Address at the International Congress on “St. Josemaría and Theological Thought” (November 14, 2013)
Fifty Years After Vatican II: the Contribution of St. Josemaría
In the twentieth century as well, the Holy Spirit inspired one of the great renewals that shine forth like stars in the Church’s two thousand year history—a deep spiritual, intellectual and theological growth. This renewal stemmed from the intertwining of various charisms and currents of thought, and the response by Christians to the pastoral challenges presented by the modern world. It is sufficient to recall figures such as, for example, Cardinal Joseph Cardjin, Blessed Columba Marmion, and Fr. Paul Couturier, or the ecumenical and liturgical movements.
Looking back on these decades we find many saints, both women and men, who by their message and pastoral activity can be seen as gifts from God to shed light on the Church’s path and life. St. Josemaría Escrivá is one of these saints. The light that he received from God in Madrid, on October 2, 1928, was a divine intervention to help build up of the Body of Christ, which St. Paul spoke of in his Letter to the Ephesians (see Eph 4:13 and 15f). The seeds of spiritual and theological renweal that had arisen and taken root in the previous years were the foundation that inspired, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the writing of the magisterial documents at Vatican II and the guidelines given for spreading the faith in today’s world. The Council was, undoubtedly, a great gift from God to his Church at the end of the second millennium.
As we know, from 1928 on St. Josemaría dedicated himself generously to spreading the divine message that the Holy Spirit had entrusted to him, and that influenced the Second Vatican Council. Today, now that fifty years have gone by since the Council, that message continues to offer light to the Church, together with the light of so many other ancient and modern saints, so that the People of God may fully carry out the mission Christ entrusted to it. This was emphasized by Blessed John Paul II in 1993, a year after the beatification of the founder of Opus Dei. Recalling what the Council had reaffirmed about the service of the Church to the redemption, in all dimensions of human life, he added: “the message of Blessed Josemaría . . . is one of the most significant charismatic impulses in this direction.”
Twenty years have gone by since John Paul II’s address, and we continue looking at the Council and at St. Josemaría Escrivá as two great gifts from God to the Church. This is true not only for the twentieth century but also for the present moment, since by their mutual relationship and their diversity they contribute every day to making Christ more present in the life of Christians in the world. The diversity is evident. The Council and the documents approved by the Council are a special manifestation of the Church’s magisterium. The teaching of a saint is, in contrast, a personal testimony of faith, hope and charity deeply lived throughout the whole of a life, normally extensive and varied. The Council, like every act of the Magisterium assisted by the Holy Spirit, transcends its time. Nor, in an analogous way, is the influence of the saints exhausted by the events they lived through.
In a special way, the influence of St. Josemaría, as recalled by Bishop del Portillo, my beloved predecessor, is not confined to the years of his life or to his contribution to the development of Vatican II, but it continues to be effective in our own day. I will not endeavor now to try to give an overview of the influence of the spirit of Opus Dei on the life of the Church—let alone try to look into the future. I will simply try to describe, insofar as possible, the contribution of St. Josemaría and of Opus Dei to the Conciliar Assembly and to the immediate reception of the magisterial documents.
First I would like to offer two considerations that can help situate our topic properly in the Church’s history and life.
The first refers to the evaluation of a saint’s contribution to the teaching of an ecumenical council or, more generally, to the development of the magisterium and of Christian thought. There have been no lack of studies, and others will follow in the future, that examine how much a council owes to a saint, to a theologian, to a pastor, or to a particular school of thought. Pope Paul VI, speaking of Vatican II, presented it as “the hour of Newman.” In the future, the development of theological and historical studies will be able to specify more exactly the extent of the English Cardinal’s influence on that Council, as well as the eventual influence of other saints from the modern or contemporary era.
In our case we need to keep in mind that, when Blessed John XXIII announced the convocation of the Council, the founder of Opus Dei was already a mature person, with many years of experience in directing Opus Dei, which had seen—thanks be to God—a great development in the years following the Second World War. Thus his contribution cannot be reduced to a simple comparison of his writings with the Conciliar texts. Rather we need to consider other sources and other paths. His spirit entered the Council through his conversations with the Conciliar Fathers, which I can personally testify to by my constant presence at his side during those years. And also, or above all, thanks to the lives of so many faithful of Opus Dei, who made present, in the various countries in which they lived and worked, a spirit capable of fostering holiness in the middle of the world, responding to the challenges that Christians encounter on their path.
