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He Led 'the Darth Vader of the Catholic Church.' Now He's Almost a Saint

"We want to emulate his life and live according to the teachings of the church."

Choristers hold scores with the image of Alvaro del Portillo as they listen to the director during the preparation for Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo's mass beatification, in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. More than 100,000 Catholics from around the world are expected to attend the open air beatification ceremony Saturday of Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the 2nd most important figure in the order after founder Jose Maria Escriva. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki) AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

You may have heard of the organization he led in a negative light — it's the cult-like group of "bad guys" in "The Da Vinci Code" — but on Saturday, the Catholic Church claimed Alvaro del Portillo, the second leader of Opus Dei, as a "good guy" in a beatification ceremony.

Choristers hold scores with the image of Alvaro del Portillo as they listen to the director during the preparation for Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo's mass beatification, in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. More than 100,000 Catholics from around the world are expected to attend the open air beatification ceremony Saturday of Opus Dei Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the 2nd most important figure in the order after founder Jose Maria Escriva. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

As the Associated Press reported:

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Madrid on Saturday for the beatification of an early leader of the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei.

At a large outdoor mass Cardinal Angelo Amato began the process that will turn Alvaro del Portillo into a saint. Del Portillo succeeded Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer as leader of the organization.

Opus Dei, once considered a secretive, right-wing, cult-like group that curried high favor within the church, has been trying to foster a friendlier image in recent years.

Dan Brown's best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code" and subsequent 2006 movie portrayed Opus Dei as a murderous, power-hungry sect at the center of a complex conspiracy to cover up dark secrets at the heart of the church.

Del Portillo's journey toward sainthood got underway after Pope Francis agreed he had participated in a miracle — a requirement to become a saint.

A Chilean baby boy's heart started beating again in 2003 after hospital staff had failed to resuscitate him for 30 minutes. The boy's parents say they had prayed to Del Portillo — whom many saw as an affable, approachable man — for his intercession from heaven.

Del Portillo's beatification is interpreted by many as a confirmation that Opus Dei has normalized its place in the church.

"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 currently associate editor of Crux, a news site covering Catholicism.

Among the crowd at the beatification Mass were people from as far afield as Africa, Mexico and the Philippines.

"We have come from Kenya to be here," said financial analyst James Gundiri from Nairobi. "He came to Kenya in 1989 and we are very happy, we want to emulate his life and live according to the teachings of the church."

As the National Catholic Register reported, those attending the Saturday ceremony will be encouraged to donate to support the many hospitals and schools that Del Portillo started across Africa.

Beatification is slightly different from canonization, the official declaration that someone is a saint, and Del Portillo will need another miracle attributed to his intercession before he could gain full sainthood.

Follow Zach Noble (@thezachnoble) on Twitter

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