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For the love of God
Richard McLeod has rediscovered his faith. Picture / Martin Sykes
Richard McLeod has rediscovered his faith. Picture / Martin Sykes
by Eugene Bingham
Richard McLeod is striving for sainthood. The Auckland lawyer acknowledges that in this secular world, that sounds jarring, but he is genuine.

"It's about developing an awareness that you are working at all times in the presence of God. It's like supernaturalising your day-to-day life," says McLeod, 35, a busy immigration lawyer whose firm took on the case of Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui.

About five years ago, McLeod was a lapsed Catholic on the path to finding his way back to the church. Not long afterwards, when he felt in need of spiritual guidance, a friend introduced him to a deep form of the faith promoted by a group of Catholics called Opus Dei.

"Initially, I was sceptical and just wanted to check them out. But I came to see that for me Opus Dei was a really a revolutionary way of approaching one's life and faith. It promotes a very simple but fundamental truth that we are called by God to be saints."

Opus Dei (Latin for Work of God) was founded in Spain in 1928. But in the past few years its profile has risen dramatically - for good reasons and bad.

First, it can thank (or not) author Dan Brown and his number one best-seller The Da Vinci Code for an unprecedented interest - not easy for an organisation that is not always comfortable being in the spotlight. The book's racy plot, centring on a rogue member of the group (an albino monk) prepared to commit murder to protect so-called secrets of the church, inflamed conspiracy theories that have swirled around Opus Dei for decades.

The other, perhaps more critical reason, for Opus Dei's development can be laid at the door of St Peter's Basilica in Rome whose chief celebrant, Pope John Paul II, has been a firm supporter of The Work (as followers like to call it).

Not only did the Pope canonise Opus Dei's founder, St Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, in quick order he also gave it a special status in the church by establishing it as a personal prelature - effectively a diocese without borders. Several people close to the Pope, including his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, are members of Opus Dei.

When the Pontiff fell ill this week and talk again turned to possible successors, the Times reported that one of the key power figures in the Vatican was an Opus Dei member, Cardinal Julian Herranz Casado, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

It will come as a surprise to many, including many committed Catholics, that Opus Dei is in New Zealand and has been since 1989. It has around 40 members and several hundred of what it calls co-operators, people who are not formal members but who ascribe to its views and support it. Unlike religious orders for priests, nuns or brothers, its membership is dominated by lay people.

It has a physical presence in Hamilton and Auckland - each city has two buildings, three of which are used as accommodation for university students. The public face and spokesman is Chris Faehrmann, an Australian who was sent here by Opus Dei about five years ago. A part-time teacher at Takapuna Grammar School, he is the director of one of the Auckland-based operations, the Glenrowan Study Centre, and is The Work's spokesman.

Faehrmann comes to the door of Glenrowan looking not in the least like a character from a blockbuster thriller. A single man who committed himself to a life of celibacy in service of Opus Dei about 30 years ago, he is conservatively dressed.

He is good at small talk, and invites me to the dining room for a cup of tea, but it is obvious that he is a little nervous. When I pick up my notebook, he laughs and suggests we wait until we have finished our drinks and then go through to the more formal setting of a small sitting room for the interview proper.

The centre, in Grafton, is an early 20th century building bought and beautifully refurbished by Opus Dei for $1.5 million.

On a tour , Faehrmann explains that it is in fact two buildings that have been joined together, with one half used primarily as accommodation for six male students and three staff. There is a chapel, but the rest of the centre is not crowded with overt signs of Christianity. There are signs of the national "religion" including a copy of the New Zealand rugby bible, Men in Black, and an All Black flag.

There are certainly no signs of any albino monks. In Britain Opus Dei centres have become tourist stops for devotees of The Da Vinci Code. Faehrmann assures me the book has generated no such interest here. He admits he has not even read it: "To be honest, I'm a non-fiction person."

Far from being some sort of murderous sect, Opus Dei is, the way Faehrmann explains it, a group dedicated to enriching people's spiritual life and helping them to see that life is more about just themselves. It seeks to "foster in the lives of people a great love for Jesus Christ, then looking at Christ as a model for their lives".

As well as providing the accommodation (students are expected to live by certain rules in keeping with the decorum of Glenrowan, and attend a nightly session of reflection) Opus Dei organises community activities such as youth clubs. It holds retreats and talks for parents on how to instil Christian virtues in their children.

Once a year, the New Zealand and Australian wings join to send youths to work camps around the Pacific.


Faehrmann says the idea of the camps is not only about helping the poor. "The winners are not the local community - it's the guys who have broadened their horizons and started to realise they have got to make a difference."

