By March of 1940 the members of Opus Dei increased to around forty. St. Josemaria Escriva felt the need to make sure that all the members really grasped the spirit of Opus Dei. He organized two weeks of intense formation, one during Holy Week and the other in August. Father Josemaria gave meditations and the members had get-togethers in the afternoons and evenings. Father Josemaria urged the members to persevere in their vocation and reminded them of the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the fourth century.
Forty Cappadocian brave soldiers were locked up in prison after they refused to offer sacrifice to pagan gods. The soldiers occupied themselves with prayer and psalmody, and during the night they heard a voice saying, “Persevere until the end, then you shall be saved.” These soldiers were thrown into an icy lake to die. They prayed, “Forty of us have entered the fight. We ask, you Lord, for forty crown. Grant that not one be lacking in this number.” However, in the middle of the night, one of them abandoned the struggle. Later one of the guards saw that a radiant crown had appeared over the head of each martyr. He counted thirty-nine crowns and realized that the soldier who fled had lost his crown. The guard took off his uniform and said, “I too am a Christian,” and he joined the martyrs. Standing in the water he prayed, “Lord God, I believe in You, in Whom these soldiers believe. Add me to their number, and make me worthy to suffer with Your servants.” Then the fortieth crown appeared over his head.
In 1940, there were criticisms about Father Josemaria’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. A religious priest even said Opus Dei was a heretical and secret society, Masonic in origin. Years later, reflecting on the criticisms, Father Josemaria said, “When some forty years ago a young priest of twenty-six started to say that holiness was not just for friars, nuns and priests, but that it was for all Christians, because Jesus Christ Our Lord said to all, ‘Be holy as my heavenly Father is holy’ (Mt. 5:48)—-whether one is single, married, or widowed makes no difference, we can all be saints—-they called that priest a heretic.” Blessed Alvaro del Portillo said, “Some did not accuse him of being a heretic, but declared instead that he was crazy. In fact, what today is ordinary church teaching seemed at that time, to all the world, like sheer nonsense.”
Some churchmen demanded to know why Opus Dei members didn’t wear a religious habit or badge. Father Josemaria explained, “We do not wear a habit or badge because we are ordinary Christians, not religious.” However, these churchmen ignored his explanation and said the real reason they did not wear religious habit or badge was that Opus Dei was a secret society. Father Josemaria prayed for his slanderers and tried to forgive them.
The persecution of Opus Dei continued. Priests involved with the Sodality of Our Lady preached against the Work, and members of the sodality associated with Opus Dei were expelled from the sodality.
In response to the attacks against Opus Dei, Bishop Leopoldo of Madrid wanted the official approval of Opus Dei to be done as soon as possible so that the truth would be known. On March 19, 1941 Opus Dei was approved as a pious union.
On March 24, around noon, the Bishop called Father Josemaria informing him that the decree of approval had been issued. Father Josemaria and those at home went to the oratory to pray a Te Deum in thanksgiving.