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Leaving Catholicism During the Franco Dictatorship in Spain - My Spiritual Journey, Part 2

How I left Catholicism while attending an elite school ran by Opus Dei

Altar dedicated to Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-1975), founder of the Opus Dei, Peterskirche, Vienna, Austria.
Altar dedicated to Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-1975), founder of the Opus Dei, Peterskirche, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Moving to Madrid

My childhood in the Spanish town of Santiago the Compostela ended when I was 15, when my parents, my seven siblings and I moved to Madrid.

That heralded a momentous change in my life. It was not just that I was in the middle of puberty. The intellectual changes that had been brewing inside of me came to a head.

We had a nice apartment in Santiago, in professor housing in the middle of the campus, surrounded by gardens and sport facilities. But our new home in Madrid was downright luxurious: a huge flat facing the Park of Berlin, in a modern part of the city. It had so many bedrooms that I got to have a room of my own.

Building in front of the Park of Berlin in Madrid.
The house where I lived at the time. Photo taken in 2021 by the author.

My Opus Dei High School

My father had been telling my brothers and me that we would go to the Instituto Ramiro Maeztu, a public school walking distance from our new home. However, when we arrived in Madrid, we found that plans had been changed without our knowledge. We were enrolled in the school of El Prado, ran by the private organization Fomento de Centros de Enseñanza, controlled by the Opus Dei. It was a boys-only school. My sisters would go to Montealto, a girls-only school run by the same organization.

As I described in the Part 1 of this series, Opus Dei is a conservative Catholic organization that controlled politics and wealth in Spain during the last part of the Franco dictatorship. My siblings and I had been groomed by this organization since childhood. However, the school we attended in Santiago de Compostela, although also private and boys-only, was not run by Opus Dei.

Now, we would have Opus Dei in our family, at school and in our social circle. We were invited to join Club Jara, a boys' club similar to the Club Senra that I frequented in Santiago.

El Prado school was in Mirasierra, a wealthy colony in the outskirts of the north of Madrid. It was far from home and not easily accessible. Most students got there by school bus. However, one of the perks of my father’s new government position was an official car, complete with uniformed chauffeur, flag and government license plates. Everybody would recognize it when we stepped out.

I was embarrassed. However, I soon find out that we were not the only ones being driven to school in an official car. Some of my classmates also were the sons of government officials, military and entrepreneurs. I was in an elite school.

The academic year had already started at the school. We were late because of the move. I joined in the middle of class. I had grown a beard during the summer, so my new classmates thought that I was a new teacher sitting the class. When they found out that I was the new kid in town, they were fascinated.

I feared that I was not going to be able to catch up with the curriculum of such an elite school. I was used to being the first of my class in Santiago. Now, I found the mathematics class incomprehensible. The Literature teacher was an aggressive priest prone to telling vaguely sexual anecdotes. Physics was challenging. And I found religion class to be the most upsetting. It consisted of going over the dogmas of Catholicism, which made me feel the whole oppressive weight of that religion.

However, I soon found out that my classmates felt pretty much the same weight.

Nobody understood the math teacher. He was just awful. Suddenly, he changed from algebra to calculus and I found myself in familiar territory. I had a great math teacher in Santiago, and I loved calculus. Soon, I was explaining it to my peers, which made me quite popular.

I also got into the habit of picking arguments with the philosophy teacher. My classmates loved these confrontations and cheered me along. I had the good taste of conceding the point before things got ugly, and that earned me the favor of the teacher as well.

The first round of exams came. I got good grades. I was on!

Growing doubts

My discussions with the philosophy teacher were not as frivolous as they seemed, however. They reflected a deep philosophical struggle inside of me.

I had always been a good boy: obedient, a good student, always eager to please my demanding father. Being religious was part and parcel of that. That’s why I went to all those retreats of the Opus Dei my father sent me to. I prayed, went to mass and confessed regularly. I didn’t chase girls or masturbate. In fact, I lived in deep sexual repression despite an emergent libido.

