My Basic Human Rights Were Violated
By a Former Numerary Assistant, Europe
The following personal account was written by a young woman from Europe who experienced first-hand the grueling life of an Opus Dei numerary assistant. Opus Dei recruits women from poor backgrounds to devote their lives to the cooking and cleaning of the opulent centers of Opus Dei, while living a life of celibacy.
In her book, Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei (1), María del Carmen Tapia says, "According to the Founder, an auxiliary could never aspire to be more than a good servant … In countries where numeraries and servants perform housekeeping in centers of male members of the prelature, they receive a salary, though a low one, but no social security. On the principle of poverty, these salaries go directly to the coffers of the house where the servants live. The servants do not receive any money. It is supposed that the numeraries who accompany them will pay for whatever purchases are made. Naturally, when they need clothes or shoes, they get them, but they do not handle any money."
ODAN is grateful to the young woman who has shared her difficult testimony. We applaud her courage in speaking out about the realities of assistant numerary life.
I was a member of Opus Dei for seven years. My status within Opus Dei was called "an assistant" numerary.
My first contact with Opus Dei came through an advertisement for one of their catering colleges in a national newspaper. The advertisement offered young girls certification in household management and cookery. Those interested went through two interviews, one in their family home and one in the center of Opus Dei. At that time in my country there was widespread economic recession and a high rate of unemployment. Potential students were guaranteed full-time permanent positions at the conclusion of the catering course. This "sweetener" influenced my parents' decision to place me in this particular school. So at the age of 15, I began my catering course.
Four months later, I was an assistant numerary. I was recruited in the usual way. I was considered a leader by the members of Opus Dei in the center; therefore, highly likely to influence other girls. However, I now realize that it was something subversive that made Opus Dei directors single me out from the other students. My family had a particular problem, which I had discussed with my "tutor" during our so-called "tutorials." I did not know until many years later that she had discussed my family's problem with other directresses, who put into action a sophisticated plan to recruit me.
They first started suggesting that I pray for my family; then attend weekly confession and daily communion and so on. They told me that if I followed God's will, then my family's situation at home would improve. Before I knew it, I had a vocation; they told me I would be unhappy for the rest of my life if I did not do what God wanted. In addition, the problem in my family would worsen. I was frightened out of my wits when I "whistled" in Rome at the UNIV conference as an assistant numerary. (2)
When I returned to my country after the UNIV conference, they separated me from the other students in the catering course. They censored my incoming and outgoing mail, monitored my phone calls and went through my personal belongings. I had to make an accounting of my daily activities to the directresses. I had to hand over what little money I had. What disturbed me most during this time was how the Opus Dei members scrutinized and directed my relationship with my family. They told me what I could write and not write in my letters to them and what to say to them when I was speaking to them on the phone. There was always a numerary in the vicinity when my family rang, and she always called me aside to question me about the phone call afterwards.
Needless to say, my family was totally unaware that I had become a member of Opus Dei. The directresses told me I could tell them once the course was finished.
Meanwhile, they told me to lie to them about what was happening in my life while I was on visits and holidays with them. After such visits, the members of Opus Dei interrogated me about where I slept, what we discussed and what newspapers we read.
My family eventually did see a big change in my behavior. My bubbly, outgoing personality disappeared. I became introverted and suspicious of everything.
As the course was about to finish, they instructed me to tell my parents about my impending decision to join Opus Dei! My parents learned of my decision and went crazy. My only answer to their barrage of questions was "It's God's will."
My parents very reluctantly let me return to take my exams hoping that I would change my mind. That was not going to happen. Instead, Opus Dei shipped me off to one of their centers with many assistant numeraries and a few numeraries. We assisted in the running of a number of centers of Opus Dei for both males and females.
The full realization of my status as an assistant numerary now began to dawn on me. I had never been informed of the role and responsibilities of an assistant numerary. They just told me that assistant numeraries and numeraries were the same, just that our work was different. But I began to realize that my life was going to be one of long working hours, hard work and absolutely no social life. In addition, it was very clear that we were in no way the same as numeraries.
First of all, there were material differences between the two classes of members. Numeraries wore expensive clothes while assistant numeraries wore uniforms with a white apron. Assistant numeraries can only wear ordinary clothes if they leave the center, but they are usually second hand or inexpensive clothes. Numeraries ate in different dining rooms with better quality foods; whereas we ate the leftovers. The numeraries were usually waited on by an assistant numerary dressed in a long-sleeved black dress with a starched white collar, cuffs, head-dress and apron. Numeraries had a much higher quality of table linens, bed linens, crockery and furniture than those used by the assistant numeraries.
Our sleeping quarters and bathrooms were also different. Numeraries usually had en-suite facilities while assistant numeraries had communal bathrooms and bedrooms. In countries where there were large groups of members, like in Spain or in Rome, the two classes even had separate oratories. The numeraries' oratories were lavish and bedecked in gold; whereas, those used by the assistant numeraries were plain and wooden. Assistant numeraries also used separate entrances into the centers of Opus Dei called the servants' entrance, which was usually out of sight in the back of the building.
While these differences of the two seemingly "equal" groups may appear to be simply material; there are also very disturbing attitudes which underlie these distinctions.
The Opus Dei catechism defines assistant numeraries as follows, "there are other numeraries who do the menial and housekeeping work in Opus Dei houses who are called servants," (3) While the term servants has been suppressed and the term assistant or auxiliary is now used, the reality continues to exist for many assistant numeraries across the world.
