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Ordinary work, extraordinary grace: my spiritual journey with Opus Dei

30 November, 1999

This is a book about Opus Dei by an insider that is accessible to outsiders. Scott Hahn was a Presbyterian biblical theologian who met some members of Opus Dei and was attracted by their life and example to investigate further, eventually joining the group himself. This is his personal story.

pp 155. Darton Longman and Todd Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks.com


  1. A Personal Prelude
  2. The Secret of Opus Dei 
  3. The Catholic Work Ethic
  4. The Work and the Church
  5. Work and Worship: The Plan of Life
  6. Aiming High
  7. Friendship and Confidence
  8. Secularity and Secularism
  9. Sex and Sacrifice
  10. A Working Mother
  11. Turn Up the Romance

Appendix 1:  St. Josemaría and Scripture 
Appendix 2:  Some Prayers of St. Josemaría



How I wish your bearing and conversation were such that, on seeing or hearing you, people would say: This man reads the life of Jesus Christ. The Way, no 2

I wasn’t yet a Catholic wannabe. I was scared to be.

A Presbyterian minister, I had taken an extended sabbatical because I needed the time to study, pray, and ponder. Over the course of several years and much against my deeply Calvinist and evangelical formation – I had been reading my way to a Catholic way of thinking. The more deeply I studied Scripture, theology, and history -and the more intensely I prayed – the more inexorably my mind was drawn to Catholicism. Yet most of my experience of Catholic faith came from books. I had spent all of my post-teenage years in predominantly (and ardently) Protestant environments – first as a student at a small, private college, then at a renowned evangelical seminary, and then as pastor and teacher in some small denominational churches and schools. In all these places, I knew fond fellowship, inspiring leadership, and fervent worship.

On the other hand, my limited exposure to self-identified Catholics – outside of books had been less than edifying. It came mostly in my teen years, and mostly from kids who were as delinquent as I had been before I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

Now I was an adult facing an adult crisis. I was a devout Protestant and an ordained minister who found the Catholic arguments more than persuasive – I found them compelling. So I was struggling to choose between all that I loved about my Protestant past and everything I was coming to understand about the Catholic faith. In the evangelicals I knew, I found a deep devotion to Jesus Christ . . . a humble ease in the ways of prayer . . . an astonishing work ethic . . . a zeal for Christianizing culture . . . and a passionate interest in the Scriptures. This last quality was supremely important to me as a preacher of the Word of God and a young biblical theologian. In Catholic doctrine, however, I found an overwhelming coherence, authenticity, and power.

The Bible had brought me to this crisis. At first I had wanted to understand the “covenant theology” of the first Protestant reformers. My research led me to discover that they, especially John Calvin and Martin Luther, were much more “Catholic” in their doctrine than were their modern descendants. Calvin and Luther led me to particular Scriptures – regarding sacraments, church hierarchy and authority, and even Marian doctrine – but just as importantly, they led me to the Church Fathers, those most ancient commentators on Scripture. And it was there, in the writings of the early fathers, that I ran smack up against a church I could only recognize as Catholic. It was liturgical, hierarchical, sacramental. It was Catholic, and yet it held all that I loved about the Reformation tradition too: a deep devotion to Jesus, a spontaneous life of prayer, a zeal to transform the culture, and, of course, a burning love for Scripture. Still, that Church was real to me only in the dusty books I read. Where, I wanted to know, were the ordinary Catholic believers who lived this way?

Apparently, they were waiting for me in Milwaukee.

Common ground
I arrived at Marquette University for graduate studies in theology with high hopes but low expectations. But soon I encountered grace upon grace. I met a kind and brilliant pastor who was willing to talk theology with me until the wee hours. He told me of his upbringing in a Polish-American home where family members customarily greeted one another with phrases from the Scriptures. But, I told myself, he was hardly an ordinary Catholic. He held a doctorate from a Roman university; he had served time as a Vatican official; and everyone whispered (rightly, it turns out) that he was on track to become a bishop.

Then I started to meet other Catholics – one a political philosopher, another a dentist – who showed the same qualities. The thing that most impressed me was that they both carried small Bibles in their pockets. At odd moments during the day, I might catch these men sitting in church reading the Scriptures. If I asked them to help me understand a point of doctrine, they would pull out the little book for backup. I thought to myself: These are men who read the life of Jesus Christ – and read it for all it’s worth.

I mentioned to my priest friend that I had met a couple of guys who always carried the New Testament with them and who really seemed to know it.

He replied, “Oh, they must be Opus Dei.”

Opus Dei: I knew enough Latin to know that it meant “the Work of God” or “God’s Work.” Almost immediately, when I heard Father’s words, Opus Dei became for me a beacon – a lighthouse that promised the end of my long voyage, a first glimpse of a land I’d encountered only in books. It’s not that the land was too small to be seen; nor was Opus Dei the whole of the land, for the Catholic Church is vaster than anything my denominational experience had prepared me for, and there were then (as there are now) so many other great institutions and movements in the Church. But for many reasons, Opus Dei was someplace where I could begin to feel at home.