The second consideration refers to the development of Vatican II and the role the founder of Opus Dei played there. St. Josemaría was not a Council Father. Thus his situation was quite different than, for example, that of Blessed John Paul II, who as auxiliary bishop of Krakow intervened directly in the Council. Nevertheless, St. Josemaria had a deep, although indirect, influence on Vatican II in all its stages: a) in the years previous to the Council, he was a precursor through his preaching and priestly work; b) during the Council he had frequent personal contact in Rome with those who intervened drirectly in the Council session; c) and after the Council, he welcomed and applied the Conciliar documents in the life of Opus Dei.
These considerations can serve as a framework for this presentation. First, we will look at St. Josemaría Escrivá’s cntribution during the preparatory and ante-preparatory phase of Vatican II. I will then consider his activity while the sessions were underway, and, finally, examine how he guided and fostered the reception of the Council’s teachings.
1. Between the announcement and the inauguration of Vatican II
Right from the moment Blessed John XXIII convoked the ecumenical council, St. Josemaria welcomed it, seeing it as an event destined to contribute greatly to the good of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As a person with a deep knowledge of history, he also knew that while councils bring great benefits to the Church, there is also the danger that they can lead to one-sided or even mistaken interpretations, especially given the ideological divisions found in today’s world. Well aware of the danger of instrumentalizing the Council in the service of one’s own ideas, he adhered strongly to the light of faith. Without being naive, he had no fear of the renewal and reforms that would come about over time, in accord with John XXIII’s desires.
Living very close to St. Josemaría during those years, I saw his great supernatural hope in God’s action, which through the Council would do good to the whole Church, giving a renewed impulse to its mission in the world. Among other benefits, he hoped that the Council would emphasize the universal call to sanctity and apostolate, the vocation and mission of the laity, as well as a specific lay spirituality. And he always kept alive his ardent desire to find a satisfactory solution to the juridical and institutional situation of Opus Dei in the Church. On this specific topic, an abundant bibliography is already available.
A few months before the opening of the Council, St. Josemaría wrote to the people God had entrusted to him:
“In these preliminary phases of the upcoming Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (for which all of us, in fervent union of intentions with our Holy Father John XXIII, are beseeching the special help of the Holy Spirit and offering daily mortifications), particular attention is being paid to the topic of the laity: to their spirituality and apostolic mission.
“If you could only see how much joy it gives me to know that the Council is going to concern itself with matters that have filled our life since 1928! I give thanks to God our Lord for the part that the Work has played (through its life, its spirituality, its apostolates), together with other highly meritorious associations of the faithful, in helping foster this theological deepening, which undoubtedly will do great good to the Church.”
Some months before the letter we just cited, but after Pope John XXIII’s announcement of the Council, the founder of Opus Dei had written to all the faithful of Opus Dei, present at that time in almost fifty countries, to ask them to offer special prayers and sacrifices for the success of the future Assembly. St. Josemaría knew very well that apostolic initiatives and ecclesial events give lasting fruit when they are carried out in union with the One who is the Giver of grace and of life, and in communion with the Roman Pontiff. After an audience that Pope John XXIII granted him on June 27, 1962, he wrote:
“When the Holy Father announced the Ecumenical Council, I wrote to all of you (my daughters and sons) about the prayer and mortification . . . that you should offer to our Lord for it. Now, after this audience, my desire is that you redouble these prayers, with more generosity and voluntary penances, and that you offer for this intention many hours of your daily work as well, wherever your work takes place: at the university, in a factory, on a farm, in public service or in studying for your profession, in the domestic administration of our centers, or in the heart of your families: do everything in union with God, for the success of this great initiative that is the Second Vatican Council. I know that this is our Holy Father’s great intention, and I would like that we too do what we can, in our own apparently small environment, to contribute to it through our prayer, penance and sanctified and sanctifying work.”
