This Apple Guiltlessly Falls Far From the Tree: Recollections of a Supernumerary’s Daughter
by Anna Morales, United States
A close friend--a friend who was also in an unhappy marriage--introduced my mother to Opus Dei (OD). My mother was a devout Catholic; she went to daily Mass and was theologically knowledgeable. Everything she needed spiritually was already at her parish church. So why did she join Opus Dei?
My mother fit OD’s mold perfectly; she was pretty, charismatic, in a financially secure marriage, and most importantly, she was eager to please. She desperately sought affirmation. My mother felt “honored” that an organization as “prestigious” as OD accepted her--wanted her. I was a toddler when my mother joined OD. My early memories of OD are pleasant: Christmas parties with lots of children in pretty dresses and suits, fancy foods served by elegant third-world servants and train sets to play with as the adults sang Christmas carols around the piano filled this toddler’s heart with joy.
Visits to our home from pretty, perfect women fascinated my young mind. I learned Opus Dei members are affectionate with each other, meticulously groomed and idyllic. I once trotted down the stairs into my living room and saw my mother hugging someone. I said to the other person, “Are you in Opus Dei? They always hug my Mommy. Why don’t you people hug other people too? How come you only hug each other?” Five-years-old and I already sensed all this hugging was spurious.
My mother needed the love; it filled the void her fatherless childhood and loveless marriage created. But her immersion into OD opened up more holes than it closed--holes that would have been better left plugged up. Holes that still have me reaching for a shovel and a pile of dirt.
As I grew, Opus Dei became a hindrance to our mother/daughter relationship. I realize now that OD was fighting to make me their daughter. My mother was torn between her love for me and her love for the “God” Opus Dei introduced and defined for her--a God that expected perfection in the form of saintly behavior. Members are expected to follow many daily norms that no sane human could ever possibly complete. I guess no one has told Opus Dei that there is no such thing as perfection. There is only one perfect person. And He has come and gone from this earth-- rising from His grave to His heavenly throne. God created only one Savior.
I grew up hearing from members that OD Catholics are better than “regular” Catholics and definitely better than Protestants. “We have better theology, better priests; we are intellectuals, not emotionalists like those Charismatics.” When I would argue an OD point, the response I heard most often was, “Oh, now you are sounding like a Protestant.” I would quiet them by responding, “The Pope said we can learn things from Protestants and we should respect them.” Luckily, my mother did not speak negatively about other denominations and non-OD Catholics like other members did. My mother’s mother was a devout Catholic who had no interest in OD. My mother idolized her mother, so my mother could not say that OD made you a better Catholic than someone who was not in it. Also, my grandmother’s revered aunt was a dedicated Protestant.
The battle between my mother, OD and I intensified in my early teens. My mother’s opinions constantly changed. One week my mother would say, “I just want you to be a good Catholic; I don’t care if you are in Opus Dei.” The next week (as I was hiding in my room to avoid the OD girls club my mother was coaxed into hosting) she would storm through my closed bedroom door and yell, “You have to come to the club! What will they think of me? They will think I am a bad mother. I told them you would come. Please come downstairs!” I responded, “No. I won’t. I only care what God thinks. God will not be mad at me if I don’t go. I am not committing a sin. I answer to God, not Opus Dei.” Up to that point, I had attended my share of clubs. I had been around OD long enough to figure out Opus Dei uses clubs as a way to search for future numeraries. I knew of girls who joined (committed to a celibate life for LIFE) at 13- years-old. I was not interested in the “job”--isn’t 13 too young for a job anyway? No amount of threats, screams or bribes from Mother could bring me down those stairs.
My reluctance to attend clubs did not stop the numeraries interest in me. During my freshman year of high school, month after month, I received phone calls from numeraries asking me to attend pilgrimages, days of recollections and retreats for teenage girls. The invites usually ended with a bribe such as, “we will all go for ice cream afterward!” No matter how many times I asked my mother to tell them to leave me alone, she would not. She said, “Just talk to them; be nice. They are such nice people. They like you.” As though their liking me was an honor, I thought--enough is enough.
