Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, a Spanish priest and consultant to the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as well as other Vatican departments, has been confirmed by Pope Francis as the new leader of Opus Dei after being elected to the post by the group’s congress.
Ocáriz becomes the third successor to St. Josemaría Escrivá, who founded Opus Dei, technically a “personal prelature” under church law, in 1928.
Widely seen as the frontrunner heading into the Opus Dei electoral congress, Ocáriz had been group’s auxiliary vicar. His selection was confirmed by Pope Francis on the same day of his election.
The choice of a new leader followed the death of Bishop Javier Echevarría on December 12. If things hold to form, and in keeping with Opus Dei’s status as a prelature, Pope Francis likely will make Ocáriz a bishop.
Generally seen as the most accomplished theologian in Opus Dei, Ocáriz was born in Paris in 1944 to a Spanish family living in exile during Spain’s Civil War. He obtained a degree in physics from the University of Barcelona, then degrees in theology from Rome’s Lateran University and the Opus Dei-affiliated University of Navarre in Spain.
Ocáriz’s area of theological specialization is Christology, or the Church’s teaching on Christ. Among other books, he’s the author of The Mystery of Jesus Christ, published by Four Courts Press in 1998.
Though Ocáriz was not an intimate of Escrivá in the same way the saint’s first two successors were, he lived with Escrivá in the 1960s as a student. Over a period of 22 years, Ocáriz also accompanied Echevarría on visits to more than 70 nations.
In 1986 Ocáriz was named a consultant to the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, and emerged as a steadily more valued member of Ratzinger’s team.
Ocáriz was a principal drafter of the August 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which stirred controversy for asserting that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient situation” regarding salvation with respect to non-Christians. Ocáriz appeared with Ratzinger at a Vatican press conference in order to present the document.
As pope, when Benedict XVI set up a commission to dialogue with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, with a view to bringing the society, popularly known as the “Lefebvrists,” back into communion. Benedict tapped Ocáriz as a member. At the time, one hypothesis for reintegrating the Lefebvrists was the creation of a personal prelature, and Ocáriz brought special expertise on the structure to the talks.
Ocáriz also has served as a consultant to the Congregation for Clergy since 2003, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization since its inception under Benedict XVI in 2011.
Over the years, Opus Dei has sometimes been a lightning rod for controversy. Some critics have accused the group of cult-like recruiting and control over members, while others object to what they see as the group’s conservative profile in matters of both secular politics and Catholic teaching.
Ferment reached an apex with both the novel and film The Da Vinci Code, in which the villain was an albino assassin monk depicted as part of Opus Dei.
In a 2004 interview, however, Ocáriz insisted the real spirit of Opus Dei is radically different from those caricatures, and that its spirituality is rooted in Escrivá’s vision of the “sanctification of the ordinary.”
“All human realities, all the circumstances of human life, all the professions, every family and social situation, are means of sanctification,” Ocáriz said, explaining Escrivá’s spiritual legacy.
“It’s not just that everyone is supposed to be a saint despite the fact of not being priests or monks, but precisely that all the realities of life are places that can lead one to the Lord,” he said.
Ocáriz said that sanctifying work as Escrivá understood it means “making one’s work a real offering to God,” which he said implies two things: 1) “seeking to do work well, because if I truly believe this act is an offering to God, it would be absurd not to try to do it well”; and 2) “having the correct intention of seeking to serve God and others through this particular work.”
This, Ocáriz said is “always a battlefield, because there’s always egoism, pride, and so on” that accompanies any human endeavor, but that’s the drama of Opus Dei’s spiritual path.
Prior to becoming the auxiliary in December 2014, Ocáriz had served as the vicar general, the number two position in Opus Dei, since 1994. In addition to his theological interests, Ocáriz is also an avid tennis player.
A statement from Opus Dei on Monday said that in the coming days, Ocáriz will propose a slate of vicars and counselors to the congress to aid him in governance over the next eight years.