Marking a generational change for one of the Catholic Church’s most influential organizations, Spanish Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, the leader of Opus Dei, died in Rome on Monday at the age of 84.
Echevarría had been hospitalized in Rome’s Campus Biomedico on Dec.
5, and died of complications due to a pulmonary infection. He marks the
last close personal aide to the group’s founder to succeed him as its
Pope Francis on Tuesday expressed condolences, while also giving
thanks for Echevarría’s “generous witness of priestly and episcopal
life” and his “constant service of love to the Church and for souls.”
Echevarría had been appointed the prelate of Opus Dei under St. Pope
John Paul II in 1994, and was named a bishop by John Paul one year later
Under the Code of Canon Law, Opus Dei is considered a
“personal prelature,” a structure which unites a prelate, clergy and
laity in specific pastoral activities, which are defined not by
geography like a diocese but a chosen spiritual path regardless of where
To date, Opus Dei remains the lone personal prelature in the Catholic
Church, assigned that status in 1982 by John Paul II. In 2015 its
membership was roughly 94,000 people worldwide, including over 91,000
laity and more than 2,000 priests.
Founded in 1928 by Saint Josemaría Escrivá, Opus Dei is a body that
was for many years the subject of considerable internal controversy.
Seen by many observers as a largely conservative force within
Catholicism, Opus Dei has been criticized among other things for its
alleged wealth, its emphasis on papal loyalty and obedience, its
attitudes towards women, and its practice of “corporal mortification,”
including use of the cilice, a small barbed chain worn by core members
around the upper thigh.
On the other hand, admirers regard Opus Dei as a highly committed
corps of mostly lay Catholics who undergo a serious program of spiritual
and theological formation and who generally are willing to make a
profound commitment to the Catholic Church and to the faith.
Famously, Opus Dei was featured in the 2003 Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code
as a nefarious force within the Catholic Church, though in the years
since, much of the controversy surrounding the organization has largely
Despite its relatively small size, Opus Dei is considered an
influential force within Catholicism given the prominence of many of its
members and the favor with which many bishops and other Catholic
leaders see the group.
Echevarría represented the last of the original generation of Opus
Dei figures to head the organization. Escrivá himself held that role
until his death in 1975, and was succeeded by his close aide Bishop
Álvaro del Portillo, who led the organization until 1994 and is today
considered “Blessed” by the Catholic Church, meaning the penultimate
stage before sainthood.
Portillo was beatified in September 2014 with the permission of Pope
Francis, who knew Opus Dei and formed friendships with several members
of the group during his time in Argentina.
Like Portillo, Echevarría had been a personal confidante to Escrivá,
serving as his personal secretary from 1953 to 1975. He became the
Secretary General of Opus Dei in 1975, and the Vicar General in 1982
upon Escrivá’s death.
According to a statement released by Opus Dei on Monday, Echevarría
will be replaced for the moment by Spanish Monsignor Fernando Ocariz,
the current Vicar General, who assumed that office in 1994.
Opus Dei’s statutes, Ocariz has one month to call a “collective
congress” to choose his replacement, which should take place within
According to the group’s statutes, whoever is selected will need to be approved by the pope.
Also according to the Opus Dei statement, Ocariz administered the last rites of the Church to Echevarría before he died.
By papal appointment, Echevarría had served as a member of both the
Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Apostolic Signatura, in
effect the Vatican’s Supreme Court. He was the author of five books,
including a set of memoirs of Escrivá.
In general, Echevarría was regarded in Rome as a personally pious and
non-flamboyant personality, who helped steer Opus Dei toward a period
of normalization after the controversies surrounding the canonization of
Escrivá in 2002 and then the turbulence of the Da Vinci Code.