One evening the phone rang. My mother told me to talk to the numerary. I picked up the receiver and said, “Don’t ever call me again!” I hung up the phone. My mother was mortified. I said, “That’s OK, Mom. Don’t worry. I am sure you will all pray for my soul.” Why a good 14-year-old-Catholic girl needed salvation by OD perplexed me. The numeraries were in for a surprise if they thought the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Unlike my mother, this apple had a mind of her own. This apple did not need people telling her how to love God. This apple did not need affirmation. This apple was secure in God’s love. And this apple knew she brought enough to God’s table on her own.
Where my sense of self worth came from at such a young age is a mystery to me. Everyday I thank God I saw the reality of OD. Growing up in OD is a way of life; it revolves around OD activities. You hardly ever participate in your local parish. Local parish priests are beneath “us.” I cannot tell you how many times I heard negative comments regarding parish priests, “Oh, well, you know what they are like; they are liberals.” To which I would respond, “How do we know that? We never get to know them.” Opus Dei members only go to confession to OD priests and all spiritual direction comes from OD priests and numeraries. I watched many friends suffer tremendously from the subtle manipulative guilt and pressure techniques that OD imposes on children of supernumeraries.
Another concept that is familiar to OD is never speaking ill of a priest. Opus Dei priest and director of The Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, Father C. J. McCloskey, wrote in a recent article, “Speak often positively about the Church and the greatness of being called to a life of dedication in it. Never speak negatively about persons who have dedicated their lives to God no matter what their human failings might be.” This philosophy is disturbing. This concept is not only outdated, but in light of the current sex scandal in the church, extremely dangerous. It is also hypocritical considering within its inner sanctum OD is vocal in their disdain for parish priests. Whenever I had a legitimate complaint, I was hushed with words such as, “He is an Opus Dei priest. He would never do something wrong.” “Don’t say anything bad about them (OD priests or numeraries.) They are wonderful people. They have given their lives to God.” or “Don’t tell Susie about the bad things that have happened to you. She is thinking of joining.” This blind faith is precarious, at the least. We need to teach our children to be discerning, not naive.
Children are denied various normal requests. OD believes that parents should teach children to live poverty. According to the renowned Father McCloskey, who also happens to be a regular contributor to EWTN, the Catholic cable television station:
"Teach them [children] to value poverty and detachment. Keep them short on money. Do not let them indiscriminately acquire things or to measure people by the amount of their possessions. Teach them to make things last and how to go without happily. Teach them how to share cheerfully. Make sure they spend their summers productively. That often times will mean they work and/or spend time in generously serving others less fortunate than themselves.
Expose them according to their age and ability to "take it," to misery. Soup kitchens, nursing homes, and hospital for incurables including for children should be places where, over time, they feel comfortable. One of the most effective ways to assure this quality of generosity is simply to have a large family and to treasure the children God has sent to you. This will help them to place the person and not the pleasure or object at the heart of their moral universe. The greatest gift you can give to your children is more brothers and sisters. Persons are not things. Thus too they will never see another person as a means or an object but rather as another Christ whom it is their privilege to serve."[Link to essay]
Theologically speaking, this is a fine and lofty practice, but it doesn’t mesh with OD numeraries' and priests' living in renovated mansions and their employing cooks, maids and chauffeurs, who mainly come from third-world countries. Also, check out the 41 million dollar structure that makes up the new OD Manhattan headquarters in New York City. The donations by supernumeraries keep the organization flourishing. OD expects supernumerary members to treat OD financially as another child. OD couples tend to have large families; so if a couple has eight children, OD becomes their ninth. Many times, this mindset places the biological child at the back of the cash register line.
I never understood why my mother told me she could not afford to buy my high school ring. I knew we were not poor. I regularly went without things my friends had and never complained, so a $75.00 dollar ring did not seem much to ask for, especially since my mother gave monthly donations to OD, aside from paying hundreds of dollars for yearly week-long conferences, weekend retreats and clothing donations.
