An untold story of Opus Dei: interview with the authors

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Opus Dei: A History (1928-2016), Volume 1
By José Luis González Gullón and John F. Coverdale | Scepter Editors, United States | 2022

In 2021, the Rialp publishing house published the first in-depth history of Opus Dei from its foundation in 1928 until 2016, in Spanish. The English translation of the first volume of this book has now been published by Scepter Publishers in the United States.

In this interview, Spanish-born historian José Luis González Gullón and American-born historian John F. Coverdale answer a number of questions about this groundbreaking work.


About the book itself. You said that this book is the first “synthesis of the great events that have constituted Opus Dei, from its foundation to the present day”. You also said that “the chronology as well as the particular emphasis on the last fifty years is also new, an area in which no one has entered until now”. That makes it a pretty big job. And yet, Opus Dei is almost a century old. Why did it take so long to write a story like this? What were the main challenges you had to face in writing it?

Jose Luis Gonzalez Gullon (JLGG): The Saint Josemaria Escriva Historical Institute was created in 2001 to promote research and publish articles on Saint Josemaría. Coverdale and I began researching the extensive documentation and articles covering a series of stages in the development of Opus Dei, particularly the 1930s and 1940s, as we wanted to know how the institution spread his Christian message in his early years.

In 2017, we decided to write a complete history of the Work from the beginning until now, because such a book did not exist. Perhaps the main challenge was to make a good selection of documents from the archives of Opus Dei and to write an intelligent account of the different periods and events in the life of the institution.

You said you were quite happy that a professional historian noticed that it was not a work of hagiography. You also said that “a Catholic historian is able to subject the Church or a particular Catholic institution to rigorous analysis, so we too can make a rigorous investigation of Opus Dei”, and that you tried to show “all relevant facts, both successes and failures. Was it difficult for you to be objective about the failures of Opus Dei when writing this? I am thinking for example of the defensive attitude adopted by the Opus Dei in the post-conciliar years — perhaps it was excessive?

JLGG: Professor Coverdale and I are professional historians and also members of Opus Dei. We respect the institution to which we belong and we use a rigorous historical methodology to study the history of the Work. I think the two are compatible. Can’t a practicing Catholic write a good history of the Church? If he is a good historian, he will make a good story.

In this regard, I had no difficulty in explaining that the Founder adopted certain measures after the Vatican Council in order to protect Catholic doctrine in Opus Dei. The reader can assess whether or not these measures were helpful, rigid or proportionate. We simply present them as they happened.

On the other hand, the history of Opus Dei is inseparable from the history of the Church in the 20th and 21st centuries. This is why we have endeavored to offer the reader an overview of the life of the Church and of the world, so that he can situate the development of the Work in this context.

I was also struck by the number of defections from new vocations in the 1990s. I don’t think this kind of information has ever been made public before. Was this partly the consequence of a faulty approach to the conquest of new vocations?

JLGG: There are several stages for a person to be incorporated into Opus Dei and the certainty of one’s personal Christian vocation requires careful consideration. During this process, people may leave the institution if they believe they are called to unite with Christ in a different way. No-shows during this period are normal and have happened in most cases. There were also circumstances that you point out: local directors of Opus Dei who rushed the incorporation of someone without sufficient knowledge of this person or who did not have the competence to explain well the spirit of the ‘Work.

Some readers might be outraged by the deviousness of attempts by some members of the Legionaries of Christ to derail the erection of Opus Dei as a personal prelature. Moreover, the machinations of many high-ranking clergymen, particularly within the Vatican, against Opus Dei over several decades are somewhat shocking. How do you reconcile this personally with your own love for the Church?

John F. Coverdale (JFC): Opus Dei is a very new pastoral phenomenon in the Church, so it seems normal to me that some people needed more time to understand it, also in terms of its legal form. Perhaps Opus Dei could also have explained itself better.

Perhaps because I am trained as a historian as well as a jurist, I cannot say that I am shocked, and I certainly do not find these events incompatible with the love of the Church. As we all know, the Church is holy for many reasons and in many ways, but ultimately because its head is Jesus Christ himself. Nevertheless, it is made up of sinners. Knowing our own weaknesses, we should not be surprised that some members of the Church sometimes act badly. And you don’t need to have a deep knowledge of history to see that this is not just a theoretical possibility, but a sad reality.

I might add that the members and associates of the Legionaries of Christ whom I have met have inspired people who deeply love Jesus and try to serve Him.

At the end of the book you list numerous institutions of all kinds which were created directly by Opus Dei, or under the inspiration of the message of Opus Dei. You also present a number of interviews with members of Opus Dei talking about their own lives. I suppose that without this the book would be incomplete, since most of the work of Opus Dei passes through the private lives of its members, and not through the institutions. I suspect it was a challenge to convey to the reader that institutions are quite secondary to personal life in Opus Dei?

JFC: It was indeed a real challenge to convey that the story of Opus Dei is at its heart the story of the spreading of a message, mainly through the quiet and ordinary activities of people who lead very normal lives. and whose day-to-day activities are very similar to those of their parents, neighbors and colleagues.

What captures everyone’s attention, and what naturally captures our attention, are things like the numerical growth and geographical extent of the Work, its search for an adequate legal framework, its institutional development, the successes and the failures of his collective apostolic activities. These kinds of things inevitably take up most of the pages of our book, but we hope that the final chapter will help readers appreciate that they are important primarily insofar as they make possible the pursuit of holiness and the apostolate. staff of each member.

Reverend Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland, and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He occasionally teaches… More by Fr Gavan Jennings

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