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No. 36 • January - June 2003 • Page 0
 •  A Study

“Law and spirit: on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Opus Dei as a Personal Prelature,” by Prof. Antonio Viana

1. Opus Dei in the Church

On November 28, 1982, Pope John Paul II erected Opus Dei as a personal prelature by the Apostolic constitution Ut Sit. To be more precise in terms of canon law, we can say that the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of this pontifical act embraces two other important dates: March 19, 1983, when the papal document was orally promulgated by Archbishop Romolo Carboni, then Apostolic Nuncio to Italy, given this charge by the Roman Pontiff, and May 2 of the same year when the texts were published in the official Bulletin of the Holy See, after the canons of the Code of Canon law were promulgated on January 25, 1983.

Thus Opus Dei’s long juridical path came to an end, when what St. Josemaría Escrivá called his “special intention” was finally fulfilled—an intention for which he had prayed earnestly and asked others to pray for throughout much of his life. St. Josemaría had sought the status of personal prelature ever since the Second Vatican Council foresaw this figure in its decree Presbyterorum Ordinis (no. 10), in 1965, and a year later Pope Paul VI sketched out the conciliar provision in legislative detail in his motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae. For many years he had been praying that ecclesiastical authorities would confirm the unity of vocation of the members of Opus Dei and guarantee their condition as lay faithful or secular priests in the Church. He sought a status that would permit the stable dedication of priests (their incardination, in canon law terminology) to the formation of the members and their participation in the apostolic tasks of the Work. A status was required that would provide the future Prelate with the canonical instruments needed for the Work’s ordinary governance and for overseeing its apostolic work, and that would be adapted to the international nature of Opus Dei, not limited to a specific territory. All of this would have to fall within the common law of the Church, and not be a matter of privilege or exception, so that the faithful of Opus Dei would not cease to be members of the diocese in which they lived and to depend on their local bishop, like the other faithful of the diocese.

Putting his faith more in the power of prayer than in the study of canonical concepts, what he sought was a solution to the institutional problem of Opus Dei that would respond to all the demands just mentioned: the unity of vocation, without classes of members or degrees of incorporation; the full secularity of the faithful of Opus Dei, without assimilation to the religious or what today is called the consecrated life; the formation and incardination of a clergy of its own; the authority of the prelate; an interdiocesan configuration, without an exemption from the power of the diocesan bishops. These requirements were and are indispensable to the effective realization of the message that St. Josemaría was striving to transmit since 1928 “by divine inspiration,” to use the words of John Paul II at the beginning of the decree Ut Sit. One can thus understand the importance of the pontifical acts of 1982-1983 and also the profound joy and thanksgiving to God with which the fulfillment of St. Josemaría “special intention” was received. As his successor Bishop Alvaro del Portillo said, those were days “of great rejoicing.” And he added immediately that they marked “the beginning of a new stage in the path of loyalty and faithfulness to the Church that began on October 2, 1928.”

Now twenty years have gone by since the beginning of this new stage. During these years the apostolic work of Opus Dei has been consolidated throughout the world and begun in new countries. At the same time, its apostolic growth has been accompanied by a clear perception of its orientation towards the service of the universal Church and the particular Churches.

These years have witnessed a progressive doctrinal clarification of Opus Dei’s insertion in the ecclesiastical communion. Not that this was unclear before, but the congruity between the reality of the Work and canonical legislation has made possible a deep and fruitful theological and canonical reflection on Opus Dei in the Church. As St. Josemaría foresaw, first comes life, then the norms that regulate and channel it, and finally theological reflection.

This process of theological deepening has included some important related events. We could recall here the ordination as bishops of the first two Prelates, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo in 1991 and Bishop Javier Echevarría in 1994. These ordinations did not in themselves involve any enhancement of Opus Dei’s canonical status, which had already been consolidated by the pontifical acts of 1982 and 1983. They were, nevertheless, very appropriate for the Work’s internal structure, based on the distinction and organic cooperation between laity and priests. In addition, they facilitate the service Opus Dei renders to the dioceses. By his consecration as a bishop, the Prelate becomes part of the college of bishops and establishes with them the corresponding bonds of communion, representing the Prelature. Thereby the Prelate exercises an episcopal function, by which he is the head of the presbyterate of the Prelature (formed by the calling to holy orders and incardination into the Prelature of some of the laymen of Opus Dei). And he is the Ordinary of the Prelature in communion with the Roman Pontiff and the other bishops as members of the episcopal college.

