Secretive sect dubbed ‘Mafia shrouded in white’

It sits on a hill, a villa of honey-coloured stone in a leafy suburb on the south side of Glasgow, and gives no hint of what goes on behind its sturdy walls.

This is the Scottish headquarters of Opus Dei, which translates from the Latin as “God’s work”, a term familiar to the 120,000 Scots who have bought copies of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s global bestselling novel. The thriller centres on a search for the Holy Grail which is hampered by a villainous member of Opus Dei.

Dunreath, the house in Glasgow, is not home to a murderous monk, though self-flagellation, as featured in the novel, is practised here.

The Catholic organisation, founded in Spain in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva, has long been mired in controversy. It has been described by critics as a cult and dismissed by one theologian as “the Mafia – shrouded in white”. Yet its members enjoy the personal favour of Pope John Paul II, who made its founder a saint in 2002, in spite of his close ties to the dictator General Franco.

In recent weeks, the media spotlight has focused on Opus Dei after the appointment of Ruth Kelly as Secretary of State for Education.

While Ms Kelly has refused, as recently as this week, to confirm or deny her involvement with the group, The Scotsman has established that she is, indeed, a “supernumerary”, as married members of Opus Dei are described.

Last week, the Archdiocese of Westminster announced that a parish had been entrusted to an Opus Dei priest, evidence of a thaw in relations. The late Basil Hume, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, viewed the group with deep suspicion.

His concern centred on what he believed to be the group’s manipulative recruitment techniques. His official biographer, Anthony Howard, said this week that Hume regarded them as he would the ‘Moonies’.

Yet Opus Dei has recently embarked on a PR offensive, using The Da Vinci Code and the appointment of Ms Kelly to promote its agenda.

Jack Valero, Opus Dei’s British press spokesman, is upbeat. He says: “Ten million people have now heard of Opus Dei thanks to The Da Vinci Code. That can only be a good thing – 2005 is going to be the year of Opus Dei.”

Ronnie Convery, the director of communications for the late Cardinal Thomas Winning, and now for Mario Conti, the Archbishop of Glasgow, was a member for many years before leaving after he found it too demanding.

“As a student, I was quite taken with the idea that you could have a vocation to work in the world, and not flee from it, which is a central plank of Opus Dei’s message,” he says.

“So it seemed an obvious step to take to join in 1990. Over the years, I found the long daily list of prayers, devotions and customs too demanding for me. So I left after eight years. I had read horror stories of people being pressurised to stay in. Instead, the guy with whom I discussed it said simply: ‘Better to be a happy former member of Opus Dei than an unhappy member’.”

The question is: what is Opus Dei’s role in Scotland, where they have three large properties, all in Glasgow? In order to dispel the image of a shadowy organisation, the group, when approached by The Scotsman, opened its doors.

“We’ve really nothing to hide,” said Dermot Grenham as he sat in a comfortable armchair in one of the many elegant rooms at Dunreath, Opus Dei’s centre for men, where, until this week, he was the director.

“Opus Dei’s role is to do God’s work out in the world. We are here to help people become saints,” he said.

The Church’s philosophy is that every man, woman and child – priest and laity – has a universal calling to holiness and the capability to become a saint. In Opus Dei, unlike many Catholic institutions, the power lies with the laity. The group’s global membership is about 85,000, only 2,000 of whom are priests; the remainder are different types of members.

While the organisation is most powerful in Spain and Latin America, where prominent politicians are among its number, in Britain there are only 520 members, of whom about 50 are based in Scotland.

It is an extremely wealthy body, with a net worth in Britain of about ?20 million, largely due to its property and a chain of student halls of residence, which help recruitment.

Tommy Burns, the former Celtic player, has, in the past, attended Opus Dei meetings, while Archbishop Conti dined at Dunreath before Christmas.

There are four types of Opus Dei member:

• A numerary, such as Mr Grenham, is a celibate member who lives in an Opus Dei house, segregated by gender, and donates his or her full salary to the group, retaining only what is required for clothes, etc, to carry out the daily “civilian” job.

• An associate is, again, a celibate member but who, for personal reasons such as looking after an elderly parent, does not live in community. Such members continue to donate any unrequired income to the organisation.

• A supernumerary is a married member, such as Ruth Kelly, many of whom make a monthly donation, though no amount is prescribed, and follow Opus Dei’s spiritual formation on a daily basis.

• A co-operator is not a proper member. Instead, he or she is a registered supporter who, in exchange for services, receives “indulgences”, or spiritual benefits.

All official members follow a prescribed process of prayer, meditation and daily mass, and regularly read The Way, a book of 999 maxims written by St Josemaria Escriva.

