LIFESTYLE

Spain celebrates Church's beatification of Opus Dei leader Alvaro del Portillo

Priests and Bishops take part during a beatification ceremony in Madrid, Spain, Saturday Sept. 27, 2014. Thousands of Catholics from around the world attended the open air beatification ceremony of Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the 2nd most important figure in the order after founder Jose Maria Escriva. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Priests and Bishops take part during a beatification ceremony in Madrid, Spain, Saturday Sept. 27, 2014. Thousands of Catholics from around the world attended the open air beatification ceremony of Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the 2nd most important figure in the order after founder Jose Maria Escriva. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Madrid on Saturday to witness the beatification of an early leader of the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei.

At a large outdoor mass, Cardinal Angelo Amato began the process that will confirm Alvaro del Portillo as a saint. Del Portillo succeeded Opus Dei's founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, as leader of the organization.

Opus Dei, once considered a secretive, right-wing, cult-like group that curried high favor within the church, has been trying to foster a friendlier image in recent years.

Dan Brown's best-selling book, "The Da Vinci Code," and subsequent 2006 movie portrayed Opus Dei as a murderous, power-hungry sect at the center of a complex conspiracy to cover up dark secrets at the heart of the church.

Del Portillo's journey toward sainthood got underway after Pope Francis confirmed a miracle attributed to his intercession— a requirement to become a saint. A second miracle must be confirmed before Del Portillo can be canonized.

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A Chilean baby boy's heart started beating again in 2003 after hospital staff had failed to resuscitate him for 30 minutes. The boy's parents say they had prayed to Del Portillo — whom many saw as an affable, approachable man — for his intercession from heaven.

During the mass, Amato read out a text in Latin confirming Del Portillo's beatification.

Among the crowd were people from as far afield as Africa, Mexico and the Philippines.

"We have come from Kenya to be here," said financial analyst James Gundiri from Nairobi. "He came to Kenya in 1989 and we are very happy, we want to emulate his life and live according to the teachings of the church."

"Our whole family has come from Colombia for this beatification," said lawyer Jorge Gomez, 39. "For us Catholics, it is like a symbol that helps us live according to the Gospel."

Del Portillo's beatification is interpreted by many as a confirmation that Opus Dei has normalized its place in the church.

"My general impression is they have gone from being the Darth Vader of the Catholic Church to being another piece of furniture in the living room," said John Allen, who wrote an authoritative 2005 book on the movement and is currently associate editor of Crux, a news site covering Catholicism.

"The Da Vinci Code" was a massive shock for Opus Dei, shaking everything up internally, including its communications strategy, Allen said.

Dan Brown's character of Silas, a celibate albino Opus Dei monk who practices corporal mortification and who is capable of anything to cover up the idea that Jesus Christ had been a king of Israel whose heirs survived him to this day, seriously dented the movement's reputation.

The practices of self-harm, aggressive recruiting techniques, segregation of sexes in its residential centers and reports by former members that they were forbidden from having contact with family members only added to the perception that Opus Dei was a cult-like institution that nevertheless had the blessing of the papacy.

Rather than call for a boycott or launch defamation lawsuits, Opus Dei seized the opportunity that the publicity generated to open up.

After years of dodging press inquiries and fending off criticisms it was a cult, Opus Dei launched a global, media-friendly PR "get to know us" campaign that culminates with the beatification that was open for all to attend.

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