I had a penchant for mysticism. I loved sitting silently in prayer, gathering my thoughts while I talked to God. I did half an hour of prayer every evening.

But I wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t feel any devotion to the Virgin or the saints, and was not even impressed by Jesus. I saw no reason why I couldn’t talk directly to the Big Boss.

The problem was that my insatiable curiosity had propelled me to learn a lot about science. It provided a coherent, enormously appealing view of the world that increasingly collided with the dogmas of Catholicism.

But it was not just that. I had started reading about yoga, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, and they seemed more attractive as religions than Christianity.

I reasoned that being a Christian was a mere accident of my birth. That random occurrence could not determine the truth of a religion. If I had been born in India, I would have been a Hindu. If I had been born in Egypt, I would be a Muslim. And so on. So, the rational thing to do was to examine all religions and then decide which one made more sense. If any.

I had tried that the previous summer, while I was at an Opus Dei retreat in Vigo, a port city of Galicia not far from where my parents had a beach house. I decided that I was going to stop being a Christian, to see what it felt like. I even told a priest in confession. He was horrified, but could not provide any satisfactory response to my problem of being a Christian by accident of birth. Or any other of my objections.

Another disturbing thing that happened during that summer retreat was that the participants we were invited, as a group, to discuss a philosophical or political subject. However, there was an important caveat: it couldn’t be anything about which the Church had a doctrine. I successively proposed discussing communism, socialism, anarchism, Eastern religions, feminism, only to always came against the same answer. These were things condemned by the Church, so they could not be discussed.

I was furious. I had the feeling that Catholicism was a huge intellectual jail in which I could not learn what I wanted and grow intellectually.

However, the prospect of staying outside the Church was too scary, so I went back to being a Catholic. If I wandered outside of religion, how was I going to maintain my self-discipline? Wouldn’t I end up becoming a pervert, a communist, a drug addict, like so many youngsters of my generation?

I meet a real-life saint

During the Holy Week of 1972, I was invited to travel to Rome with the Opus Dei, see the Pope and meet the Father, Monseñor Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of the Opus Dei. After his death, he was canonized by the Church. So I was about to meet a real saint.

I was not impressed by him. He made us wait a long time. Then he told us a silly story about a rich man that gave a lot of his wealth to charity, and a poor man that only had one spoon but was so attached to it that he growled at anybody that looked at it. The moral of the story was that what matters is not how much money you have, but how attached you are to it. It made sense, sort of. But I think Jesus says the opposite in the Gospel. Something about camels and the eye of a needle. Whatever.

Escrivá de Balaguer would die three years later, on June 26, 1975. Five months before the death of dictator Franco.

But I loved being in Rome. I had been born there, and I lived in that magical city until I was 5. I could still remember some of the places of my childhood. I could speak Italian. Too bad they didn’t let me wander on my own.

October 1972: the agony of making a decision

Attending those religion classes in the school of El Prado, I couldn’t keep my eyes closed anymore. Cognitive dissonance became too strong. The dogmas of Catholicism rained on my head like blows of a hammer. I could clearly see how they conflicted with my scientific view of the world. Humans were the product of evolution. The mind was just the brain at work. Miracles seemed doubtful, and besides, all religions had them.

Looking deeper, religion started to seem like a mental trap. Its arguments were circular. From inside Christianity, it was hard to object to the beliefs, mostly because believing was considered a good thing, and unbelief was a sin. But if you dared to place your point of view outside of religion, it all fell apart. It made no more sense than believing in the ancient Greek gods, or in reincarnation, or that Krishna was the avatar of Vishnu, or that Muhammed was the prophet of Allah.

By the time October rolled around, I was in deep distress. I had to decide. I could renounce my heretical views based on science and Eastern mysticism and fully embrace Christianity. Or I could leave Christianity and follow my own spiritual path.

