THEIR KINGDOM COME -- INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF OPUS DEI
17. Kremlin on the Tiber
OPUS DEI'S HIGHEST AUTHORITY IS THE PRESIDENT (NOW PRELATE) general. Internally, he is addressed as the Father. The symbol of his succession is a piece of the 'True Cross' that he wears like an amulet around his neck. His authority is absolute. His term of office is indefinite. He is assisted in carrying out God's wishes by a vicar general. The statutes stipulate that both the Father and his vicar general must be priests, each with at least five years of sacerdotal experience, and not younger than forty. Their place of residence is the Villa Tevere, which is also the seat of Opus Dei's central government.
The Father rules through two administrative councils -- a General Council for the Men's Section and a Central Advisory for the Women's Section. Each sits at the Father's pleasure, meeting to no fixed schedule. The General Council corresponds to a presidential cabinet of ministers. Its sessions are held in secret, around a council table polished to an immaculate sheen by an army of assistant women numeraries, under the gaze of the Virgin Mary whose portrait dominates the council chamber. In addition to the vicar general, the council consists of a procurator general, who as well as handling relations with the Roman Curia serves as Opus Dei's secretary of state, three deputy secretaries, each a vocal for one of the Archangels, a prefect of studies and a general administrator, who acts as the minister of finance. He is assisted by a Consulta Tecnica General staffed only by inscribed numeraries. The cabinet is completed by the priest secretary, who handles relations with the Women's Section, a central spiritual director, who watches over the common spiritual direction of all members, and a number of regional delegates representing the various regional vicariats around the world.
The women's Central Advisory, as the name suggests, is purely advisory. The Women's Section, for example, may express an opinion on who, in its view, should be the Father's successor, but women have no elective role and in general little impact on forming the Work's overall policies. Presided over by the Father, assisted by his vicar general and central priest secretary, the Central Advisory has a composition that mirrors the General Council.
Members of the central government are appointed for eight-year terms. The Council and Advisory each have a Permanent Commission, which in the case of the men corresponds to a standing inner cabinet. Appointments to and movements within the Council and Advisory are reported in a semi-annual bulletin, Romana, which is available upon subscription to the general public.
Authority over the fifty or so regions is vested with the Father. He is represented within the boundaries of each region by a regional vicar. The regional vicars serve at the Father's discretion. They must supply him with reports about all developments of importance in their jurisdictions. Each regional vicar is assisted by a Regional Council and a Regional Advisory. A Regional Council usually consists of ten members:
In some respects the regional delegate acts as a countercheck to the regional vicar, as both report directly to Rome. The regional spiritual director, although he has no vote, may also act as Opus Central's coadjutor, reporting directly to the Father or his vicar general if required.
Some regions -- e.g., Spain, Italy, Mexico and the United States (except California and Texas) -- are so large or important in terms of membership that they are divided into delegations, equivalent to sub-regions. Each sub-region is governed by a vicar delegate, assisted by delegation councils which are structured like regional councils. California and Texas are both constituted as separate regional vicariats.
Opus Dei's third level of government is the local management committee that runs each centre or residence. A management committee usually consists of a director, assistant director, secretary and chaplain. The director and his two assistants are always lay persons and the only priest -- the chaplain -- is non-voting. But because lay members are subject to an authoritarian form of clericalism, they are expected to follow suggestions of the non-voting priest.
In any event, regional vicariats and local centres enjoy little autonomy because they must abide by a 'Praxis' which interprets all policy handed down by the General Council in Rome. Described as 'an operating manual that tells Opus Dei members how absolutely everything must be done', it is regularly updated and kept in a series of loose-leaf binders. It used to be available for consultation in every centre but was withdrawn after some parts were photocopied by persons leaving Opus Dei to be used against it. Together with copies of Cronica and other sensitive documents, it must now be kept in each centre's safe, and may only be consulted with the specific permission of the local director:
Opus Dei denies the existence of a Praxis manual and when I mentioned it to Andrew Soane, the UK information officer, he replied: 'Perhaps you could send me your copy, as we do not have one.' The problem may have been that Soane truly did not recognize the manual under that name. Its proper title is the Vademecum and it comes in seven colour-coded volumes, covering internal publications (red), local councils (navy blue), apostolate of public opinion (orange), liturgy (burgundy), priests (purple), management of local centres (green), and ceremonies (grey).
