In solemn rites capable of lifting the spirit of earthbound mortals to celestial heights, the Catholic Church last Saturday beatified the late Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the first bishop-prelate of Opus Dei and immediate successor to its founder St. Josemaria Escriva, in Valdebebas, Madrid, proclaiming him Blessed, one step away from sainthood. The Church will now await at least two more miracles associated with his intercession before she finally raises him to the altar.
An immense sea of Catholic faithful from all over the world, including the Philippines, took part in the Beatification Mass presided over by Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Millions more followed the event worldwide on EWTN, which covered it live, replayed it Sunday, and will replay it yet once more tomorrow, Tuesday, at 9:30 pm (Manila time).
Still attended by the same sea of prayerful faithful, a Thanksgiving Mass followed in Valdebebas yesterday, presided over by Bishop Javier Ecchevaria, the present prelate who succeeded Blessed Alvaro after his death in Rome in 1994.
Today, Monday, Blessed Alvaro’s mortal remains will be transferred to St. Eugenio in Valle Giulia parish church in Rome, close to Villa Tevere, Opus Dei’s central headquarters.
Born on March 11, 1914 and died on March 23, 1994, Blessed Alvaro was the second faithful servant of Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, to be singularly honored by the Church in 12 years. Its founder, who died on June 26, 1975, was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 6, 2002.
Blessed Alvaro worked hard on the expansion of Opus Dei into many countries, including what Pope Francis has called “the peripheries.” Its 90,000 faithful are present in close to 90 countries. Much of this push for expansion has involved Filipinos who are celebrating this year the 50th anniversary of The Work’s arrival in the Philippines.
After a thorough and long process that began in 1997, the Church found Don Alvaro to have practiced all the virtues to a heroic degree and to have led a distinctively holy life. His life was a constant “yes” to God’s demands, says his original postulator, Msgr. Flavio Capuccio. He died on Aug. 7, 2013, before the Church decided to beatify Bishop Alvaro, but his words were adopted by the new postulator, Father Javier Medina.
Blessed Alvaro worked closely not only with Saint Escriva, but also with the popes, from Pius XII to St. John Paul II, serving in at least 13 bodies within the Holy See. He took on very important assignments during the Second Vatican Council, and had become such a close collaborator to St. John Paul II that when the latter heard of his death, he offered the day’s mass for him and came personally to Villa Tevere to offer his respects and prayers.
As a young man, BlessedAlvaro had set out to pursue a career in engineering, then one of the most respected professions in Spain. But everything changed after his path crossed with that of Father Josemaria Escriva, who was 12 years his senior. The priest called himself a “madman,” a man “madly in love with God,” and went about all of Madrid proclaiming to all that each of them was called to be a saint, and should settle for nothing less.
Making ordinary work divine
Some of those who first heard it thought it was downright heretical. For although the call to universal sanctity comes directly from Christ—“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)—it was generally believed at the time that the vocation to holiness was inextricably linked to the life of a priest, a nun, or a monk, or perhaps a tertiary or a “brother.” Now this young priest was telling people to seek God not necessarily in churches, monasteries and “holy places,” where His sacramental presence may be encountered, but in their daily work, no matter how humble.
He called it the sanctification of ordinary work, through which one could sanctify oneself and others. He did not believe any Christian should settle for mediocrity—“Do not fly like a barnyard hen when you could soar like an eagle,” he writes in the spiritual classic The Way. Nor did he believe that any Christian should be like anyone or anything else but Christ—not just alter Christus (other Christs), but ipse Christus (Christ himself).
This was the spirit and the reality the young Father Escriva first saw in a vision while celebrating Mass in Our Lady of the Angels church in Madrid on the feast-day of the Guardian Angels on Oct. 2, 1928. This was to become Opus Dei, Latin for God’s Work.
Escriva wanted this message to reach everyone so that in the smallest group of Christians, at least one should become a canonizable saint, and the others holier than the saint. And he would like to see the message spread through the ministry of friendship, with one person sharing it with another, not necessarily because they shared the same beliefs or even principles but because they were friends. Just as Jesus is a friend.
There is no record of a hundred young men crashing into Opus Dei on the day the young Alvaro came. But he apparently caught Father Escriva’s attention and the spiritual attraction proved lasting. In 1935, the young Alvaro wrote a letter to Father Escriva saying he had come to understand and to love the spirit of the Work and would like to be admitted into it.
This was seven years after the founding of the Work. On June 25, 1944, he was ordained priest, together with the two other first priests of the Work. On Sept. 15, 1975, three months after the founder’s death on June 26, 1975, he was elected in a General Congress to succeed the Father. On Nov. 28, 1982, when St. John Paul II erected Opus Dei as a personal prelature, the Pope named him its first prelate. Eight years later, the Pope made him bishop, and on Dec. 7, 1990, at St. Peter’s, he was ordained as such.
