It is no secret that while all the Roman Pontiffs whose reigns have coincided with the growth and development of Opus Dei since 1928 have highly approved of its message and mission, John Paul II— perhaps as a result of his varied work and educational background—has grasped its importance in a deeper fashion and has played an essential role. He encouraged the development of Opus Dei through the granting of its definitive juridical status, the establishment of the Roman Atheneum of the Holy Cross, and finally the beatification of its founder Blessed Josemarfa Escriva.
Bl. Josemaria’s teachings are rooted in the concept of divine filiation, the reality that all men are children of God. Hence they receive their rights and responsibilities before God, the Church, and society. They possess an inalienable right to life and through God’s grace the privilege of living a life here on earth directed towards an eternal destiny through membership in the Church. This of course fits in perfectly with the Pope’s emphasis on the “dignity of the human person” as the yard-stick by which the health of any society can be measured.
Work, which the Pope has defined in the encyclical Laborem exergens as anything useful to man, is the hinge upon which hangs the spirituality of Opus Dei. For centuries the worth of human work as an essential means for the ordinary Christian to grow in God’s grace was largely ignored in Catholic spirituality. To be a member of the Catholic spiritual elite, one was called to the priesthood or religious life. This view had the effect of relegating the laity to second-class citizenship in the church; “to hunt, shoot, and entertain” in the words of a famous letter on the role of the laity written by a Roman prelate to Cardinal Newman in the 19th century. Escriva conceived all human work as ennobling both as a means of service to family and society and as a way to give glory to God that is available to all. Thus his message, as he expressed it, “opened up the divine pathways of the earth” for all.
This point has not been lost on John Paul. As he put it in addressing members of Opus Dei in 1979 soon after his election, “Opus Dei anticipated the theology of the laity of the Second Vatican Council.” Bl. Josemaria insisted that this elevation of the worth of work be integrated with one’s family and spiritual life in what he called a “unity of life,” a phrase also later integrated into the teachings of the church in its synodal document on the role of the laity. “We cannot lead a double life. We cannot be like schizophrenics. If we want to be Christians, there is just one life, made of flesh and spirit. And it is this life that has to become, in both body and soul, holy and filled with God. We discover the invisible God in the most visible and material things.”
It is said that Pope Leo XIII, the first “modern” pope and the most eloquent exponent of the social teachings of the Church, had a premonition in the late 1880s where he saw that God would allow the forces of evil free rein for a century. We have seen that the result and perhaps the collapse of communism in 1989 was the end of that century of unparalleled warfare and mass murder. John Paul II believes that the message of Blessed Josemaria is a means to assure that in God’s providence as we pass beyond the millennium the future will be more reflective of the goodness of God and the dignity of man. This and only this can prevent a slide into a high-tech barbarism.