On a typical morning before class, says former Boston College student Tammy DiNicola, she would wake to a loud knock, kiss the floor and silently say "Serviam," Latin for "I will serve."
Then, she says, she would: take a cold shower while praying; whip her buttocks privately while reciting a prayer (once a week); attend a Mass in Latin; wear a spiked chain, called a cilice, around her thighs for two hours; vacuum two rooms in her residence; and perhaps meet with her spiritual director.
DiNicola was once a member of Opus Dei, where lay members strive for holiness in everyday life through strict adherence to the Roman Catholic Church's teachings, at work and at home.
With special ties to the pope, Opus Dei takes a traditionalist approach and has been portrayed as an important counterforce to liberal reforms in the church since the 1960s and to concerns such as declining attendance.
But some Catholics express concern about Opus Dei's recruitment practices and what they say is Opus Dei's growing conservative influence in the church.
"Like many Catholics, I'm concerned about the apparent growth of Opus Dei in the Vatican, here, and among Latin American cardinals and bishops," says David O'Brien, a professor of Roman Catholic studies at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass.
"I'm one in general who thinks, both pastorally and historically, that we've not gone anywhere near far enough in allowing a kind of freedom of expression and a flourishing of diverse forms of Catholicism around the world."
Living a Holy Life, Opus Dei Style
Founded in 1928 by the Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei seeks to put church teachings strictly into practice in everyday life.
Opus Dei has its own, unique ways of realizing that aim. Members make commitments including regularly attending Mass and confession, saying the rosary daily, praying twice a day, and — reflecting one of the group's central tenets — trying "to do their work out of love for God."
Members perform regular acts of self-denial of comforts, such as taking cold showers every morning and sleeping on a board, on the floor, or without a pillow once a week.
"It's sort of a reminder that the mind and the soul needs to assert itself over the body," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has written about the group. "It's a way to sacrifice a little bit to remind yourself of your reliance on God."
Members plan their activities each day and regularly meet outside of Mass to hear a lecture, have a discussion, read the Scripture together or have a prayer service.
"The things that everybody is struggling with and focusing on is the same, trying to do your work well, have love for God, trying to bring your friends closer to God, trying to lead a planned life with regular Mass, prayer," says Opus Dei national spokesman Brian Finnerty.
About 70 percent of the organization's estimated 3,000-plus U.S. members are married, according to Finnerty. Less than 2 percent are priests.
Most of the rest, called "numeraries," commit to a life of celibacy, turning over their salaries to Opus Dei and living in one of at least 60 group-run "centers" nationwide, where the work and home lives of male and female members are segregated.