Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, is to hand over pastoral care of St Thomas More church, Swiss Cottage, to Father Gerard Sheehan, an Opus Dei priest.
Father Sheehan is one of 17 priests in Britain who work for the Opus Dei organisation. None of the others is a parish priest although Father Sheehan is local deanery secretary for the Westminster archdiocese and regularly hears confessions at Westminster Cathedral and St James’ Spanish Place.
He will take over at Easter from Father Ian Dickie, who is to be moved to another parish.
The decision by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor to entrust the parish of 500 souls and their 1968 red-brick church to Opus Dei partly indicates that the organisation has “come of age” and is achieving mainstream respectability within the Catholic Church in Britain.
Opus Dei, which means “God’s work” and which features in the Dan Brown bestseller The Da Vinci Code, has had a reputation for secrecy and some controversial practices, such as “mortification”.
But the organisation, a personal prelature outside diocesan jurisdictions, has moved out of the shadows and grown in confidence since the canonisation of its founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, in 2002, 17 years after his death.
John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, is the author of a book on the organisation, Opus Dei: Myth and Reality about the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, to be published by Random House this autumn. Mr Allen said that Britain is the only country in the world where a bishop issued guidelines to regulate Opus Dei’s activities.
In 1981, the late Cardinal Basil Hume, concerned about recruitment methods and secrecy in Westminster, stipulated rules concerning membership. He said that members should be 18, that parents should be notified when young people joined, that members should be free to leave and that Opus Dei activities should carry clear indications of sponsorship.
However, when Mr Allen interviewed Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor for his book, in November last year, the Cardinal told him: “I’m very content to have Opus Dei in the diocese.” The Cardinal said: “The Catholics I’ve met in Opus Dei have clearly been very dedicated Catholics, very committed to the particular path that is prescribed by Escriva, which is the mission of lay people in their professional fields.”
Father Sheehan, 45, who works at Netherhall House — the student residence run by Opus Dei which is within the St Thomas More parish — joined the organisation while studying history at London University.
He said that he would not be on an Opus Dei recruitment drive. But he added: “I will certainly want through the ministry of a parish priest — the proclamation of the gospel and the exercise of the sacraments — to encourage the lay people in the parish to take adult decisions about where God is leading them. If for some of them that means Opus Dei, I won’t stop them. I also hope we will have vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.”
One reason that may have led to Opus Dei being offered the parish is the fall in the number of people joining the priesthood. Sources in the Church at Westminster said that there had been a “question mark” over the future of the church at Swiss Cottage because of the shortage of priests.
Opus Dei has 500 members in Britain. None attends the Swiss Cottage church regularly.
OPUS DEI’S PATH TO SANCTITY
• Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer in Madrid
• He saw it as a way of encouraging lay people to aspire to sanctity without changing their jobs
• His book, The Way, published in 1934, has sold four million copies
• Senor Escriva died in Rome in 1975 at the age of 73
• In 1992 Pope John Paul II declared him Blessed. He was canonised in October 2002
• Opus Dei has 85,000 members in more than 80 countries