The People Of Opus Dei

No matter how hectic Elizabeth Heil's day gets, the graduate student sets one priority above all others.

"My vocation in life is to be a good roman catholic - my specific vocation given to me within the Catholic Church is to be a good supernumerary of Opus Dei," says Heil.

Only three thousand of this country's 70 million Roman Catholics are members of Opus Dei, reports CBS Evening News Sunday anchor Russ Mitchell. It's an international group consisting mostly of non-clergy men and women known as supernumeraries. Most have families. They aspire to move closer to God by incorporating a strict routine of prayer, sacrifice and service into their daily lives.

"We also try to do things throughout the day to keep our spiritual life on fire, I would say," explains Heil.

If that sounds a bit mysterious, then you may understand why Opus Dei has been a favorite target of conspiracy theorists.

"From the mid 60's on, Catholicism was divided into a sort of liberal wing and a conservative wing and Opus Dei became the leading symbol of that conservative movement - so it became a sort of ideological football," says John Allen.

For most of its history -- few inside and outside Catholicism even knew Opus Dei existed. That changed with release of "The DaVinci Code."

The controversial novel - and soon to be released movie - portrays a member of Opus Dei as a murderous fanatic obsessed with painful acts of penance and fixated on controlling the church.

"The first thing to understand is that there are two Opus Dei's," says Allen.

Vatican-based journalist John Allen is the author of a book on the group.

"There's the Opus Dei of myth, which is an ultra-wealthy cult-like force that has metastasized at the heart of Catholicism - you know, controlling financial markets and electing Latin American presidents and so on," says Allen. "And then there is the Opus Dei of reality which is a group of 85 thousand Catholics worldwide with modest means and relatively modest influence."
But Opus Dei does require a deep commitment - especially for members called numeraries. They live and work in Opus Dei centers like their headquarters in New York.

"I would say the 20 years I was in Opus Dei was up and down. Very up and very down," says a woman who goes by "Jane."

Jane asked CBS News to hide her identity. She joined Opus Dei right out of High School, working as a live-in cook and housekeeper at Opus Dei centers across the country. She says she handed almost every cent she earned back to the group.

"The striving for perfection it becomes very all consuming to the point where common sense just doesn't come into play. And I don't think that was a good thing," says Jane.

Jane claims to have become so occupied with her work and prayer schedule that she went three years without speaking to her parents. A year ago they hired a cult-deprogrammer to convince her to quit. Now she's pulling herself together in the Ozark Mountains.

"When you are in Opus Dei, you are afraid to leave because you think that you are going to hell for not doing god's will," she says.

"The easiest thing is to leave Opus Dei. The hardest thing is to get in. The easiest is to leave," says Opus Dei priest Michael Barrett. He insists that personal freedom is central to the group's doctrine and any comparison to a cult is wrong.

"There's just a small minority of people who just the fit doesn't work and maybe, because of issues they had even before they became involved with Opus Dei, they have a hard time understanding what happens," says Barrett.

Despite the accusations, Opus Dei holds a unique place in the Catholic Church. An edict by Pope John Paul II designated it as a special institution and made the group's founder a saint. Now some within Opus Dei admit the publicity generated by "The DaVinci Code" could actually inspire others to join.

"These people might really find that Opus Dei is the meaning for their life - give meaning to their life and that might be the moment when they say 'Thank God for the "DaVinci Code," now I know what God wants me to do with my life,'" says Heil.