These bonds between the Prelate and the Roman Pontiff, the bishops, the priests and the faithful of the Prelature, are a manifestation of what a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1992 referred to as “unity and diversity in ecclesial communion,” evoking at the same time the necessary harmony and coordination between Opus Dei and the local Churches. As this document states, “for a more complete vision of this aspect of ecclesial communion—unity in diversity—it is necessary to consider that there are institutions and communities established by the Apostolic authority for special pastoral tasks. These, as such, belong to the universal Church, although their members are also members of the particular Churches where they live and work. This fact of belonging to the particular Churches, with the flexibility that is proper to it, has diverse juridical expressions. It not only does not injure the unity of the particular Church, which is based on the bishop, but it contributes to giving this unity the interior diversification proper to communion.”

We cannot go into here the specific canonical questions involved in the relationship between the Prelature of Opus Dei and the local Churches. But as we have just recalled with words from the 1992 document, this relationship is based on the principle of the dual and inseparable membership of the faithful of Opus Dei in both the prelature and the diocese in which they live.

Regarding the position of the lay faithful of Opus Dei in the various dioceses, we recall that the power of the Prelate over them extends to all that refers “to the fulfillment of the specific obligations undertaken through the juridical bond, by means of a contract with the Prelature.” These obligations involve ascetical, apostolic and formative elements that do not fall under the power of the diocesan bishop, since they are specifications and developments of the freedom enjoyed by all the faithful in the Church. Thus it is perfectly possible for these lay persons to continue depending in everything else on the diocesan bishop, and for this dependence be the same as that of the other faithful in the diocese, neither more nor less. It is important to keep these points in mind when considering the relationship of Opus Dei to the dioceses, because they exclude any possible attempt at exemption or separation of jurisdictions.

2. Pontifical addresses in the years 2001 and 2002

In addition to the ordination of the first two Prelates as bishops, another noteworthy event in these twenty years of Opus Dei’s existence as a personal prelature was the audience granted by Pope John Paul II, on March 17, 2001, to those taking part in a study conference on the Papal letter Novo Millennio Ineunte. The conference took place in Rome under the encouragement of Bishop Javier Echevarría, the present Prelate of Opus Dei. The papal address at that audience was an especially important step in the above mentioned process of theological and canonical “deepening,” because it focussed specifically on the nature, internal structure and apostolic ends of Opus Dei as a personal prelature.

The Pope began by highlighting the interconnection of pastor, priesthood and lay faithful proper to Opus Dei as a personal prelature, formed on the basis of the distinction and mutual relationship between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of those in holy orders. The Pope described this composition as an “organic union of priests and laity,” which confers on Opus Dei an “hierarchical nature . . . established by the Apostolic Constitution which had erected the Prelature.” Pope John Paul II, upon recalling his own intention when erecting Opus Dei twenty years earlier as a personal prelature, also emphasized its continuity with the foresight of the Second Vatican Council in regard to personal prelatures. The Pope made clear that Opus Dei is not structured as a lay movement to which priests are joined as chaplains, nor as a clerical body with which lay faithful collaborate externally. On the contrary, the Prelature of Opus Dei is, as the apostolic constitution Ut Sit establishes, and as its statutes emphasize, an “apostolic organism” of incardinated priests and incorporated lay people, which is organic and indivisible—“organically structured,” as the Pope expressed it.

After describing the structure of Opus Dei, Pope John Paul paused to consider the vocation and mission of the faithful of the Prelature in the context of a “spirituality of communion.”

The laity, “as Catholics,” are called to carry out a broad apostolate in their ordinary tasks. “Their specific capacities in their various human activities are, in the first place, an instrument entrusted to them by God, which will enable ‘the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mould communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture’ (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 29).… Their apostolic zeal, fraternal friendship, and charity and solidarity, will enable them to turn ordinary social relationships into opportunities to awaken among the people around them the thirst for truth that is the first condition for a salvific encounter with Christ.”

For their part, the priests “perform an irreplaceable primary function: that of helping souls, one by one, by means of the sacraments, preaching and spiritual guidance, to open themselves to the gift of grace.”