I watched friends pointlessly suffer. One friend needed a dress for a black-tie event. My friend was a wonderful daughter who never worried her parents. I found her crying in her room. Her father said he could not afford the dress. Her parents were wealthy, so this excuse made no sense. I tried to dry my friend’s tears. She said, “How can he tell me he cannot afford the dress? He gives thousands of dollars to Opus Dei. He gives them precious antiques, for crying out loud!” Going without hurts enough when there is good reason to be denied, but to watch your parents give antiques away at the same time you need an $80.00 dress makes the wound burn and bleed more.
Instead of parents' telling OD they cannot make their monthly donation because their child needs the money, parents tell their children they need to live the spirit of generosity. Kids feel guilty about asking for anything. My parents were not as wealthy as most families I knew. I always thought of us as one of OD’s token poor families. Tokens make OD look normal to the outside world. I watched my mother undergo uncalled-for stress when it came time for me to get braces. She made herself sick trying to figure out how to pay the orthodontist bill. I said, “Just tell Opus Dei you can’t afford to pay them for a while.” She said, “I cannot do that! I am committed to my payments.” (What about her being committed to me?) Whether or not she made all her payments to OD, I do not know. What I do know is that the Bible tells me that God does not put a price on His love. He would not want parents putting an organization’s desires before their children’s needs. Maybe finances would be less of a contested argument if OD’s hierarchy lived as Mother Teresa’s nuns live or as St. Francis lived. Kids know hypocrisy when they see it. Instead of living poverty’s true meaning, OD priests and numeraries live in splendor. OD’s refurbished mansions are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Numeraries are given beautiful clothes, their sumptuous meals are served on lovely china, numeraries rooms are cleaned and their laundry is done by maids. How can these pampered Servants of God counsel families on how to live authentic poverty?
Due to the pushiness of parents and numeraries, I observed the ruination of countless kids’ faith. My best friend became an atheist when she was seventeen. After years of being told she was immodest (even though she wasn’t), she gave up trying to please the God she met in OD. Immodesty as defined by her mother (and numeraries) was the sliver of flesh that appeared above her pants waistline when she bent over or reached for something on a high shelf. And many friends risked damnation by hiding their two-piece bathing suits. The paranoia OD has regarding modesty and purity actually has the opposite of the desired affect. The constant talk of purity makes the child think more impure thoughts than they would have had in the first place. I know grown children of members who are married and struggle with sexual repression due to OD’s “everything is an occasion of sin” philosophy.
When I was in college, I had a dispute with a friend who was thinking about joining OD. We were sitting in my car.
I asked, “Why do you want to join?”
She said, “Because I am weak.”
I said, “No, you are not weak! You are a strong woman who is capable of doing great things.”
“No, I am not. I am weak,” she said.
I said, “Did they tell you that?”
She said, “Yes, they say we are all weak.”
I started to get agitated, “That philosophy is an insult to God. Compared to Jesus, yeah, we are weak. But, God would not create a bunch of weak people. If he did, there we would still be slavery, Jewish people would still be dying in Holocaust chambers, and Rosa Parks would have sat at the back of the bus. We are strong people capable of making changes and doing mighty things.”
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “No, I am weak.”
I said, “Look, I grew up in Opus Dei, I know how they work. They like to tell you, over and over again, you are weak. You obviously believe them.” If people hear a philosophy constantly repeated they will believe it--even if it is detrimental. The same psychological head game that makes an anorexic think she is fat applies in this situation.
Opus Dei has a history of dismissing people in heartless ways that they have no use for--people who they believe are not OD material. I was one of these people. I spent my whole life going to OD priests. I did not have what they call a “vocation” to the work. Throughout the years, many members made disparaging remarks to me for my lack of interest in joining. A numerary once told me, “God told me you have a vocation.” I said, “I think He would tell me first, not you.” I once told an especially over-zealous numerary that a certain priest told me that I did not have a vocation. She responded, “Oh! You are one of his!” This particular priest had a reputation for being “easy” on members.
