The most potentially damaging portrayal in “The Da Vinci Code” is of Opus Dei, the pious religious movement founded by St. Josemaria Escriva in 1928 as a way of bringing ordinary people closer to God in their everyday work and life.
At the group’s New York headquarters, a box has been installed to offer literature to “Da Vinci” fans. The box is a symbol of Opus Dei’s overall strategy as the movie’s release date approaches: Take advantage of the hype to give people more accurate information.
For example, although a murderous Opus Dei monk is central to the “Da Vinci” story line, the group does not have monks. “We want to use the current public interest to talk about the real Catholic Church and Opus Dei,” spokesman Brian Finnerty said.
Opus Dei is Latin for “work of God.” There are about 87,000 members of Opus Dei, including 3,000 in the United States. The group’s work in the U.S. started in Chicago in 1949, and it remains the only city in the nation with a church run by Opus Dei priests, St. Mary of the Angels.
About 70 percent of its members are married people who practice a strict spiritual regimen and are called “supernumeraries.” The core and most devoted members are called “numeraries,” who work regular jobs but are committed to celibacy and live in Opus Dei centers. There are four such centers in the Chicago area.
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Much of the criticism surrounding Opus Dei comes from former numeraries who allege that the group restricts communication between members and their families.
Art Thelen, 68, a numerary who is director of the Opus Dei center near St. Mary of the Angels, said those are ugly rumors. The focus of Opus Dei, he said, is for people to sanctify their lives.
“Most people say, `This is my Catholic life, and this is my work life,'” Thelen said. “Well, in Opus Dei, we don’t separate those things. “
“The Da Vinci Code” grossly exaggerates the mortification practiced by celibate members, Thelen said. In the book, the Opus Dei monk cinches a strap studded with barbs around his thigh until it digs into his flesh. He then whips his back with a heavy knotted rope until it bleeds.
Thelen said many numeraries wear a spiked chain known as a cilice for two hours a day as an offering to God. They also strike themselves weekly with a knitted macrame string.
“We feel suffering has a significant value,” he said. “People in the world sin to avoid suffering, but Christ suffered to overcome sin.”
Thelen, a retired structural engineer with a warm smile and easy laugh, said he’s hopeful that the film will inspire healthy discussions.
“In some ways, it’s good people are asking all these questions,” he said. “I think good people can read through these things. I say just go the opposite way, my friend. Go the opposite way.”
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