Opus Dei in the service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church

The Personal Prelature of Opus Dei in the service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church (Conference, CEFA, Kinshasa, November, 2007) [translation]
The essentially evangelizing mission which characterizes the Church finds its imperative justification in those words of Our Lord to the Apostles: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...; and I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:18-20). One should add that evangelization is a ministry, a work of service ("I am among you as one who serves": Lk 22:27), entrusted to the Apostles by Jesus Christ from whom they received his own sacred power to be exercised through the ages so as to serve the People of God, sanctifying, teaching, leading God's People towards their final destiny; and, also through the action of this People, to bring the light of Christ to all men, to all the ways of men, so renewing the whole of creation (cfr. Rom 8:19-23).
This sacred power was to be handed on by the Apostles (each of whom had universal personal jurisdiction). So they appointed the first deacons to take care of certain material and organizational tasks, while they devoted themselves to the more fundamental missions of prayer and preaching (Acts 6:2-4). They sent some of their own apostolic college or other well-formed disciples on different missions, at times over a broad geographical area, such as Paul and Barnabas; at other times to look after a particular area, as Timothy in Crete.
With the passage of the centuries and on the basis of apostolic succession, the exercise of sacred power in the service of the People of God began logically to settle into a territorially based division of responsibilities and jurisdiction. First the Patriarchates and then the dioceses [1]. Given the basic stability of the vast majority of the population, this territorial administration of hierarchical government was evidently the most suitable and has continued until our days.
In consequence of the many remarkable changes in social life witnessed by the last hundred years or so, the possibility of introducing other modes of hierarchical government, which would have a non-territorial basis, began to be considered. During the twentieth century social stability became less and less settled due to the phenomenon of mass emigration: emigration from one country to another; and, within the same country, emigration from countryside to towns; and townships themselves growing into mega-cities where people easily get lost in a materialistic and depersonalized form of life.
These changes created substantial difficulties for proper pastoral attention. In countries with large-scale immigration, parishes for particular types of persons were often set up, at least for a time; e.g. Italian parishes, Polish parishes, Philippine parishes, etc. (in the U.S. in the first half of the last century, in England and elsewhere nowadays). Especially with regard to large cities the awareness grew of the need to bring the good news of Christ to people where they work or meet, since in practice few of them would come in contact with parish life.
The "aggiornamento" of Vatican II
So we come to the Second Vatican Council, convened with the specific purpose of find more effective ways of bringing the saving message of the Church to the modern world. This aim came to be expressed from the start in a keynote idea of aggiornamento, or bringing the Church up to date, without there yet being any precise notion of what this would imply. After the first few sessions, it was evident that the council fathers were prepared to consider quite radical approaches to this task of "updating". Of course (is it still necessary to stress the point?) this aggiornamento was not intended to change anything in the saving doctrine handed down from the start, but rather to study and improve the pastoral methods used to spread this doctrine, and also wherever it seemed advantageous to remodel the structures which positive human law had given to the internal organization of the Church itself.
This latter point is the one that interests us. In order to provide for the needs deriving from the new situations we have just outlined, the Council Fathers recommended the creation of new and more flexible jurisdictional structures and, in what more directly regards our topic, they studied and approved the possibility that certain pastoral tasks or initiatives could be more effectively organised on a personal and not exclusively territorial basis.
It is in this sense that the conciliar Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis lays down: "Where a real apostolic spirit requires it, not only should a better distribution of priests be brought about but there should also be favoured such particular pastoral works as are necessary in any region or nation anywhere on earth. To accomplish this purpose there should be set up international seminaries, special dioceses or personal prelatures, and so forth" (n. 10).
This was followed in 1966 by the Motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae of Paul VI which established that "in order to accomplish special pastoral or missionary tasks for various regions or social groups requiring special assistance, prelatures may usefully be established by the Holy See. These would consist of priests of the secular clergy specially trained and under the rule of a prelate of their own [2] and governed by statutes of their own". It adds, "There is no reason why lay persons, whether celibate or married, should not dedicate their professional service, through contracts with the prelature, to its works and enterprises" (Paul VI, Motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae, I, n. 4, in AAS 58 (1966) 760-761). Canons 291-294 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law give legislative effect to these indications.
