Opus Dei prelate
The Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr Fernando Ocáriz (right) and the Auxiliary Vicar Msgr Mariano Fazio

Opus Dei: A History (1928-2016), Volume One
By José Luis González Gullón & John F. Coverdale | Scepter Publishers, USA | 2022

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

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

About the book itself. You have said that this book is the first “synthesis of the great events that make up Opus Dei, from its foundation to the present day”. You have also said that “The chronology as well as the particular focus on the last fifty years is also new, a field in which no one had entered until now.” That makes it quite a significant work. And yet Opus Dei is almost a century old. Why has it taken so long for a history like this to be written? What were the main challenges that you faced in writing it?

José Luis González Gullón (JLGG): The St. Josemaría Escrivá Historical Institute was created in 2001 to promoting research and publish articles on St Josemaría. Coverdale and I started researching the extensive documentation and articles covering a range of stages in the development of Opus Dei, in particular the 1930s and 1940s, because we wanted to know how the institution spread its Christian message in its early years.

In 2017, we decided to write a full history of the Work from the beginning until now, because no such book existed. Perhaps the main challenge was to make a good selection of materials from the Opus Dei archives and to write an intelligent account of the different periods and events in the life of the institution.

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

JLGG: Prof. Coverdale and I are professional historians and also members of Opus Dei. We esteem the institution we belong to and we use a rigorous historical methodology to study the history of the Work. I think both are compatible. Can not a practicing Catholic write a good history of the Church? If he is a good historian, he will produce a fine history.

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

On the other hand, the history of Opus Dei cannot be separated from the history of the Church in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For this reason, we have endeavoured to offer the reader the big picture of the life of the Church and of the world, so that he can situate the development of the Work in that context.

I was struck also by the number of new vocations who left Opus Dei in the 1990s. I don’t think that kind of information has ever been made public before. Was that in part a consequence of a defective approach to the winning of new vocations?

JLGG: There are several steps for a person to be incorporated into Opus Dei and certainty regarding one’s personal Christian vocation requires mature consideration. During this process, people can leave the institution if they think they are called to be united to Christ in a different way. Leaving in this period is something normal and this is what happened in most of the cases. There were also circumstances you point out: local directors of Opus Dei who rushed the incorporation of someone without sufficient knowledge of that person or who lacked competence in thoroughly explaining the spirit of the Work.

Some readers might be scandalised by the downright deviousness of the attempts of some members of the Legionaries of Christ to derail the erection of Opus Dei as a Personal Prelature. Also the machinations of many high ranking Churchmen, particularly within the Vatican, against Opus Dei over several decades are a bit 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, and therefore it seems normal to me that some people needed more time to understand it, also in terms of its juridical form. Perhaps Opus Dei could also have explained itself better.

Perhaps because I am by training an historian as well as a lawyer, I can’t say I am shocked, and I certainly don’t find these events incompatible with love for 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. Nonetheless, it is made up of sinners. Knowing our own weaknesses, we shouldn’t be surprised that some members of the Church sometimes act badly. And it doesn’t require 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 been inspiring people who love Jesus deeply and try to serve Him.

At the end of the book, you list many of the institutions of all kinds which have been started 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 without this, the book would be incomplete, since most of the work of Opus Dei is through the private lives of its members, and not through institutions. I suspect that it was a challenge to convey to the reader the fact that institutions are quite secondary to personal lives in Opus Dei?

JFC: It was, indeed, a real challenge to convey the reality that the history of Opus Dei is at its core the history of the spread of a message, primarily through the quiet, ordinary activities of people who live very normal lives and whose day-to-day activities are very much like those of their relatives, neighbours, and colleagues.

What catches everyone’s attention, and what naturally captured our attention, are things like the numerical growth and geographic spread of the Work, its search for an adequate legal framework, its institutional development, and the successes and failures of its collective apostolic activities. Those sorts of things inevitably occupy most of the pages in our book, but we hope that the final chapter will help readers to appreciate that they are important primarily to the extent that they make possible each member’s search for holiness and personal apostolate.

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. 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 teaches occasional...