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Opus Dei: A Closer Look at the Orthodox Catholic Group

The best selling novel The DaVinci Code has been made into a major Hollywood movie, which arrives in American theaters on May 19th. The Catholic group at the heart of the story, Opus Dei, is portrayed as an evil force in the book and the film. The group, with a reputation for secrecy, recently released its own film to make their case of what Opus Dei is really about.

The image of Opus Dei that filmgoers will see when The DaVinci Code opens May 19th is of a secretive, sinister, sometimes violent organization within the Catholic Church.

The image of Opus Dei that its leaders want the public to see is of Michael Barvick, the Executive Director of the Youth Leadership Foundation, a Washington, D.C. group that helps disadvantaged minority children with academic aid and character development.

He says Opus Dei provides its members -- who call their spiritual activities "The Work" -- with ways to incorporate faith and prayer into their daily lives. "Basically, what ‘The Work’ does is provide that reminder, provide the coaching, those "norms of piety" as they are called, that help us to remember that we have a vocation, to be good men and women, to be imitators of Christ and to try and share that with people around us."

Like Michael Barvick, many Opus Dei members are involved in education. When children fill a Youth Leadership Foundation classroom on weekends and in the summer, the curriculum includes both academic subjects and character formation. It is Opus Dei members, or people trained by members, who conduct the character talks -- which focus on the importance of living a virtuous life.

It is much the same here at the Heights School just outside Washington, D.C. The private, independent preparatory school for boys says its Christian orientation and spiritual formation are entrusted to Opus Dei.

The organization has 87,000 members worldwide. They come from all walks of life and are divided into three categories. Ten percent are Catholic priests. Twenty percent are called numeraries -- members who are not priests or nuns, but pledge themselves to lives of celibacy. And the majority -- 70-percent -- are called supernumeraries -- many of whom are married with children. All members commit to integrating prayer into all aspects of their lives.

How did this highly religious group within the Catholic Church become so controversial?

The issue of mortification is one reason. It is the practice of pain on one's self to be reminded of Christ's suffering. Until recently, every Opus Dei numerary was expected to wear a cilice -- a special chain with spikes on its underside -- on the thigh for at least two hours a day. Mortification is portrayed as extremely violent in The DaVinci Code. Michael Barvick says that is simply not true and no one would ever be encouraged to be violent to themselves or someone else as part of mortification.

"Discomfort is the best way to look at it -- different levels of discomfort that someone might try to do in an attempt to unify themselves with the example of Christ, who did die a very violent (death) -- the whole idea is, suffering has a purpose," says Barvick.

Another issue is control. Tammy DiNicola is a former member. "It creates this atmosphere of: you are never alone, you are always watched."

Opus Dei leaders say their intention is only to teach and coach people -- not to control them.

Barvick says the way The DaVinci Code portrays Opus Dei and the Catholic Church does a disservice to anyone who reads the book or watches the movie.

"It is basically taking a 2,000-year history and turning it on its head and giving the impression, unfortunately, that it is fact. I think that is the greatest disservice of the book. It is a fiction book, but people are taking it as fact," he says.

The group's stated mission is to spread the message that work and the circumstances of everyday life are occasions for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society.

Movie footage courtesy: The DaVinci Code -- Columbia Pictures

Other footage courtesy: Youth Leadership Foundation Video and Opus Dei