ROME—In a process that can be only defined as “anti-climatic,” on Monday Opus Dei chose its new leader and the third successor to St. Josemaria Escrivá, the group’s founder. Well before the electoral congress began, it was widely expected the winner would be the group’s number two man, Spanish Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, and that’s exactly what happened.
One day later, Ocáriz defined the challenges facing the institution over which he now presides as in alignment with those of Christianity generally, and society at large: reaching out to youth, families, the poor, and the infirm, and working towards Christian unity.
Ocáriz, a Spanish priest born in Paris because his father, a military man at odds with the regime of Fernando Franco, had been exiled, began his first encounter with the international press by thanking “God, the 150 electors of 20 nationalities, and Pope Francis” for the trust given him.
Under Opus Dei’s rules, the election of Ocáriz had to be confirmed by the pontiff.
However, he added, he’s dominated by “a feeling of insufficiency” for being the third successor of Escrivá, founder of “the Work” and immediate successor of Bishop Javier Echevarría, who died on December 12.
Speaking of Francis, he said the Argentine pontiff “made it evident that he has great affection for us and [also] hope for the work done by Opus Dei.”
Argentine Monsignor Mariano Fazio was also at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome when Ocáriz spoke to the press. Confirmed on Wednesday as vicar general, meaning the number two official, Fazio spoke of the moment in which they told Francis about the election.
“He was very kind, because we went without an appointment!” Fazio said.
On Monday in the late afternoon, Fazio and Argentine Monsignor Carlos Nannei went to Santa Marta, the hotel within Vatican grounds where Francis has lived since the beginning of his pontificate, to inform Francis of the appointment.
The meeting happened no earlier than 6:00 p.m., as Crux had learned the voting results of the general congress when they were announced around 5:15 p.m. Rome time.
“[The pope] welcomed us and we were with him for half an hour. He signed the nomination, and seemed very happy about it,” Fazio said.
During their conversation, he added, Francis told them “two beautiful things.” The first, that Opus Dei faces a “historic moment, because the new prelate hasn’t worked with the founder,” hence they’re now called to be faithful to Escrivá but with an “apostolic zeal towards the future.”
The pope reportedly also praised Echevarría, saying that until the end he was “very bold and open yet paternal.”
Often portrayed at odds with Opus Dei, which is generally perceived as a right-leaning movement, several sources have confirmed to Crux that the pope keeps an image of Escrivá in his office.
Ocáriz recounted the first time he met the pontiff, when he was still Bishop Jorge Bergoglio, auxiliary of Buenos Aires, and then again four year later, after Bergoglio had been appointed archbishop of the same diocese.
“On both of these occasions he seemed like a very serious person, not like now, when he’s always smiling. He seemed serious, very kind, simple, educated … A serious person who at the same time manifested a great heart for the people,” he said.
Speaking about what’s next for the prelature he now leads, Ocáriz said he wanted for Opus Dei to continue doing the good it’s done “and is increasingly doing in service of the world, which is really the only thing that interests us: the good of the person. The good of the person which, in the end, is the encounter with Jesus Christ.”
Without going into details, among other reasons because his plan moving forward has to be approved by the congress currently meeting in Rome, he said he wants to have further programs aimed at the youth. In many places young people feel “crushed, without ideals” and many times lack hope. Following the line of recent popes, he also wants Opus Dei to work more closely with families.
Seeing that his election took place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Ocáriz also spoke about one of the lesser known facts of Opus Dei: since the 1950s, and after overcoming some resistance from the Vatican, the prelature has had cooperators who are not Catholics and also many who are not Christians.
“We shouldn’t be people of confrontation but builders of bridges,” he said.
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.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the same time and who today is largely perceived as Pope Francis’s preferred theologian, said in a statement that he appreciates the Spaniard’s “prudent and balanced nature.”
The cardinal also defined Ocáriz as a “clear and differentiated thinker who fights for dialogue,” and as someone who “is a shepherd who promotes unity with the pope and teaching while putting his whole heart into pastoral care.”