- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

VATICAN CITY Drawing one of the Vatican's largest-ever crowds, Pope John Paul II yesterday bestowed the honor of sainthood on the founder of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization whose rigorous defense of church teaching has won the pontiff's favor.
Police said more than 300,000 people turned out for Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer's canonization, overflowing from St. Peter's Square and filling several city blocks toward the Tiber River.
Many of those at the canonization came from Latin America, where Opus Dei has a strong foothold.
Making the pilgrimage from Fairfax Station, Va., was Austin Schmitt, an Opus Dei member who is deputy director of the Federal Maritime Commission in Washington.
"Today will help me to go back home and live the message of the saint to sanctify ordinary life," Mr. Schmitt said.
Sainthood for the Spanish priest who founded the group in 1928 came 27 years after his death one of the shortest waiting times in the Vatican's history.
The swift canonization underscored the pope's support for a group that critics say is too elitist, inculcates unthinking devotion among its followers and encourages secretive practices, including self-flagellation and the wearing of hair shirts.
Some Catholics, including some former Opus Dei members, contended Father Escriva was unworthy of sainthood because he was ill-tempered and arrogant.
Opus Dei says Father Escriva's leadership qualities were sometimes misunderstood and rejects the claims of elitism. Father Escriva held that sainthood need not require extraordinary deeds, but could be achieved by carrying out everyday tasks as well, such as being a homemaker or a lawyer.
Opus Dei, which is Latin for "God's Work," has more than 80,000 members, most of them from the laity and many of them holding top jobs in professions such as law, medicine, media and banking. It is led by a core of celibate professionals who often live in the organization's residences around the world. Membership also includes married people.
John Paul, dismayed by the flagging faith of many rank-and-file Catholics, has been intrigued by the group for decades. Yesterday, he called Father Escriva's teaching "current and urgent," saying the new saint "liked to reiterate with vigor that Christian faith opposes conformism and inner inertia."
In apparent reference to criticism of Father Escriva, the pontiff rallied to Father Escriva's defense in his homily, read from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.
"Certainly, incomprehension and difficulties aren't lacking for one intent on serving with fidelity the cause of the Gospel," the pontiff said.
"No one can or should feel excluded from Escriva's vision of Christian holiness," said the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a prominent Opus Dei layman.
In 1982, four years after becoming pope, John Paul made clear his favor for Opus Dei when he gave it the status of a personal prelature, roughly a kind of international diocese that did not have to report to a local bishop.
Last year, John Paul chose one of his new cardinals from Opus Dei's ranks when he selected Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, Peru.


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