There is no indication outside the old brick building on Chicago's north side that would tell visitors that they've come upon the home of a devout religious order merely a sign on a green awning that reads "Midtown Center." Yet this place is the center of activity for a dozen numeraries, between 40 and 50 supernumeraries and about 25 associates. Set on a residential block in a gentrifying neighborhood, the Opus Dei center is made up of a residential unit, offices and classrooms that are all adjacent to the huge church of St. Mary of the Angels, the only church in the country run by Opus Dei priests.
Enter the main door and it appears that you are in any slightly threadbare public school office with linoleum floors and faded paint on the walls. Upstairs you find classrooms and more offices used to administer a 500-student tutoring program. Every evening and on Saturdays students from 4th grade to 6th grade drawn from underprivileged neighborhoods all over the city stream into the classrooms, where they are taught (by both Opus Dei and non Opus Dei teachers) math, reading and science. The tutoring program was started by Opus Dei and is run by a nonprofit foundation and separate board. Its executive director, Glenn Wilkie, is an Opus Dei associate numerary. The tutoring program is a big part of the work associated with the Chicago center, and its success in boosting scores of students has been widely recognized in the city.
The first thing you notice upon entering the center's private residential wing is the library-like hush. Interior lights remain off during daytime, putting the halls and chambers of the numeraries in a half-light. The blue carpeting on the floors is unmistakably institutional, and the aging hardwood furniture, oil paintings of ships at sea adorning the walls and wooden doorways with transoms give the place an almost clubby, old-world feel. This is the beating heart of Opus Dei. The chambers themselves, where a dozen numeraries and priests make their homes, are spartan and impeccably orderly. Hardly a scrap of paper is out of place. Each room has a wooden desk, a chair, a single bed, a bureau and a private bath. A few have desktop computers, but most seem devoid of personal knickknacks. All the rooms are without telephones or TVs, although some members do carry cellphones. Yet you have to look closely to see evidence that you are inside the walls of an intensely devout religious order. Numerary Peter Anglada's chamber has a painting of the Virgin on one wall, a gold-framed print bearing a long Latin inscription on another, and a photo of the prelate of Opus Dei on a third. Other chambers are similarly ornamented, invariably with Catholic-themed art.
The center is all male. Across town, female Opus Dei members have their own separate facility called the Metro Center. Because the male numeraries and some associate numeraries commit to celibacy, the residential wing here is structured to be, in its own way, a facsimile of family life. In the common area one room is designated the "living room," and another the "family room." Meals are eaten together and served buffet-style chicken, rice, peas, French bread and raisin cake were on the menu last night and after dining, about 45 minutes is set aside for the "get-together," which is a time for casual conversation and community. Although a few Opus Dei priests live in the residence and are instantly identifiable by their robes and clerical collars, other Opus Dei members (or fellows) wear no identifying garb or insignias and are thus almost indistinguishable from the tutors, visitors, workers or anyone else who may come and go in the facility. Some of the fellows wear blue jeans and sports jackets. Neckties are uncommon, which lends the place an informal air.
Spend a few minutes with an Opus Dei member, however, and you quickly realize that behind the casual exterior they are rigidly orthodox, and worship is an omnipresent feature of their lives. Walk through the facility and watch what happens when an Opus Dei member passes through a chapel. He stops and genuflects in the direction of the tabernacle (which is believed to carry the blessed sacrament) before going on his way. Prayers are frequently conducted in Latin. There seems to be very little slack in days that are filled with meditation, prayer, confession and work. Opus Dei members speak assuredly and with clarity about their lives and their calling, and many have the slightly distant gaze of true believers. It was clear when we arrived, however, that every member had been made aware of our presence. They were all to a person well prepared and chose their words carefully when speaking to us, even outside of the attention of center officials.
While Opus Dei members are devout in their commitment, what separates them from other Catholics is that part of that commitment involves work in the real world, and that work happens outside of a parish context. Many of the fellows are highly educated and well trained. Associate numerary Gil Kaufman is a retired Ph.D. chemist. Calixto Maso is a pathologist. Peter Anglada is an MBA. Francisco Ruiz teaches engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology. Art Thelen is a structural engineer who supervised bridge building in Chicago. Glenn Wilke was an executive at Conagra for twenty years. "We all have an apostolic assignment," explains Anglada, "whether it be in a school, a parish or someplace else." So on a typical day, many of them are out of the center and away at their jobs.
