Opus Dei Members 'Shocked, Saddened' by Hanssen's Arrest

Robert Philip Hanssen, the FBI agent accused earlier this week of spying for the Russians, on the surface was a typical suburban father. He commuted daily to his Washington office from his home in Vienna and struggled to put his six children through Catholic schools and colleges. He reportedly attended St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Great Falls with his family. At the same time, the government now claims that Hanssen, a 56-year-old native of Chicago, was a spy for the Russians for 15 years. He reportedly received more than $1.4 million for revealing the FBI’s deepest counterintelligence secrets. He could face the death penalty if convicted of treason. One of the items reported in the secular press was that Hanssen and his wife, Bonnie, are members of Opus Dei, a Catholic organization erected as a personal prelature by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Bonnie Hanssen teaches part-time at Oakcrest, a private school in McLean operated by Opus Dei. "We are shocked and saddened to hear about the news," said Brian Finnerty, U.S. spokesman for Opus Dei. "It was a complete surprise to everyone." If the allegations about Hanssen are true, "it is a serious violation of his obligations as a Christian," Finnerty said. Questions immediately were raised about Opus Dei, its role in the Catholic Church and the amount of control it has over its members. Opus Dei is Latin for work of God. Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer established the organization of primarily lay Catholics in Madrid in 1928. Members promote the Church’s universal call to holiness through their ordinary professional lives. Blessed Josemaria Escriva died in 1975 and was beatified by the pope in 1992. The organization was given full pontifical approval in 1950. As a personal prelature, it is now an ecclesiastical entity similar to a diocese, with a bishop, clergy and laity all working together. "With supernatural intuition, Blessed Josemaria untiringly preached the universal call to holiness and the apostolate," said the Holy Father at Blessed Josemaria’s 1992 beatification in Rome. "Christ calls everyone to become holy in the realities of everyday life," the pope said. "Hence, work too is a means of personal holiness and apostolate when it is lived in union with Jesus Christ, for the Son of God, in the incarnation, has united himself in a certain way with the whole reality of man and with the whole of creation." Finnerty said membership in Opus Dei is considered a "vocation." After prayerful consideration, a potential member feels "this is something that God is asking me do — to become a saint in the middle of the real world." Opus Dei reportedly has more than 1,600 priests and 79,000 lay persons worldwide. There are 3,000 members in the U.S. and they are evenly divided between men and women. The majority of Opus Dei members are married. Only 2 percent are priests. "The lay involvement is very strong," said Finnerty. A person interested in joining Opus Dei will write a letter to the Opus Dei vicar in the U.S. — in this case the Very Rev. Arne Panula — and say this is what God is asking me to do, Finnerty said. There is a period of discernment and prayer during which the person will make an oral contract in which they promise to pursue holiness in the middle of the world, he said. "Eventually the person may want to make a lifetime commitment." It is not clear how long Hanssen and his wife were members of Opus Dei. "As a matter of policy, Opus Dei does not release membership information," Finnerty said. Commonly referred to as a "secret society" within the Church, group literature claims that "any kind of secrecy is expressly forbidden by the statutes governing Opus Dei." Colleagues, friends and acquaintances of Opus Dei members "will always know about their membership because they make it known, especially by the way they live their faith." Opus Dei members may not publicize their membership, "because a lay person's approach to holiness in Opus Dei is something personal, an aspect of his or her private life." Members are asked to foster a deeper spiritual life through prayer, daily Mass, praying the rosary and partaking in weekly confession. Members also attend a weekly class — typically taught by a lay person — on Catholic teaching and how it applies to their daily lives. "Members are asked to offer up their daily work for the love of God and to bring their friends closer to God as well," Finnerty said. Members do not take vows, but some single members choose to live apostolic celibacy. These single members might live in one of 60 Opus Dei centers in the U.S. Sixteen new Opus Dei centers opened in 12 cities worldwide last year, although none were in the United States. Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross is operated by Opus Dei. In the Washington area — in addition to Oakcrest — Opus Dei operates the Heights School in Potomac. The Archdiocese of Washington contracted with Opus Dei to operate its Catholic Information Center in 1992. Father John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest, has been the center’s director since 1998. Former Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey blessed the center’s new Blessed Josemaria Escriva Chapel last September. Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde, Auxiliary Bishop William Lori and Bishop Javier Echevarria, a prelate of Opus Dei from Rome, concelebrated. Opus Dei sponsors regular prayer groups and retreats for its members through the Reston Study Center. Evenings of Recollection for men in the Arlington Diocese are held monthly at St. Philip Parish in Falls Church, St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Clifton and St. Catherine of Siena Parish. Six weekend retreats preached by Opus Dei priests are given from February through May. Classes in Catholic doctrine are available on alternate Sundays from February through August. Opus Dei’s lay members are subject to the local ordinary of the diocese. Diocesan priests are associated with Opus Dei through the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, while remaining under the jurisdiction of their bishop. A specific ministry entrusted to Opus Dei by the Holy See is the spiritual direction of diocesan priests. Local members of Opus Dei who knew Hanssen said, "he seemed like a perfectly nice guy," although he had not been around in recent months. Hannsen reportedly attended meetings on a regular basis, went to confession and made a retreat a couple of weeks ago. "So how do all the pieces fit together?" asked one Opus Dei member. "At the moment, I haven't the faintest idea — except that, in a general way, anybody is capable of just about anything."

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001