I remember when, about fifteen years ago, there was some foolish popular novel that decided to call itself historical fiction or something like that and circulated lies about the Church, and focused in particular upon a particular society of the Catholic Faithful called Opus Dei. All of a sudden, Catholics became aware that Opus Dei existed, and suddenly there were books being written about this work and about its founder, Saint Josemaria Escrivá (1902-1975). I remember purchasing one particular book, by an American journalist called John Allen. My first reaction to the content of that book was that, goodness, this Opus Dei sounds very, very Catholic. It had the same spirit of devotion that I had received from my parents and grandparents. I couldn’t understand why there was such a controversy, as the tag-line of the book has it: an objective look behind the myths and reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church.
But I suppose that, at this moment in time, the Church still is the most controversial force in the world, still peddling the Apostolic teaching at a time when it is almost universally rejected, even by many Catholics. It is usually those who don’t agree with the teaching of the Church in general who end up opposing apostolates such as that of Opus Dei. The practices of its members that are criticised we would be shocked to find are actually the practices of numerous great Saints throughout our history: such things as fasting and asceticism, and various acts of corporal mortification. Reading through that book, I suddenly discovered the extraordinary inspiration for Opus Dei: the life and teaching of its founder, our Saint today, Saint Josemaria. He was a Spanish priest and the crucial point of his teaching was that everyone, not just monks and nuns, everyone is called to holiness. Now, sixty or so years after the second council of the Vatican, you’ll say that that is a given. And indeed it has been the constant teaching of the Church, but it has needed highlighting by great Saints, like Saint Francis de Sales, among others. But it is more or less a given today because of the work of men like Father Josemaria, who declared that the ordinary life of millions of Christians can bring holiness or sanctity to them. This is what we have for some time called the universal call to holiness, and it forms part of the theology of the laity.
Father Josemaria’s most significant work was the erection of Opus Dei, which would propagate his teaching. There are several parishes in this country run by priests of Opus Dei, and I have been pleased to meet and join in with some of their prayer apostolates. One of the best ways of learning about Father Josemaria’s teachings, which are common-sense and down-to-earth expressions of Catholicism, is by reading the books that have been composed from his sayings. One of those is the best seller, the Way. But there is a short list of other, similar books. The Holy Father John Paul II was very fond of Father Josemaria, whom he knew personally. In 2002, he canonised him and declared him to be ‘among the great witnesses of Christianity.’ There is very much that we can learn from him about the simplicity of the devout life – the life lived in humility before God.