If you want to make both conservative and progressive Catholics squirm, tell them that Óscar Romero was friendly with Opus Dei. Reactions may be similar to the anonymous poster on a Catholic blog who could not wrap his mind around the fact that Romero had written to Pope Paul VI asking for the canonization of the conservative Catholic organization’s founder: “I cannot believe Archbishop Romero to have been an admirer of [Josemaría] Escrivá de Balaguer” (pictured)—the poster commented—“this letter could well be a fraud.”
The letter is not a fraud. Romero so admired Opus Dei that, during a visit to Rome, he went to its world headquarters to visit with Escrivá and the two hit it off. (Cejas.) John Allen Jr. writes that Romero’s letter came “before the 1977 murder in El Salvador of Father Rutilio Grande, an event that ‘radicalized’ Romero and led him to distance himself from some earlier conservative views.” ALLEN, Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, Doubleday, 2005. Perhaps, Allen would be surprised to learn that Romero did not distance himself from Opus Dei—and, in fact, Romero’s post-1977 preaching on social justice largely dovetails with principles espoused by Opus Dei. Romero made seven flattering references to Opus Dei in his Diary and his sermons between 1978 and 1980, and he attended an Opus Dei retreat on the day he was killed. He also visited Msgr. Escrivá’s grave in Rome and prayed tearfully before the tomb. (Sáenz.) Romero’s affinity with Opus was more than the brief flirtation some have supposed. Nor was the relationship broken off after Romero became archbishop. In fact, it deepened.
Archbishop Romero drew on Opus Dei’s concept of lay spirituality to bolster his view of how a just society should be constituted. In its tenets, Opus Dei sets out “to put into practice the teaching of the universal call to sanctity, and to promote at all levels of society the sanctification of ordinary work, and by means of ordinary work.” (Apostolic Constitution «Ut Sit», whereby Pope John Paul II authorizes the Opus Dei prelature.) The majority of Opus Dei members are lay people, and the membership includes secular priests. This construct comports with Romero’s vision, laid out in his last Christ the King sermon: “Not only does Christ make us subjects in his kingdom but we are made priests, that is, he shares with us the dignity that baptism conferred upon us when we became a priestly people”. (November 25, 1979 Homily.) Like Msgr. Escrivá, Romero envisions a priestly people who transform society through their ordinary work: “we are priests who consecrate the world to God,” he said. “The lawyer, doctor, engineer, government official, worker, day laborer, woman in the market place, student … when these people live out the beauty of redemption that was conferred on them at the time of baptism, when they live as a priestly people, then they consecrate their profession, their clients and their work to God.” (Id.)
This was the highest hope for Liberation Romero harbored. “How ridiculous are liberations that talk only about having higher wages, about having money and better prices!,” he preached. “Liberations that talk only about political change, about who is in the government ... such liberations are only talking about bits and pieces of the great liberation,” he said, which is, “the great liberation of Christ, the great Liberator.” (Id.) Separately, he called on political reformers to join their efforts to the Church’s plan of salvation, but the thrust of the transformative change that was needed was the work of the lay faithful. The day before his martyrdom, Romero reiterated: “The great task of Christians must be to absorb the spirit of God's kingdom and, with souls filled with the kingdom of God, to work on the projects of history.” (March 23, 1980 Hom.) He added, “My dear Christians, I have always told you, and I will repeat, that the true liberators of our people must come from us Christians, from the people of God.” (Id.) But for this to be possible, it was necessary that the Church train and organize classes of lay people to go be the worker ants of the Kingdom. “What is lacking,” he said, “is greater conviction and the honorable simplicity of women and men who are willing to commit themselves to service of God. This is God’s plan,” he added, “the simple life, the ordinary life—but giving this simple, ordinary life a meaning of love and freedom.” (Feb. 24, 1980 Hom.) This is what Opus Dei, “which emphasizes the values of prayer and holiness of the vocation of the laity,” offers, Romero wrote in His Diary. (Sept. 6, 1979 entry.) “I think it is a mine of wealth for our Church—the holiness of the laity in their own profession.” (Id.)
