Pope John Paul today canonised the controversial founder of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group dedicated to upholding Church teaching and strive for holiness in everyday life.
Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer’s canonisation, only 27 years after the Spanish priest’s death, was achieved in remarkably swift time by the Vatican’s saint-making timetables, which can stretch over centuries.
In a sign of Escriva’s loyal and fervent following, the crowd in St Peter’s Square was so large – police headquarters estimated there were at least 300,000 people – that it stretched several blocks from the vast square to the Tiber and into several side streets.
In a sign of the Pope’s admiration of the new saint as well as for the followers, John Paul at the end of the ceremony was driven in an open-topped vehicle the length of the boulevard from the square to the river and back, instead of his usual more limited spin around the square.
Many in the crowd burst into tears at the sign of the 82-year-old Pontiff, who two decades ago conferred special status on Opus Dei, bringing it directly under his jurisdiction instead of under that of local bishops.
As a sign of devotion, several of the pilgrims stayed on their knees on cobblestones during much of the three-hour-long ceremony under hazy skies.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims came from Spain, Escriva’s homeland. Many others came from Latin America, where Opus Dei has strongly taken hold and where the Catholic Church is trying to hold on to souls being increasingly attracted to Protestantism and evangelical sects.
The cardinal of Lima, Peru, selected by John Paul, is a prominent member of Opus Dei, as is the pontiff’s spokesman, a Spanish layman.
Reflecting Escriva’s motivation for founding the group in 1928 in Madrid, John Paul invoked the Spaniard’s intercession to God for help in transforming “all moments and circumstances of life into occasions to serve with joy and simplicity the Church and all its souls.”
Many of Opus Dei’s more than 80,000 members come from top professional ranks, including law, medicine, publishing and other businesses. While the majority of the membership are laity, many of them take vows of chastity similar to those taken by priests and nuns.
From the various walks of life, they share Escriva’s belief that holiness can come through carrying out, with extraordinary care and diligence, the most ordinary of tasks, like keeping house or being a student.
“Work or any other activity, carried out with the help of Grace, transforms itself by means of daily sanctification,” John Paul said, speaking Spanish, in his homily.
Hailing Escriva’s message as “current and urgent,” he said today’s faithful were called to be “holy and to work together for the salvation of humanity.”
The many suits and ties and conservative dresses and string pearls worn by the faithful to the ceremony reflected Opus Dei’s often upscale membership.
Even the crowd’s applause at the proclamation of the Church’s latest saint was decorous compared with the explosions of joy ringing out at some at other sainthood ceremonies, such as last year spring’s canonisation of Italian monk Padre Pio.
At Sunday’s ceremony was Manuel Nevado Rey, a Spanish doctor whose recovery from a debilitating skin disease after Escriva was beatified in 1992 was judged by the Vatican to be a miracle achieved through Escriva’s intercession.
Escriva’s beatification, the last formal step before sainthood, came in the face of accusations, including some by former Opus Dei members, that the founder did not have the virtues of a saint. They accused him of being ill-tempered at times and arrogant about his mission.
Opus Dei, some of whose members whip themselves to practice self-mortification, has rejected charges that it is elitist and secretive. But much of the criticism of Escriva’s personality diminished as Catholics saw the Pope move along Escriva’s cause for sainthood at a quick pace.
Bracing for Sunday’s crowd, police blocked off to vehicles several main streets near the site, causing traffic jams and forcing city buses to change their routes. But all was orderly during the ceremony.