Cardinal Jose Advincula uses an incense to bless an image of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of the Opus Dei, during Mass to celebrate the saint’s feast day at the Manila Cathedral on June 26, 2023 PHOTO FROM MANILA CATHEDRAL

By Fr. Jaime Bl Achacoso, JCD

Understanding the Recent M.P. Personal Prelatures of 8 August 2023

Dated 8 August 2023 and originally in Italian, Pope Francis’ newest Apostolic Letter written motu proprio, entitled Personal Prelatures, immediately sent shock waves all around the globe. Press reports ranged from the more objective—like Pope Francis changes legal framework for personal prelatures—to the more sensationalistic—like Pope Francis dynamites Opus Dei—by zeroing in on the only existing personal prelature.

After the initial dust has settled, we need to calmly look at the facts and the dispositive part of the motu proprio, which actually modifies only two of the four canons of the Code of Canon Law that provide the legal framework for personal prelatures in general. Let us go over them now.

Canon 295 Regarding the regulation of Personal Prelatures

Up till now, Can. 295, §1 read: The statutes established by the Apostolic See govern a personal prelature, and a prelate presides over it as the proper ordinary; he has the right to erect a national or international seminary and even to incardinate students and promote them to orders under title of service to the prelature.

The motu proprio now modifies this canon as follows:

Can. 295, §1. Praelatura personalis, quae consociationibus publicis clericalibus iuris pontificii cum facultate incardinandi clericos assimilatur, regitur statutis ab Apostolica Sede probatis vel emanatis eique praeficitur Praelatus veluti Moderator, facultatibus Ordinarii praeditus, cui ius est nationale vel internationale seminarium erigere necnon alumnos incardinare, eosque titulo servitii praelaturae ad ordines promovere.

My unofficial translation is as follows: Personal prelatures, which are formally equivalent to public clerical associations of pontifical right, are regulated by statutes emanating from or approved by the Apostolic See and are presided by a Prelate as Moderator, with the faculties of an Ordinary, who has the right to erect a national or international seminary and to incardinate students therein and to promote them to orders under the title of service to the prelature.

This is the first important novelty in the motu proprio, which unfortunately many initial commentaries failed to appreciate and the mass media even sensationalized. The initial commentaries, in effect, have taken it to mean that personal prelatures have now been reconfigured as public clerical associations of pontifical right. This is an understandable misconception for a non-canonist or a non-jurist. It reveals the lack of understanding of the juridical tool of formal equivalence or remission (also called reference), which is a basic resource for legislative economy.

To avoid superfluous repetition in legal texts, the legislator makes one factual phenomenon equivalent in law (i.e., in its legal treatment) to a different one which has already been legally provided for elsewhere. Equivalents are found in the Code of Canon Law with expressions like “censeatur tamquam”, “aequiparantur” and “habeatur pro”. Since public clerical associations are regulated by other canons, the Supreme Legislator initially just refers to the way they are regulated at the moment of establishing the regulation of Personal Prelatures.

Personal Prelatures are therefore not Public Clerical Associations of Pontifical Right. In fact, by making use of formal equivalence, the new norm declares the difference between personal prelatures and public clerical associations. One does not say that two things are similar if they are in fact the same or identical. Had the Supreme Legislator wanted to reconfigure personal prelatures as public clerical associations, then he would have simply said so, instead of formally treating them like such associations.

To continue, c.295, §2 used to read: The prelate must see to both the spiritual formation and decent support of those whom he has promoted under the above-mentioned title.

The motu proprio now modifies this canon as follows:

Can. 295, §2. Utpote Moderator facultatibus Ordinarii praeditus, Praelatus prospicere debet sive spirituali institutioni illorum, quos titulo praedicto promoverit, sive eorundem decorae sustentationi.

My unofficial translation of this provision is as follows: Can. 295, §2. As a Moderator endowed with the faculties of an Ordinary, the Prelate must provide for the spiritual formation of those whom he has promoted under the aforementioned title, and for their dignified support.

