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Powerful Roman Catholic Group Opus Dei Faces Transition After Leader's Death

Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei, is pictured in November 2012 in Rome. He died Monday at the age of 84.
Alberto Pizzoli
AFP/Getty Images
Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei, is pictured in November 2012 in Rome. He died Monday at the age of 84.

Opus Dei, the powerful but somewhat controversial Roman Catholic organization, faces a transition to new leadership following the death of its prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarría.

Echevarría, who died Mondayat the age of 84, was the last link to the first generation of the group's leadership, having served as a personal secretary for more than 20 years to Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá.

An elected Opus Dei congress will choose a new prelate. Echevarría was honored with a memorial mass Thursday in Rome.

Escrivá established Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") in 1928 as a primarily lay organization within the Roman Catholic Church. Of its more than 90,000 followers, only about 2,000 are priests. The lay Catholics who commit to Opus Dei membership are expected to aspire to saintly conduct in their daily lives, bringing spiritual values to their professional, social, and family activities. In canonizing Escrivá in 2002, Pope John Paul II called him "a saint of ordinary life."

For much of the group's history, however, Opus Dei has been the subject of controversy.

Membership at the outset was limited to men. A Spanish priest, Escrivá was allied with Francisco Franco, Spain's military dictator for many years, and as Opus Dei expanded internationally its members were often portrayed as supporting right wing or authoritarian governments.

It has also faced scrutiny over the extent of control it allegedly exercised over members. Sometimes characterized as "a church within the church," Opus Dei had its own bishop and was not assigned to a geographical diocese. About 10 percent of its lay members take vows of celibacy and reside in Opus Dei houses, where their daily activities are sometimes monitored by their superiors.

The group was portrayed (unfairly, according to its supporters) as a secretive cult in The Da Vinci Code, the 2003 novel by Dan Brown that was later made into a movie.

Though Bishop Echevarría had been close to Escrivá, he managed to steer the organization in a new direction under his own leadership.

"Part of his mission involved responding to some of the perceived excesses of the group," says James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America magazine. "In past decades, [Opus Dei] had been critiqued for some secrecy and heavy-handed recruiting techniques. But as I see it, this has drastically diminished, and the group has become more an accepted and respected part of the church."

Though a relatively small organization, Opus Dei has outsized influence within Catholicism, due to the prominent roles many of its members play in professional and political circles.

While the next prelate will be the first not associated with the group's founders, Martin expects the Opus Dei leadership to continue "on the path they've been following — helping lay people to lead holy lives."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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