MADRID — The second most important figure in the Opus Dei order was beatified Saturday at an open air Mass attended by tens of thousands of Catholics that sent Alvaro Del Portillo on a key step toward sainthood and illustrated how the once secretive order has become more mainstream.
Del Portillo succeeded Opus founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, as Opus Dei's leader. The miracle attributed for Del Portillo's beatification was confirmed last year by Pope Francis.
A second miracle must be certified for Del Portillo, who died in 1994, before he can become a saint like Escriva de Balaguer. Catholics who swarmed Madrid for the beatification from Africa, Latin America and the Philippines were confident that would happen.
"For us as Catholics, he is a symbol who helps us live according to the Gospel," said Colombian lawyer Jorge Gomez.
The first miracle for Del Portillo came after a Chilean baby boy's heart started beating in 2003 despite doctors' failed 30-minute efforts to resuscitate him. The boy's parents prayed to del Portillo for his intercession from heaven to save their child, who now lives a normal life, going to school and playing soccer.
The beatification of Del Portillo is seen by experts as confirmation that Opus Dei has normalized its place in the Catholic Church. Once viewed as a secretive, right-wing, cult-like group that curried unusually high favor with Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei has gained acceptance as just another Catholic movement.
"My general impression is they have gone from being the Darth Vader of the Catholic Church to being another piece of furniture in the living room," said John Allen, who wrote an authoritative 2005 book on the movement and is associate editor of Crux, a news site covering Catholicism.
The turning point came with Dan Brown's best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code" and subsequent 2006 movie. The plot portrayed Opus Dei as a murderous, power-hungry sect at the center of a conspiracy to cover up the widely discredited theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children, and that their blood line survives today.
The character of the murderous albino Catholic monk Silas, an Opus numerary who hurt himself to show his faith, especially harmed Opus Dei's reputation.
But the organization seized on the publicity and launched a global, media-friendly public relations campaign after years of dodging the press.
Opus Dei now touts its Harambee program which promotes educational programs in Africa. Its priests and lay members among the most accessible and knowledgeable spokespeople for the Catholic Church around the world and its universities are well respected.
"'Da Vinci' was such a massive shock to the system, it shook up everything internally, including their communications strategy," Allen said. "Another great favor Dan Brown gave them was that whatever reasonable objections people had to Opus Dei, the reality — however mixed — is infinitely better than the cartoon super-villain Dan Brown painted."
Founded in 1928 in Spain, Opus Dei had been associated with Spain's former fascist regime and the nation's wealthy, religious and conservative right. The favor it enjoyed under John Paul cemented its reputation as a right-wing orthodox movement so special it deserved its unique status as a personal prelature, a sort of diocese without borders.
Adding to the perception that Opus Dei was a cult-like institution were aggressive recruiting techniques especially among young Catholics, segregation of the sexes in residential centers and reports by former members of being forbidden from contact with family members.
Former members started an online support group, Opus Dei Awareness Network, to expose the movement's questionable practices. Complaints apparently prompted the Vatican to ask the order in 2011 to publicly clarify the distinction between spiritual direction and the governance within the movement.
When de Balaguer was beatified in 1992, critical books were published and newspaper and magazine articles speculated that that Opus Dei was a cult or sect.
The beatification of Del Portillo attracted a crowd in Madrid unseen since anti-austerity protests in 2012, but was overshadowed by a declaration from the regional leader of Spain's Catalonia region setting a Nov. 9 independence referendum deemed illegal by the central government in Madrid.
Opus still enjoys favor in Rome, boasting two influential cardinals and about 25 bishops from its ranks at the Vatican and in dioceses around the world. But Francis' papacy and his focus on a "poor church" has taken the spotlight off of the order.
Francis reportedly enjoyed good relations with Opus Dei while serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
But on the eve of Portillo's beatification, he sacked an Opus Dei bishop in Paraguay who had clashed with more progressive bishops.
Opus Dei has 90,502 members, nearly all of them laymen and women. Only 2,073 are priests. The movement, Latin for "God's Work," emphasizes personal holiness in daily life.
Winfield contributed from Rome.