Video: A 'Hardball' special report

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msnbc.com
updated 5/17/2006 4:20:00 PM ET 2006-05-17T20:20:00

This report aired during Hardball's 2005 anniversary special.

Patti Lechner, like many of today’s busy moms, starts her day at 5 a.m. with some exercise. But in her case, things are a bit different: In her right hand, a rosary ring is also getting a steady workout. Patti is a devout Catholic and a member of Opus Dei. And while she’s exercising her body, she says she’s also cleansing her soul.

It is a morning ritual she won’t live without. As a supernumerary within Opus Dei and a mother of six kids, she prays every chance she gets.

"A female supernumerary is a married vocation in Opus Dei," explains Lechner. "So, you’re trying to live sanctity in your life — consistent with the gospel in a married state as opposed to a celibate state."

"Opus Dei" means "God's work" in Latin. The group is an orthodox division of the Catholic Church that reports directly to the pope. Its mission is to strive to grow closer to God through everyday work. There are roughly 85,000 members worldwide and about 3,000 in the United States.

The organization was founded in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva, a monsignor in Spain who the church says received a vision that the ordinary work of laypersons is just as important in the eyes of God as the work of a priest. Pope John Paul II embraced the work of Opus Dei and canonized Josemaria Escriva in 2002.

"The biggest thing I remember from him was that he was a lot of fun to be with," says Father Hilary Mahaney who worked with the now-Saint Josemaria in Rome. "He was very cheerful, very gregarious… I didn’t know much Spanish at that time and he didn’t know English so he would joke and encourage me to study. I was very fortunate to have been with someone who is proclaimed a saint now."

At 6:30 a.m., Patti is back from her workout and is getting her family ready for the day. After they are fed and out the door, she will pray for another half hour before the blessed sacrament in church before attending daily mass.

Her husband Larry is also a Catholic, but not a member of Opus Dei.

"I think in any marriage there’s always a little conflict. But when it comes to Patti and the raising of kids, she’s done a fabulous job and Opus Dei has helped immensely," he says.

On parenting, Patti says "I always tell the kids that Christ has a plan mapped out for them, and only they can execute it." Part of the plan is enrollment in private schools guided by Opus Dei. The older kids, 12-year-old Liz and 15-year-old Mary Ellen, attend the all-girls Willows Academy. Fourteen-year-old Robert is a student at the Northridge Preparatory School for Boys. Both schools have high academic standards, and reflect the religious teachings of Opus Dei.

Father "Rocky" Frank Hoffman, chaplain at Northridge Prep, says the school doesn’t have a specific class on Opus Dei. "Sometimes in the chapel talks, I’ll tell them stories about Saint Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei. Mostly, Opus Dei has to enter through their eyes, to see what it means to do your work well."

The Lechner family seems no different from any family with strict religious values, spirituality, and love — but why do outsiders believe that Opus Dei is secretive and even sinister?

Part of that public perception may be fueled by fact and fiction: It is a fact that one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history, Robert Hanssen, is a devout Catholic and reportedly a member of Opus Dei. His six children all attended Opus Dei-affiliated schools. He spied for the Soviet Union and Russia during a 20-year period and plead guilty in 2002 to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy in exchange for a life sentence with no chance of parole.

In fiction, the best-selling "The Da Vinci Code" features a murderous albino monk who is identified as a member of Opus Dei. He practiced a Catholic ritual of "corporal mortification" —inflicting pain on himself to suffer as Christ did.

While the character in the book is nothing more than a cartoonish villain, it is a fact that certain members of Opus Dei called "numeraries" — men and women who remain celibate — do practice corporal mortification using devices like a braided whip. It’s been reported that Opus Dei founder Saint Josemaria whipped himself daily until he bled.

Opus Dei officials say that 70 percent of their members are supernumeraries like Patti Lechner who do not practice extreme corporal mortification. They do however, incorporate some elements of it into their daily lives.

"Corporal mortification is really to strengthen the will and for the love of God. We all do it in some area of life without realizing it," says Lechner. "When reading the lives of the saints you think to yourself, ‘Gee, some really struggled and suffered for the glory of God.' And I think, ‘Gee, is heaven just easier to get into these days — or are we kind of lightweights about things?’"

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