To 85,000 disciples around the world, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was a man ahead of his time. The Spanish priest said that ordinary people could achieve lives of holiness by doing the everyday work of the world, and he created Opus Dei - or 'work of God' - dedicated to that ideal.
To his critics, he was an arrogant, ill-tempered cleric who built a zealous and secretive organization around the cult of his own personality. Opus Dei's highest-echelon members promise celibacy, turn over their paychecks to the group and in some cases, wear spiked chains and flagellate themselves.
Today, after one of the shortest waiting times in church history, Escriva will be declared a saint in a Vatican ceremony expected to draw at least 250,000 people.
To the delight of theological conservatives and the dismay of some progressives, the man who created the most controversial organization in the Roman Catholic Church has been on a fast track to canonization since he died in 1975, largely due to the overt patronage of Pope John Paul II, who has vigorously promoted the group's work.
"From all I know about his life, he was a saint," said Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon, who was a married or "supernumerary" member of Opus Dei for 10 years. "Msgr. Escriva's ideas really anticipated Vatican II's call for the sanctity of the lay people." Dillon said he still follows the group's practices of daily prayer and meditation, and supports it with money and prayer. "Opus Dei is the best thing I ever found in the church for a lay person," he said.
But Tammy DiNicola, 34, of Pittsfield, Mass., who joined the group's elite echelon of celibate members after being lobbied heavily as a student at Boston College, said Opus Dei operates like a cult.
"I see this as a black day in the history of the church," she said of Escriva's canonization. "I really think that Opus Dei is a cancer on the church."
DiNicola said she learned only after moving into a residence for celibate females in Newton, Mass., that she had to surrender control of her finances, have her mail monitored and cut back family ties. Besides a daily regimen of prayer and meditation, she said, she had to sleep on a wooden board, wear a chain with spikes around her thigh for two hours daily and flagellate herself with a small rope.
Her mother, Dianne DiNicola, said her daughter became withdrawn and distant until, in 1991, the family hired a counselor to persuade her to leave. Afterward, they founded the Opus Dei Awareness Network, a support group for families who have children in Opus Dei. Since then, Dianne DiNicola said she has received thousands of calls from all over the world from families, as well as ex-members, who tell stories similar to her daughter's.
"Some of the members are very well-intentioned," she said, "but they don't know the whole story. They think the organization is just about helping people with their prayer life.
"But for the numerary [celibate] members, they control a person's life and they do that in ways that are manipulative and deceptive. They believe they are the chosen people and that the only path is Opus Dei."
A little fewer than a third of Opus Dei members are numeraries.
Representatives of Opus Dei deny the group engages in manipulation, and suggested that Escriva's work is misunderstood because it is so new.
"I can't verify what [DiNicola] says, but I can tell you that what she said happened would be totally contrary to the practices of Opus Dei," said Paul Deck, assistant staff member at the group's national headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
As for the physical mortifications, Deck said they are traditional Christian practices followed by some, not all, members at their own choosing.
But Tammy DiNicola scoffs at the idea of freedom of choice in the context of an Opus Dei residence. "Opus Dei would say that everyone has freedom to choose," she said. "And yet they tell you that in order to live the spirit of Opus Dei fully, you should be doing it. The message is you should do it."
For all the controversy, the 74-year-old group is growing in numbers and influence - with Escriva's canonization the latest evidence.
Today, it has 3,000 members in the United States and thousands more here who support its work - including at least a thousand in Long Island and New York City, Deck said. It recently opened a $43 million, 17-story headquarters in Manhattan, has residences near the campuses of prestigious universities and sponsors programs for the poor, including education programs for children in the South Bronx.
Supporters such as Dillon are gratified that a man who taught that any Catholic can achieve holiness will be recognized. "A canonization is only a recognition of the sanctity of his life," Dillon said. "If he was a saint, he was a saint the moment he closed his eyes."