CHICAGO -- Opus Dei, a conservative Roman Catholic movement long criticized for operating as if it were a secret society, is showing a very public face these days, thanks to Pope John Paul II in Rome and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago.

The pope elevated two Opus Dei priests to the rank of bishop on Sunday in the Vatican. One of them, Monsignor Alvaro del Portillo, leads the international lay-and-clergy movement.

Bernardin has appointed two Opus Dei priests, the Rev. John Twist and the Rev. John Paul Debicki, as pastor and associate pastor of Chicago's St. Mary of the Angels Church, which serves a gentrifying Puerto Rican and Polish community.

The embattled archdiocesan parish has been fighting to save the 70-year-old church building, in disrepair and shuttered since 1988.

Opus Dei means "Work of God" in Latin. The organization identifies itself primarily as a lay movement, with 1,400 priests among its 76,000 members worldwide. It calls for greater involvement of the laity in winning converts to the faith.

But Opus Dei clergy are gaining in influence what they lack in numbers. After this weekend's Vatican ordinations, Opus Dei will have a dozen bishops. And the appointments in Chicago mark the first time an Opus Dei priest has been named to head a U.S. parish.

"We're part of the team now," exulted Tom Bohlin, director of communications for the movement's Midwest office.

From Opus Dei's viewpoint, this means victory for a group at the cutting edge of the changes envisioned in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council's call for opening the church to increased laity involvement.

But from the perspective of liberal sectors of the Roman Catholic Church, it means feeding a power-hungry conservative faction.

Responding to critics who have often characterized the movement's agenda to "build holiness among ordinary people" as secretive and cult-like, Bohlin said, "We're not a cult. We're part of the hierarchy, part of the structure of the church. And we've grown from nothing to worldwide in 60 years."

Founded in 1928 in Spain, the movement's momentum has been greatly boosted during the last decade by Pope John Paul II, who has appointed nine of the 12 Opus Dei bishops.

The pontiff's press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is an Opus Dei member, and during his reign the Vatican recognized Opus Dei as a personal prelature. That unique status makes it akin to a religious order and establishes a direct line of authority from the prelate to Opus Dei members.

Although the organization's stated mission does not include staffing parishes, its priests head several, in places such as Rome, Madrid, Mexico City and Montreal.

The Rev. William Stetson recalled that after arrived in Chicago in 1983 to head Opus Dei's Midwest office: "I spoke to Cardinal Bernardin about the possibility of providing a couple of priests to run an inner-city parish when the time was right."

Bernardin apparently has decided that time has come. On Jan. 1, Twist and Debicki went on the archdiocesan payroll for an initial three-year assignment at St. Mary of the Angels.

"Given the shortage of priests in the archdiocese, the current needs of this parish and the willingness and ability of Opus Dei to take on the challenge involved, the cardinal decided this was an appropriate action," said Sister Joy Clough, archdiocesan director of public informations. "It was difficult to find anyone else for this parish."

Nonetheless, the appointments are being questioned by some Chicago priests who said they were shocked by them. And Monsignor John Egan, a former archdiocesan official who is now assistant to the president for community affairs at De Paul University, was outspoken in his opposition.

Giving Opus Dei control of a parish "may well be a decision which will affect the morale of the diocesan clergy and be a divisive force," Egan said. "The record of Opus Dei in many countries is one of seeking power by which they can control the affairs of the church."

Bohlin denied that the new Opus Dei presence at a Chicago parish was an attempt to "establish a power position. We're not eager to pick up parishes. We're open to serving in this capacity if the circumstances are right, but we basically see this as a one-time thing." He noted that there are only 50 Opus Dei priests in the United States.

Of Opus Dei's 3,000 American members, the largest concentration -- 500 -- reside within the Chicago Archdiocese, including 10 priests and 120 celibate men and women residing in eight centers, in addition to married and single members in society at large.