A portrait of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva
A portrait of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva

Opening the doors of Opus Dei

According to Reverend Thomas E. Brennan, it took just one outspoken peer to dissuade at least 13 students from attending
By Elizabeth W. Green

According to Reverend Thomas E. Brennan, it took just one outspoken peer to dissuade at least 13 students from attending Mass at St. Paul’s parish. Brennan, Harvard’s undergraduate Catholic chaplain, says that one individual, who has since graduated, was named by those 13 students as the reason they no longer went to church. Some students stopped coming because they felt they were no longer worthy of the church; others felt that the church was no longer a place worthy of their time.

This saddens Brennan. “The Catholic Church is a very large tent that should be able to hold people with a variety of spiritualities,” he says.

Brennan says the individual was affiliated with Opus Dei, a charge Harvard’s Opus Dei leadership vehemently denies.

Opus Dei, Latin for the “work of God,” is a lay group in the Catholic Church founded in 1928. About 15 Harvard students are closely affiliated with the group, which they call “the Work.”

These students are following in a venerable tradition. Harvard has been producing a steady stream of leaders in Opus Dei for nearly half a century. Over the past 40 years, at least three of those holding the highest position of authority within Opus Dei’s U.S. branch were Harvard graduates.

While Harvard students and graduates associated with the group say joining Opus Dei was the best thing they’ve ever done with their lives, others call it a dangerous trap, cult-like in its methods, threatening in its caustic interpretation of Catholicism.

According to Reverend Robert P. Bucciarelli ’56, an Opus Dei priest, however, no student associated with Opus Dei ever threatened the “tent” Brennan visualizes; he calls his fellow priest’s story a lie. “It didn’t happen. It’s a lie—L-I-E,” he says.

Is the tent big enough for both stories?

Like most, Bucciarelli came to Harvard to learn.

What distinguishes the Reverend from the rest, though, is what brought him back four years ago. He is a slim priest with enthusiastic eyebrows and a cool sliver of a smile, and he is no longer here simply to study.

He’s here because you’re here.

It’s a straightforward enough idea. Trickle-down spirituality, really: supply-side evangelism that promises to instill God’s grace into the many through the vehicle of the mighty and powerful few.

This is part of the faith of Opus Dei, a Catholic lay group founded in 1928 by Josemaría Escriva, now a canonized saint. Escriva’s purpose was to promote what Opus Dei terms a “universal call to holiness” that would allow for the “sanctification of work” in everyday life—essentially, to make saintliness more accessible to ordinary people.

But just as much as he emphasizes this idea of everyday spirituality, Escriva in his writings preaches the trickle-down theories Bucciarelli, an Opus Dei priest, espouses as his own. In Escriva’s most widely read collection, The Way—an assortment of strikingly powerful points of prose which Opus Dei members reflect on during prayer—the trickle-down idea is clear.

Point number 831 reads: “Among those around you—apostolic soul—you are the stone fallen into the lake. With your word and your example you produce a first circle…and it another…and another, and another…Wider each time. Now do you understand the greatness of your mission?”

Bucciarelli explains the philosophy in his own terms, mixing metaphors with Escriva to explain the great purpose his group can serve in Cambridge. “Even if [Harvard] were not Godless, there would be a need for Opus Dei at Harvard,” he says. “The intellectuals, you know, they have great influence. Like the snow-capped mountains, they’re going to irrigate the valleys.”

The idea, according to Bucciarelli, is simple. “But the trick,” he says, “is how to do it.”

Opus Dei’s answer has been what it calls the “personal” or “private” apostolate. The mission of Opus Dei is spread through word of mouth—through friendship.

“That’s why I don’t wear a pin saying, ‘I’m in Opus Dei,’” says Joseph F. Keefe ’04, a member of Opus Dei. That’s simply not Opus Dei’s way.

Perhaps because of this private nature of the apostolic work of Opus Dei, the organization is not widely known in the United States.

But on June 16, 2001, Bucciarelli’s name flashed across the front page of The New York Times. It was a sort of coming-out party for Opus Dei’s American wing.

The organization had attracted the attention of the press when one of its members, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Robert Hanssen, was charged with trading American security secrets to Russian spies in exchange for at least $600,000 in cash and diamonds.