The decision seems obvious when I look back at it. But I was 15, barely a child. I had nobody to help me. My parents were in the Opus Dei. My teachers were in the Opus Dei. The whole damned country was a Catholic dictatorship where expressing the wrong opinion (and I had lots of those) could land you in jail.

Every evening before dinner, I locked myself in my room for my daily prayer, and cried, torn by my inner struggle. Then I dried my tears and pretended that nothing was happening.

I did ask a couple of priests for advice. But our conversations turned confrontational. I even wrote to don Aurelio. His answer came too late. He said that he had always feared that the extremism of Opus Dei was going to turn me away from Christ. But, for me, Opus Dei represented the true face of Catholicism.

I couldn’t live like that, so I gave myself a deadline: by the end of October, I would decide.

A few things started to come clear. I wasn’t going to stop being a Christian to give free rein to my last and go chasing girls. In fact, I would not abandon any part of my self-discipline. I would continue my daily prayer, studying hard and restraining from masturbation. My reasons for leaving Christianity were purely intellectual.

Halloween was unknown in Spain at the time. On that suspicious date, I stopped being a Christian for good.

Out of the mental jail

The feeling was one of complete freedom. An enormous weight was lifted off me. I felt like I could finally breathe. I could read what I wanted, think what I wanted. Choose my beliefs along the way; discard them when they no longer made sense.

There was no feeling of urgency anymore. I was young. I had my whole life in front of me. I could take my time to choose my ideas and my values.

Non-believer in the closet

However, there was still a lot of fear. How would I tell my parents? Would I dare tell my teachers in that Opus Dei school?

Now that I could speak more freely to my classmates, I realized that they were divided into two camps: those who agreed with Opus Dei, and those who opposed it. I had been so careful in hiding my inner conflict that nobody knew on whose side I was on. That made me realize that my new ideas entailed some obligations. I had to help those who thought like me.

My discussions with my philosophy teacher took a new edge. And so did my questions to my other teachers. I would carefully choose an idea and put it out there as a question. But it was bait; if you followed it to its conclusion, you would find yourself questioning a dogma.

My classmates were not stupid. They soon realized what I was up to. My popularity increased. I found myself in a role that I didn’t know existed: the cool intellectual kid who got the highest grades and thus could not be harassed by the teachers.

And so did Opus Dei. And probably my parents. However, much to my surprise, nobody dared to confront me openly. They seemed as afraid of me as I was afraid of them. I was like they knew that my change of heart was so honest, so deeply rooted in well-thought ideas, that confronting it could end up challenging their own convictions.

But I was flattering myself. What really happened is that the whole country of Spain was undergoing the same change as me, as the national-catholic dictatorship of Franco slowly fell apart.

My guardian angel

One strategy of Opus Dei is to place one of their members near you to keep tabs on you and inform his superiors in the organization. That person would become your best friend so that you would confide in them your most intimate thoughts

Ironically enough, the name of my guardian angel was Ángel, a common name in Spain.

Ángel was my classmate. He got good grades, but regularly seek my help with math and physics. Although he never said, he was a numerary member of Opus Dei.

I know now that Opus Dei starts recruiting members when they are 14. In fact, they had tried to recruit me at that age, while I was at that retreat in Vigo. But I was in the midst of my first “crisis of faith”, so it didn’t work out.

Peñalara Massif from La Bola del Mundo; closer in the bottom, Valdesquí ski resort.
The ski resort of Valdesqui in the Sierra of Gudarrama, Spain. Photo taken in 1977. Wikimedia Commons.

Ángel and I were both members of Club Jara. That winter, I had fallen in love with skiing, a sport that could be practiced in the Sierra of Guadarrama, barely an hour's drive north of Madrid. Club Jara fleeted a bus every weekend to the sierra, which was my main reasons not to cut ties with that Opus Dei club. I even kept attending their Friday night's prayers, just because I enjoyed singing the Pange Lingua in Latin. If my parents insisted, I went to Sunday mass with them. And they saw me locking myself in my room every evening for prayer, which, in my head, I had started calling meditation.

