My terrifying life in Ruth Kelly’s religious sect
A former member tells how a lust for power drives the secretive Catholic organisation Opus Dei
As a member of Opus Dei, I was expected to undertake a weekly discipline of private selfflagellation 40 strokes with a waxed, corded whip. We were encouraged to ‘draw a little blood’ and frequently told how ‘the Father’ the founder of the organisation- drew so much blood that he spattered the walls and ceiling with it.
I loathed it but my conscience gnawed at me to take it more frequently. When I asked if I could increase the number of times I carried out the practice I secretly hoped that permission would be refused.
Instead, it was granted enthusiastically and, for the next 13 years, I took this discipline three times a week.
It was the most physically painful part of my dedication to Opus Dei, the Catholic movement founded by Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer in 1928, with which I spent a total of 14 years. Its aim is to ‘spread throughout society a profound awareness of the universal call to holiness… through one’s professional work’.
There are 80,000 members worldwide but the organisation recently entered the public consciousness by featuring in the bestselling book The Da Vinci Code.
It has also been revealed that the new Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, is a member.
Many members are upright Christians but the ethos of its higher levels is deeply secretive, often dishonest, oppressive and psychologically damaging to its members and families.
There are four levels of membership: numeraries and associates ( celibates); supernumeraries (often married) and co-operators (not formal members). I joined in 1959, aged 22, as a numerary.
I was a deeply religious graduate student at University College, Galway. A career as a physicist I am now a lecturer at Oxford University excited me but I wanted also to dedicate my life to some ideal that had both social and religious dimensions.
I attended an Opus Dei retreat in Galway. I had never heard of the organisation until then but I was immediately impressed. The members I met invested religious practice with a vitality and elegance new to me, displaying an overpowering enthusiasm and a radiant idealism.
In the weeks that followed, they spoke convincingly about its merits: it aimed to achieve top positions in every sector of society so as to place Christ at the head of all human activities; it was the only organisation in the Church which knew how to Christianise secular society from within; it was the greatest bulwark in the Church against Communism. I wrote to the Father asking to be admitted, an act known as ‘whistling’.
I moved in to the Opus Dei house in Galway and was immediately caught up in hectic activity which, apart from my professional work, included the ‘norms’ religious practices that every member was expected to carry out daily. One important task was to proselytise among my friends.
Our day began at 7am with the ‘heroic minute’ jumping out of bed, kissing the floor and saying ‘serviam’ (I serve), followed by a cold shower.
Then came 30 minutes of meditation usually involving reflection on points from the Father’s book of 999 aphorisms called The Way followed by Holy Mass and Communion and ten minutes of thanksgiving.
During the afternoon one wore the cilice, a spiked chain tied high around the upper thigh so the marks would not be visible when playing sports. The full 15 mysteries of the Rosary were included in the religious norms. One part was said in common but one had to find gaps in the day for the remaining parts. It was a constant anxiety to get the whole Rosary completed by the end of the day.
Before bedtime, we discussed those people about to ‘whistle’, reminded each other of the sheer wonder of Opus Dei and ridiculed lazy religious orders and secular clergy.
Then came more prayers and an examination of conscience. We were expected to be in bed three minutes later and the lights were often switched off while I was still undressing.
The supervision of our lives was almost total. To leave the house one had to get permission from the director. Members were not permitted to go to the cinema, theatre or public sports, or to sleep in their parents’ house. One even had to get permission to read any book. Innumerable other rules from the Father concerned deportment, dress, relations with other members, how to write letters, how to make the best use of soap and how to close doors.
People who left were usually treated as if dead and never spoken of again.
Their photographs were removed from back issues of internal magazines and public display.
Opus Dei was a world very much apart from civil society. It was selfcentred to a degree almost impossible for anyone who has not been a member to understand.
I was soon introduced to further ‘family customs’, such as having my letters read, handing over my salary and sleeping on the floor.
Mortifications began to eat more and more into my day. I could not drink a cup of tea or watch a film without feeling guilty if I was enjoying it.
Personal friendships were forbidden in Opus Dei, although members were encouraged to show an indiscriminating cheerfulness, especially to outsiders, all of whom I learned to treat as potential recruits. High-pressure tactics were employed to work people up to the point of ‘whistling’.
During my two years in Galway, I ‘worked on’ more than 50 people, including lecturers, students and relatives. We were encouraged to recruit the ‘best’ dynamic, handsome people of high social status. I recruited, or was partly responsible for recruiting, three numeraries and a supernumerary.
In 1961 I went to Kenya to run the physics department of a sixth- form college Opus Dei was setting up in Nairobi. Kenya was a wonderful place, but more and more I felt a growing tension between the secular image of an ordinary Christian layman, which we were supposed to project among our colleagues, and the reality of my narrow life, with its vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and its hostility to intellectual culture. The experience-in Kenya which, in retrospect, causes me the greatest embarrassment was my attempt to prevent a young African numerary from sending some of his teaching earnings home.
He was the eldest of a large family and needed to support his brothers and sisters at school, but I tried to stop him. Only in extreme situations will Opus Dei allow its members to help their ‘blood families’. In the end, this numerary ignored me and sent the money anyway. My superiors were very unhappy about it.
While in Kenya I persuaded my superiors to allow me to take a course in the history and philosophy of science at Oxford University.
On my way to England, I spent some time studying Spanish, the official language of Opus Dei, at their University of Navarra in Pamplona. Secrecy there was all pervasive, as the university tried to create the impression it was an ordinary seat of learning. I had to pretend I did not know senior members of the university, many of whom I had met at Opus Dei gatherings.
The extraordinary cult of the Father was brought home to me during a weekend retreat when a Spanish member told me the Father had received visitations from the Virgin Mary. A senior member of Opus Dei, apparently, had inadvertently entered the Father’s study and come across him weeping in the lap of the Virgin Mary.
While at Oxford I became increasingly critical of Opus Dei. The early Seventies were a period of growing paranoia in the group. It was well known internally that the Pope disliked the organisation. Censorship of newspapers and television grew and acceptable religious texts began to narrow.
I began to raise criticisms of Opus Dei with my director but he told me these were really criticisms of myself.
This provoked me into finding hard evidence and I began to reread all of the documents available, such as instructions for supernumeraries. It suddenly struck me that the language was that of sheer totalitarianism.
In the summer of 1973, I wrote a report about the movement and what I considered to be its abuses, and submitted it to the Father. I was told later he had rejected it. I was informed it was better that I resign from Opus Dei, which I did in November 1973.
So has Opus Dei changed in the three decades since I left? From the parents who still call me and from the large body of literature by former members now available, it seems clear it is as secretive as ever, still alienates many children from their parents and society and frequently brings about a disorder of personality in its members.
It claims to be a lay organisation yet at all of its higher levels of authority it is run by the priests.
They maintain control by disabling the judgment of many members and their ability to assess objectively or criticise Opus Dei.
This is mainly achieved by undermining the semantics of ordinary language in a remarkably Orwellian manner. So extraordinarily successful are these techniques that lay members will claim to be completely free. It’s thought-control raised to a fine art.
Opus Dei sees itself as a ruthless and highly disciplined multinational corporation with its members as units of production. Members know in their heart of hearts that if they fail to win recruits, bring in a substantial income, make important connections or lack absolute loyalty to the organisation or the Founder, they may be treated as pariahs.
Over the years, I have come to believe that virtually no trust can be placed in Opus Dei. How long will it take before others, like Ruth Kelly, come to the same conclusion?