The June 16 story reported that Hanssen’s wife told investigators that her husband confessed his crime to his priest. That priest was Bucciarelli who, according to Hanssen’s wife, eventually advised Hanssen not to turn himself into authorities but instead to give the dirty money to charity.

In the press wave that followed, Opus Dei was introduced, to those Americans who were listening, in increasingly critical language. U.S. News and World Report wrote about an “ultraconservative Opus Dei faction of the Roman Catholic Church,” and, a year later when Escriva was canonized, Newsweek called Opus Dei a “shadowy church within the church.”

Opus Dei is what is called a “personal prelature” of the Catholic Church—an entity under the jurisdiction of the Vatican but separate from regional dioceses. In 1982, Pope John Paul II approved the creation of the personal prelature as a new kind of organization in the Church expressly for the purpose of defining Opus Dei. Three popes prior to John Paul had denied Opus Dei this status.

Members say the personal-prelate distinction allows Opus Dei’s influence to transcend geography; whereas the Boston Archdiocese is defined by its location, Opus Dei is defined by its persons. Others point out that the special status exempts Opus Dei from the usual lines of accountability—the local diocese has no authority over the actions of Opus Dei priests.

The transcendence of state and national borders has enabled Opus Dei to expand into a group that boasts 80,000 members worldwide and 3,000 in 35 cities across the United States. These are likely conservative estimates of Opus Dei’s scope. Many of those affiliated with Opus Dei are not official members, but supporters not included in these statistics.

Opus Dei crossed the Atlantic and took root in Chicago in 1949. Since then, according to Opus Dei’s Office of Communications, it has spread its “apostolic activities” into about 35 cities in the United States. Internationally, the Work is known foremost for its members’ conservative political influence, according to the British journalist Robert Hutchinson, author of Their Kingdom Come: Inside The Secret World Of Opus Dei, and a reporter for The Guardian.

Hutchninson argues that Opus Dei’s political contacts “blossomed” in the United States during the Reagan years when the Work “placed its agents inside the White House and recruited among the middle ranks of the Pentagon.”

Today, former FBI Director Louis Freeh is known to be close to Opus Dei. According to Bucciarelli, Freeh’s children attend Opus Dei schools and Freeh knows Opus Dei members. Bucciarelli also says that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia knows members of the Work, and Scalia’s wife is reported to be an Opus Dei member.

But Bucciarelli and others firmly deny that the religious group is in any way political. “No goal of Opus Dei is political,” Bucciarelli says. “Opus Dei has nothing to do with personal political ideology.”

So when the Hanssen ordeal thrust his personal role as a spiritual leader into the public eye, it made sense that Bucciarelli would keep a low proifle. As talking heads debated whether clerical law should protect a Catholic priest from being interviewed by the FBI, Bucciarelli took refuge at Elmbrook, an Opus Dei center in Cambridge, where only one journalist dared seek him out (a pesky New York Times reporter whom Bucciarelli calls “courteous” despite his “uncalled-for” intrusion).

Today, the Opus Dei priest gives the same response to questions about the Hanssen matter that he gave to the press in 2001: as a priest respecting the confidentiality of his conversations, he has no comment.

“Oasis of Peace”

Elmbrook Center, where Bucciarelli took refuge, is also home to Keefe, two other male undergraduates, one Boston University student, a Harvard Law School student, a Kennedy School of Government visiting fellow, and an MIT administrator. A group of about ten undergraduate men attends events at Elmbrook on a weekly basis. Bucciarelli says that between 15 and 20 students are in regular spiritual contact with him.

Some College women attend meetings similar to the weekly Elmbrook get-togethers at the Bayridge residence in Boston’s Back Bay. The center provides spiritual guidance and up-scale living for 60 college-aged women, not all of them connected to Opus Dei.

The Harvard women with ties to Opus Dei meet regularly on campus for a group called “circle;” the group is led by a member of Opus Dei who assists the women in their spiritual formation. Most of the students who associate themselves with Opus Dei are not official members. Together with the few who are, these affiliates form a tightly knit social group of about 15 people. Only two current Harvard undergraduates, both men, are official members of Opus Dei: Keefe and Maximilian A. Pakaluk ’04. A female teaching fellow in the government department, Melissa R. Moschella ’00, is also an official member. All three are what is called “numerary” members of the Work.

