raise the founders of religious orders to sainthood. But it was only in the fourteenth century that the procedure known as 'canonization' – the inscribing of a name on the canon, or list, of saints – was finally conceived. Concurrently appeared the distinction between beati – those venerated locally or within a religious order – and sancti – those canonized by the Pope as figures worthy of universal veneration.
The saint-making procedures underwent further refinement in 1588, when Sixtus V, the so-called 'Iron Pope' and architect of the modern Curia, remodelled the Roman Church's central government, creating fifteen Congregations – the Vatican's equivalent to government ministries. Each Congregation was henceforth headed by a cardinal. Six of the newly created Congregations oversaw the Church's secular administration, and the rest supervised spiritual affairs. Among them was the Congregation of Rituals, which was made responsible for canonizations. By the reign of Urban VIII (1623–44) the power of the Pope had become so strong that veneration which failed to receive his nihil obstat – literally, no opposition – was forbidden. Not until 1917, however, were the procedures for canonization formally incorporated into canon law – the law of the Church. New canonizations remained quite rare and were subject to a painstaking investigative process. For 500 years, no more than 300 new saints were placed on the canon, and the procedures changed little until 1983, when John Paul II completely overhauled them.
The person John Paul II chose to implement his reforms was Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, an ultra-conservative and staunch ally of Opus Dei. He had worked with Father Escrivá and was a frequent dinner guest of the Founder's successor. Knowing that Escrivá's cause for sainthood was high on Opus Dei's agenda, John Paul II's choice of Palazzini as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints was therefore unusual. As a hardened professional of the Curia, Palazzini had been around the Vatican for what seemed like for ever. He had joined the Curia under Pius XII, been promoted archbishop by John XXIII, and continued to rise in the hierarchy until receiving his cardinal's hat from Paul VI. The aims of the 1983 overhaul which John Paul II asked him to implement were threefold: to make canonization less costly, more rapid and more productive for the Church.
The rules governing the saint-making process when Father Escrivá died required a five-year pause from the date of death before a candidate's cause could be introduced. Every candidate for sainthood must have a sponsor, whose first step is to petition the local bishop, referred to in ecclesiastical language as the Ordinary. If the Ordinary accepts that the cause has merit, he initiates what is known as a 'Process Ordinary'. It is designed to furnish the Congregation for the Causes of Saints with all the necessary material to make a final decision. In addition to a biography and list of witnesses, the petition has to be accompanied by a number of letters from religious and civil authorities praising the candidate's attributes. Normally, a postulator (literally, one who demands or nominates for election) is appointed for the Roman phase of the proceedings – that is, after the Ordinary has submitted his Positio. But Opus Dei was in a hurry.
Escrivá's remains had hardly been laid to rest in the prelatic church when Alvaro del Portillo called in one of Opus Dei's most effective media experts, Father Flavio Capucci, and asked him to become postulator general – in other words, the project coordinator. With its all-encompassing foresight, Opus Dei had added Capucci's name sometime before to the Congregation's list of acceptable postulators. Father Capucci had known the Founder personally and as a former editor of Studi Cattolici, a religious magazine published by Opus Dei in Milan, he had interviewed Karol Wojtyla when he was still Archbishop of Cracow. Portillo gave Capucci two years to prepare a postulation file that would be presented to the Ordinary once the cause was officially launched. Opus Dei hoped to have the cause was officially launched. Opus Dei hoped to have Escrivá's beatification wrapped up by 1990, and his canonization in the bag before the end of the millennium.
Excerpted from Their Kingdom Come by Robert Hutchison. Copyright © 1997 Robert Hutchison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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