Opus Dei as a Personal Prelature
This is the historical and juridical context within which Opus Dei was erected as a Personal Prelature by John Paul II in 1982. Its nature is clear. A Prelature with its own Prelate and its own presbyterium of secular clergy, but made up mainly of ordinary lay faithful who commit themselves through a contractual bond to pursuing personal holiness in and through their ordinary secular life, and seeking to spread among their fellow citizens and workers the marvelous awareness that one can enter on friendship with God and love him in every moment of ordinary life.
The Prelature is international in scope. Its fundamental purpose is to be a source of spiritual guidance of individuals - members and non-members, Catholics and non-Catholics - who want to put God at the centre of every aspect of their daily lives. This aim broadens out in a natural and logical way towards those working companions with whom the members are in daily contact and who do not profess any explicit religious belief or declare themselves to be agnostic or even atheist. In their case, the broader aim is to be a source and support for those human ideals - honesty, sincerity, a faithful friendship or a love full of respect, understanding, the readiness to pardon and to seek peace - that every man or woman of good will maintains in some way in their heart, always bearing in mind that the atmosphere of the modern world creates a strong temptation to abandon these ideals unless one meets some colleagues or friends who sincerely seek to keep them alive and put them into practice.
With that we have described the purpose of all the activity of the Prelature. Beyond that it has no further aim or programme. It has a number of "corporative" activities of an educational or social nature. In these the spiritual and doctrinal formation is entrusted to Opus Dei. With the exception of the few members who may be involved in these corporate activities, all the other activities of the members - whether alone or in conjunction with others - are personal to themselves, that is, carried out with all of the freedom, and of course all of the personal responsibility, that correspond to every ordinary citizen.
The Opus Dei Prelature and the local Churches
If this is borne in mind there should be no difficulty in placing and understanding the activity of Opus Dei within the territorial and jurisdictional functions of each local Church. The lay members of the Prelature are at one and the same time faithful of the Diocese and faithful of the Prelature, though in slightly different respects. In all matters where the rest of the faithful of the Diocese depend on their Bishop - discipline regarding the liturgy, holy days, laws of fasting, the celebration of marriage, etc. - they are under the jurisdiction of the local Bishop. They are under the jurisdiction of the Prelate of Opus Dei (or his Vicar) for matters that concern the personal quest of each one to sanctify all the aspects of his or her secular life and work. It is a question of overlapping jurisdictions; and better still of cumulative jurisdictions that complement one another in serving lay people in their own peculiar mission within the Church.
One of the great advances made by the Second Vatican Council was to spell out the distinctive and non-clerical role of the laity within the over-all mission of the Church of Christ, making it abundantly clear that the peculiar mission of the laity is not to act as auxiliaries to the clergy in the organization of parochial or diocesan life, but to sanctify the world from within. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium states emphatically that, "by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will... There they are called by God that... They may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties... It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be effected and grow according to Christ" [3].
Serving the Church in secular activities
The members of Opus Dei, as such, are not engaged in any ecclesiastical activities proper to them. Each one strives to fulfil his or her professional and social obligations as perfectly as possible, with all honesty and out of love for God. For the married members, who are the great majority, an equally principal field of dedication is their conjugal and family life where they strive to be exemplary spouses and parents. The practical consequence is that in every diocese where there are members of Opus Dei, a constant and direct work of evangelization, of service of the Church's mission, is being carried out, and the benefit of this service goes directly to the local church without Opus Dei wanting or seeking any credit for it.
"We want to serve the Church as the Church wants to be served", St. Josemaria repeated constantly. Logically then, a member of the Prelature living in a parish will also be ready to take his share in parish activities always provided that this is compatible with his prior commitment to his secular apostolate in the ambit of his professional work combined with his dedication to his family. These latter are the first fields of his or her apostolic service to the Church in accordance with the priorities indicated by Vatican II.
It is fashionable today to insist on the need for a well "integrated" or organised pastoral work. At times one gets the impression that some of those who speak of integration have a one-sided and narrow view of the real extension of the pastoral work of the Church - of the universal Church and of each particulr Church; at the same time as they do not seem to understand that each Christian is already fully integrated into this pastoral and evangelizing mission when, in explicit accord with the teaching of the Council, he seeks to live his professional and family life in such a way as to sanctify from within the world and the whole range of secular activities [4].