It is available in Spanish only. And it describes in encyclopaedic detail everything a member needs to know about the spirit, life and customs of the institution -- from how the Founder's birthday must be celebrated to a correct specimen for a will which new numeraries are required to draft in their own hand, leaving blank the date, names of heirs, legatees, executors and the fees to be paid to the executors. Nothing is left to individual judgement; everything is regimented so that numerary members are fully programmed. More leeway is permitted married members, but they too must follow a code of behaviour established by Opus Central in Rome.
Villa Tevere is more than the seat of Opus Dei's central government; it is the nerve centre of an empire that receives information from around the world through an efficient intelligence gathering network. The intelligence is sifted by an army of analysts who prepare reports for the permanent commissions or in some instances directly for the vicar general. Just as directives from Rome never go through the mails but are hand-carried by special couriers, the most confidential incoming reports are likewise not entrusted to public-access communications systems.
It took twenty-five years to complete the remodelling of Villa Tevere. The facade of what originally had been the Hungarian embassy to the Holy See remained mostly intact, although raised to six stories. But the rest when viewed from the exterior has an austere fortress-like aspect, though from inside the whimsical jumble of architectural styles resembles a Disneyland for clerics.
The gardens of the original villa have disappeared under a mass of concrete and brick. The inner courtyard has a classic Florentine touch to it. Two new wings were added: the Casa del Uffici, which houses the men's central government; and the equally Florentine Villa Sacchetti, headquarters of the women's section, with a separate entrance in the side-street of the same name. While the entire complex retains the Villa Tevere name, the original building is now called the Villa Vecchia. Its courtyard entrance is guarded by two imperial eagles perched on stone columns. A monumental reception hall with stained glass windows has a ceremonial staircase in stone leading to the Father's office and living quarters. An eighteenth-century tapestry depicting a biblical scene that was donated by a wealthy family in Rio de Janeiro hangs in the stairwell. The furniture throughout is in dark, massive wood, the chairs covered in red velvet. In addition to the main library and treasure vault, the Villa Vecchia contains an important juridical section and the apartments of the Vicar General and Procurator General.
Semi-attached to the Villa Vecchia is a high tower called the Casa del Vicolo. On a different level behind the Villa Sacchetti is La Montagnola, a six-storey building given over to the Central Advisory and the apartment of the central directress. The women's compound also includes the Casetta, Il Ridotto and Il Fabbricato Piccolo. All street-level windows are barred, which in Rome only seems prudent, but also the higher windows of the Casa del Vicolo and some other upper-storey windows as well.
The complex contains no less than a dozen chapels, among them one dedicated to the Holy Family of Nazareth and another to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Two of the more distinctive are the Chapel of Relics and Chapel of Chalices. What became the Prelatic Church of Our Lady of Peace is entirely finished in bluish marble. The high altar is austerely set with six tall candlesticks. At the back of the apse is a throne-like armchair for the Father, surrounded on either side by six chairs for his principal ministers. Fisac designed the prelatic church to accommodate two hundred worshippers. At the Father's request, the gallery for women numeraries was angled in such a way that the congregation below cannot see the women in the blue sky above them.
After ten years as head of the Venezuelan women's section, Maria del Carmen Tapia was summoned back to Opus Central to appear before the Father. By her own account, Opus Dei had transformed her into a religious fanatic. She was totally dedicated to the cause. During her years in Caracas she had religiously transmitted the required tithe -- 10 per cent of the revenues from the Venezuelan women's section -- to an Opus Dei account at the IOR, representing a considerable fortune for the young women, admittedly all from wealthy families. She thought the money went towards training priests at the Roman College of the Holy Cross. When she arrived back in Rome she was placed under house arrest in the Villa Sacchetti, cut off from the outside world. The charges against her were never specified, yet she was repeatedly pressed to confess her guilt. Callers were told she was absent or unwell. She felt like her. world had caved in. The directress was coldly distant. For weeks she was permitted no other human contact. At forty-five her hair turned' white. Finally, word came from the Father that, having refused to repent, she must resign. He said her management of the women's section in Venezuela had damaged the Work's unity. As far as she could tell, this referred to her insistence that women numeraries in Venezuela be allowed to confess to the Opus Dei priest of their choice. After devoting twenty years to the Work, Maria del Carmen suddenly found herself standing on the doorstep of 36 via di Villa Sacchetti with only her passport and little more than the clothes on her back, without ever understanding why.
