SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (RNS) -- Damon Owens knew little about Opus Dei four years ago when a colleague invited him to a Catholic spiritual retreat.

The weekend transformed his life.

Owens, a mechanical engineer, said he was fascinated by Opus Dei's focus on integrating one's job and spiritual life, and by "the intensity of what they were calling us to do in order to live our faith authentically. It was the right message at the right time for me."

"I was questioning these things: How can I live my faith and still make a living? I didn't want to be a priest. I'm not called to be a priest. I'm not called to be in a monastery. I'm called to work. I'm a husband," he said.

Owens was inspired to join and became a member a year later. Now he is what's called a "supernumerary" in the group, which has received a lot of attention due to "The Da Vinci Code," the best-selling 2003 novel that hits the big screen, starring actor Tom Hanks, on May 19.

In the novel, Opus Dei leaders sanction murder to hide a secret that, if revealed, would shake Christianity to its core -- that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and has living descendants.

Opus Dei members, a host of Vatican officials, Catholic bishops and a slew of Christian organizations have launched public relations campaigns against the book and movie.

Owens, a 39-year-old married father of six, is not part of Opus Dei's leadership. He is one of about 30 male members in North and Central Jersey who attend weekly meetings at a Georgian-style mansion in South Orange, a state headquarters of sorts for Opus Dei.

Catholics who want to join Opus Dei meet with a spiritual director, write a letter explaining why they want to join and attend weekly gatherings.

The words "Opus Dei" appear nowhere outside the Opus Dei house, which has 10 bedrooms and a semi-circular driveway that fills with cars on meeting nights. The property is referred to as the Southmont House, after the Southmont Foundation, a nonprofit organization that bought it in the mid-1980s for Opus Dei activities and whose director, John Coverdale, has been a member of Opus Dei for 49 years.

At a recent meeting -- which, like others each second Thursday of the month, was open to the public -- Owens listened to prayers from an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. Malcolm Kennedy, who reminded the 25 men assembled that Catholics are supposed to give special attention each May to the Virgin Mary.

Then, after 20 minutes of silent meditation as a group, Owens and the others filed into the living room for a discussion about Jesus led by Coverdale.

Both men's words hit on a common Christian theme that is given heightened attention by Opus Dei -- that members of the Vatican-approved group should think of themselves as having personal relationships with both Jesus and Mary.

"What was it like to be looked at by Jesus? What was his gaze like?" Coverdale asked. "Many, many people say that Pope John Paul II, even though he was in the midst of a big crowd, they felt that he was looking at them."

Coverdale, a tax professor at Seton Hall University Law School, is a "numerary" member of Opus Dei, meaning he is celibate, lives at an Opus Dei center, and devotes most of his salary to the organization. The physical disciplinary practices of numeraries received attention in "The Da Vinci Code" -- namely, their wearing of a spiked chain called a cilice around the thigh, under clothes, as penance.

While the book portrayed cilice-wearing as a bloody, even fanatical experience, Opus Dei numeraries said author Dan Brown succumbed to sensationalism. Numeraries, who comprise about 20 percent of the 85,000 Opus Dei members worldwide, generally wear the device only two hours a day.

Coverdale said wearing it is more annoying than painful: "It may hurt a little, but you'd much rather do that than have a headache," he said. "It's not my favorite subject to talk about. It's personal."

At the meeting, Coverdale broached the subject of "The Da Vinci Code." "I was in Washington yesterday," he said, while holding a thick volume of Catholic teachings. "I saw posters everywhere for `The Da Vinci Code,' and there, in really small print at the top of the posters, it says, `Seek the truth.' I don't think going to see `The Da Vinci Code' is the best way of doing that."

He continued: "It's good advice, `Seek the truth.' I suggest the Compendium of the Catechesis of the Catholic Church is a much better place to do that than `The Da Vinci Code.' Read it. Study it. Tell your friends about it. Give them a copy. Organize a discussion group."

After more time to pray and meditate, the men -- about eight Opus Dei members and more than a dozen non-members who regularly attend meetings -- gathered in the house's foyer to chat over pretzels, chips and bottles of Heineken.

There are no numeraries currently living in Southmont, though a man from Kenya named Michael Gichuhi -- a supernumerary -- lives there as a caretaker. Supernumeraries, like Owens, go to Mass and say the rosary each day, can marry, and receive spiritual direction from a numerary. They remain members of their diocesan parish but are expected to give financially to Opus Dei, according to "Opus Dei," a book about the group by John L. Allen Jr.

Coverdale used to live at Southmont but moved to Manhattan after Opus Dei opened a new headquarters there. He is spiritual director for Owens and other Opus Dei members, and has written a book about the group called "Uncommon Faith: The Early Years of Opus Dei, 1928-1943."

Owens, one of several Opus Dei members briefly profiled in a short film, "Passionately Loving the World," which Opus Dei put out in a public relations campaign, graduated from Brown University and received a master's degree from the University of California, Berkeley. There he met his future wife, Melanie. They married in 1993 and now have six daughters, who are home-schooled.

Owens grew up Catholic and was active in local anti-abortion activities long before joining Opus Dei. In his basement office, where he runs a nonprofit organization devoted to Catholic family planning, he has pictures of St. Josemaria and Pope John Paul II on either side of his screen.

When he goes to church, he takes "The Way," a book that consists entirely of 999 sayings compiled by St. Josemaria, and meditates on several of its points, he said.

He takes seriously the group's central message that holiness can be found by doing one's job well.

Before joining, he said, "I looked at success at work in this whole efficiency model -- how many people work for me, what's my salary, how much work can I get done today, can I get my prioritized work done? ... The sanctification (of work brought it to) another level that said, `At this moment right now, am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and am I doing it well?' The measure of success became different."

He said none of his friends or relatives has poked fun at him over "The Da Vinci Code" or grilled him about criticism from other sources that Opus Dei is more politically and financially influential as a group than it acknowledges; that it is overly secretive; that its practices are degrading to women; that St. Josemaria had a nasty streak; and that its exercise of corporal mortification is excessive.

"What people call `secrecy' about Opus Dei is sort of a disparaging negative of the truth. The truth is, it's private. It's personal. Private is not secret. It's not an organization that has rallies and full-page ads in the newspapers typically. ... In the absence of that, people start filling in the blanks with their whole exaggeration."

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