At the Mass in suffrage for Bishop del Portillo, Basilica of St. Eugene, Rome (March 30, 2009)
At the Mass for Bishop
Álvaro del Portillo,
St. Eugene’s Basilica
My dear brothers and sisters:
1. With this celebration of the Eucharist, we are recalling today the fifteenth anniversary of the death, on March 23, 1994, of the Servant of God Bishop Álvaro del Portillo, Prelate of Opus Dei. We are doing so in the final days of Lent, as Holy Week is drawing near.
The opening prayer of the Mass sets before us the fruit we hope to obtain from this celebration. We ask God the Father that, with the Gift of his love, he fill us with all blessings; and we beseech him: “Help us to pass from our old life of sin to the new life of grace. Prepare us for the glory of your kingdom.” The Latin text reads: in novitatem a vetustate transire. In this transformation we find the deepest meaning, not only of the Paschal feast, but of our entire Christian life.
What is, in fact, true death—the death of the soul—if not being separated from God by sin? The texts from Sacred Scripture speak to us of this spiritual death, much more serious than bodily death. In the first reading God, through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, speaks to the chosen people, that is, to us as well, to tell us: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. This is not a reference to temporal life, but to the eternal Life that is the possession of himself. Therefore he promises to those who listen to him: I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live . . . then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it.
2. With these words God fills our hearts with confidence. The evils that we might experience during the course of our present life, including death, do not have the final word. The final word is that pronounced by the love of God our Father, manifested fully in Christ, his only-begotten Son, who took on our flesh, died and rose from the dead, to free us from our sins and give us eternal life.
Pope Benedict XVI has recalled this on various occasions, especially during this year dedicated to St. Paul. In the presence of the Cross—which today, as in the times of Paul, is seen by many as a scandal and madness—the Pope insists that “the Cross reveals ‘the power of God’ (cf. 1 Cor1: 24), which is different from human power; indeed, it reveals his love: ‘For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (ibid., v. 25). Centuries after Paul we see that in history it was the Cross that triumphed and not the wisdom that opposed it. The Crucified One is wisdom, for he truly shows who God is, that is, a force of love which went even as far as the Cross to save men and women. God uses ways and means that seem to us at first sight to be merely weakness. The Crucified One reveals on the one hand man’s frailty, and on the other, the true power of God, that is, the free gift of love: it is this totally gratuitous love that is true wisdom.”
These considerations are very opportune in remembering Don Álvaro, who loved God’s will with a persevering faithfulness, even when it brought suffering and obstacles. Yes, the sufferings of our present life are instruments which divine Wisdom makes use of to purify our souls, just as a sculptor brings forth from the shapeless rock the masterpiece that we can later admire.
In this regard, there come to mind some words of St. Josemaría, in whose school Don Álvaro learned to love the Cross. The founder of Opus Dei wrote: “The great Christian revolution has been to convert pain into fruitful suffering and to turn a bad thing into something good. We have deprived the devil of this weapon; and with it we can conquer eternity.” With the condition, however (we can add, explaining the words of St. Josemaría), that we know how to unite our sufferings, without exaggerating them, to Christ’s Cross, offering them with patience and love as reparation for our sins and for the sins of all mankind.
3. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. The words from the Psalm, which we have heard and meditated on many times, fill us with a firm optimism. Jesus is guiding and protecting us. How could we ever doubt his love, if he is the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for his sheep, for each one of us?
In regard to the narration of the resurrection of Lazarus, I would like to emphasize one aspect that awakened, both in St. Josemaría and in Don Álvaro, feelings of great tenderness and strong security: the tears of Christ, perfect God and perfect man, for his dead friend. So clear is our Lord’s affection that those who were present, sharing in his sisters’ sorrow, exclaimed: see how he loved him!
The founder of Opus Dei used this passage from the Gospel to stress how great Jesus’ love for us is. In The Way he wrote: “Jesus is your friend. The Friend. With a human heart, like yours. With loving eyes that wept for Lazarus. And he loves you as much as he loved Lazarus.”
Christ’s tears are for us a school where we can learn many things. In first place, they teach us to be men and women capable of being moved, who have compassion for others and seek to remedy their sufferings, to the extent possible, or at least try to console them. A sincere word of encouragement, of understanding, of solidarity, is always a true manifestation of Christian charity.
His tears also teach us that, when facing the death of our loved ones, it is natural to show our feelings, but without exaggerating them. A Christian knows that with bodily death vita mutatur, non tollitur; life is changed, not lost, as we say in the Preface of the Mass for the dead. There is always room for Christian joy: ours has to be a calm sorrow, tempered by faith in eternal life.
4. We have also heard in the Gospel narrative that Martha went out to meet our Lord. At first she complains to the Master about her brother’s death: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died! But she immediately adds: And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. We see a progressive growth in Martha’s faith when our Lord directs that decisive question to her: I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? At that moment, from Martha’s heart and soul there breaks forth a marvelous act of faith: She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
Let us ask Jesus to grant us a similar faith. With this faith, united to hope and love, we will be in a position to carry out wonders in our family, in our workplace, and with our friends, and we will bring many people to know and love our Lord. Among the various works of mercy, I would like to mention one that Don Álvaro especially loved: bringing others to the sacrament of Penance. This is the best way to help them prepare themselves very well for the feast of Easter.
The Gospel passage concludes with Lazarus’ resurrection. I would like to cite here some other words of St. Josemaría that we can apply to our own life and also share with others, if we should ever fail to behave as good sons and daughters of God: “Never despair. Lazarus was dead and decaying: ‘By this time there will be an odor, for he has been buried four days,’ Martha says to Jesus. If you hear God’s inspiration and follow it—‘Lazarus, come forth!’—you will come back to Life.”
Let us ask the Blessed Virgin, our Mother, to obtain for us the grace of reaching Easter well prepared, full of contrition for our sins and of hope for the great victory won by Christ. This will also be a very good way to remember Bishop Álvaro del Portillo on this anniversary. And, as is only logical, let us pray especially for the Roman Pontiff and for all those who assist him in governing the Church. May the Pope feel sustained by our prayer and our filial love. Amen.