c. 2006 Religion News Service
NEW YORK _ Anyone who has read “The Da Vinci Code” knows Silas, the hulking albino monk who murders nuns and limps through the streets of Paris, a spiked cilice gouging the flesh on his upper leg.
Before the film version of the book opens May 19, Opus Dei would like you to meet the “real” Silas.
Silas Agbim is a Nigerian native who works as a stockbroker out of a two-story home on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn that he shares with his wife, Ngozi. The father of three begins his day with morning prayer, pauses at noon to recite the midday Angelus prayer, works until the market closes at 4 p.m. and attends late-afternoon Mass in Manhattan.
The real-life Silas, 5 feet tall and in his 60s, is being presented as a more realistic face of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organization that is portrayed as conspiratorial, secretive and downright dangerous in the runaway hit novel by Dan Brown.
Opus Dei leaders say Agbim is the only known Silas among the group’s 85,000 members. And Agbim is the first to say that his workaday life is far less exciting than that of his alter ego in the book.
More importantly, however, Opus Dei leaders say Agbim shows that the novel and movie portray Christian faith, history and Opus Dei itself about as accurately as they portray the life of a real Opus Dei member named Silas.
“The Christian church has been demonized” by this book, Agbim says, as his wife serves biscuits, cheese and tea to visitors in their home.
“There’s much in it against Christianity itself, too many things that are false, repugnant and contrary to historical account. … This is fictional blasphemy.”
Those who know Opus Dei say Agbim fits the typical profile of a member much more closely than Brown’s book. Brown’s Silas the monk spends much of the novel wrestling with the pain of wearing a cilice, a barbed chain worn historically by such devout Catholics as St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, and also whips himself until he can feel the cool sting of blood streaming from his wounds.
“Anyone who insisted on engaging in Silas-style practices would be kicked out of Opus Dei in a hurry,” says the Rev. John Wauck, an American priest who lives at Opus Dei’s world headquarters in Rome.
For his part, Agbim says he has never worn a cilice and has never participated in self-flagellation. He says fasting during Lent is a much more effective way of experiencing mortification, a practice of self-denial used by Christians since the time of Jesus Christ.
“If you’re injured,” Agbim says, “you can’t do your next assignment at work,” where he says it is most important to serve God.
Brown’s book is built around the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and their bloodline continues to the present day. Because that idea would challenge church doctrine that Jesus had no earthly offspring, the book says Catholic leaders engaged in a vast cover-up to hide Jesus’ true history.
In the book, Silas is charged with bringing the Holy Grail _ one of Jesus’ descendants _ to his superiors, and is willing to perform whatever task is necessary in the process, including the murder of nuns.
Agbim has been a member of Opus Dei since 1978; his wife joined several years later. In Opus Dei lingo, he’s known as a “supernumerary,” the 70 percent of members who are generally married lay men and women. About 28 percent are celibate lay Catholics known as “associates” and “numeraries” who often live at Opus Dei centers. Only 2 percent of Opus Dei members are ordained priests trained in Rome.
There are no monks in Opus Dei, and John Allen, the respected Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter who has studied the group, says it also does not have the influence that is implied in Brown’s book.
“It has 40 bishops out of 4,650, two cardinals out of 179, and 20 Vatican officials out of 2,600,” said Allen, the author of “Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church,” in an interview.
“Hence, while Opus Dei is a force in the Church, it is in no position to `hijack’ either the papacy or secular politics, or finance.”
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Allen puts its worldwide assets at roughly $2.8 billion, or the same size as the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Opus Dei is the only “personal prelature” in the Catholic Church, meaning its leaders report directly to the pope. Its name in Latin literally means “Work of God,” and its mission is to seek holiness in “the middle of the world.”
To its members like Agbim, that means serving God in one’s daily work. “Work is meant to be the instrument by which you serve God as a lay person,” Agbim says.
Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva, who died in 1975 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Agbim attended Escriva’s canonization ceremony in Rome.
In a note at the beginning of the novel, Brown says Opus Dei “has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing (and) coercion.” Becoming an Opus Dei member requires an intense learning period of at least six months, and a member must renew his “contract” with the organization annually for a minimum of five years before making a lifetime commitment.
“The Opus Dei people I know are not brainwashed; most are talented professionals making their own choices,” says Allen. “On the other hand, there is a strong degree of structure in Opus Dei and reduced privacy, especially for the numeraries. It’s a bit like the Marine Corps _ some people like the rules and the strong group identity, others chafe at it.”
While Allen says there are many Catholic priests who are “suspicious” about Opus Dei _ in part because of its conservative leanings _ the group’s image as a secretive network has lessened over time as “Opus Dei has made efforts to come across as more `mainstream,”’ Allen says.
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Brown also writes that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” So, did he get anything right about Opus Dei?
While Brown may take it a bit further in implying that women are subservient to men in Opus Dei, men and women are distinctly separate. A subgroup of “numerary assistants,” who are only women, are responsible for the domestic upkeep of Opus Dei centers. Men and women do attend separate meeting places. And, of course, only men can become priests.
Agbim’s wife is a retired professor at LaGuardia Community College. She talks at length about the responsibilities of a woman’s daily work keeping the home, and does so with pride.
“Taking care of the family,” Ngozi Agbim says, “is a professional job.”
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But for the most part, the Opus Dei of “The Da Vinci Code” and the real Opus Dei differ greatly.
“I think the first thing to understand is that there are really two Opus Deis,” Allen says. “The Opus Dei of myth, which is a vast, immensely wealthy and powerful cult metastasizing at the heart of Catholicism; and the Opus Dei of reality, which is a small lay group with relatively modest means propagating a spiritual path of interest to a certain kind of fairly traditional Catholic.”
Wauck, the American priest who works at Opus Dei headquarters, agrees.
“I’d say that, for a member of Opus Dei, reading `The Da Vinci Code’ is probably a bit like the experience of a real spy reading a James Bond novel. Sure there are some true things _ England does exist, spies do exist.
“But the rest,” he said, “is pure fantasy.”
MO KRE/PH END HERPICH