No closer friend and collaborator
Until his death, Saint Escriva knew no closer and more faithful friend and collaborator than this new Blessed. During the Spanish Civil War when enemies of the Church could arrest or shoot clerics on sight, the founder and Don Alvaro shared the same life on the run, crossing the most forbidding borders and diplomatic zones in search of a safe refuge.
Don Alvaro had a few close calls. Once during a casual search, the militia found a small crucifix inside Don Alvaro’s pocket. This would have been sufficient reason for his arrest, but because he was forever praying, his guardian angel must have intervened. Again, in prison, a guard held a pistol to his head, but his complete serenity thwarted his would-be executioner.
Don Alvaro’s heroism grew even more after the Civil War. In Rome, it was to be tested daily while helping the founder find a suitable “juridical path” for Opus Dei, and run a rapidly expanding spiritual family with an abundance of prayer and cheerfulness, but without any money. Don Alvaro had to be in constant touch with officials of the Holy See as they searched for Opus Dei’s appropriate place in the Church. The term “personal prelature” came only after the founder’s death.
Together with Saint Escriva, Don Alvaro suffered the most from calumnies against the Work, from those who mistakenly feared it in the beginning and tried to destroy it before the highest Church authorities. Amid that “persecution” Blessed Alvaro stood by the founder’s side, steadily and faithfully as a “rock.” Precisely for such strength of character, the founder called him Saxum, the Latin word for “rock.”
Countless testimonials have been written about favors people have received through Blessed Alvaro’s intercession, even in places where The Work is not yet present. One miracle attributed to his intercession, however, is a cure, which medical science could not explain. In his book Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo, John F. Coverdale narrates the story:
“ Days after his birth, in August 2003, a Chilean boy named Jose Ignacio underwent surgery for an intestinal hernia. In the course of the operation, the surgeons discovered that he also had a serious heart defect. He was operated on for that two days later. The operation went well, but several days later the body went into cardiac arrest and suffered a major hemorrhage. The family prayed intensely to Don Alvaro. The doctors worked to revive him, but without success. After more than half an hour, they began to stop their efforts and told his mother he was dead. Suddenly Jose Ignacio’s heart began to beat more strongly and quickly, and soon it was functioning normally. Considering the circumstances, the doctors expected him to have a very serious brain damage, but he suffered no adverse consequences and is today a healthy boy living a normal life.”
Pope officially recognizes the miracle
On July 5, 2013, Pope Francis officially recognized Javier’s recovery as a miracle worked through Don Alvaro’s intercession. This cleared the way for his beatification.
But Blessed or no, those who had met Don Alvaro or been touched by his words and deeds never doubted they had a saint before them. My wife and I were privileged to meet him several times in Manila and in Rome, but each time seemed a completely unique and unrepeatable experience. He was holiness, goodness, humility and cheerfulness personified.
On his visit to the Philippines in 1987, he saw how the poverty in the city and countryside was destroying people’s lives, especially the young, who had no access to education or employment. He did not say much, but once he was back in Rome, he mobilized a team of experts to see what could be done.
Thus in 1990, the Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (CITE) was set up in Cebu, to offer technical and administrative training as well as formation in values and basic services to the children of the poor in the Visayas and Mindanao. And in 1989, the Developmental Advocacy for Women Volunteerism was set up in Metro Manila to provide moral, social and civic formation to adults from all walks of life.
CITE to date has produced at least 3000 graduates in mechanics, electronics and related courses, and gained international recognition as one of the best technical schools in the Philippines. And the Developmental Advocacy network of 1,500 volunteers continues to service at least 50,000 Metro Manilans.
What Blessed Alvaro did in the Philippines, he also did everywhere else. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo he set up the Monkole Medical Center in Kinshasa; in Rome, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and the Sedes Sapientiae International Ecclesiastical College; in Guatemala. the Utz Samaj Agricultural School and the Kinal Training Center; in Spain, the Bidasoa International Ecclesiastical College in Pamplona; in El Salvador, the Lamatepec School; in Brazil, the Pedreira Educational and Professional Center in Sau Paulo; in Mexico, the Monterrey Children’s City and the A. C. Educate; in Uruguay, the Association of Agricultural Family Schools.
Most of those who came to Madrid for the beatification, like those from the Philippines, were obviously members of the Work in their respective countries. But the greater numbers were not. For Blessed Alvaro’s reputation has spread far beyond the countries where his spiritual children are present, and there the thirst and hunger for God is no less real. It is my hope and my prayer that this latest gift from the Church has made us all hunger and thirst for God more deeply than ever before.