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Why is Opus Dei holding an extraordinary general congress?

Catholics affiliated with Opus Dei will gather in Rome April 12 for what is likely to prove a significant event in the group’s history.

Detail of an altar dedicated to Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer at the Peterskirche, Vienna, Austria. Jebulon via Wikimedia (CC0).

They will attend a five-day extraordinary general congress, called by their leader Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz.

Extraordinary general congresses are rare occasions. The last one is thought to have been held in 1969-1970, following the Second Vatican Council.

But what is Opus Dei? Why is it holding an extraordinary general congress? And what is the likely outcome? The Pillar takes a look.

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What’s Opus Dei?

Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God”) is an international Catholic organization founded in Spain in 1928 by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, who was canonized in 2002. Its goal is to help the 93,600 Catholics affiliated with Opus Dei, in 68 countries “to aim at holiness in their ordinary lives, especially through their everyday work.”

Pope John Paul II established Opus Dei as a personal prelature in 1982, seven years after its founder’s death, with the apostolic constitution Ut sit. The group, formally known as the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, is led by a prelate whose election must be confirmed by the pope.

The first prelate was Álvaro del Portillo, who was ordained a bishop in 1991, three years before his death. He was succeeded in 1994 by Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, who became a bishop a year later. Following Echevarría’s death in 2016, Msgr. Ocáriz became prelate.

Opus Dei adherents and collaborators include  clerics incardinated in the prelature, along with numeraries (clerics and lay people who devote themselves fully to the personal prelature, observing “apostolic celibacy”), supernumeraries (who are often married), and cooperators (who support the organization without formally belonging to it).

Members are expected to follow a daily prayer rule that includes a morning offering, mental prayer, spiritual reading, and the recitation of the common prayers of Opus Dei, known as the Preces. They are encouraged to engage in corporal mortification, according to their age and condition. Methods include the cilice, a pronged chain worn around the thigh. 

The personal prelature, which has long been controversial, gained a certain global notoriety thanks to Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery novel The Da Vinci Code, which featured a murderous Opus Dei monk called Silas. 

The organization pushed back against its portrayal in the book and later film, pointing out that it has no monks, denying that it is a “sect,” and rejecting the suggestion that it engages in wanton criminality in pursuit of wealth and power

Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, the Prelate of Opus Dei. Gabriel12and via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Why hold an extraordinary general congress?

Opus Dei is holding an extraordinary general congress in the wake of an apostolic letter issued by Pope Francis in July 2022 that redefined the Vatican’s relationship with the personal prelature.

Ad charisma tuendum (“For the protection of the charism”) was released motu proprio, or on the pope’s own impulse.

Pope Francis explained that the motu proprio, which came into force Aug. 4, 2022, was intended to reaffirm the charism of Opus Dei, which he defined as “spreading the call to holiness in the world, through the sanctification of work and family and social commitments.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, charisms are “graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church.” 

The motu proprio was also aimed at “specifying” the organization of Opus Dei, “in keeping with the witness of the Founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, and with the teachings of conciliar ecclesiology on personal prelatures.” 

The apostolic letter followed the publication of the new Vatican constitution Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), which gave the Dicastery for the Clergy “competence for all matters that pertain to the Holy See with regard to personal prelatures.” This competence previously belonged to the Dicastery for Bishops. 

Opus Dei said in July 2022 that the principle change introduced in Ad charisma tuendum was “in the prelature’s relations with the Holy See.” 

“The motu proprio does not directly introduce modifications in the governance of the Prelature, nor in the relations of the authorities of the prelature with the bishops,” it commented. 

Article 4 of the motu proprio said that Opus Dei needed “a form of governance based on charism more than on hierarchical authority.” It explained that therefore the Prelate of Opus Dei would not be a bishop.

Commenting on the change in a July 22, 2022, letter to Opus Dei members, Msgr. Ocáriz said that “the episcopal ordination of the Prelate was not and is not necessary for the guidance of Opus Dei.” 

“The pope’s desire to highlight the charismatic dimension of the Work now invites us to reinforce the family atmosphere of affection and trust: the Prelate must be a guide but, above all, a father,” he wrote.

Ocáriz concluded his letter with a request for prayers, “for the work that Pope Francis has asked us to carry out in order to adapt the particular law of the Prelature to the indications of the motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum, remaining — as he himself tells us — faithful to the charism.”

In a further letter, dated Oct. 6, 2022, Ocáriz said that Opus Dei’s central government had been reflecting on how to bring the personal prelature’s statutes into line with the motu proprio.

“In the Dicastery for the Clergy we have been advised not to limit ourselves to considering only what refers to the dependence of the prelature on this dicastery and the change from every five years to annual reporting to the Holy See on the prelature’s activities,” he wrote.

“We should also propose other possible adjustments to the statutes that seem appropriate in light of the motu proprio. We have also been advised to spend as much time as necessary without any hurry.”

He said that he had decided to “convene an extraordinary general congress with that precise and limited purpose.”

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What will happen at the congress?

Clearly, it’s not possible for every Catholic affiliated with Opus Dei to attend the extraordinary general congress. Their concerns will be represented by members of a body known as the general congress: 274 men and women over the age of 32 who have been formally active in the prelature’s work for at least nine years.

Half of congress members come from Europe, 36% from the Americas, 6.6% from Africa, 6.2% from Asia, and 1.1% from Oceania, reflecting Opus Dei’s numbers in the respective continents. Fifty-four percent are male and 46% female (while approximately 60% of members worldwide are women).

They meet for three types of gatherings: elective congresses (to choose a new Opus Dei leader), ordinary congresses (held every eight years), and extraordinary general congresses (in response to important events). 

In a letter to Opus Dei members dated March 30, Ocáriz shed further light on this year’s  extraordinary general congress.

“During these days, the meetings of the congress women and men will be held in parallel and I will take part in both, together with the Vicars,” he wrote, referring to the personal prelature’s regional leaders. 

The women’s meeting will be held at the Roman College of Holy Mary, an inter-regional center of formation for female members of Opus Dei.

The men’s meeting will take place at the Roman College of the Holy Cross, an inter-regional center of formation for male members.

Both gatherings will begin with Mass, Ocáriz said, then “in successive sessions, the proposals that have been prepared will be studied and on the last day the final text will be voted on.”

The congress will end with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the praying of the Te Deum.

Ocáriz cautioned that the immediate outcome of the congress would not be made public.

“Unlike other general congresses, whether elective (where the Prelate is elected) or ordinary (where some apostolic priorities are set), in this case it won’t be possible to communicate immediately the final result, since it must be sent to the Dicastery for the Clergy to be studied by the Holy See, who is responsible for approving it,” he explained.

After the congress ends on April 16, Opus Dei members may face an anxious wait to see whether the revised statutes are accepted, or the Vatican asks for further modifications. 

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