All this is not to say that there weren’t political tensions between Opus Dei and Romero—only that Romero had a sincere affinity for The Work (Opus means “work” in Latin). Romero chided some members of the organization when he remarked, “Opus Dei has many members and their leaders have told me that many members do not understand their role and have become fanatics.” (July 1, 1979 Hom.) “If the members truly lived what is stated in the fourth chapter of the Constitution on the Church, a chapter that outlines the spirituality of Opus Dei,” Romero went on, “then we could rely on many Christians who through their professions and their holiness would do much good for the Church.” (Id.) At the end of that year, Romero announced that he had received a letter of support from the then Prelate of Opus Dei—Msgr. Escrivá’s successor—pledging Opus Dei’s loyalty and allegiance to Romero. “[W]e work and [we] direct the carriage, as our founder ... used to say,” the Prelate’s letter to Romero stated, “in the same direction as the diocesan prelate.” (Dec. 23, 1979 Hom.)
Clearly, Romero maintained friendly relations with the leadership of Opus. In October 1978, Romero congratulated the society on its fiftieth anniversary. “The Church rejoices with every effort of sanctification in the world and at this time of the Church’s crisis,” he said, “desires that people not only live a personal and individual holiness but also strive for that communitarian holiness that gives witness to the light of the world.” (Oct. 8, 1978 Hom.) Later that month, he remarked on the continuing work of the Opus. “This holiness must be extended to the community because no one lives the Christian commitment for themselves alone,” he said. “Christians must be the odor of holiness and the seed of unity and salvation.” (Oct. 29, 1978 Hom.) After lunch with the Work’s clergy in March 1979, Romero gave them a signed photograph, inscribed, “To the Archdiocesan Opus, with my blessing as Pastor and Friend.” (His Diary, supra.) He congratulated the society on the fourth anniversary of their founder’s death that September and again on their anniversary in October. “Hopefully this wonderful witness results in the needed changes of our society,” he wished: “changes which must be brought about in light of the Gospel.” (Oct. 7, 1979 Hom.) He lunched with the Work’s clergy, including his successor, Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, later that month, as he would again on the day of his martyrdom the next year. (Sáenz, supra.)
After Romero was killed, his vicar general, Msgr. Ricardo Urioste went into Romero’s room and in the desk drawer he found a penitential chain that is worn pressed to the knee, to cause pain for penance. “This practice is common in the spirituality of Opus Dei.” (Greenan, unpublished 135.)
Here is an Opus Dei video (in Spanish) summarizing Romero's visit with St. Josemaria.
Here is the letter that Opus Dei Prelate Alvaro del Portillo sent Romero, followed by its literal translation.
Rome. November 9, 1979
Most Rev. Mgr. Oscar A. Romero
Archbishop of San Salvador
Your Excellency/My dear Mr. Archbishop,
Through the Opus Dei Chaplain in your dear country, I have received your affectionate letter recalling the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the fundation of Opus Dei.
I wish to answer immediately to thank you for that expression of affection, and for joining our thanksgiving to the Lord for all the benefits he has bestowed upon His Work in this first fifty years of its existence.
I know that the partners and associates of Opus Dei--there as everywhere, thanks be to Go--work with commitment and are motivated only by the desire to serve the Church. I am aware of the fondness they have for you and of the fidelity with which they live the Spirit of the Work, which leads us to echo the instructions of the Reverend Ordinary in all the dioceses in which we work and to direct the carriage--as our Founder, of holy memory, used to say--in the same direction as the diocesan prelate.
I beg you to continue to pray for our apostolic work throughout the world. For my own part, I assure you that I will commend you daily during Holy Mass, praying for you and for your labor on behalf of souls which you carry out.
Thanking you again for your letter I remain yours truly,
Devoted in the Lord
Alvaro del Portillo