Catholicism's misunderstood do-gooders (National Post, May 17, 2006)

Opus Dei, the real-life Catholic fellowship Dan Brown mauls to fictional shreds in his novel The Da Vinci Code, has profited from the public's fascination with the Code phenomenon by opening its "secret" chambers to journalists, revealing the group's benign modern face.

A slew of media interviews with candid, urbane numeraries has done much to roll back the negative stereotypes -- not altogether undeserved in the past -- of an inward-dwelling cadre of ultra-conservative spiritual elites.

I've been interested in Opus Dei for a while -- not because of The Da Vinci Code, but as the result of a friendship with Monique David, director of the Canadian women's branch of OD. I interviewed Monique and five of her colleagues at their Montreal headquarters last week.

Most of them have been numeraries for many years. (Numeraries are Opus Dei members committed to celibacy for apostolic reasons, as opposed to usually married supernumeraries.) Monique is 46, and she embraced OD when she was 18. Like the others, she comes across as mature and self-assured, a far cry from the unhinged, pathological Silas of Brown's invention. They spoke enthusiastically about their faith, and their sense of vocation for mentoring spiritual growth in others.

The core concept of OD is the fusion of religious and secular life into an organic whole. Monique says explaining OD remains tough slogging amongst Catholics, who understand traditional Catholicism and lapsed Catholicism, but not this seemingly paradoxical marriage of religion and secularism.

(Curiously, Monique reported, Jews seem to understand OD's mission easily. That's no coincidence. Judaism is a holistic moral system: There may be a dichotomy between the observant and the non-observant, the believing and the agnostic, but the imperative to seek holiness through righteous behaviour -- Opus Dei's purpose in microcosm -- cannot be compartmentalized.)

With its approximately 85,000 members, Opus Dei represents just a tiny slice of global Catholicism. Here in Canada, there are but 600 members, of which only 150 -- 60 men, 90 women -- are numeraries.

The group's centres serve the dual function of numeraries' living quarters and teaching forums. The three centres I have visited -- two in Montreal, one in Jerusalem -- are all mansions in affluent neighbourhoods, in which the public spaces are opulent, while the private quarters are monastically Spartan. Such disparities make it difficult for outsiders to understand the nature of this unique institution.

What's known as a "personal prelature," OD might be called Catholics Without Borders. It is the only Catholic diocese with no geographical boundaries. Apart from the 2% who are priests, OD members are all laity. Most numeraries work for pay at some other job. As they see it, no employment is so lowly it can't be sanctified and made holy through the pursuit of excellence.

Additionally, as spiritual "coaches" continuously seeking greater "friendship" or "filiation" with God themselves, numeraries work one on one or in small groups with potential recruits -- or anyone else -- striving to realize their spiritual potential. They're doing what they consider to be "God's Work" (English for the Latin Opus Dei).

The optics, however, do not favour OD. Numeraries' lives are humble, but the outsider sees only their elegant homes. They are lay people, but because they live together in one house, hold to a daily routine of mass, corporal mortification and frequent group activities, numeraries present superficially like nuns or monks. Women and men are spiritual equals, but only women serve as domestic numerary assistants, and only women sleep on boards all the time. Finally, numeraries are consecrated to a life of spiritual sharing with others, but seem curiously passive about outreach, relying principally on word of mouth for new contacts.

In responding to the calumnies of The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei has proved communications-savvy, opening a window of opportunity for a more permanent reciprocal relationship with the public. Very soon, their 15 minutes of fame will be up, but they will need to maintain their PR offensive.

For Opus Dei's faith is big, and their mission, helping people integrate their faith in day-to-day life, is noble; yet their signage is small, and even admirers like me are forced to concede that their message, crystal clear to themselves, remains, to the untutored masses, stubbornly opaque.

© National Post 2006