That she was abandoned, Opus Dei told the relator general of the Causes of Saints, was a perfect lie. Marfa del Carmen Tapia was expelled, the postulator affirmed, because she had perverted a group of women numeraries by practising upon them 'the worst sort of sexual aberrations'. Moreover she had caused the Father such grief that he subjected himself to extra flagellation for her salvation. And, after all the harm she had done, he helped her find a job when she left, the' postulator maintained.
Maria del Carmen Tapia was not alone in receiving this kind of charity. Staying in the room next to her at the Villa Sacchetti was Aurora Sanchez Bella, sister of Alfredo. She wanted to leave the Work and return to Spain. But this was refused. She was a nervous wreck and paced the floor night after night. Another numerary who passed through Rome on her way from Mexico to London was Rosario 'Piquiqui' Moran. She also was unhappy and wanted to leave. After arriving in London she jumped out of a top-floor window at the Rosecroft House residence and broke her pelvis. According to Eileen Clark, who lived in the same Rosecroft residence but was absent that day, another resident gave this description of the incident:
Piquiqui Moran was left a permanent invalid. After months on traction at the Royal Free, she was transported back to Spain, where she died of cancer after receiving treatment at the University of Navarra hospital.
Except for the difference in size -- the Kremlin being somewhat larger -- the physical similarity between the two seats of government was striking. Both are a maze of towers, chapels and secular buildings linked by courtyards, interior patios, covered passageways and underground tunnels crammed within the narrow confines of a walled city state. 'Behind the entrance to [the Villa Tevere1in Rome is a gigantic machine by which the superiors of Opus Dei manipulate their members, men and women, like puppets throughout the world,' Maria del Carmen said. 
Opus Dei's secretariat of state at the Casa del Uffici is the guardian of the organization's Strategic Plan. The Plan's existence is unknown to the ordinary run of members, but it shapes the Work's apostolate of penetration. It is administered by a small corps of priestly technocrats hand-picked by the Vicar General for their devotion and discipline, and they function behind closed doors without any manner of public oversight.
Opus Dei has been accused of playing a behind-the-scenes role in unlikely situations ranging ·from Latin American coups d'etat to international weapons deals. Needless to say, Opus Dei denies such involvements. Nevertheless one of its senior members in Ireland designed an armoured personnel carrier that entered the weapons inventories of at least three armies. The vehicle was manufactured under licence in Chile by Explosivos Industriales Cardoen, a firm that also manufactured 500-lb cluster bombs. During the first Gulf War Cardoen sold planeloads of cluster bombs to Iraq.
Towards the end of Paul VI's reign a battle erupted in the Roman Curia between Progressive and Conservative factions. The Progressive faction, which wanted tighter financial controls and opposed greater influence for Opus Dei, was led by Paul's closest aide, Archbishop Benelli. He was credited with resolving one of the most serious crises of the post-Conciliar Church -- the break-up of the Company of Jesus, a project that allegedly had its roots inside the Villa Tevere. Benelli's efforts insured that the 26,000 Jesuits remained under the command of one general superior, who at the time was Don Pedro Arrupe.
Benelli was said to have wanted to keep the Company of Jesus intact because it represented the only effective counter-balance to Opus Dei. Moreover, Benelli also made known his distaste for the mercantile morals of Bishop Paul Marcinkus, the head of the Vatican bank whom he regarded as an Opus Dei sycophant. One would have thought that Benelli, as Paul's under-secretary of state, was in a good position to make his concerns heard. But when a showdown finally occurred, Benelli lost out.
In June 1977, Paul gave Benelli a red hat and sent him to Florence. The Pontiff had little more than a year of life left in him. It was almost as if by separating himself from Benelli the fire in his heart was extinguished. Their collaboration had spanned more than thirty years. But by making Benelli a cardinal and sending him into the field to gain pastoral experience, Paul must have realized he was placing his favourite son among the front-runners for his succession.
1. Eileen Clark, Op. cit., p. 12.
2. Maria del Carmen Tapia, Hinter der Schwelle -- Ein Leben im Opus Dei, Benziger Verlag, Zurich 1993, p. 23.