Besides having recourse to the supernatural means, the founder of Opus Dei strove to contribute to the success of the great Conciliar event through his own encouragement and personal work. As is well known, Pope John XXIII set up in 1959 an ante-preparatory commission presided over by Cardinal Domenico Tardini, Secretary of State, with the task of collecting proposals about the questions the future Council would need to study. I recall that the Cardinal’s letter to all ecclesiastical and academic authorities for help in this effort, moved St. Josemaría to organize in Villa Tevere, the central headquarters of Opus Dei, a working team to prepare, under his direction, topics and suggestions that could then be sent to the various commissions that were being created. He also advised all his children to make themselves available for whatever might be asked of them and, if possible, to offer ideas and suggestions in the gatherings organized for this purpose in the particular Churches.
The Holy See received a large number of responses coming from bishops, universities and other institutes of studies. The following year, the Supreme Pontiff opened the preparatory phase of the Council, with the “Motu Proprio” Superno Dei nutu dated June 5, 1960, by which he instituted the various commissions responsible for the preparation of the working plans. At the end of the month, on June 27, St. Josemaría had an interview with Cardinal Tardini; their conversation included, among other topics, preparations for the upcoming Assembly. The Cardinal asked him to send a list of members of the Work who might be able to asssit in the work of the preparatory commissions.
On the following day Msgr. Escrivá answered him with a letter in which he listed twelve names, the most notable being that of Don Alvaro del Portillo, at that time Secretary General of Opus Dei, and therefore his closest co-worker. St. Josemaría offered Don Alvaro’s name despite realizing that this would inevitably mean much more work for himself if his suggestion was accepted. A few days later, on July 4, a letter from the Central Commission, signed by Msgr. Pericle Felici, thanked him for the names.
This is how some people from Opus Dei came to take part in the preparatory phase of the Council. Don Alvaro was appointed secretary of the Commission on the Laity and a member of another Conciliar commission. St. Josemaría took care to ensure that Don Alvaro would have adequate assistance from other members of Opus Dei, specialists in theology, canon law and philosophy. As secretary of the De Laicis Commission, Don Alvaro helped produce the material to be provided to the Council Fathers, after adding suggestions and ideas from other people. All that he had heard and lived alongside St. Josemaría was the source of inspiration for his work in preparing for he Council.
St. Josemaría was happy to do all he could to assist the Council and would gladly have participated in the Conciliar meetings, despite his heavy commitments in governing Opus Dei. But he realized that his participation would be viewed as that of someone intervening as the President General of a Secular Institute. This could have been interpreted as a tacit acceptance of the canonical figure of secular institute that he, as many people knew, did not consider adequate for Opus Dei’s real nature. Precisely for this reason, his active participation, as a Council Father or equivalent, could have been used as a fact, or at least a precedent, that would be unfavorable for the future possible revision of Opus Dei’s canonical framework. To avoid placing in danger the full recognition of the foundational charism of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría decided to make known to the Holy See beforehand that he preferred not to take an active part in the sessions. He explained the reasons for his decision, which were readily understood.
Given these circumstances, Msgr. Capovilla, interpreting the wishes of John XXIIII, communicated to him that, if he so desired, he could be present in the hall at least as a Conciliar peritus or expert. St. Josemaría reiterated his availability, but explained the reasons that led him to consider it more suitable to also refuse this possibility: On the one hand, he would not have been able to dedicate the time needed for that work. On the other hand, given that some of his sons had already been named as Council Fathers, his role as simply a peritus would have seemed quite strange. In addition, if he had accepted the appointment as a peritus, some people might have been able to say that his intention was to act “behind the scenes” or with subterfuge. While others, who didn’t know all the facts, might have been led to conclude that the importance of Opus Dei in the life of the Church was very negligible. St. Josemaría’s negative reply was, therefore, a manifestation of great prudence, to avoid having the Holy See put in a bad light. In any case, in his reply St. Josemaría made clear that he would accept the Pope’s decision.
The Pope’s desire, shared by various people in the Roman Curia, that St. Josemaría participate in a direct way in the Council’s work was well known. His contribution was sought not only because of his experience in the apostolate of the laity, in fostering holiness in ordinary work and in deepening the Church’s influence on the modern world, but also in the sphere of ecumenism, since Opus Dei had begun to admit non-Catholics and even non-Christians as Cooperators many years earlier. Thus a clear dilemma was presented. On one hand, the benefit to be gained from St. Josemaría’s participation in the work of the Council was clear; but on the other hand, there was as yet no adequate canonical definition of Opus Dei that could justify his presence in the Council Hall, without prejudicing the later steps of its canonical path. How could this dilemma be solved? In the end, the Holy Spirit provided a solution that, as we shall see, enabled St. Josemaría’s ideas, suggestions and experience to reach the Council Fathers through his personal meetings with them, even though he was not present in the Council Hall.