Reinforcing the service rendered by the Prelature to the particular Churches
The practical effect of this was brought out by Pope John Paul II in an address of March 17, 2001 to members of Opus Dei gathered in Rome to study ways of putting the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte into effect (Cf. L'Osservatore Romano March 18, 2001). The Pope, having noted that the meeting was organized "for the purpose of strengthening the Prelature's service to the particular Churches where its faithful are present", underlined that the "hierarchical nature of Opus Dei, established in the Apostolic Constitution by which I erected the Prelature [cf. Ap. Const. Ut sit of Nov. 28, 1982], offers a starting point for pastoral considerations full of practical applications. First of all, I wish to emphasize that the membership of the lay faithful in their own particular Churches and in the Prelature, into which they are incorporated, enables the special mission of the Prelature to converge with the evangelizing efforts of each particular Church, as envisaged by the Second Vatican Council in desiring the figure of personal prelatures" (no. 1).
John Paul went on to note how the lay members of the Prelature are engaged in a distinctively secular apostolate. "Their specific skills in various human activities" he said, "are, first of all, an instrument entrusted to them by God to 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' (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 29). They should be encouraged, then, to put their knowledge actively at the service of the "new frontiers" that are emerging as so many challenges for the Church's saving presence in the world" (no. 2).
The "new frontiers"
What are these "new frontiers" Pope John Paul saw as posing challenges to the Church's saving work and where he considered the lay members of Opus Dei should be actively engaged? Perhaps they could best be defined in relation to the "old" frontiers, in other words, to that broad consensus on basic moral standards which shaped the West until very recently and gave it a common culture. Well, those old frontiers have now collapsed and are practically nowhere acknowledged or respected. There are no longer any borders between right and wrong, no common acknowledgment of what is human and what is less than human, and Western man finds himself lost in a desert of ethical relativism - a point on which Benedict XVI insists unceasingly.
In business and economic life, in politics, in social and educational philosophies, in scientific research, in respect for life, in the concept of sexuality, of marriage and the family... truly human ideals and objective moral values no longer hold their sway. It is there that new frontiers need to be established. It is there that a new map of life, a new consensus on human values, has to be recreated. It is no doubt a difficult task, but it is a posible one; especially because the challenges it offers are very attractive.
We have to fill out the content of the "culture of life" - so insistently proclaimed by John Paul II - realizing that it is characterized not just by acknowledgment of the value of each life from conception to natural death, but is a culture, a civilization, of people drawn together by the ideal of building a truly human city, where men can be trusted and are ready to trust, where honesty becomes the norm rather than the exception - because people themselves, little by little, have established it in their working environment and social relations; where profit and justice go together; where a deep love for human values and humanity inspires academic and scientific research; where the first aim of education is to form people with civic ideals (capable therefore of appreciating the noble service-aspect of professions like medicine, law, politics...); and especially too where an attitude of mutual appreciation, admiration and respect between the sexes reemerges, and where a main ideal of married couples is to inject vigour and vitality - family life with personality - into the families they set about forming.
In the same address of 2001 the Pope stated explicitly that fields such as these, with the challenges they offer, are the particular areas where the members of Opus Dei can serve the cause of truth. "It will be their direct witness in all these fields", he said, "that will show how the highest human values only achieve their fullness in Christ. And their apostolic zeal, fraternal friendship and supportive charity will enable them to turn daily social relationships into opportunities for awakening in others that thirst for truth which is the first condition for the saving encounter with Christ" (ibid.).
A direct secular witness
What the Church wants of the members of Opus Dei, then, is a "direct witness" - from within secular activities - to the fullness of human values as rooted in the truth of Christ. This is an essential point which some persons still do not understand.
Those who do understand it realize immediately how absurd it is to expect the members of the Prelature to be directly or mainly engaged in ecclesiastical affairs or in the parochial or diocesan structures of the Church's organizational life; just as they realize how absurd it is to judge the nature of Opus Dei or the work of its members according to the pattern of religious life.