Assistant numeraries are usually recruited from rural, poor and uneducated backgrounds, while numeraries tend to be recruited from educated, wealthy backgrounds. Assistant numeraries can never occupy positions of authority nor can they work outside Opus Dei houses.
Tapia suggests that the founder of Opus Dei saw assistant numeraries as having limited intelligence or as he called it "their own mentality."(4) All members of Opus Dei receive education in various forms on annual courses and so the difference between the type of education given reflects the attitudes toward each group. Numeraries receive classes in theology, canon law and Spanish while assistant numeraries receive classes in basic hygiene, basic reading and writing and elementary religious instruction.
Escriva also considered assistant numeraries to be devoid of human emotion. For example, assistant numeraries are allowed to hold babies, while numeraries are not. Escriva believed that a numerary's maternal instinct might be triggered by holding a baby, but he thought this would not happen to an assistant numerary because he believed she does not possess such an emotion.
Ironically, the directors constantly told us that we were the mothers of all members of Opus Dei. And why wouldn't we be? We cooked, cleaned and ironed morning to night, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year, year in, year out, for these numeraries.
Escriva liked to call assistant numeraries his "little daughters." It is well-known that he encouraged their childish behavior. Tapia says that she was embarrassed by seeing adult women behaving like thirteen-year-olds.(5) The directresses also egged us on to indulge in this behavior. After a while, it became a difficult habit to shake off.
Assistant numeraries could never be left alone. Numeraries always had to accompany us wherever we went, inside and outside of the centers. We could not possess or have access to any money; the numeraries had to pay for everything.
These attitudes and conditions formed the basis of my life in Opus Dei. My life was controlled and suppressed and I had little access to the outside world. Our newspapers were censored and our television was often switched off if it was deemed unsuitable by one of the fanatic numeraries.
My claustrophobic life had little room for individuality or creativity. As rural girls, we were often on the receiving end of numeraries' jokes. Since they were predominantly from the cities, they laughed at our accents, our language and our rural traditions.
We were often at the receiving end of their bad tempers, but were not allowed to give them fraternal corrections. The directress would undoubtedly rule in favor of the numerary in question.
I lived a life of conformity and indoctrination. I began to ask questions about some of the contradictions that I saw, but was quickly quieted by being told I would go to hell for even thinking such things. Because of my lack of education, I was unable to articulate a reply.
Eventually, I could take no more. I was unable to understand the inconsistencies in my surroundings. I became confused about who God was. It seemed as if Escriva was more revered than God Himself. At times, I felt that it was often weeks before I even heard the word "God." It was always "The Father" and "Our Father." I longed for the God I knew before my life in Opus Dei.
One wet, windy morning I left the center of Opus Dei and my many assistant numerary friends. The numerary who brought me to my point of departure threw my bag on the ground and walked away without even saying goodbye. I was stunned by the behavior of this person who was apparently dedicated to God. As I climbed on to the transport, which brought me to my family, I realized that while I was in Opus Dei, they had even stripped me of the skills to purchase a ticket.
I arrived home to my forgiving family hurt, confused, guilty and in severe shock. Slowly, I began to realize that the world was not as cruel or as evil as what Opus Dei had painted it. There were many good people out there.
I tried to get by for awhile by telling myself that everything was fine and that I was able to cope. However, having been stripped of all social skills and self-confidence, I urgently needed counseling.
After a long period of time, I slowly regained my self-esteem. I returned to school and finished my post-primary education, went to university and completed a degree. I hope to do a master's degree within the next few years. I now have a good job, car, house and a good relationship.
There are many assistant numeraries across the world living lives quite similar to the one I have explained. I feel that these women's human rights are severely breached by the attitudes and rules of Opus Dei. However, Opus Dei continues to justify and allow this type of status to exist. It can only be described as the serious exploitation of a vulnerable group of women in the name of God.
I know of many very unhappy and disturbed women who are still in Opus Dei giving their all for this organization. I personally witnessed self-mutilations by some of these people and I can still hear their muffled cries at night. Depression and eating disorders were common. Some assistant numeraries who were physically unable to work anymore were expelled without any explanation, money or any home to go to.
Many do not speak out because of their lack of education and the guilt they feel. Many live in fear of the members of Opus Dei and their ability to backlash at those who speak out against them. While many people are aware of the methods of recruitment used by Opus Dei and the types of lives numeraries live in particular, the lives of assistant numeraries are generally overlooked. I urge you to please consider the circumstances in which these women live. We need to give this silent, vulnerable, forgotten group of women a voice. I have not highlighted the issue of corporal punishment because corporal punishment wasn't a punishment in our lives. We had so many other worse things to contend with.
Please ponder on the words of the Bill of Human Rights: Article 7: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 8.(2): No one shall be held in servitude.
There are many more issues which I have not discussed. However, I have attempted to give an outline of the lives that assistant numeraries live. Please pray for them.
(1) "Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei", by María del Carmen Tapia, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, NY 10017. Available from ODAN for a suggested donation of $21 plus $4 for shipping ($11 shipping outside the USA.)
(2) The UNIV Conference is an event in Rome sponsored each year by Opus Dei during Holy Week. Participants from all over the world are hand-picked to participate in this conference. Typically, only those recruits who are close to joining Opus Dei are invited to attend the conference, along with numeraries who are working on them to join. Tremendous pressure is placed on the recruits to make a decision to join Opus Dei that week.
(3) Tapia, p. 51. From Opus Dei Constitutions, 1950, p. 172, no. 440.
(4) Tapia, p. 133.
(5) Tapia, p. 135.
From ODAN Newsletter Vol. 10 No. 1, 2000