From the Pope’s description of the missions proper to the laity and priests, one can see in Opus Dei a reflection of the bonds of communion and the priestly structure of the Church. The lay faithful incorporated in the Prelature are called to live, in accord with the spirit of the Work, their Christian vocation to sanctify earthly realities. The priests through their ministry serve all the faithful, especially the members of Opus Dei, and cooperate organically with them in the service of their apostolic mission. Both priests and laity work in communion with the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, through their union with their father and Prelate. As Prof. Hervada says, “the relation between priest and faithful in Opus Dei is a ministerial one, the same ordinary relationship that exists between priests and the lay faithful. The priests are ordained for the ministerial service of the laity belonging to Opus Dei, and at the same time the priests and laity carry out jointly their apostolic mission. The relation between priests and laity in Opus Dei is the fundamental cleric-lay relationship.”

One can thus better understand why the internal structure of Opus Dei has a hierarchical nature, insofar as it reflects the bonds of ecclesial communion, the communion of the faithful and the hierarchical communion present in every ecclesiastical circumscription. This represents a true communion that should be nourished spiritually and apostolically. Pope John Paul II, in Novo Millennio Ineunte, emphasized the importance of communion as a spiritual attitude. His March 17, 2001 address, which we have been recalling, is an invitation to “bear in mind the importance of the ‘spirituality of communion’ emphasized in my Apostolic Letter.” Seeking the face of Christ was the constant concern of St. Josemaría, “a man who thirsted for God and was consequently a great apostle. He wrote: ‘In intentions, may Jesus be our aim; in affections, our Love; in conversation, our theme; in actions, our model.’”

The twentieth anniversary of the establishment of Opus Dei as a personal prelature coincides with two other major celebrations of the year 2002. This year was also the centennial of the birth of Josemaría Escrivá, on January 9, as well as the year of his canonization, on October 6, an event of great theological, spiritual and apostolic meaning for the whole Church.

Both celebrations were the occasion for new addresses by Pope John Paul II, in which he referred to the teachings that our Lord wanted to recall and transmit through St. Josemaría and the Work he founded. Unlike the address of March 17, 2001, the Pope’s words on these two occasions hardly touch upon the Prelature as an institution. Rather they focus on the message that, by God’s will, Opus Dei is called to transmit and to teach people to practice.

On the occasion of the centennial of the birth of St. Josemaría, an international congress was held in Rome, from January 8 to 12, 2002, under the title of “The Greatness of Ordinary Life: the Vocation and Mission of the Christian in the Midst of the World.” On the last day of the congress, the participants were received by Pope John Paul II in the Pope Paul VI auditorium. On that occasion the Pope read an address centered on the value of daily life as a path to sanctity. The Holy Father emphasized the importance of “unity of life,” an expression so often used by St. Josemaría and underlined recently by the pontifical magisterium, to express the necessary correspondence between a Christian’s faith and works. These two aspects—sanctity in ordinary things and unity of life—are related, because “the Lord wants to enter into a loving communion with each one of his children, right in the heart of daily occupations, in the context of everyday life.” The Pope encouraged his audience to show others every day that “the love of Christ can indeed inform the whole gamut of human existence. In this way you will attain the ideal of the unity of life which I insisted on in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, as fundamental to the evangelization of contemporary society (cf. no. 17).”

Pope John Paul returned to this idea in his homily on October 6 at the canonization Mass of Josemaría Escrivá. On that solemn occasion he spoke of the need to “elevate the world to God and transform it from within.” And he encouraged his listeners “not to let yourselves be frightened by a materialistic culture that threatens to dissolve the genuine identity of Christ’s disciples.” The Holy Father said that “Josemaría Escrivá understood clearly that the mission of the baptized consists in raising the Cross of Christ above all human reality and he felt burning within him the impassioned vocation to evangelize every human setting. Then, without hesitation, he accepted Jesus’ invitation to the Apostle Peter, which we just heard in this square: Duc in altum! (Put out into the deep).He transmitted it to his entire spiritual family so that they might offer the Church a valid contribution of communion and apostolic service.”