2. St. Josemaría’s contribution throughout the Council’s sessions
Pope John XXIII inaugurated the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. He encouraged the Assembly to have a pastoral focus, namely, to pass on the revealed truth as the Church’s Traditin has understood it, but formulated in a way that is more suitable and understandable for people today. This pastoral orientation was shared by St. Josemaría, as I had occasion to hear him say, because it stressed the decisive importance of apostolic action. Nevertheless, St. Josemaría was well aware of the imposing theological, philosophical and ideological problems present in our culture today. Therefore he foresaw that, sooner or later, the inevitable need would arise to make some doctrinal declarations, as in fact was the case in the Conciliar documents, and even more so in the subsequent pontifical magisterium.
After the Council began, with the encouragement of the Vatican II presidency and secretariat, St. Josemaría agreed to meet with the Conciliar Fathers and offer them material to study and work on, within the limits of secrecy of office. His commitment to assist the Conciliar Assembly was shown, in first place, by the help, advice and encouragement he gave to three Conciliar fathers who were members of Opus Dei: Bishop Ignacio de Orbegozo and Bishop Luis Sanchez-Moreno, both Peruvian bishops, and, Bishop Alberto Cosme do Amaral, who, from the third Council session on, was auxiliary bishop of Porto, in Portugal, and who for the previous several years had been a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.
But his help and advice principally reached the Council through the work of Don Alvaro del Portillo, who in the preparatory phase had been secretary of the De Laicis Commission. In the new plan approved by the Council in the first weeks of October, Don Alvaro was named secretary of the Commission for the Discipline of the Clergy and the Christian People, besides being a consultor for other Conciliar commissions. I can personally testify that Don Alvaro was one of the persons who lived with the greatest fidelity the message that God had entrusted to St. Josemaría in 1928, and who passed it on integrally. Thus through Don Alvaro’s personal dealings with the Council Fathers, St. Josemaría’s contribution to the Council reached far beyond what one can find in the documents alone. As Don Alvaro himself said some years later, when the Conciliar texts were approved it would have been only right to send congratulations to the founder of Opus Dei, since what he had taught and lived since 1928 had now been proclaimed solemnly by the Church’s Magisterium.
In his work for the Council, Don Alvaro relied on the assistance of Julián Herranz, now a cardinal, who was then assistant secretary of the same commission; and also of other specialists in canon law: Jose Luis Gutiérrez, Amadeo de Fuenmayor, Xavier de Ayala, and Prof. Pedro Lombardía, as well as theologians such as Giuseppe Molteni and Pedro Rodríguez. All of these were members of Opus Dei. Finally, among members of Opus Dei working as periti was Fr. Salvador Canals.
During those years St. Josemaría had frequent contact with the members of Opus Dei who intervened in the Conciliar Hall, sometimes even daily, especially with those living in Villa Tevere. He dedicated his time generously to listening to their comments and answering their questions. He was also concerned about their rest and saw to it that they could work quietly without distractions or interruptions.
St. Josemaría’s contact with people taking part in the Council was not limited to the few Conciliar Fathers who were members of Opus Dei. Don Alvaro, along with others in the Church, wanted to enable many Council Fathers to meet St. Josemaría, so that they could take advantage of his experience in pastoral care of the laity and in fostering holiness in the world. Among the Fathers who frequently visited St. Josemaría, there were naturally several Spanish prelates who had known him for some time, including Bishop José Maria García Lahiguera, Archbishop Casimiro Morcillo (who was the Vice-President of the Presidential Commission of the Council), Bishop Juan Hervás, and Cardinal José Maria Bueno Monreal. Other prelates, both from Spain and other countries, had never met him but were very aware of the importance of sounding him out on topics related to the theology of the laity, the evangelization of society, and the relationship of the Church to the modern world. Some of these prelates, finally, got to know him through other Fathers and periti and ecclesiastical authorities during the years of the Council.
