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