When I was 28-years-old, my OD priest informed me (inside the confessional during my weekly confession) that I was no longer welcome to talk to him in the confessional (or anywhere else) anymore. I had known him for over 15 years. I was devastated. Since participation in your local parish was frowned upon, OD was all I knew. Where do I go? Whom do I talk with? What do I do? I did not know what to do. I left with tears streaming down my face. I wanted to drive my car off the road--how ironic that an OD priest was the instrument that put suicidal thoughts in my brain. I knew if I joined, I could stay. If I let them take my freedom from me, I could stay. If I let them think for me, I could stay. If I played their game, I could stay. But the God I know does not play games. The God I know says His greatest gift is freedom. I am supposed to come to Him freely, not as a result of being manipulated into choosing Him. God appreciates critical thinking, not critical remarks. Because of all the dire things I heard regarding parish priests, I was scared to death to approach one. A good friend of mine who was a numerary was told by her OD priest that she was “going to go to hell” for leaving. I thought I was on the verge of entering my final damnation. And since my bad experience with my OD priest occurred in a confessional, confession became a sickening experience. An experience that I willingly and happily participated in on a weekly basis became a source of anxiety. It still is. I have panic attacks at the thought of going inside a confessional. I shake, break out into hives and become nauseous. The good news is that the parish priests I have talked with have all turned out to be loyal to the Magisterium of Rome. Once again, OD was wrong.
I have had priests tell me that I am not the first person who has informed them of bad experiences in OD. One priest who was experienced in OD practices told me, “The hardest thing you will have to live with is the guilt that Opus Dei leaves with you.” How sad is that? I was not even a “member” and I felt as though I was homeless. How much worse it must be for the supernumerary or the numerary that leaves OD or gets kicked out. Another priest who specialized in cults told me, “Your story is not unusual. I have heard it before. Opus Dei does do some good, but they have a lot of problems and questionable practices.”
Since my departure, I learned of many people who have had similar endings to their OD existence. How a priest can tell a person (inside a confessional) not to return is beyond me, especially when that person has never caused a problem and has been confessing to this priest for years. I don’t know how a person who claims to be Jesus’ representative on earth can sleep after turning away one of his flock in such an unchristian-like manner.
Even though I do not wish my experience on others, it is comforting to talk with people who have an understanding of what I went through. Opus Dei leaves a residue that is hard to wash away. I never feel as though I fit in. I feel like a stranger in my local parish. I am an outcast at OD events. Most OD people who you thought were your friends drop you like a hot potato. They move on to the next willing (or unwilling) person. I once saw my name on a list in a numerary’s room. I asked a friend what my name was doing on that list. She said, “Oh! You don’t know about the lists? Members are told to befriend twelve people who they work on to recruit into joining. They have to report to their director weekly about your progress.” I was furious and hurt. I thought she was my real friend. I had no idea she had ulterior motives. I was just an extra knot in her rosary beads.
The principal message I want to leave with you from my 39-year OD experience is that I have never seen any one in Opus Dei change. They stay the same. They are robots who do the same thing day after day after day. No matter what life brings, they muddle through living the philosophy: “offer it up.” Their view of “offering it up” translates into remaining static. If a child is having a serious problem, OD’s pat answer is, “Offer it up” or “They are just going through a phase. Pray for them.” Praying is a fantastic tool, but God also calls a person to act. With God’s help, we can take steps to change and grow. Opus Dei’s “offer it up” philosophy is another term for denial.
God is an active God. God is a king of change. God is a king of conversion. He can take a lost soul and bring him into a newfound light. He can make the dirty clean. He can make His children grow in wisdom, strength, courage and humility. He likes to see His children take action. Yes, He does want us to pray and bring everything to Him (offering it up) but as a result of bringing it to Him, He wants us to act upon His answer--not remain stagnant. He wants us to reach far into the tree of knowledge. He wants us to think for ourselves (true freedom) and be the unique person He created us to be. Like apples, He created us to be different. There are many variations among apples; they all bring a different taste to the palate. They all shine in their own way. Some fall close to their roots, some fall far from the tree, but they still love God with all their heart, soul and mind--regardless of the bad apples that tried to convince them otherwise.