While the text is hardly changed, there is one significant novelty: the insistence that the Prelate has the faculties of an Ordinary. This term has great significance in Canon Law, fixed in c.134, §1 of the Code, which follows the tradition of the former Code of 1917, albeit with some differences. In effect, the concept of ordinarius is directly related to the exercise of the power of governance in the Church: all the ordinaries mentioned in the Code have, by their office, the responsibility and exercise of the power of governance or jurisdiction. While it can be argued whether or not the concept implies a hierarchical nature, the fact remains that the power of jurisdiction in the Church—the power of the keys given to Peter and his successors in the Papacy—is deconcentrated to all Ordinaries through the via hierarchica. In other words, any subject of the sacra potestas must be connected hierarchically to the source of that power, which ultimately is the Pope.

On the other hand, can. 296 used to state: Lay persons can dedicate themselves to the apostolic works of a personal prelature by agreements entered into with the prelature. The statutes, however, are to determine suitably the manner of this organic cooperation and the principal duties and rights connected to it.

The motu proprio now modifies this canon as follows:

Can. 296. Servatis can. 107 praescriptis, conventionibus cum praelatura initis, laici operibus apostolicis praelaturae personalis sese dedicare possunt; modus vero huius organicae cooperationis atque praecipua officia et iura cum illa coniuncta in statutis apte determinentur.

My unofficial translation is as follows: Can. 296. Observing what is prescribed by can. 107, and according to an agreement entered into with the prelature, laypersons can dedicate themselves to the apostolic works of the personal prelature; but the manner of this organic cooperation and the main duties and rights connected with it, shall be determined appropriately in the statutes.

The reference to c.107 is an important one, even if it does not really change what in fact had been accepted in principle in the only existing personal prelature, which is Opus Dei. In effect, can. 107 states:

§1. Through both domicile and quasi-domicile, each person acquires his or her pastor and ordinary.
§2. The proper pastor or ordinary of a transient is the pastor or local ordinary where the transient is actually residing.
§3. The proper pastor of one who has only a diocesan domicile or quasi-domicile is the pastor of the place where the person is actually residing.

This principle has never been questioned in Opus Dei and in practice the Numeraries, Associates and Supernumeraries of the Personal Prelature know that they are ordinary Catholics. They belong to territorial parishes and go to their parish priests for ordinary pastoral care, just like all their fellow parishioners—e.g., baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals, aside from the usual Masses and other services. It is only in what regards the extraordinary pastoral care that corresponds to their peculiar vocation to strive for heroic sanctity in the middle of the world—in order to be leaven in society for the awakening of such awareness of and effective struggle for such holiness among their fellowmen—that they depend on the priests of Opus Dei: e.g., for weekly Confession, for regular (as often as biweekly) spiritual direction, systematic formation in Catholic Doctrine, philosophical and theological studies, etc.

Has anything changed in Personal Prelatures?

The fundamental question is: What is a Personal Prelature in general and what is Opus Dei in particular? No single canon of the Code of Canon Law answers this question. The juridic structure of personal prelatures has to be gleaned from the four canons (cc. 294-297) comprising Title IV (Personal Prelatures) of Book II (The People of God) of the Code of Canon Law. These canons are like four brush strokes that comprise the complete picture of a personal prelature. The error that some canonists have fallen into is to focus on one particular canon and reduce the whole concept of personal prelatures to what that canon stipulates. It is something akin to that well-known fable of the ten blind men conceptualizing an elephant from having touched only a part of the pachyderm: it is like a snake (because one touched the trunk), or like a spear (because he touched the tusk), or like a wall (because he touched the expansive body, or like a post (because he touched a leg), etc.

As we saw above, c.295, §1 does not configure Personal Prelatures as an Association of Clerics of Pontifical Right—in fact, it implies the contrary—but only regulates the former like the latter.

As to what Opus Dei is in particular, there is no doubt about that at the ontological level, because that is a matter of Divine charism that was received by St. Josemaria Escriva, its founder, on 2 October 1928. In fact, the hermeneutic key, to my mind, in all this discussion is the prophetic terminology of a motu proprio addressed by the Vicar of Christ specifically to Opus Dei a year before: Ad Charisma tuendum, dated 4 August 2022.