What were those reasons?

  • First and foremost was its members’ apparent devotion to the Bible.
  • Second was its warm ecumenism. Opus Dei was the first Catholic institution to welcome non-Catholics to cooperate in its apostolic labors.
  • Third was how upright the lives of members were.
  • Fourth was how ordinary their lives were. They were not theologians – they were dentists, engineers, journalists – but they were talking and living a theology I found attractive.
  • Fifth, they espoused a holy ambitions devout work ethic.
  • Sixth, they practiced hospitality and gave their attention generously to my many questions.
  • And seventh, they prayed. They made time for intimate prayer every day – true conversation with God. This gave them a serenity I had rarely encountered.

As I grew in my friendships with these men of Opus Dei, I came also to appreciate the rich biblical theology and biblical spirituality at the heart of their vocation. I took these as my own long before God gave me that same vocation – indeed, even before God brought me to the sacraments of the Catholic Church. I recognized immediately that they had tremendous potential for renewing my life, but also the life of Christ’s Church, and the life of the world. This book is about Opus Dei’s biblical theology and biblical spirituality.

Making short work of it
My favorite definition of Opus Dei is the one I found on a prayer card back in the mid-1980s. Opus Dei is “a way of sanctification in daily work and in the fulfillment of the Christian’s ordinary duties.” It’s not just a method of prayer, or an institution in the Church, or a theological school. It’s “a way,” and that way is wide enough to accommodate everyone whose days are filled with honest work – at home with the kids, in a factory or an office, in the mines, on the farm, or on the battlefield. The way is also wide enough to accommodate free and varied expressions of prayer and theological style and method. God calls some people to commit their lives to this way as the faithful of Opus Dei, but many others take spiritual guidance from Opus Dei and from the books of its founder.

Briefly put: Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by a young Spanish priest, St. Josemaría Escriva de Balaguer. For years before, he had received presentiments, indications in prayer, that God wanted something from him, but he had no idea what it would be. Then, rather suddenly one October day, as he was sitting down to read over some notes in his journal, he saw it. God showed St. Josemaría what He wanted him to do.

The founder rarely spoke about what he “saw” at that moment, but he always used the verb “to see,” and he made it clear that he saw Opus Dei in its entirety, as it would unfold through the years. As one Vatican document put it: “It was not a pastoral project which took shape slowly, but rather a call which suddenly burst into the soul of the young priest.”What did he see? Perhaps his sketchy private notes give us a glimpse of the vision: “Ordinary Christians. A fermenting mass. Ours is the ordinary, with naturalness. The means: professional work. All saints! “When only three young men showed up for his first formal activities, he gave them benediction with the Blessed Sacrament: “When I blessed those three . . . I saw three hundred, three hundred thousand, thirty million, three billion .. . white, black, yellow, of all the colors, all the combinations that human love can produce.”

St. Josemaría saw that Jesus wants everyone to be a saint – everyone, without exception. Our Lord was speaking to the crowd, not to His inner circle, when He said, in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That is the uncompromising Gospel, the good news that the apostles preached to the nations. St. Paul announced that God “chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 1:4). Moreover, God has made known His “plan” for us, “the mystery of His will.” In the fullness of time – which is right now, today- we are “to restore all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).

St. Josemaría taught that all human activity – political life, family life, social life, labor and leisure – should be restored to Christ, offered to God as a pleasing sacrifice, united with the sacrifice of the cross, united with the sacrifice of the Mass. He longed for a day when “in every place in the world there will be Christians with a dedication that is personal and totally free – Christians who will be other Christs.”

St. Josemaría saw creation as a great cosmic liturgy, offered to the Father by those “other Christs” in union with Christ the high priest.

Priestly soul, lay mentality 
We can make this offering because we are a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). We share in Christ’s priesthood and kingship because, through baptism, we share in His nature (see 2 Peter 1:4). St. Josemaría urged Christians to have a “truly priestly soul and a fully lay mentality.” This is not a contradiction. For, as both priests and kings, we have a vocation that is both sacred and secular. We share in Christ’s kingship; we share in His priesthood. So we sanctify the temporal order and offer it to God, restore it “in Christ” because we live in Christ. We restore it, a little bit at a time, beginning with the inch or the yard or the mile over which we’ve been given dominion. Our workspace, our living space – these are where we exercise our dominion and our priesthood. Our altar is our desktop, our workstation, the row we hoe, the ditch we dig, the diaper we change, the pot we stir, the bed we share with our spouse. All of it is sanctified by our offering hands, which are Christ’s own.

This doctrine is a particular emphasis of Opus Dei, but it is the property of the whole Church. The kingship and the priesthood, the rights and the duties, belong not just to a privileged few, not just to the ordained clergy, but to all baptized believers. Our special dignity is that, in baptism, we have become “God’s children” (1 John 3: 2) – we have joined “the assembly of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23). And if we are the firstborn, then we are the heirs (see Galatians 4:7), inheritors of Christ’s kingship and the priesthood – the secular (which we are sanctifying) and the sacred. “Everything belongs to you said St. Paul, “and you to Christ, and Christ to God” (1 Corinthians 3:22-23).

