By Charlie Johnston
I mentioned last week how we must be careful not to confuse red herrings with red flags when considering a devotion or private revelation. The satan gets absolutely frantic in trying to discredit that which is objectively good. Christianity was, for over a century, denounced for its cannibalism by Romans; a perversion of its doctrine that the Eucharist is the True Body and Blood of Our Lord.
As most of you know, I am affiliated with the Prelature of Opus Dei, not as a member, but as a cooperator, one who supports the Work with my prayers and benefits from spiritual direction through it. My first direct encounter with Opus Dei was when I was doing radio back in 1993. There was some controversy involving it. I don’t remember whether it was a national controversy or just something in Chicago. It was denounced as a rabid cult engaged in mind control. I never dismiss something because people say ugly things about it. That is a cheap intimidation tactic to try to get you to stick with the “cool kids,” lest you mar your reputation. (Back in high school in senior year, I was the ultimate big man on campus – and it was my wont to spend time hanging around with every different group in the school. My principal once warned me that I should be careful, for I would be judged by the company I keep. I set him laughing in astonishment when I gazed at him with imperious intensity and retorted, “I am the company by which my friends are judged.”) As usual, I set about researching Opus Dei. What I found was that it was profoundly faithful to the Magisterium and the Pope and that it was devoted to finding sanctity through doing our ordinary work with extraordinary love in the presence of God. It was fundamentally about the apostolate of the laity. So while much of the press was speculating on this “weird” cult, I explained on my show what I had found in my research and defiantly announced that “I am Opus Dei and a cultist if that is what is considered cult these days.”
It wasn’t exactly accurate: I didn’t even know anyone who was affiliated with Opus Dei at the time – or so I thought. I was just proclaiming my solidarity with a group that was being maligned. I came to find out that I did have some friends who were active in it. Within two years, I began to take spiritual direction through it. Though I am only a cooperator of the Work (The Work is a common term used for Opus Dei among its adherents), two of my priest directors have been Delegate Vicars for the Midwest, in charge of about a third of the country – men of no little authority. They have not just been directors; they are friends. I heard all the ugly stories, but I was dealing with people right at the heart of it, and they were some of the noblest, most humble and steadfast people I had ever met. They run some of the most productive charitable foundations I have ever seen, running a lot of schools in inner city neighborhoods and various works that have had a real positive effect on other’s lives, particularly some of the most disadvantaged. During a fundraising visit with the CEO of a major international company while I was running a U.S. Senate race, I was delighted to find his executive assistant was a member of Opus Dei – and even more delighted when the CEO – a Protestant – said in recent years he had developed a great preference for financially supporting charitable works run by Opus Dei, for he had found the money there goes to the need, not to bureaucrats and ancillary things.
Unfortunately, over the years, I also encountered pockets of people affiliated with Opus Dei who helped me understand why some of the ugly stories were so common. In some pockets, people affiliated with the Work are the most arrogant, elitist, judgmental self-righteous snots you will ever encounter. They do their dead-level best to imitate the smug priggishness of the Pharisees…and do it insufferably well. Over the years, having traveled much in the U.S., I have discovered that these deformed versions flourish most in cities where there is not a permanent Opus Dei Center, with a corps of priests to keep things on track and weed out such things. But it did not come as a surprise to me that the satan should so furiously try to discredit the Work and that he should devote a lot of time to deforming the spirituality of some involved in it. For I had been told by my visitors when I was researching Opus Dei that it would be a primary instrument the Lord would use in renewing the faith of His Church during the Storm, just as the Franciscans had been a primary tool for the same in another age.
It all came to a head with the making into a movie of Dan Brown’s scabrous novel, “The DaVinci Code.” It was pure potboiler and fantasy, but it made a group it called Opus Dei into the villains. The group in the novel and movie bore no resemblance to the actual Prelature. One of the key bad guys was an Opus Dei albino monk who went around assassinating critics. Opus Dei has never had monks…and I have never encountered any assassins in its ranks. The movie was actually a turning point. Its portrayal was so over the top it created a lot of public interest in the Work, and people began to see Opus Dei for what it is rather than the ugly smears. In the midst of all this, I was in Washington, D.C. on a PAC fundraising swing for one of my Congressional clients. My original priest-director was running the Catholic Information Center in D.C., so we made arrangements to get together for dinner while I was there. The DaVinci Code was a big subject of conversation. I said I thought Brown had done us a great favor – and my priest agreed. He said he spent a LOT of time explaining all the misconceptions and smears involved in it – and could see that people and even the press were starting to get an actual realistic view of it, but complained that constantly explaining the same things over and over was wearying. Suddenly, I got a little twinkle. “You know, Father,” I said, “you might not want to be so vigorous in explaining that we don’t actually have an albino monk assassin who goes after our critics.” His eyes widened, then he chuckled and said maybe I had a point.