For as long as it is clear what the Founder’s charism was as regards the identity of the institution that God founded on 2 October 1928, we can understand that all these canonical dispositions are really meant to safeguard that charism. Even if it might seem that these moves are unduly disturbing a relatively peaceful canonical situation of Opus Dei, the truth is these are all part of a larger movement in the Holy See to streamline the work of governance in the Church.

In this regard, another hermeneutic key to this larger move might be the title of the motu proprio that put all of these adjustments in motion: Praedicate Evangelium—“Preach the Good News,” of 19 March 2022. All of these are meant to streamline the work of preaching the Gospel for the salvation to all souls. Conclusion

To conclude these initial considerations, I find some words written by St. Josemaria in a Letter he wrote to his spiritual children in Opus Dei in 1943, quite prophetic:

“You know how the Ordinaries of the dioceses in which we work, generally understand us and love us; and—whatever juridical form the Work may eventually have—the Church, which is our Mother, will respect the way of being of her children, because she knows that, with it, we only intend to serve her and to please God.

This is the reason why we do not admit, about the Church, either a doubt or a suspicion: nor do we tolerate it, in others, without protest. We do not look for the vulnerable sides of the Church—because of the action of men in Her—to criticize her, as some who do not seem to have faith or love are wont to do. I cannot conceive that one can love one’s mother and speak of her with detachment.

And we will never be sufficiently satisfied with our work, no matter how many services, with the grace of God, we render to the Church and to the Pope, because love will demand more of us every day, and our labors will always seem modest, because the time at our disposal is short: tempus breve est (1 Cor 7:29).

Together with selfless love, we must have great confidence: I am sure that confidence will grow in your souls, with God’s help, in spite of the misunderstandings that the Lord will allow, which, I insist, will never be misunderstandings by the Church.
In this spirit of filial trust, we will always receive with joy and happiness any news that comes to us from the Bride of Jesus Christ, even when it may be painful or may seem so in the eyes of people outside the Work, since we know that nothing bad can come to us from the Church: diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum (Rom 8:28); ‘for those who love God, all things work together for good.’

And I dare to assure you that this joy of ours, no matter what happens, will not fail to cause astonishment and surprise, and above all enlightenment, in those who without reason, because there can be none, expect a different reaction from us.” [St. Josemaria Escriva, Letter Legitima hominum (31.V.1943) nn.53-54, in The Collected Letters (Vol.2), Scepter, London-New York (2023)]

We find the same spirit in a Message that the actual Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Fernando Ocariz, wrote to the faithful of the Prelature two days after the motu proprio under consideration:

“I write you these words to share with you the sentiment that we welcome with sincere filial obedience these dispositions of the Holy Father and to ask you that in this also we all remain very united. Thus, we shall follow the spirit with which St. Josemaria and his successors regarded every disposition by the Pope regarding Opus Dei. The Work being a Divine and Ecclesial reality, the Holy Spirit guides us in every moment.”

Finally, the words of Pope Francis himself—in an interview published by the Spanish newspaper ABC on 18 December 2022—should lay to rest any kind of speculation regarding the spirit behind this recent motu proprio on Personal Prelatures in general and Opus Dei in particular:

“It’s not only a question of the Opus Dei, but of Personal Prelatures. In the scheme of the Curia, Opus Dei depended on the Congregation for Bishops, but in the Code of Canon Law, Prelatures are framed in another way, and the criteria had to be unified. The matter was studied and it was said that the Prelature should go to the Congregation for the Clergy. I did it dialoguing with them. Moreover, I have been a friend from Argentina of Mariano Fazio (Vicar General of Opus Dei). It was a serene and normal thing done by canonists. Even canonists of Opus worked in the process. The measure is a resituating that had had to be resolved. It’s not right to magnify the matter, or to make them victims, or to make them culprits who received punishments. Please, I’m a close friend of Opus Dei, I love them very much and they work well in the Church. The good they do is very great.”


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