Like most Manila Times readers, including ardent Catholics who aren’t Opus Dei members, I was astonished at this newspaper’s Sunday edition, which devoted five long news articles and an opinion column on the “beatification of Don Alvaro del Portillo.”
Even the newspaper’s editorial was devoted to Portillo, whom it described was a “friend of many Filipinos.” Huh? I had never heard of this friend of Filipinos before, and I thought I’ve been a very well informed journalist.
I cannot remember any national daily ever devoting such enormous space to a dead religious personality. The other major newspapers hardly treated it as an important story, burying it in their inside pages.
So what the hell, rather, what in heavens’ name, was this paper reporting about?
First, “Don Alvaro” is Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo, who died 20 years ago, and who had succeeded Jose Maria Escriva as head of the religious organization Opus Dei, which was founded in Spain in 1928, where it has the biggest and most influential operations.
Opus Dei is an organization of 92,000 members – of whom 90,000 are lay persons and 2,000 are priests – a tiny group relative to the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion faithful. It is dwarfed by our homegrown Iglesia ni Cristo, whose membership has been estimated at 5 to 10 million. I would even suspect Brother Mike’s El Shaddai is bigger than the Opus Dei.
Unlike INC and El Shaddai, however, Opus Dei lay members are among the elite in Spain and in the few countries it has taken root, including here. This explains its influence, which is so grossly unreflective of its size.
In fact, Opus Dei is so much of an exclusive club that most people got to know about it only because of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel Da Vinci Code, where it is portrayed as a fanatical, yet powerful sect. (I’ve met many working-class people who are INC or El Shaddai members. I have yet to meet an Opus Dei who is an ordinary employee, making me suspect it is, indeed, a sect of the elite.)
The biggest criticism against Opus Dei has been its support of the Spanish fascist Franco’s regime, an accusation I would tend to believe, as many of its leading members had also been officers or supporters of Marcos’ dictatorship.
Second, “beatification” is the “recognition accorded by the Catholic Church to a dead person’s entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name (intercession of saints).” It is the Church’s penultimate step before one is “canonized,” that is, included in its list, or canon, of saints.
Opus Dei members are so happy over Portillo’s beatification because it means the organization is well on its way to have its second saint, with Escriva having been made one in 2002.
A New York Times article reported last week: The beatification is a result of “indefatigable lobbying” by Opus Dei within the Vatican, according to Marco Politi, a Vatican journalist with Il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian newspaper. He suggested that the speed of the beatification, coming just 12 years after the canonization of Father Escrivá, was “a record for a religious organization.”
You see, much like divisions in an army, religious orders’ track record, prestige, and influence over the Vatican through history is somehow a function of the number of its saints. Franciscans have 55 saints, the Benedictines 41, Jesuits 20, Dominicans 18, Carmelites 10 and Redemptorists just 4.
After all, a saint among an order’s ranks demonstrates it has a hot line to the divine. A saint can do no wrong, an old Christian adage says, so that the more an order has saints from its ranks, the less it can do wrong.
That Opus Dei in such a relatively short time will have two saints means the organization, despite its tiny size, has become an influential force within the Catholic Church.
I’ve been wondering though: Would Opus Dei’s unusual strength in the Philippines be an indication of colonizer Spain’s continuing hold on the minds of our elite?
Conferring sainthoods is also one way the Catholic Church raises the morale of its troops in areas where it is advancing, so that there has been an acceleration of canonizations in the 20th century, and in recent years, of people from Africa, China, Korea and, of course, the Philippines.
According to the Church’s 2,000-year history, most popes appointed only a handful of saints during their term. This tradition, however, was radically changed by Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), who canonized a record number of 110 saints during his term – more saints than those anointed by other popes in the previous 500 years. That included Opus Dei founder Escriva and the first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz. Benedict XVI has continued the new trend of mass canonization, which included our second saint Pedro Calungsod.
The nationality of saints, however, points to the system’s mundane features. There are 257 Italian saints, 155 Spanish saints, 76 English, and 87 Egyptian and 95 Anatolian. This simply reflects where Christianity’s power had been based as one moves through history. (Anatolia is in Turkey, which was once a center of Christianity before it broke off into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox wings.) Most of the other nationalities in the world wouldn’t have a saint, or just a handful, if any. That would make Italian and Spanish the most spoken language in Heaven.
Pantheon of Saints
Or is the Church’s pantheon of saints, as many modern observers have pointed out, polytheism in disguise? Believe it or not, there is no official Catholic Church list of saints. This is partly because a huge number of those portrayed as faithful for centuries, have been disowned by the Church as they turned out to be simply the stuff of legend and mythology, among them St. Christopher and the Archangel “saints,” while many were thought to be saints simply out of public clamor.
There are patron saints for nearly all conceivable diseases, for instance. St. Symphoran for syphilis, St. Fiacre for hemorrhoids, St. Ubald for autism. And a saint for each line of work, e.g. St. Bernardine for advertisers, St. Francis Caracciolo for chefs, and St. Francis de Sales for journalists.
That patronage system of saints is obviously an ancient human predilection in all cultures around the world, by which a god or goddess was believed to be behind each force or aspect of nature, from the Norse Thor, the god of thunder, Apollo the god of the Sun, to the Hindu Aranyani, the goddess of the forests. The Greeks were the first to assign gods for each line of work and emotion, for instance, Hephaestus, as the god of blacksmiths and Cupid, the god of lust. The Church beats all these old polytheisms though, with its 10,000 saints, each of which Catholic Online assigns as patron for a disease or a line of work.
The strength of Opus Dei may be due to the fact that its members find both community and religion in one organization they are convinced is part of a larger whole, the Church.
Or its strength may be due to the fact that certain individuals prefer, in a world of uncertainty, the certainty in dogmas and authoritarian discipline, with its exclusivity convincing them they are among the elite who have an assured space in Heaven.
For the Philippines, though, it presents an interesting case study of how a tiny elite group can occupy the commanding heights of our society and has enough influence to make the country’s oldest and widely respected newspaper devote nearly an entire edition to the glorification of its second head.
FB: Rigoberto Tiglao