Madrid -- Three Spanish ministers and a host of senior officials were due in Rome tomorrow for the canonisation of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the Catholic church's controversial, powerful and conservative Opus Dei group. Escriva, accused of being a supporter of the rightwing dictator General Francisco Franco, has achieved full sainthood in near record-breaking time. He died in 1975.
The pope, however, is among his most ardent fans and put him on the path to sainthood by beatifying him in 1992. Since then he is deemed to have brought about dozens of miracles.
He earned the right to canonisation, or full sainthood, by saving a Spanish doctor, Manuel Nevado, from certain death. Vatican investigators have said that he performed a "scientifically inexplicable" cure of the doctor's chronic radiodermatitis.
Escriva's ultra-conservative movement, which recruited many of its members from Spain's wealthy and powerful families, flourished under Franco and eventually provided ministers to his governments.
Opus Dei's 84,000 members around the world deny he actively supported Franco - though Escriva went into hiding to avoid anti-clerical factions in Republican Spain when the civil war broke out in 1936.
Opus Dei's representative in the Vatican, Flavio Capucci, claimed this week that Escriva should not be criticised for his silence on the Franco regime's abuses or for letting Opus members join the dictator's governments.
"Neither the political nor religious authorities of the time criticised Franco," he said. "One of the characteristics of Opus Dei is that it allows its members freedom."
But former members have complained that Opus Dei, whose extreme members expiate sins by committing self-flagellation, exercises a cult-like control over followers.
Members are divided into two groups. Supernumerary followers can marry, have families and are expected to lead exemplary lives. A small number of members take vows of chastity, live in sex-segregated communities and give much of their income to Opus.
The group's annual income has been estimated at around £120m - enough to fund hundreds of schools and universities and help make it one of the fastest growing movements within the Catholic church. It is present in 70 countries and has some 700 members in Britain.
Opus members have enjoyed a revival in their secular power in Spain since the centre-right People's party of the prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, took power six years ago.
The defence minister, Federico Trillo, a supernumerary, will be in Rome with the justice and foreign ministers.
El Mundo newspaper recently named a raft of senior officials in the defence, justice and interior ministries who belong to the order, which encourages its followers to seek positions of power. The group is estimated to have up to 30,000 followers, but membership can be kept secret.
"Defence, law and order and the judiciary are in the hands of Opus," said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the socialist president of Extremadura region's government.
Opposition politicians have claimed that the two and a half hours of live broadcasting from Rome scheduled for tomorrow by the state broadcaster TVE is proof of how far the group's tentacles reach.
Recently published biographies of Escriva have produced conflicting visions of the new saint as either a loving, caring charismatic person or a mean-spirited, manipulative egoist.
Jesus Ynfante, author of the critical Founding Saint of Opus Dei, says that he was an unashamed fascist. "He had Madrid under his control, starting with the dictator. Under Franco the clerical fascism of Opus Dei won out over the true fascism of the Falange [political party]," he wrote.
Pilar Urbano, a prominent Spanish journalist and Opus member, has claimed that there was little doubt about Escriva's sanctity. "Even during his life he had a growing reputation for saintliness."