It is quite clear, then, that Personal Prelatures, as foreseen in the Second Vatican Council and in Paul VI's M.P. Ecclesiae Sanctae, represent a development - an enrichment - of the various modes through which the Church, by human law, endeavors to render more effective the essentially evangelizing mission that is the purpose of its hierarchical structure.
From a consideration of "the components by which the Prelature is organically structured, that is, priests and lay faithful, men and women, headed by their own Prelate", the Pope goes on to stress the "hierarchical nature of Opus Dei, established in the Apostolic Constitution by which I erected the Prelature".
In itself the phrase, "hierarchical nature" used by the Pope would seem to refer just to the internal structure of the Prelature. However the term "hierarchical" has precise connotations. In its theological and technical usage it refers specifically to the 'sacred governance' with which Christ has endowed his Church and which has been handed down from the Apostles, taking on various institutional forms with the passage of time.
The point is perhaps clearer if one considers that a religious institution or a lay association does not have a sacred governance in this sense. It has its own internal regime but this, properly speaking, is not hierarchical. To put it another way again, only institutions that partake in the hierarchical constitution of the Church can be hierarchically structured in the proper sense.
In the new Code of Canon Law of 1983 Personal Prelatures are dealt with in Book Two, "The People of God". However, their present placement - within Part One of this book ("Christ's Faithful"), and not Part Two ("The Hierarchical Constitution of the Church") - can only be regarded as a technical anomaly [5]. In the preparation of the new Code, Personal Prelatures were at first placed within the canons dealing with the Hierarchical Constitution of the Church and in fact they continue to be treated so in the practice of the Holy See. This is quite evident in the Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican YearBook, where Personal Prelatures have been consistently listed as one more grouping (along with Dioceses, Vicariates, Ordinariates or Territorial Prelatures) within the hierarchical composition of the Church [6]. One finds the same in the 1994 Directory for the Ministry and Life of the Clergy [7], in the Apostolic Constitution of 1998 Ecclesia in Urbe (no. 40), and (in the specific case of Opus Dei) in the fact of the erection of the tribunal of the Prelature.
[1] Although the term 'diocese' was not universally used in its present sense until about the 10th century.
[2] Prelate is a generic term applied to the cleric charged with the government of each particular portion of the People of God. The prelate is normally a bishop, sometimes an abbot, and often enough, especially in newly evangelized areas, a simple cleric but one endowed with the power of government or jurisdiction that is implicit in the term "prelate". Rotal judges, for example, are "Prelate-Auditors", having universal jurisdiction in their proper judicial field.
[3] no. 31. cf. "The laity are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth" (ibid., no. 32); "In the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God. In the concrete, their apostolate is exercised when they work at the evangelization and sanctification of men; it is exercised too when they endeavour to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order" (Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 2).
[4] I would emphasize that no one will ever manage to understand this point well if he continues to consider the matter of "integration" from the angle of ecclesiastical organization, directed by ecclesiastics themselves, and not from the angle of the personal apostolic mission that corresponds to each Christian both by ecclesiastical law (cfr. cc. 208, 211, 225-227) and, even more importantly, by divine will inasmuch as he or she is recipient of an imperative injunction from Christ to be the salt and light of the world (Mt. 5:13-14).
[5] It was introduced into the last revision of the draft Code carried out before its promulgation, being no doubt due to a desire to avoid any possible total identification of the Prelatures with Particular Churches (this could have been achieved by simply placing Personal Prelatures within a corresponding third Section to Part Two).
[6] cf. "Statistica della Gerarchia Cattolica", Annuario Pontificio (2007), pp. 1172-1173.
[7] "By virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders every priest is united to the other members of the priesthood by specific bonds of apostolic charity, ministry and fraternity. He is, in fact inserted into the Ordo Presbyterorum constituting that unity which can be defined as a true family in which the ties do not come from flesh nor from blood but from the grace of Holy Orders. This membership in a specific presbyterate, always comes within the context of a particular Church, of an Ordinariate or of a personal Prelature. In fact, unlike the case of the College of Bishops, it seems that there are no theological foundations to affirm the existence of a universal Presbyterate" (no. 25).