Yeah, I know: I was devious.

But it worked quite well. It kept everybody trying to second-guess me. And I really enjoyed the skiing.

It was May when Ángel invited me to go on a long bike ride with him. On one of our rest, he started pestering about praying the rosary. Or maybe going to another of those Opus Dei retreats.

I could hold it no more. I told I was no longer Catholic, or even Christian.

I didn’t expect him to get as surprised as he did. I thought he had already figured it out.

He told me I was going to Hell and blah, blah, blah.

I just shook my head and laughed.

He realized it was hopeless trying to convince me. We just got on our bikes and rode back to Madrid.

I knew he would tell Opus Dei, who would tell my parents. I didn’t care. I had left behind my fears. That was the final step of leaving the mental jail in which I had spent my childhood.

Preparing for college

That was my last year of High School, so I only attended El Prado for one year.

The following year was a bridge year in which we were supposed to prepare for college. I was sent to an academy also run by Opus Dei. Despite of that, it was mixed gender. For the first time in my life, I had girls as classmates.

I had become good friends with Carlos, a former classmate of El Prado who joined me at the academy. Carlos told me that he had been a member of Opus Dei but had left the organization, becoming a non-believer, like me. We bonded by our common interests in science, ideas and mountaineering.

I was reading ferociously: Hindu philosophers like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda, Teilhard de Chardin, Zen, Alan Watts, Erich Fromm, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov (the science-fiction and the popular science)… Well, it may have taken me a few more years to work through all these authors. But that should give you an idea of where my mind was heading.

Unlike what is common in the USA, students in Spain didn’t get to choose their university. I was assigned to go to the Complutense University of Madrid. But I wanted to get out from the influence of Opus Dei, so I thought that the newer university, called Autonoma, would be better. Besides, it had a great program in biochemistry, which was what I wanted to major on. With some help from my father, I managed to switch.

Ángel and I meet again

Strangely enough, Ángel emailed a few years ago. It wasn’t hard to find me on the internet, I guess.

Why did he contact me? To check if he could bring me back to Catholicism? Was he still trying to be my guardian angel?

I told him straight that I was more atheistic than ever. I had cycled through several religions and Christianity was the one I liked the least.

He said that it didn’t matter. He was just thinking about me and wanted to see how I was.

He was a successful film producer. Sometimes, he even came to LA.

Yes, he was still a member of Opus Dei.

Imagine that! Being celibate since we were both teenagers. To have none of the wonderful sexual experiences I had. To never have fallen in love. To never had seen your child grow up.

“Was it worth it?” I wanted to ask. But I never did. I already knew the answer.

We met for lunch a couple times I was in Madrid. He had changed a lot. So, I guess, had I.

We didn’t talk about religion - much as I wanted to. But I feared that I couldn’t do that without the conversation turning confrontational. My father’s last years had taught me that it was cruel to challenge somebody’s beliefs. Especially that late in life.

The last time we saw each other, he took me to his home and his office. He lived in a house that he shared with several other members of Opus Dei. The main room on the first floor was a beautiful chapel. There was a common kitchen and living room. His bedroom was tiny.

It was nice to have a look at modern-day Opus Dei. I guess that’s what he wanted me to do.

I ended up telling him my pen name, Hermes Solenzol. I told him to go ahead and read my first novel, warning him that in contained a description of my falling out of faith, a strong criticism of Catholicism, and plenty of sex scenes. He went ahead and read it, anyway. I asked him if he thought that my portrayal of Opus Dei was fair. He said that it mostly was, except for one little detail: my protagonist, Cecilia, would not have confessed to the priest face-to-face, but using a confessionary.

In his first emails, Ángel sent me PDF files of the letters I send him from college. I was surprised by the Om signs and all the Hindu mysticism. I was going through the phase that I will describe in the next article of this series.

This part of my life is fictionalized in the first part of my novel Games of Love and Kink.

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