Therefore Opus Dei is a “spiritual family” called to offer to the Church the goods of unity and apostolic service. But this contribution is not principally a corporate activity; rather it is carried out above all through the personal work of its faithful in their varied settings. This is the Prelature’s principal contribution as an institution. Indeed in Opus Dei’s Particular Code of Law (its Statutes), there is not a single section referring to the activity of the Prelature as such. This is not so much because such activity does not exist, but because it is found above all in the formation and spiritual assistance of its faithful, so that they are in a position to act individually or in association with others as leaven in the mass of society. Opus Dei’s principal aim is not to carry out institutional activities of the Prelature, but rather to help every Christian to sanctify earthly realities, “raising the Cross of Christ above every human reality,” as the Pope recalled in the words cited above. And this is made a reality through the personal commitment to strive for unity of life by its members and others who participate in the apostolates of the Prelature.

3. Law and spirituality

Thus we can understand why the canonical form of a personal prelature regulated by canons 294-297 of the Code of Canon Law has an instrumental character, like any other corporate structure in the Church and in civil society. It is at the service of the supernatural vocation of the person, of the spiritual growth of the children of God. Nor is it accidental that the Statutes of Opus Dei reveal a close connection between the written law and spirituality.

Indeed, the Statutes contain many references not only to its organizational structure, but also to its spiritual reality. We find in the Statutes abundant references to the purpose of Opus Dei, specified as the sanctification of individuals through the exercise of the Christian virtues in their particular state, profession and circumstances in accord with a secular spirituality (no. 2 § 1). This is made possible by a contemplative life, a life of prayer and sacrifice, the sense of divine filiation, ascetical and doctrinal-religious formation, personal apostolate “tamquam fermentum in massa humanae societates” (no. 3 §3), a unity of purpose and organization, “of vocation and spirit” (no. 4 §3), etc.

In particular, all of title 3 in the Statutes is dedicated to the life, formation and apostolate of the faithful of the Prelature. It is divided into three chapters: spiritual life, doctrinal-religious formation, and apostolate. As Jose Luis Illanes explains, spiritual life in Opus Dei is “part of a whole, which has two structural axes: the sense of divine filiation, which is the basis of an attitude of soul that leads one to refer all of reality to a God whom one recognizes as Father; and work, that is to say the totality of lay tasks and activities, as a reality in which this consciousness of the nearness of God can take on body and historical richness.”

In this regard, it is worthwhile recalling no.79 §1 of the Statutes, which emphasizes the harmony between faith and works: “The spirit of Opus Dei has a two-fold aspect, ascetical and apostolic, which complement one another fully, and which are intrinsically and harmoniously united and intertwined with the secular character of Opus Dei. Thus it always fosters a solid and simple unity of ascetical, apostolic, social and professional life.”

The strong spiritual content of these and other texts confirms the instrumental meaning of the norms that govern Opus Dei. Indeed, Opus Dei’s particular law serves as “the expression of the charism, or more exactly, the specification of what that charism requires,” and, therefore, of the place of Opus Dei in the Church. This instrumental role recognizes the limitations of written law, because the expressions of a charism transcend any normative text, insofar as it is called to become visible above all in the life and heart of the faithful. But at the same time it is a necessary instrument, since the law here is not only a guarantee of institutional unity through the observance of what the written norm disposes, but also recognition and encouragement of a spirit that is to be lived out in human history.

In addition, these frequent references in the Statutes to meta-legal realities (spirituality, ascetical means, one’s Christian vocation in the midst of the world) can be explained by St. Josemaría’s desire to make evident in these norms the spirit of Opus Dei. Thus one would be able to correctly understand the rest of the statutory dispositions, especially during those years when Opus Dei existed in the Church with a juridical format that was less than adequate, since it was more suited to the law for religious, or what today we would call the “consecrated life.”

These important realities are what in the end give meaning to all the Prelature’s activities: fostering the spiritual life of its faithful in light of the vocation to holiness and its practical consequences; providing a doctrinal formation which makes it possible that “in all social environments there be people who are intellectually prepared so that, with naturalness, in the ordinary circumstances of their daily life and work, they can carry out, through their example and word, an effective apostolate of evangelization and catechesis;” finally, providing members with the apostolic formation and pastoral assistance needed to carry out this apostolic work.

4. Apostolic spontaneity in a hierarchical institution

The history of the Church gives us numerous examples of tensions between law and gospel, statutes and life, charism and institution. On the one hand, we find situations where Catholic orthodoxy has clearly been lost. For example, attempts have been made to establish a division between the Church of charity and the Church of law, as if these were separate and incompatible dimensions, with juridical forms suffocating the spontaneous and personal expression of Christian charity. Another example is Lutheranism, which was an open challenge to the rights of the Pope in the name of individual freedom. In its more radical formulations, some Lutherans even affirmed the incompatibility of law with the reality of the Church. The most they would reluctantly accept was a limited discipline or organization, but only as an indispensable human instrument, not as a means of salvation or a channel of divine action.