Inside Opus Dei the daily activity revolves around frequent prayer and meditation, what members call "norms of piety," or rituals performed every day to remind themselves that God is around them. For Anglada, who is assistant director of the residence, his day began at 5:35 a.m. when he climbed out of bed, dressed and prayed for 30 minutes in his chamber. This prayer is known as the morning offering. Next he attended a mass in the chapel connected to the residence. After that he spent about 10 minutes reading (usually something by Aquinas or Augustine). By that time it was nearly 7:45 and he joined some of his fellow numeraries for breakfast in the downstairs kitchen. Then it was back upstairs to the living room a large common room with a piano, easy chairs and couches where the five priests attached to the center and several numeraries settled in for a couple of hours of meditation and discussion in what is called a "day of recollection." A layman leads the once-a-month recollection in this case it was Art Thelen, a numerary who is also director of the residence. On this day one of the themes Thelen presented for discussion was "the priestly soul" or living life in the world with the attitude of a priest. "The idea is that we are to be immersed in work and society and to offer this to God," says Anglada, who is a Spaniard. Each member discussed what is going on his life and where he would like to improve. Father Joe Landauer, a priest who took part in the recollection, explained, "There is always a need to reflect because we are so busy with our lives running and doing things. And you need to stop sometime and ask: Am I on the beam?"
At noontime everyone paused to recite the Angelis, a prayer to Mary. At about 1 p.m. they broke for lunch, followed by a 1:30 get-together. Every member says a Rosary daily usually in the afternoon. Anglada then met privately with one of the fellows of the Center for a chat on spiritual direction. At 6:20 p.m. all the fellows silently assembled in the chapel for more meditation and prayer. One of the fellows recited prayers in Latin, and at 6:30 came the reciting of the Preces, which fellows call "the universal prayer of the work" or the blessing of everyone from the Pope to Virgin Mary to the prelate of Opus Dei. This includes prayers from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Next came an act of humility or kissing the floor. A priest then began a reading in which he concluded, "We have to follow the doctrine of our Lord to have success in the world." Then it was time for dinner.
The meals are cooked and prepared by "ladies of the work" (some are Opus Dei members and some are not), who also clean the residence. "They keep the place like a house," says Anglada, "with fresh flowers and things like that. They are not servants, but they do not socialize or eat with us." In fact, social contact between women and the celibate numeraries is all but forbidden. When the ladies of the work arrive to clean, they place barriers at the entrance to the residential chambers and all the men clear out until they are finished. "We live apostolic celibacy so it's a way to ensure that," explains Anglada. After dinner and coffee came another get-together, where jokes were exchanged and then it was time for fellows to return to their chambers for the "examination of conscience." That is a reflection upon the events of the day, a sort of spiritual bookkeeping, where each fellow asks himself: Did I treat anyone badly? Did I work hard?
Matt Smyczek, an associate numerary and Director of the Midtown Center tutoring program was preparing for the evening's classes when we sat down in his office. He has a dark thatch of hair and dark eyebrows, and is dressed in a blue blazer and khaki pants. "We are not trying to convert kids to Catholicism," he says. "Kids won't learn doctrine if they don't want to." Smyczek joined Opus Dei at age 24 when he was working as a professional engineer, driven by the feeling, he said, "that there's got to be more to life than this. I wrote a letter to the prelate of Opus Dei. You make a verbal commitment. You don't take vows. Nothing else changes in your life necessarily. This is a commitment between you and God. So you do your ordinary work but you offer it up to God and give it a divine meaning." Clearly there is a quiet evangelism built into the functioning of Opus Dei. Midtown just sent a numerary to Latvia to start a center there.
Art Thelen is the top director at the Opus Dei Center. He has silver hair, wire-rimmed glasses and an intense gaze. "Our philosophy is that lay people are in family life, social life and professional life, and we have to make a difference there. Opus Dei gives you a regime to keep in shape, tells you how to do it, and tells you how to help other people do it." But Thelen does not shy away when we ask him why Opus Dei is associated with conservative politics and a secretive agenda. He denies that Opus Dei has any interest in electoral politics per se, even if that is the most powerful pulpit to change the real world. "Opus Dei puts its emphasis on one-on- one relations," he says. "We do things in a quiet way, not a splashy way. In today's world there are a lot of people who practice birth control, abortion, divorce, but call themselves liberal Catholics. Opus Dei we go to mass, and we don't do those other things. One is Catholic and the other is not. Some politicians say, I'm a good Catholic but I'm OK with abortion. That's like saying I'm a good businessman but I'm going to steal. People loved Christ when he performed miracles but when he asked for people to change their lives, they don't love him so much anymore. A lot of people are satisfied with what they are doing and that causes problems. A lot of the world sees suffering as the greatest evil and must be avoided but God sees suffering to overcome sin. We interpret the teachings of the church literally, and that's orthodox and for some people that doesn't fit. They want a little more wiggle room in life.
In some ways The DaVinci Code is a blessing. It's brought attention to us, but people can now see that we are not the strange birds they thought we were. But I'll say that if you want to be a member of Opus Dei and you don't follow the doctrine, you'll have to change."