For readers of The Da Vinci Code
, John Allen's book on Opus Dei may be something of a revelation. One opens it expecting to find at the very least GPS coordinates pinpointing albino monk training camps. Or perhaps full disclosure of untold wealth flowing through offshore bank accounts. Instead one finds exhaustive research, interviews and careful analysis that reveal a group alive with ideas and purpose, but a bit short on sinister plans. Removing the sense of mystery surrounding Opus Dei may not serve future thriller writers well, but the journey is fascinating in its own right. Allen's biography of Opus Dei is also necessarily a brief biography of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, born in Spain in 1902, whose vision of the sanctification of work gave birth to Opus Dei, or "The Work" as its members call it. The idea of finding sanctification through work was not original to Escrivá, but the power of his vision certainly brought it to a fuller realization within the Catholic church. Allen explores this central idea that "one can find God through the practice of law, engineering or medicine, by picking up the garbage or by delivering the mail, if one brings to that work the proper Christian spirit." For Escrivá sanctification flowed in equal measure both in and outside the walls of the church. Much of Allen's own work getting to know Opus Dei is done with numerous, wide-ranging personal interviews, from the halls of the Vatican, to Africa, to U.S. suburbs. Allen is also careful to include voices of ex-members. He recognizes the best way to dispel the aura of mystery surrounding Opus Dei is to shine a bright light on it, and with a remarkable degree of cooperation from Opus Dei itself, that is exactly what he does. His aggressiveness in countering conspiracy theory with information reaches its apex in the only slow-going chapter in the entire book, a survey of Opus Dei's financial holdings and activities where a double-shot of cappuccino is recommended before attacking the endless lists detailing financial information. Ultimately, Allen's work comes across as a balanced, perceptive inquiry into a group that, while perhaps not preferring the center stage limelight, does not suffer greatly when exposed to it.--Ed Dobeas
From Publishers Weekly
Allen, an author and journalist covering the Vatican, opens this exhaustive study of Opus Dei by describing the 85,491-member spiritual organization of clergy and lay people as the "Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church"—"a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone." To undertake his examination of the group, Allen visited Opus Dei outposts around the world, conducting 300 hours of interviews with members and ex-members. He also lived for five days in an Opus Dei residence and had access to high-ranking officials and private correspondence from the organization's archives. Allen thoroughly explains the group's history and motivating ideas and carefully addresses such questions as its treatment of women, secrecy, financial holdings, wielding of church and political influence and recruiting practices, concluding with recommendations for ways to improve Opus Dei's image. Allen's balanced, even reporting sometimes borders on the clinical, as when he lists the numbers of Opus Dei members inside the Vatican or analyzes the group's finances. Harsh critics of the group and those expecting more titillating details may be disappointed, but readers who are curious about this often mysterious organization will find Allen's opus on "the Work of God" most informative. (Oct. 18)
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