On the other hand, we find positions that, without being heterodox, reveal a clear lack of trust in the role of law in the service of justice and freedom. These attitudes and sentiments are found not only in the life of the Church but also in civil society. Recent decades have witnessed an increasingly negative vision of law, understood as a norm limiting freedom, or even as the result of compromises and a pragmatic balancing between political organizations, without any special concern for the dignity of persons and things. In contrast, the Christian vision of law sees it as a service to the realization of justice, the welfare of the person and the common good. In the Church law fulfills an indispensable function, insofar as it is an instrument of unity and continuity of the message transmitted throughout history, above and beyond the persons who at any particular moment hold positions in the Church. When our Lord instituted the Church, he also determined its fundamental organization by his choice of twelve apostles, and the call of Peter as head of the apostolic college. And the divine institution of the sacraments established, along with the specification of authority, the other basic pillar on which divine positive law rests, inasmuch as the sacraments are goods given by our Lord to the Church, which distributes them through its ministers, so that there is an obligation to provide them and a right to receive them.

The Church necessarily includes a legal dimension. The Holy Spirit nourishes the life of the Church, which exists as “one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element. . . . As the assumed nature, inseparably united to him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a somewhat similar way, does the social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.” The Spirit gives rise to and fosters the different charisms, at the same time as he brings about in the Church the harmonious blending of divine law and human law throughout the various stages of history. It is true that at times the vivifying presence of the Spirit might be obscured because of the hypertrophy of structures or an excessive confidence in the action of men. But the power of God is always able to bring forth new charisms, to revive those that are old, and to give impetus to aspirations towards holiness not only in the personal and associative life of the faithful, but also within the hierarchical structures of the Church, such as the dioceses and prelatures. Therefore the juridical figure of the personal prelature can be seen as an instrument to further and consolidate realities of holiness and apostolate, an instrument of human law for the action of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to clarify that charisms, special vocations, spirituality, and apostolic life are not restricted to associations or institutes of consecrated life. The ecclesiastical circumscriptions, and among them the personal prelatures, are called to be communities where Christian life becomes precisely that: life in Christ and dedication to others, settings of flourishing spiritual life, of Christian holiness and, as a necessary consequence, apostolate. Apostolate is the goal of the Church and of every Christian community, regardless of whether they possess an hierarchical or associative institutional structure.

Considered in the light of pastoral and apostolic action, the spirit of Opus Dei is transmitted in two ways. On one hand, the Prelate and his presbyterate carry out a special pastoral work at the service of the laity of the Prelature, as an expression of the service rendered by the priestly ministry to the common priesthood. On the other hand, the whole of the Prelature, priests and laity together, in organic cooperation carry out an apostolate of service to the local Churches.

The Prelature of Opus Dei is seen therefore:

—as a community of faithful formally organized by the supreme authority of the Church to spread among people of all walks of life the call to holiness in one’s daily occupations.

—as composed of priests and laity, reciprocally related in accord with the distinction and cooperation between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood.

—as served and governed by a Prelate as its own ordinary, with the cooperation of a presbyterate

These essential aspects express a shared responsibility, a call to be Opus Dei and to do Opus Dei, as St. Josemaría liked to put it. That is, to struggle personally to correspond to the grace of baptism, to seek Christian sanctity and to serve one’s neighbor in one’s ordinary activities.


In summary, the twenty years that have gone by since the establishment of Opus Dei as a personal prelature are an occasion for gratitude to God for all the gifts granted during these years: for the service rendered to the Church that this juridical instrument has facilitated; for the extension of the apostolic work of the faithful of the Prelature; for the theological deepening that has taken place in the message that God wanted to remind the Church of; for the canonization of the Founder of Opus Dei, and the reception of his message in the local Churches.

These are realities that move us to contemplate the future with optimism and a desire to be faithful. The future is a call to harmonize spontaneity, the spiritual and apostolic strength arising from a supernatural vocation, with the direction and government of the apostolic work and life of Opus Dei. Spirit and law, charism and hierarchical institution, are not only compatible; they are inseparable dimensions of this complex and familiar reality that is the Church.

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