Before his election, the future pope made a point of spending more than 40 minutes in prayer at Escrivá’s tomb during a 2003 visit to Rome. Francis also knew a number of Opus Dei people in Argentina, some of whom worked in the villas miserias, the “villas of misery,” meaning the vast slums that ring Buenos Aires.
So what does Francis’ support for Opus Dei tell us?
- First, Francis may be a bit more conservative than some people think – which, given that some seem to believe he’s Che Guevara in a cassock, may not be saying very much. Granted, Escrivá’s original vision for Opus Dei is neither liberal nor conservative. It was about encouraging Catholics to regard their ordinary everyday work as a path to holiness, getting past the idea that religion is just for Sunday morning.
- Second, the beatification puts an exclamation point on the fact that this pope really, really dislikes clericalism. “Clericalism” is a bit of Catholic argot denoting an exaggerated emphasis on the power and privilege of clergy. It’s a bête noire for Francis, who said in remarks to leaders of religious orders in late 2013 that the “hypocrisy” of clericalism is “one of the worst evils” in the Church, and unless future priests are inoculated against it they risk turning out as “little monsters.”
- Here’s the third point: No matter what anybody may think of Opus Dei politically, they’re always going to be looked upon with favor by most popes and other church leaders, for the basic reason that they get things done. Need a big meeting organized? Opus Dei will step up, and you’ll never have to sweat the details. Need a retreat preached in a parish? Call an Opus Dei priest, and he’ll be there on time and ready to go. Need help with a fundraising appeal? Call an Opus Dei businessman, and you’ll get results.
Granted, too, in many parts of the world you can find Opus Dei members on all sides of political conflicts, belying the idea that the group has an ideological party line.
That said, many Opus Dei members skew to the right on matters of both politics and theology. The pope’s affection thus underlines that he’s more a moderate than a progressive, someone who tries to remain open to all camps.
In a nutshell, that’s a great deal of what Francis admires about Opus Dei, since Escrivá’s emphasis on the dignity of the laity was a challenge to the ultra-clerical ethos of Spanish Catholicism in the late 1920s, when the group was founded.
If del Portillo one day is canonized, perhaps he could be the patron saint of customer service. It’s a quality that goes a long way towards explaining Opus Dei’s appeal, even under a pope whose ideological instincts may cut in a slightly different direction.