Finally, a serious independent investigative book on Opus Dei was written by journalist John Allen, then an associate editor for The Boston Globe and a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter (update – in a previous version of this story I erroneously stated Allen was with the National Catholic Register). It put to rest the wildest of the rumors and smears and gave midlevel officials in the Church a better picture of what this organization is all about. Like many such fruitful movements, after serious initial controversy, it has been accepted at almost all levels of the Church as well as at the Vatican, from whence approval first came.
What initially attracted me to Opus Dei was its emphasis on the ordinary, the simple virtues, and the apostolate of the laity; its understanding that laymen are not second-rate Christians who don’t have the fortitude to be priests or religious, but that the authentic lay calling is, itself, a vocation. It mirrored what I saw that lie ahead…how we would endure the Storm and who we would be afterward; each living our authentic call with passion and fidelity, lifting each other up throughout.
Now, in the last week, there has been a lot of discussion here on Luisa Picaretta’s teachings on living in the Divine Will. Most has been favorable, but I have had a raft of emails warning me of the cultish nature of many devotees of Luisa. One of the warnings came from one of the readers whose opinion I value most highly. But two of the readers whose opinion I value most highly, Ellen Chris and Daniel O’Connor, have studied the matter thoroughly and are enthusiasts. Ellen went through some of the problems – there had been an advocate who made an amateur and deeply flawed translation of Luisa’s writings and did, indeed, try to set up a little cult around them with him at the center of it all ruthlessly commanding everyone and acting as “high prophet” of Luisa. He did enormous damage. The junk translation led to a moratorium for a time of any of her writings being distributed in English. But in their original language, the Vatican has given approval for their dissemination – and proper translations into English are being prepared, some of which have already become public. Ellen has been equally forthright in telling me how much of it from this source was surrounded by genuinely cultic activity and was oppressive. Certainly, it struck me that if this much effort went into trying to pervert it, it was worthy of some examination. I also must concede (and you regulars may be similarly amused) that the very idea of Ellen and Daniel, two of our most theologically sophisticated friends on this site, shaving their heads, putting on robes and soliciting at airports made me laugh out loud.
Perhaps most important, I have had so many in the last year posit dramatic misconceptions of what the world will look like after the Rescue that I have sometimes wearied of trying to correct the misconceptions. Then suddenly last week, Glenn Dallaire at his Mystics of the Church website, did an incredible piece that more accurately described life after the Rescue as I have seen it than any other piece I have ever read. Then our Ellen weighed in independently with a comment that did the same. Then one of Mark Mallett’s articles hit many of the same notes. Daniel O’Connor publishes a book on the same last week, based around the writings of Luisa. Suddenly, understanding of what the world in the era of peace will look like sprouted overnight like a field of dandelions in the spring. And all of this understanding was built largely around Luisa’s authentic writings by people who have studied her.
I will confess, I had avoided her until this sudden blossoming last week. Much of what I heard sounded weird – and some was downright creepy. But as the people I have cited above describe it, what her teaching comes down to is that we will soon once again be friends with God. That is it exactly. So I regard it, at this point, as part of the unfolding development of our understanding of doctrine. That is not to say I will not watch for weird stuff. I would not let those Pharisees who cloak themselves in the language of Opus Dei even as they peddle elite snobbery defame the Work here. Neither will I allow perversions of what trusted advisors tell me is the authentic teaching of Luisa creep in. If an error sneaks through, I will correct it – and if I miss it, we have some pretty sophisticated orthodox contributors here who keep me in line. Now I have my work to do. I would not let this become a website about Luisa, just as I have not let it become a website about Opus Dei. But I regard Opus Dei as an animating source of wisdom whose teachings are welcomed here and I do the same with Luisa.
Throughout, since I began this website a year ago, I have said we had reached critical times; a time of trial, a time of fulfillment, and a time of miracles. This comes for all, believers or not, that those with eyes and ears may see the signs of the times. I was delighted to see this miracle recounted from entirely secular sources. I end with it that you may see that God really is calling to all, and giving signs daily that He is with us, living solidarity with us as we enter the fullness of the Storm.