At the Mass in suffrage for Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Parish of Blessed Josemaría. Rome, March 23, 2002
My dear brothers and sisters:
One more year has gone by since my beloved predecessor, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, successor to Blessed Josemaría at the head of Opus Dei, left this world for heaven. It is the eighth anniversary of the day that (as those of us who personally witnessed his virtues are all convinced) was his «birthday» to the glory of his eternal reward. It is easy to imagine that this would be a particularly happy day for him, if one can speak in this way, since after having worked with such great effort, prudence and hope to bring forward Blessed Josemaría’s cause of canonization, he now sees it so close to becoming a reality. Reflecting upon the spirit with which Don Alvaro celebrated these grace-filled events, I am sure that, if he were here in the midst of us, he would ask us to view the canonization primarily as an occasion for a deep conversion, as a moment for a great step forward on the path to sanctity.
Today, too, the liturgy, in the immediate prelude to Holy Week, presents us with an urgent invitation to interior transformation. The Church urges us to take this step not with the threat of implacable punishment, but with the spur of hope, with the certain consolation of the infinite efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for us. With Jesus, of whom it was said: men scorn me, people despise me, we too dare to invoke God trustingly: Lord, come quickly to help me. We are convinced, as the opening prayer for today’s Mass says, that God always works to save us. Besides, during these days He fills us with the joy of a special gift of his grace: the gift, if we don’t obstinately refuse it, of an authentic change in our spiritual life. Because conversion means above all growing in love for God.
The Holy Father in his Lenten message asks us, with Christian optimism, to consider how the call to conversion, so characteristic of this liturgical period, should stem more from a knowledge of God’s unconditional mercy, a mercy that is true friendship, than from any confidence in human strength. «God,» the Pope writes, «has loved us with an infinite mercy, overlooking the grave rupture caused by sin in the human person. He has bent benevolently over our sickness, making of it the occasion for a new and more marvelous effusion of his love. The Church never ceases to proclaim the mystery of his infinite goodness, exalting God’s free choice and desire not to condemn man, but rather to admit him once more to communion with him.» And he concludes with words that can serve as a perennial source of consolation and stimulus for Christians: «Isn’t our whole life marked by God’s benevolence?» In short, the Holy Father exhorts us to meditate on the fact that God does not make his good will depend on our own qualities. He loves us unconditionally, in spite of our continual failings. The Church does not act like some misguided teachers who seek to console by minimizing the importance of the fault committed, which is actually a deception. True consolation is offered only if one has the strength to stir up a desire for reparation in the person who has committed an error. The person who recommends resignation to error assumes that others can’t change, that they can’t escape from their errors. In contrast, the spirit of Lent reminds us that, in God’s eyes, no desire for good goes unheeded.
How can one be sure of God’s unfailing help? We listened a short time ago, in the Gospel of the Mass, to the cruel proposal of the High Priest, Caiaphas: «You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.» A Christian should always remember that Christ died for all men and women, as the Evangelist points out when he affirms that those words, in spite of their malevolence, were in reality a prophetic anticipation of the infinite redemptive value of Christ’s death: He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. No one can ever erase from history what happened on Calvary, and which made friendship with God possible for us. That Love that led the Son of God to the Cross embraces every single human being of all times. This is the source of our confidence: the Cross has such great divine efficacy that all of us, despite the weight of our miseries, can look to it with hope for our salvation.
2. Conversion implies a decision to change interiorly, to make a more or less radical change of ideals, of values, of aspirations. Nevertheless, this does not refer only to a person’s interior world. Conversion also entails, inevitably, an effort to improve one’s behavior and habits, and even one’s character. All this does not happen automatically, as if by magic, once we have decided to change. Struggle is needed, a constant joyful, positive struggle against our own defects. Even though at first sight all this may seem difficult, experience teaches us that conversion cannot be seen as a leap into the dark. Rather, it is a return to our Father’s house. This is the meaning of the marvelous parable of the prodigal son, and also of those words from the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading: Behold I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land... They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions; but I will save them from all the backsliding in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people... They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt that I gave to my servant Jacob. They shall live in it.
3. After so many years at Bishop Alvaro del Portillo’s side, I can say that the most pronounced feature of his personality as pastor was precisely his capacity to infuse in those around him, in all circumstances, a hope stronger than any discouragement. He helped everyone to flee from resigning themselves to defeat, from being overwhelmed by the weight of their own weakness. Don Alvaro inherited from Blessed Josemaría a vivid sense of spiritual paternity, and, like a good father, he knew how to understand and love his children with their defects. When someone made a mistake, he did not consider him incapable of reform, but rather showed him that our Lord always gives us a new chance to try once more, to begin again. This fatherly spirit of his was so evident that many people, men and women, priests or laity (many have told me so), asked Don Alvaro to hear their confessions, opening their hearts to him without hesitation.
Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, is the beginning of Holy Week. The liturgy will begin the commemoration of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, the culmination of the mystery of our redemption. This is a good moment to apply to ourselves Saint Paul’s exhortation to the Romans: It is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. This is the moment for conversion. Blessed Josemaría Escrivá saw vividly the urgent need to live the fullness of love in every moment of our life. Tomorrow, he wrote, is the adverb of the defeated. On occasion I heard him say: I don’t believe in that expression «this is the last time»; the last time has already happened! He was referring to the attitude of those who, instead of cutting something off immediately when it is separating them from God or preventing them from getting as close to him as they should, say as an excuse: «This will be the last time.» Bishop del Portillo always exemplified the fortitude that, united to prudence, enables one to decide at the right moment, without hesitation. He is telling us now that the moment for conversion has come. And therefore he is inviting us to have recourse without delay, with the needed frequency and with absolute confidence, to the sacrament of Penance, where our heavenly Father, in his infinite mercy, always welcomes each of his children.
May our heavenly Mother help us all to accept this invitation to a new conversion, which will bring a deeper joy and peace to our soul. Amen.