Bookallil, 37, who didn’t enjoy the novel, estimates he had a dozen serious conversations about the book during the Christmas holidays, with mates asking him if “you really [are] into all this stuff”.
He was enjoying a few beers with mates at a recent football game when “suddenly we are talking about Opus Dei and The Da Vinci Code”. “It’s quite bizarre, but it’s good,” says the self-employed chef who, with his wife Vanessa, 34, agreed to talk to The Australian to put a human face on the right-wing Catholic organisation.
Opus Dei was thrust into the international spotlight when Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller swept on to bestseller lists with a plot featuring a murderous albino Opus Dei monk who engaged in self-mortification.
The Vatican sprang to the defence of Opus Dei, which has been accused of everything from secrecy to brainwashing recruits into a cult-like sect, by authorising a prominent cardinal to condemn the “shameful” book.
Since the death of John Paul II, Opus Dei has come under further scrutiny from critics who believe it has been working in the shadows to ensure the cardinals who have gathered in Rome for the conclave will elect a pope who will continue to promote the conservative organisation.
Under a succession of popes since the 1940s, Opus Dei has built up a formidable organisation and amassed assets estimated at more than $3 billion, including its $US50 million ($65 million) US headquarters on New York’s Lexington Avenue, which has separate entrances for men and women.
Of the 83,000 Opus Dei members, Australia accounts for only 500, even though it took hold in Sydney in 1963. About 400 of those, called supernumeraries, are like the Bookallils. The rest, known as numeraries, are single and celibate.
As conservative Catholics, Opus Dei members accept the church’s rulings against contraception, sex before marriage, abortion and stem-cell research. They are especially devoted to the papacy. Their conservative values make them potential targets and recruits for the Liberal Party, particularly in NSW, where its membership is strongest.
Opus Dei’s Australian arm is run by an American, George Rossman, who is based in Roseville on Sydney’s north shore. It exerts its influence on mainly young Catholics through its pastoral care at Sydney schools such as Tangara (girls) and Redfield (boys), run by a parents’ foundation, Pared, with an Opus Dei priest as chaplain. It also runs Warrane, a residential college for men, at the University of NSW.
Richard Vella, 36, is deputy master of Warrane College and an Opus Dei numerary. A month ago he took up the position of information officer for Opus Dei in Australia, putting him on the front line of the battle to challenge misconceptions about an organisation he committed himself to 15 years ago, when he was 21.
“I just felt that God was calling me to give something,” Vella says of his decision. “But I also wanted to stay in the middle of the world, I didn’t want to become a Christian Brother.”
Opus Dei is attractive to devout Catholics because, Vella says, it “spreads the message that all Christians can seek holiness and spread the gospel message through their daily work and ordinary life”.
This idea made sense to Greg Bookallil, who runs a hotel bistro not far from the couple’s comfortable home in the Hills district in northwest Sydney. He and Vanessa have been married for 10 years and appear to be typical Australian parents, with children to raise and a mortgage to repay.
Their first exposure to Opus Dei occurred when they sought out a priest for a chat during their engagement. They were introduced to Father John Masso, who was regional vicar or head of Opus Dei in Australia and New Zealand. Greg says he was a “Sunday Catholic” at the time, while Vanessa describes herself as having been “confused by a lot of things” and “always drawn to wanting to practise my faith but finding it hard to”.
“What appealed to me about Opus Dei was the fact they said, ‘Look … you’ve got to go find God in the pots and pans at work. You are a chef, aren’t you?”‘ Greg recalls. “So, if God can be found at work and in ordinary life, Catholics can aspire to move closer to God without cutting themselves off from the world.”
“The beauty of Opus Dei is that you’re living in the world but they make it easy for you to maintain that union with God through their guidance and support,” Vanessa says. “Also, to see intention behind everything that you do. It doesn’t just look at your spirituality, it looks at everything, how you can be the best wife … the best mother, the best family member, the best friend.”
Opus Dei, which was founded in Spain in 1928 by a priest, Josemaria Escriva, has enjoyed the support of many pontiffs, especially John Paul II, who gave the organisation the unique status of “personal prelature” in 1982, charging it with a roving evangelical mission within the church.
In 2002, only 27 years after Escriva’s death, John Paul II made him a saint, raising fears among liberal Catholics that Opus Dei was accruing too much influence in Rome.
Although Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is an Opus Dei member, so far the group can boast only two cardinals – Spain’s Julian Herranz and Peru’s Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne – among the 115 who will choose the next pope.
However, potential popes such as Joseph Ratzinger and Dionigi Tettamanzi are believed to support the group, while George Pell, also in Rome for the papal conclave, is a known friend of Opus Dei in Australia.
Vella is puzzled by suspicion about Opus Dei’s influence in Rome, focusing instead on getting on with his “ordinary life”, which begins with prayers and mass every morning. “Being in Opus Dei gives me an opportunity to be closer to God and to serve people who are around me,” the MBA student explains. “I am a celibate person, so I have decided to remain single so that I can be more available to provide that spiritual education to other people.”
Opus Dei members uphold a church tradition of self-denial or mortification, ranging from small acts such as passing up a favourite food to corporal mortification, which involves inflicting pain on yourself.
This is a touchy subject for Opus Dei members because outsiders find it difficult to understand, especially when the most famous example is a mad monk in a best-selling novel. Vella emphasises that a “very small” proportion of Opus Dei members in Australia “would make a personal decision to use corporal mortification”. “It’s a very important part of Christianity to imitate Jesus Christ,” he explains. “As Christians we’re asked to take up our cross and follow him, and in Opus Dei we encourage people to do that, but in a very small, unnoticed fashion.
“The hardest thing for me is to smile when I don’t want to smile. In the past I have made my own decision to use some of these means of corporal mortification which the church has recommended and used. They don’t damage my health.
“I might wear a spiky chain around my thigh for an hour or two a day. No one notices. It causes me a little bit of discomfort but that’s cool.”
But self-inflicted pain is not for everyone, certainly not the Bookallil family. “Mortification for me is getting up at 6.30am and having a smile on my face,” Greg says, pointing to his wife. “Her mortification is putting up with me. We are not into all that other stuff.”
Opus Dei members wouldn’t be easy to spot on the street: they have neither a uniform nor, as Vella jokes, a “secret handshake”.
According to his website, The Da Vinci Code’s author Brown is now working on a novel “set deep within the oldest fraternity in history, the enigmatic brotherhood of the Masons“. His Catholic critics are sure to enjoy that book more.