We are God’s children. The theological term for this fact is “divine filiation” – and this is the foundation of Opus Dei. It is the source of freedom, confidence, purpose, ardor, and joy for all Christians who live and labor. It is the “open secret” that enables men and women the world over to live out their vocation: to sanctify their work, to sanctify themselves through their work, and to sanctify others through their work. This is rich fare, I know. Again, we’ll spend the rest of the book examining these doctrines in greater detail.

Form fitting 
St. Josemaria spent the rest of his life preaching what God had revealed to him. At first he didn’t even give it a name. His spiritual director suggested “Opus Dei,” quite by accident, when one day he asked, “How is that work of God coming along?”

Gradually, the organizational details became clear to St. Josemaría, though the Church’s canon law could not yet accommodate the institution as God had revealed it. St. Josemaría guided the development of the Work – cautiously, so that it never fell permanently into an inappropriate institutional form, even though it had to pass through a number of temporary, inadequate provisions. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council introduced the idea of a new form, a “personal prelature” – an institution having both lay and clergy members that could carry out specific apostolic tasks. The word personal means that the institution’s leader, its prelate, has authority not over a territory (as an ordinary bishop does) but over a certain group or sort of persons, wherever those persons may be. In the case of Opus Dei, they are the “faithful” of the prelature – those who are called to make a permanent, personal dedication to this particular “way of sanctification.” Whether married or celibate, they make their definitive commitment (which takes the form of a contract) when they make their “oblation,” and they renew this commitment annually. At some point, they may recognize the permanence of their vocation more solemnly, by making “the fidelity” – essentially extending the term of the contract to the course of a lifetime. 

St. Josemaría recognized the personal prelature as the perfect form for Opus Dei. He did not, however, live to see his family arrive in its home. He died in 1975. In 1982 Pope John Paul II established Opus Dei as the Church’s first personal prelature. As I set pen to paper, there are around 85,000 members—again, “faithful” is the Church’s preferred prelature of Opus Dei. The vast majority of them are ordinary laypeople. A small number are priests.

Extra ordinary
The stories of Opus Dei’s founding could give the wrong impression, and perhaps that’s why St. Josemaría discussed them so infrequently. The founding of Opus Dei was the occasion of some documented miracles and extraordinary revelations. Yet the emphasis of Opus Dei is decidedly on ordinary life, ordinary work, and ordinary religious experience.

Perhaps the miracles were necessary because of the truly radical nature of God’s plan for St. Josemaría. It was a plan that seemed out of step with the times in the early twentieth century, a time when Catholic leaders emphasized the dignity of the clergy almost to the exclusion of the ordinary baptized believer. In Europe, as in the United States, the ordinary, universal, baptismal call to holiness was not an accepted theological opinion. St. Josemaría himself faced accusations of heresy.

But God used those extraordinary first graces – visions, miracles, and private revelations – to blaze a trail, a way, through ordinary life. Sometimes you need to use heavy explosives to build a highway, but rarely to maintain one.
So now we focus on ordinary life. God gives His children dominion over the world (Genesis 1: 2 6) and invites them to enjoy the ordinary goodness of His cosmos, which He has created and redeemed. Moreover, He gives us the remarkable gift of participating directly in that creation and redemption.

To give an example of ordinariness in action: members of Opus Dei take seriously the Church’s call to apostolate. But you won’t often find them on street corners thumping Bibles or knocking on strangers’ doors to give their testimony to Jesus. St. Josemaria taught instead a quiet apostolate of “friendship and confidence” – everyday realities – in which members look for ways to serve others. It might mean inviting a friend to lunch rather than a prayer meeting, or challenging him to racquetball instead of a doctrinal debate.

It’s all so very ordinary. Yet this doctrine itself has the power to shock people. The modern world – and even some folks in the Church have turned so topsy-turvy that an emphasis on the ordinary is, for them, a truly extraordinary thing!

Going on vocation
By now it is probably superfluous to say that, eventually, this Calvinist became a Catholic and that my first contacts with Opus Dei were important milestones on my way to the Catholic Church. Maybe you’ve also guessed that I received a vocation to Opus Dei as well.

In daring to write this book, I do not wish to hold myself up as a model or paragon of Opus Dei. Nor is this book in any sense an official statement of the Work (as Opus Dei is sometimes called colloquially), its aims, and its principles. Still less is it a critical analysis of Opus Dei’s organizational structure or status in canon law. All those books have already been written, and written very well.

This book is, rather, my own reflection on the vocation I share with so many others – men and women who excel me in wisdom, in every virtue, and in the everyday living of Opus Dei. It is also a public expression of gratitude to God for a grace I do not deserve a grace that I hope many people will come to share, as much as God wills them to share it.

Since I am, by trade and by training, a biblical theologian, this book applies the tools of my peculiar (and entirely sanctifiable) profession to the core ideas of Opus Dei.

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