At Villa Tevere, where St. Josemaría was living, a constant coming and going of prelates from various countries and with quite varied pastoral experiences took place. All of them wanted to get his advice and speak with him: cardinals such as Siri, Lercaro, Döpfner, Marty, König, Antoniutti and Ciriaci; bishops such as Marc-Armand Lallier, George Andrew Beck, Jean-Julien Weber, and Léon-Arthur-Auguste Elchinger; periti such as William Onclin and Charles Moeller; theologians such as Carlo Colombo.
Other bishops visiting him included Wheeler, Schmitt, and various bishops from France; also cardinals and bishops such as Dario Miranda, Marella, López Ortiz, Castán, Modrego, Marcelo Gonzalez, Deskur, Polschneider, Suquia, etc.
I can attest to the fact that during those years several hundred prelates, periti and observers visited St. Josemaría, drawn not only by his pastoral experience in many of the topics being debated in the Conciliar Hall, but also by his moral authority, thanks to the reputation for holiness that he already enjoyed then. And sometimes he himself went to visit prelates or periti, and he also had an opportunity to visit the Conciliar Hall, but not when it was in use by the general congregations.
The impression that these prelates received from their interviews, as well as the spiritual joy they carried with them after a visit to St. Josemaría Escrivá, cannot be translated into words, as frequently happens in the life of the spirit. I was a witness to the reactions of those invited and saw the affection and gratitude of many of them after St. Josemaria’s death in the letters of sympathy sent to my predecessor, Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo, and in the “postulatory” letters with which they asked the Holy Father Paul VI that the Cause of beatification and canonization of the founder of Opus Dei be opened when it was deemed suitable.
I would like to cite here, succinctly, four testimonies, to help begin to grasp the impact that he had. The first is that of Bishop Juan Hervás, at that time bishop of Ciudad Real. He states that St. Josemaria’s influence on the Council Fathers who went to visit him was exercised principally thanks to his moral authority which, without imposing anything on anyone, and respecting everyone’s freedom, supported the work of the Council, which often was becoming more and more difficult because of the discussions in the Council Hall and the pressure from the media. Regarding those visits the Prelate recalled, “I always left encouraged to work more and better and to take a more active part in the Conciliar tasks falling to my competence.”
The second testimony is from Most Rev. Paul-Joseph Schmitt, bishop of Metz: “I found in him a person extraordinarily aware of and close to the problems of his contemporaries. None of the great topics that the Council was leading us to consider in depth was unfamiliar to him. He was concerned equally about the future of the world and the future of the Church. He was perfectly aware the gravity of what was involved and showed a deep conviction that we couldn’t limit ourselves to merely a superficial ‘touch up.’ Reforming the structures alone seemed insufficient to him. He thought that only a return to the sources of the faith would allow the Church to fulfill its mission in the world.”
The third testimony comes from Most Rev. Abilio del Campo y de la Barcena, bishop of Calahorra, La Calzada and Logroño. He testifies to his sincere conviction regarding the decisive contribution made by St. Josemaría in clarifying various points on which “the lights that he had received from God and his extraordinary pastoral experience in the world of work were almost indispensable. Many Council Fathers, taking advantage of their friendship with him, were able to avail themselves of his wise counsel.”
The final testimony I will mention is from François Marty, then archbishop of Rheims, who later became Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. He says that “a period of conversation with him felt like a period of prayer. One could see that he lived the spirit of contemplation in the midst of the world that he never ceased to preach from 1928 on, which in no way diminished his good humor and affectionate charity.”
These recollections give us a brief sketch of the human, spiritual, theological and pastoral profile of St. Josemaría and show us that the founder of Opus Dei was following the Council’s activities very closely. They also make clear that many Council Fathers had a clear awareness that in their meetings with him they had received not only words of encouragement and clarifications on certain questions, but also the invitation to draw closer to God and to love his will.
