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The first leader of Opus Dei’s new era

Bishop Javier Echevarría and Mgr Fernando Ocáriz greet Pope Francis (Copus Dei)

After St Josemaría Escrivá founded Opus Dei, he took care to ensure its future. The organisation’s big idea was to help people in ordinary life to find God in all things. To continue this mission, the saint picked two successors: Blessed Álvaro del Portillo, who died in 1994, and Bishop Javier Echevarría, who died last month. Now it’s out of the founder’s hands.

This is a “coming-of-age” moment for Opus Dei, says spokesman Jack Valero. “We’re all aware that things will be different from now on.”

Tomorrow, the 38 members of the all-women Central Advisory will meet in Rome and attend a Mass in the church where the founder is buried. They will then look through a list of 94 candidates, all priests, most of whom have held senior positions in its central Rome offices, or been in charge of national branches. The women will whittle down the 94 to a shortlist. On Monday the male members, priests and laymen, will vote. A result is expected next week.

The new leader will be a spiritual father to 93,000 members. Most are women. Seven in ten members are married. Most of the rest are celibate members who live in Opus Dei houses. There are Opus Dei-run schools, universities, and hospitals around the world, while its main focus remains putting on talks, retreats, and other spiritual activities formed around their central message: that, as their website puts it, “Work, family life, and the ordinary events of each day are opportunities for drawing close to Christ, and making Him known to others.”

That focus won’t change, but Opus Dei’s approach might. More than half of its members live in Europe, and most of the rest are in the Americas. Many of these countries have seen rapid secularisation . The “big question”, says Valero, is “what is Opus Dei going to do to reach more people … not just people who are Catholic or have large families or whatever?” In his later years, Bishop Echevarría often asked how Opus Dei could best reach out beyond the shrinking circle of practising Catholics in the West.

The new leader’s first job is to appoint all the national councils, who in turn appoint local leaders. So there may be quite a shake-up. For instance, Valero says that there may be more focus on marriage preparation courses and on helping those in especially complex family situations.

The frontrunner to lead Opus Dei in this next stage is Mgr Fernando Ocáriz, who was Bishop Echevarría’s number two. Mgr Ocáriz is also a serious theologian, who has worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than 30 years, and played an important role in Dominus Iesus, the CDF’s statement that the Catholic Church is the one true Church. Previously, it has always been the number two who becomes Prelate, but as Mgr Ocariz himself has said, this time could be different. For one thing, Mgr Ocariz is 72, a decade older than the previous two prelates when they took up the post.

A younger possibility is Mgr Mariano Faziano, an Argentine and a friend of the Pope’s. Mgr Faziano is a distinguished man of ideas, a former law professor who has written a book on Dickens.

But given the last 12 months, perhaps we should expect some totally unexpected result. And there are many regional leaders of Opus Dei who could end up as Prelate, such as Mgr Fred Dolan, an ex-stockbroker who is now Vicar for Canada.

The youngest woman on the Central Advisory is a 37-year-old Englishwoman, Nicola Waite. She says the group will be looking for somebody who is rooted in St Josemaría’s teaching – and “somebody who’s close to God. That’s the main thing.”

The organisation is always re-examining its work, Waite says, “with the aim of reaching more souls”. But this turning point is likely to see a greater focus on reaching non-Christians, supporting families in difficulties, and serving the marginalised. She points to the Baytree Centre in London, an Opus Dei-linked project to help immigrants gain skills and a place in society, as an example of what the future might look like.

What will the atmosphere be when the Central Advisory gather to select the shortlist? “I think, to be honest, it’ll be a family occasion,” Waite says. There will be stories to tell about Bishop Echevarría and his last days. There will also be excitement about the next chapter in Opus Dei’s life. An organisation once synonymous with mystery may be about to become more visible than ever.