While supernumeraries offer small “mortifications”, or discomforts, such as keeping the heating low or forgoing sugar in their tea, numeraries of both sexes induce physical discomfort by wearing a cilice – a wire band round the thigh which irritates the skin – often for an hour each day, and by whipping themselves with a knotted rope, known as “the discipline”, once a week.

“It may seem very strange to the outside world, but these mortifications have been a part of the Catholic Church for centuries,” says Mr Grenham, who insists they are optional and do not draw blood.

In the past, one controversial aspect of Opus Dei’s work has been among the young. The late Cardinal Hume issued instructions that Opus Dei should not permit anyone under the age of 18 to join and, even then, any admissions should be only in consultation with the parents.

In Scotland, both the male and female centres in Glasgow operate sport and activity clubs for children. The Dunreath Club has a junior section for boys aged between ten and 12 and a senior section for those 13-16.

Many of those who attend are the children of members, and those who are not require parental permission. The centre’s library is available to pupils for private study, which encourages teenagers to become more involved with the group.

However, the parent of one teenage boy, who was pursued to join Opus Dei, described its methods as “spiritual grooming”. The man, who did not wish to be named, said he had felt compelled to contact an Opus Dei priest and insist he no longer contacted his son.

“I’m very uncomfortable with their methods,” he said. “They are extreme in their behaviour, in their practice, and I remain very suspicious of them.”

In Glasgow, as in Opus Dei across the world, the men and women are separated by more than the River Clyde.

In the drawing room of a West End town house that is home to seven female numeraries, Eileen Cole, a member for 27 years, explained that the sexes rarely meet and are content to proselytise among their own gender. However, female members are expected to organise all the cooking and cleaning for the men. This is in keeping with the founder’s view of the role of women, which many people find deeply sexist.

“If we didn’t do it, they would be living like savages,” says Ms Cole. “Women are simply better at these things than men.”

She describes her vocation as rewarding and says: “The Work [as members describe Opus Dei] has made me less self-centred. It helps you to spend your life being of service to others.”

The vast majority of members of Opus Dei, however, are supernumeraries. There are 21 female supernumeraries in Scotland, such as Clare McDonald, 42, a mother of six children.

The former GP says: “We live in an utterly secular society today, and I’ve found Opus Dei a tremendous help in maintaining my own moral and spiritual values. It’s something you can do quietly. You can turn your daily tasks into a prayer.”

Unlike many members who are angry at their group’s portrayal in The Da Vinci Code, Mrs McDonald thinks it “cool”. She jokes: “Now, if people ask about Opus Dei, I tell them, ‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you’.”


When Josemaria Escriva founded Opus Dei in 1928, “God’s Work” was strictly for men only.

Two years later, however, the Spanish priest changed his mind and permitted women to join. The sexes were to be kept strictly separate, and there is no doubt which was to be the dominant partner.

Yet the organisation has more women in its number because, as one explained: “We’ve got to look after the men.”

Women in Opus Dei, as in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, remain second-class citizens.

Deportment and modesty are among the subjects on the curriculum for female members of Opus Dei, while there is no equivalent for men. Opus Dei’s new $50 million headquarters in New York has separate entrances for men and women.

As Escriva wrote: “Wives, you should ask yourself whether you are not forgetting a little about your appearance. Your duty is, and will always be, to take as good care of your appearance as you did before you were married – and it is a duty of justice, because you belong to your husband.” He also preached: “Women needn’t be scholars – it’s enough for them to be prudent.”

The most damaging charge against him was that he doubted the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. This charge is dismissed as a lie by his followers.

Escriva was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.


AM: Rise exactly when alarm goes off. Get out of bed. Kiss the bedroom floor and say: “Serviam” – Latin for “I will serve.”

Morning prayers followed by 30 minutes prayerful meditation.

Noon: Say the Angelus, followed by a particular “examination of conscience”. For example, “am I being lazy?” or “am I humble enough?” etc

Daily Mass is mandatory for members, and many fit this in during their lunch hour. After Mass ten minutes is spent in “thanksgiving”.

Evening: Five decades of the Rosary, ten minutes of spiritual reading, five minutes of gospel reading, 30 minutes of spiritual meditation.

Before bed: General examination of conscience, followed by an Act of Contrition.

Final prayer before sleep called the “Preces”.

Weekly: Confession, evening prayer meeting called “the Circle”.

Monthly: Evening event of reconciliation.

Annually: Five-day spiritual retreat.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Scotsman, UK
Jan. 21, 2005
Stephen McGinty
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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 22, 2005.
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