The idea was to stimulate the idealism in young people and make them realise their talents were to be shared with others.

All of which is hardly radical stuff - a point Faehrmann concedes. "Any Catholic with a good understanding of their faith realises things have to go beyond them." But Faehrmann says Escriva called on his followers to go further, instructing them to seek holiness in their whole lives.

"This message of a radical Christianity in daily life is what he has promoted."

Followers of Opus Dei are to see it as a vocation, not some kind of club. They are to model their lives on "the hidden life of Jesus", the 30 years before the three years which are the main focus of the Gospels.

Virginia Mills, a mother of three and Auckland lawyer, heard this call about four years ago and joined the group. It's meant that she tries to no longer live a "schizophrenic life" split between her secular and spiritual duties.

"St Josemaria said you can't live this double life. Either you discover the invisible God in the visible things and you learn to find God in the ordinary circumstances of your life, or you will not find him at all. That profoundly impacted on me."

She said that being a member of Opus Dei had helped her to become a better wife and given her and her husband guidance with bringing up their children.

As with other members, she is staunchly devoted to the Catholic sacraments of the mass and confession (which she attends weekly) and receives weekly spiritual guidance from an Opus Dei priest or other members.

Faehrmann says another important aspect for followers is the concept of self-denial. It wants people to "pick up their cross" and follow Jesus.

"Opus Dei encourages people to live that way on a daily basis," says Faehrmann. "To smile when you don't particularly feel like it, to finish one's work well, to delay a glass of water when you are thirsty - your day can be full of these things."

Critics say this is one area of Opus Dei's regime which make it an unhealthy organisation. The Opus Dei Awareness Network (Odan), which runs a website to inform the public about what it says are the group's unsavoury aspects, lists among The Work's questionable practices corporal mortification, aggressive recruitment, a controlling environment, and alienation from family members. Of these, it says corporal mortification is the most shocking practice. It can take many forms - from the small acts of self-denial described by Faehrmann to more extreme methods.

Odan highlights the fact that members are sometimes required to wear a spiked chain around the upper thigh, and to use a cord-like whip to hit their backs or buttocks. Other tasks include the taking of cold showers, and kissing the floor each morning reciting "Serviam," Latin for "I will serve."

Faehrmann points out that the more painful acts of penance would only ever be conducted on advice from a members' spiritual guide. When asked several times if it is something he himself has experienced, he defers answering.

"The most demanding corporal mortification people have to live is in getting out of bed when the alarm goes, eating a little bit less of what they like ... they are the things done day in day out, a way of identifying with sacrifice," he says.

For most criticisms of Opus Dei, Faehrmann has well-prepared answers. To the charge of secrecy, for instance, he points out that he is talking to me, and that the group is listed in the phone book and has a website.

But on the suggestion that Opus Dei seeks to recruit those who will one day be in positions of power, Faehrmann struggles. In Britain, the new Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has confirmed her association with Opus Dei.

It is not known whether any New Zealand MPs are members - although a pamphlet on the Glenrowan Centre promises to introduce students to community leaders and Government ministers.

Faehrmann says that rather than celebrate the appointment of a member to a position within the British Cabinet, he is indifferent. "I value the work of a cleaner above that of a head of state, if there's more love of God in the way [the cleaner] lives out his life," says Faehrmann.

When it is pointed out that in New Zealand and around the world, Opus Dei runs halls of residences for students likely to take up professional careers, rather than cleaners, he says that it is a matter of resources. Besides, he says, he has been to an Opus Dei residence for blue collar workers in Rome.

Where Opus Dei will become a growing influence is within the wider Catholic church. As church authorities face an increasingly secular Western society, they can call on a group who fervently believe in Catholic doctrines.

Faehrmann says Opus Dei may be a help for the broader church in the battle against secularism.

Bishop Pat Dunn, the Bishop of Auckland, agrees. "There is always the risk that these movements can become divisive, but that hasn't been my experience with Opus Dei."

Bishop Dunn says he believes the appeal of Opus Dei for some Catholics, especially young people, is its strong messages. "I think in a world of complexity, some people like the simple truths and the time-tested devotional practices of the church. It's like an anchor in quite a busy life."

A winning conspiracy

The Da Vinci Code has become an extravagant success since it was first published in 2003. It has sold more than 17 million copies and is going strong after 98 weeks in American bestseller lists, still ranking third in the New York Times hardback fiction lists. It topped the lists all over Europe and was given a new lease of life with the publication of a lavishly illustrated edition. It has also created a huge demand for previous books by author Dan Brown. His works, including the Code occupy positions 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the British Sunday Times list.
Related Links
 • Odan
 • Opus Dei
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