MADRID — Beyond reverence, there is always a hint of mystery, even politics, at play whenever the Roman Catholic Church decides to advance someone toward sainthood. But when that step involves one of the more revolutionizing popes of recent history advancing a figure from one of the most powerful and discreet of Catholic movements, the mysteries and politics seem to run even deeper.
On Saturday, the Catholic Church will beatify Monsignor Álvaro del Portillo, a Spanish priest who led Opus Dei and died 20 years ago. It will not be the first time that a leading figure from Opus Dei has been so honored — the group’s founder, José María Escrivá de Balaguer, was canonized by John Paul II in 2002 — and del Portillo’s process toward sainthood was well underway before Pope Francis was elected to the papacy a year and a half ago.
But the rite is nonetheless seen as telling coming under Francis, an Argentine who belongs to the Jesuit religious order, which is viewed as liberal and emphasizes ministering to the poor and the dispossessed. Opus Dei runs many charitable efforts that serve the poor, but it is best known for cultivating the highly educated and elite professionals who can spread Opus Dei’s ardent brand of Catholic spirituality to ever-wider and more powerful circles.
Some 200,000 people are expected to gather on the outskirts of Madrid for the beatification Mass, the third of four steps toward sainthood, in what will be an unusually public show of force for Opus Dei, a movement that consolidated itself as a prelature under the papacy of John Paul II. The movement then seemed to be less visible at the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI, and Francis’ ascent seemed to portend little better.
Opus Dei “perhaps thought that they’d be sidelined by Francis,” said Carlo Marroni, a Vatican journalist for the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. “But the opposite has been true,” despite Francis’ removal this week of a controversial Opus Dei bishop from Paraguay.
The beatification is a result of “indefatigable lobbying” by Opus Dei within the Vatican, according to Marco Politi, a Vatican journalist with Il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian newspaper. He suggested that the speed of the beatification, coming just 12 years after the canonization of Escrivá, was “a record for a religious organization.”
Within Spain, where Opus Dei was founded in 1928, the movement still holds exceptional sway, not only within the church but also as what is regarded as a force behind an array of political and financial institutions.
The movement’s founder, Escrivá, was a Spanish priest who urged Catholics to sanctify God through their regular work and hence named his institution using the Latin for “work of God.”
Escrivá also highlighted the importance of education, including through the media, and founded Spain’s first faculty of journalism, within the University of Navarra. That university also runs IESE, which ranks among Europe’s best business schools. That educational network, in turn, has made Opus Dei a wellspring of elite talent that has gone on to fill positions of power.
Del Portillo was born in Madrid and spent most of his life in Rome, working alongside Escrivá before succeeding him at the helm of Opus Dei. His beatification was justified by the miraculous recovery from heart failure of a Chilean baby, whose mother put an image of del Portillo above his cradle.
In Spain, where Opus Dei now has a third of its 90,000 official members, the movement’s image has suffered from its past links to the Franco dictatorship, during which some members were ministers.
“Many people still see us as the strongest supporters of the Franco regime, but Opus Dei tells members to have a socially responsible role and left each one to choose whether this was best done within the regime or not,” said Antonio Argandoña, an economics professor at IESE, who is also among the numeraries of Opus Dei, devotees who are celibate and usually live in Opus Dei centers.
Antonio del Moral, a Spanish judge, said Opus Dei “never influenced the content of my decisions, but perhaps their external shape, in that Opus Dei taught me to put a lot of effort into working well and being a good professional.”
His membership in Opus Dei is “not something I try to hide but neither something I go around publicizing,” the judge said. “It’s not like telling people you’re a fan of Real Madrid,” the soccer club.
Similarly, José Antonio Ruíz San Román, professor of sociology at the Complutense University in Madrid, said Opus Dei used “disorganized influence, transmitting its thinking to small groups of people,” rather than trying to mobilize the public and organize street protests against decisions like that of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to withdraw a controversial draft bill to restrict access to abortion.
The movement has been especially discreet about its finances. Katinka van Cranenburgh, a Dutch visiting professor at Esade, a Spanish business school, said that she had been researching the finances of religious groups since 2010, but that Opus Dei was among those that never responded to her queries. “I’ve not seen them even start to be transparent about where they invest their money,” she said.
Its assets were estimated to be at least $2.8 billion by John Allen, a journalist who wrote a book about Opus Dei after the publication in 2003 of “The Da Vinci Code,” the best-selling work of fiction by Dan Brown that portrayed the movement as a secretive criminal organization.
Followers dismissed such characterizations as fantasy. Membership is “like going to the gym, but to stay spiritually fit every day,” said Javier Cremades, chairman of Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo, a Spanish law firm.
Maintaining some discipline, he explained, helps him focus his faith: “If you’re not tied to Opus Dei or some other movement, being a Catholic today isn’t easy in a world that has become much more materialistic.”
The Opus Dei office in Madrid said it had received sponsorship from a dozen corporations to cover the costs of organizing Saturday’s beatification Mass, which will be led by Cardinal Angelo Amato.
About 3,000 Madrid residents are also hosting visitors during the weekend. The celebration events then continue until next Thursday in Rome and include a general audience with Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
Raquel Rodríguez, assistant director of the Madrid office, said the beatification was never planned as a public relations event, but she acknowledged that it should serve to highlight the contributions of Monsignor del Portillo and Opus Dei to society.
“Many of the misinterpretations of Opus Dei are due to people’s lack of knowledge and ignorance,” Rodríguez said.