As numeraries, these men and women dedicate their lives to Opus Dei, make a promise of chastity and are encouraged to take on a regimen of physical mortification that includes wearing a “cilis,” a spiked metal chain, around their thighs and placing boards over their mattresses.

Moschella, who practices both of these forms of mortification, calls the custom “the most natural thing in the world.”

“Anything that’s worthwhile in life involves sacrifice,” she says. “[Mortification] is just one way of remembering that material possessions are good, but they’re not everything in life.” Moschella makes these sacrifices willingly because she is deeply committed to Opus Dei. It is a committment that Keefe has shared ever since high school.

It was a hot D.C. summer when Keefe, one of the two numerary undergraduates, fell in love.

Keefe was in D.C. as a counselor at a summer camp for inner-city kids run by Opus Dei members. His days were filled with sweaty games of basketball, street hockey and volleyball. In the hours left over, he organized an impromptu choir for the kids. At night, Keefe spent hours reading the work of Josemaria Escriva, then not yet a canonized saint.

“I can’t thank Opus Dei enough for letting me do that project,” Keefe says now. “It was that summer where I really fell in love with the spirit of Opus Dei.”

Keefe’s love affair was in a way consummated on October 6 of last year, when the man who made his life’s work possible was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II. Keefe traveled with friends from Elmbrook to Rome to witness the canonization.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life—to see this man, who’s had such a great influence on my life, be recognized for what he’s done,” Keefe says.

Calling this one day “happiest” of his life means a lot coming from Keefe. Even casual acquaintances gush about his reliably upbeat demeanor.

“The whole Keefe family was always smiling,” says Luke, a male first-year who knew Keefe in high school and asked not to be referred to by his real name. “Everyone looked up to them as the perfect Catholic family.”

Keefe says that his 10 siblings are his best friends. As a middle child, the Harvard junior has followed in the footsteps of two older siblings, a brother and a sister, who both attended Harvard, as well. He is also following his family in the tradition of Opus Dei. One older sister is a numerary member, and his parents are both “supernumeraries”—married members.

While Keefe grew up with Opus Dei, his Elmbrook housemate, Daniel R. Tapia ’05 says he met the Work at a business program he attended at UCLA while still a junior in high school. His family, he writes in an e-mail, “doesn’t understand religion and God,” but supports him in his decision to become closer to God and Opus Dei through residence at Elmbrook.

Elmbrook Center sits at the edge of the Mass. Ave. side of Cambridge Commons, twenty or so yards down narrow Follen Street. This humble white colonial, though called a “center,” is more like a home. Inside visitors find an old-fashioned parlor to their right. On the left is the dining room, closed from view by white double-doors that are only opened during meal time. In the parlor, a worn carpet and aged armchairs make Elmbrook feel, in Keefe’s words, like “a time warp.” Keefe remembers, laughing, that his father, who visited Elmbrook when he was at Harvard, said the same ornaments decorated the house when he was a student. Only one framed picture is on display in the parlor.

From within the frame, the smiling face of a young St. Josemaría Escriva, whom Elmbrook residents call simply “the Founder” or just “Father,” peers out, watching over the room. Further back in the house is a Spartan chapel, dully lit, with only a low glow of sunlight creeping in softly through stained glass windows.

Bucciarelli calls Elmbrook an “oasis of peace” for the students who visit it.

Keefe seems to agree. He says he has been happier than ever since he moved from Adams House to Elmbrook this year. He enjoys the feeling of a warm family environment, a close-knit group of men all living the same vocation: Opus Dei.

But there are times when Keefe’s happiness is interrupted. It can be hard, he says, when your life’s purpose is dismissed as a mind-controlling cult.

This is the charge of ODAN, the Opus Dei Awareness Network. According to Executive Director Dianne R. DiNicola, who founded ODAN in 1991, the goal of the group is to provide information, outreach and support to people around the world who claim to have been hurt by Opus Dei.

DiNicola founded the group after her daughter, Tammy, who had become a numerary member while a student at Boston College in February of 1988, left the Work. As Tammy drew closer into the group, her mother says, she pulled further and further away from her family, even saying at one point that “she had a new family in Opus Dei and that she could not come home.”

Tammy’s new home, DiNicola says, had become Bayridge, where Moschella lived during her senior year at Harvard.