As the work of the Council progressed, the conviction was growing that it was going to require more time than that foreseen at the start. In fact, John XXIII did not live to see the second session of the Council, since in May 1963 he became gravely ill. St. Josemaría followed closely the course of the Pontiff’s sickness through Archbishop Dell’Acqua, then “Sustituto” or “Vice-Secretary” of State for the Vatican, with whom he had a friendly and fraternal relationship. The news of the Pope’s suffering hurt him deeply, as he said later. When he received the news of the death of the Holy Father, St. Josemaría knelt and prayed, deeply moved, for the eternal rest of his soul, and invited us to pray from that very moment for the future Pope. On June 21, 1963, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, one of the first friendly faces St. Josemaría had encountered on his arrival in Rome, in 1946, was elected to the See of Peter. Cardinal Montini took the name of Paul VI and, soon after the election, declared that the Council would continue after the summer.
St. Josemaría lived through the whole Conciliar period with an intertwining of joys and sorrows. One of his first joys was when Pope John XXIII approved the introduction of St Joseph into the Roman Canon of the Mass. It seemed to him a wonderful gesture to emphasize the role of St. Joseph as patron of the universal Church, which would also help show the supernatural value of a normal life of work, in dialogue with God, in the midst of the world. That measure, by the way, was recently reaffirmed by Pope Francis, who included the name of the Holy Patriarch in the other Eucharistic Prayers.
For St. Josemaria it was a motive of special joy that, as the various decrees, declarations and constitutions were approved, he found in them the themes he had been preaching on since 1928. He pointed to two especially important topics that reflected the spirit of Opus Dei: the universal call to holiness and apostolate, principally present in chapters two and five of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium; and the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world, present in that same Constitution, but also in other documents, such as the Constitution Gaudium et Spes and the Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem.
Obviously these documents were the fruit of a great variety of contributions, but I can testify that in St. Josemaría’s meetings with hundreds of Council Fathers, these topics were spoken of extensively, especially the sanctification of work, a decisive factor for authentic Christian presence in the world. Forty years earlier he had already expressed the desire that the vocation of Christians in the middle of the world be given the greatest possible emphasis, in full accord with the ethical demands of an upright conscience and of God’s salvific plan. It was a matter, in other words, of emphasizing the importance of striving for sanctity and seeking to further the sanctification of others.
Since it is impossible here to comment on all the topics dealt with at the Council that were also present in the preaching and in the message of St. Josemaría, I will limit myself to listing them briefly: the Holy Mass, seen as the center and root of our spiritual life and mission; the possibility and the suitability of the cooperation of our non-Catholic and even non-Christian brethren in activities organized by the Catholic faithful; the importance of unity of life, which refuses to admit a separation between prayer and work; the union between baptismal consecration and the mission of the Christian and the priest. I also have to mention here St. Josemaría’s contribution towards the recognition of the pastoral dynamism of the Church’s hierarchical structure, dealt with in the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, which led, among other things, to the definitive canonical configuration of Opus Dei as a personal prelature. All of the Council’s discussions and votes on these topics moved St. Josemaría to offer a continual act of thanksgiving to God.
So there many joys, but also abundant sorrows. I recall that in the first Conciliar session, or perhaps at the beginning of the second, St. Josemaría mentioned some historians who pointed to the Councils as usually being preceded or followed by eras in which good desires, expressions of the Church’s light and vitality, were also mixed with doubts, mistaken projects and pretentious claims. This, he said, is what is also happening now. He was not the only one who thought that way. Moreover, not only historians, but also some great figures in the Church’s life (for example Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman) had pointed to the spread of intrigues and biased readings in contexts similar to that of Vatican II. But this reality reveals only the human dimension, all too human, present in any reunion and also, unfortunately, in ecumenical councils.
To situate historically the cultural environment found during the time of Vatican II, it would be useful to mention two important factors. First, as we said earlier, a deep ideological and philosophical divide was becoming apparent in society. In addition, although civil authorities in the twentieth century no longer had the same possibility of exerting pressure on Councils as in the past, nevertheless pressure of a different nature, but no less powerful, had now become possible: that exercised by the modern means of communication. The convoking of the Council and its development had awakened in public opinion a great interest in the Church’s life. However this interest, good in itself, was distorted by some of the media, by spreading an interpretation that was completely unsuitable to the Church’s reality, with biased commentaries about the debates and discussions being held by the Council.
