250,000 gather for Opus Dei founder's canonisation


Pope John Paul II has proclaimed controversial Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer a saint in a Vatican ceremony attended by more than a quarter of a million pilgrims from around the world.

The ceremony sealed a long campaign by Catholic laity to have its Spanish founder sanctified.

The Pope paid tribute to Fr Escriva, the ninth person to be declared a saint this year, saying: "Those who seek to faithfully serve the gospel are confronted with misunderstandings and difficulties."

Mr Escriva, who died aged 73 in 1975, is a controversial figure who has beendescribed by critics variously as ambitious and arrogant.

They accuse Opus Dei - Latin for "Work of God" - of being a secretive, manipulative and unhealthily powerful presence within the Church, though it has grown in strength under John Paul II, whose spokesman is one of its best known members.

His followers are conspicuous for being powerful. Mingling with the Catholic hierarchy at the ceremony were Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, as well as Spain's Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and Justice Minister Federico Trillo.

The invitees included seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti, a pillar of right-wing Italian politics for more than half a century, who is currently on trial for alleged links to the Mafia and complicity in the 1979 murder of a journalist.

Another guest of the Vatican was Spanish doctor Manuel Nevado Rey, whose recovery from skin disease caused by radiation is considered a miracle performed by Fr Escriva.

But the day belonged to ordinary people who began gathering forthe ceremony before dawn. "To me he's like a father," said Nigerianschoolteacher Bettie, from Abuja.

"He helped me come closer to God, and helped me bring my friends closer to God," she said, whose yellow and blue traditional Nigerian dress contrasted starkly with the sober suits and ties of many of Escriva's followers.

Groups of pilgrims from the saint's home country, where Opus Dei first gained a foothold in the right-wing Franco government of the 1950s, were prominent in the multinational crowd thronging the approaches to Saint Peter's.

Many followed the ceremony on giant screens placed along the Via della Conciliazione, many with ears pressed to radios broadcasting the ceremony in their own language.

Bright sunshine bathed the massive crowd for the ceremony. The choir of the Sistine chapel sang the Gloria after the pontiff had pronounced the day's most important words:

"We declare and define blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer saint, and we will write his name in the album of the saints."