Moschella says Opus Dei does not force separations of children away from their parents. She herself has found that she is a better daughter to her parents since joining the Work than she ever was before. “But at times, there could be an irrational objection by parents to a person’s vocation,” she says. It is especially at these times that members must remember the order of their priorities.

“Our first obligation is to our supernatural family of the Work,” Moschella says. “But you never abandon your obligation to love your [immediate] family and support them.”

As their daughter drew increasingly apart from her family, the DiNicolas brought their concerns to members of Opus Dei. Dianne DiNicola contacted a Catholic priest who told her he knew others with similar stories. She says, however, she wasn’t satisfied with the response from Opus Dei, and so she started ODAN to share her family’s cautionary tale. Twelve years after DiNicola started the network, she estimates that about 3,600 people from across the country have contacted ODAN with concerns about Opus Dei. This is a very rough estimate, as ODAN does not keep figures of the numbers of people with whom it has been in contact.

But after 12 years as an organization, and only 6 years on the Internet, ODAN has seen a stream of phone calls, e-mail and letters from concurring voices. “Almost on a daily basis, we are contacted,” DiNicola says.

As a part of her efforts at information outreach, DiNicola says she spends a significant portion of her time sending information about Opus Dei to Catholic campus ministers. Indeed, she says informing college campuses is “one of our main focuses.”

DiNicola has never met Keefe. She claims that the organization that he loves nearly ruined her daughter’s life. For Keefe, allegations like hers just confuse him. “I’ve been to the [anti-Opus Dei] websites and I suffer so much reading that. It hurts me to see that they are hurt. But I also get confused. I wish somebody would tell me if someone here at Harvard was suffering because of Opus Dei,” he says.It is in the nature of the “intellectual apostolate” preached by Opus Dei founder Escriva that the Work try to reach the brightest minds. This might explain the presence of Opus Dei centers near the campuses of not only Harvard, but also Princeton, Stanford, Brown, Columbia, UCLA, Georgetown and at least ten other American colleges.

At Harvard as well as other Ivy League schools with university residences, Opus Dei has not always been welcome.

The first and only Opus Dei priest to operate as the Catholic chaplain at Harvard took this post in 1954, just five years after the group had taken root in Chicago.

This priest, though, according to his successor, Reverend Joseph Collins, was not universally welcomed by Harvard’s student body. “I think that the students got the impression that if they joined the [Harvard Catholic] club, they’d have to join Opus Dei,” Collins says.

Although this priest chose to leave Harvard for reasons of his own, in 1961 Collins says he asked two priests of Opus Dei to leave the school’s Catholic chaplaincy. One of them, Collins says, was Bucciarelli. Bucciarelli denies the charge.

Last year, another Opus Dei priest was dismissed from St. Peter’s parish near the Quad, where 50 to 100 Harvard students worship every week, according to James Roosevelt ’68, grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904 and a resident of Cambridge. Roosevelt says he and a group of parishioners asked their pastor to dismiss the Opus Dei priest. The pastor, he says, consented.

Another, more highly publicized removal of an Opus Dei priest from a college campus occurred at Princeton University in 1990, when Princeton’s Catholic chaplain dismissed Reverend C. John McCloskey, whose removal had been petitioned by students charging that McCloskey’s presence threatened student welfare, according to a 1995 report in America, a national Catholic newsweekly. The article also reported that McCloskey, who is now the director of the Catholic Information Center in D.C., denied all charges.

Reverend Alvaro Silva, a former priest of Opus Dei who was with the Work for 35 years before leaving in 1999, is not surprised that the group has encountered so much resistance. While he was still a member of the group, Silva pushed for reforms from inside because he felt that recruitment was too aggressive.

“I think it is fair to say that everything that Opus Dei does has that goal in mind,” he says. “On the side you can do many other things, but the goal is [proselytism].”

In 1999, Silva says he was told that he could either accept Opus Dei as it was or leave the group. He left. But Silva, who lived at Elmbrook from 1980 to 1986, still believes that much of Opus Dei’s mission is good. “In many ways it has a very beautiful style of doing things,” he says. “There is an emphasis on study, and friendship—what a pity.”

The pity, he thinks, is that this mission becomes corrupted when Opus Dei members work too forcefully to win new members. “To me,” he says, “the idea of divine vocation is something very serious. So when you are aggressive in something so delicate, you can really manipulate people—especially young people.”