St. Josemaría had a great appreciation for the means of communication. As early as the fifties he had encouraged the opening of a school of journalism at the University of Navarra. But he was also very aware of the possibility of employing the media to exert pressure on public opinion, and thereby also on the work of the Council Fathers. The Fathers’ arguments were often presented by the media in a simplistic way, giving a confused interpretation of complex issues and communicating a deformed image of the Council’s work. The inevitable result was the conviction that a fierce struggle was taking place between defenders of the “old” order and the “new,” or that its decisions were the result of strategies and arguments that often were not even Christian.
Right from the Council’s start, a number of people warned of the danger of creating two “councils,” a danger that became ever more apparent as its work progressed. One Council was that being held inside the Vatican Basilica, where differences of opinion were certainly voiced, but always within a context of communion. While the other “council,” the product of media manipulation, presented the Council’s work as an opportunity to bring about a profound change in the Church, to the point of altering its true essence.
Paul VI was aware of this danger and expressed his concern on a number of occasions. Something similar was true of St. Josemaría’s reaction. He reaffirmed his faith in the assistance provided to the Church by the Holy Spirit, with the conviction that God would intervene (as he frequently said) to ensure that in the texts and final guidelines, despite all the momentary mishaps suffered in the process, the truth of the Gospel would be clarified and the good of the Church fostered. His reaction, therefore, was to pray and offer mortifications, and to ask many other people to do so for the Council’s successful outcome.
As the good shepherd for Opus Dei, he tried to help its members distinguish between being open to the Council’s teachings from being dragged along by the climate of confusion created by the media and by some intellectuals. In the summer of 1964, after the publication of Paul VI’s first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, where the Pope pointed to dialogue as a path for furthering the evangelization of the world, he wrote in a tone that combined apostolic zeal with radical fidelity to the faith:
“The dialogue of Christians, and specifically ecumenical dialogue, is a demand that flows from the very nature of the Church, one, holy, and catholic. Dialogue has always existed and will always exist where zeal for souls is found. Therefore I am convinced that the Ecumenical Council being celebrated, for which I have prayed so much and asked others to pray for, will give it new vigor, greater impetus.
“The dynamism of these notes of the true Church, the perennial vitality of its divine life, demands of all Catholics a noble openness to communication with all men and women. The need for dialogue is, then, not simply a demand of a particular time and set of circumstances.”
This pastoral concern had various manifestations. First, he strove to correct false information or ambiguities, such as for example those surrounding the concepts of “openness to the world” and “aggiornamento or bringing up to date.” These concepts were sometimes interpreted as an invitation to break with Christian tradition, and not as an internal development that remained faithful to Christ’s word and will. In addition, he sought to promote knowledge and study of the Conciliar documents when they were approved and published. He encouraged the faithful of Opus Dei who worked in the means of communication to provide truthful information about Vatican II, guided by love for the Church. He wanted the world of the media, as well as the work of philosophers and theologians, to be in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s action assisting the Council.
In a context rich in lights and shadows, St. Josemaría saw the damage that the fiercely contrasting interpretations could have on the sense of doctrinal and pastoral unity, essential for the Church’s life. He strove with all his strength to stress the positive and perennial value of the Church’s patrimony. And in particular he prayed and had others pray a lot that the Council would both deepen the doctrine regarding the principal of collegiality, as well as clearly reaffirm the Pope’s authority.
Moreover, although the Council proceeded rapidly in its work, there was no lack of difficulties and the debates were at times quite sharp. This situation, given the way the media presented the Council’s work, caused confusion among the faithful. Paul VI suffered greatly owing to the harshness in the climate of work and also because some people were trying to instrumentalize the Council for ends not in accord with its true purpose. All of this led the Pope to conclude that it would be good to accelerate its pace, and seek a rapid conclusion. St. Josemaría was aware of this situation through Bishop Angelo Dell’Acqua, “Sustituto” of the Secretariat of State, a good friend of his whom he saw frequently. The Holy Father knew about and approved of this exchange of information; he saw it as an informal way to get to know the views of someone he considered very close to God and rich in pastoral and ecclesial experience.
During this period, in the month of April 1964, the founder of Opus Dei wrote a filial letter to Paul VI telling him: “All of Opus Dei is praying a great deal for your august and most beloved person and for your intentions, so that the present Council may soon come to an end, and for the huge work that will need to be done in the post-conciliar period. Above all we are praying that the Roman Pontiff’s authority may never be conditioned by anything or anyone, and that thus the juridical norms may be safeguarded that regulate, gently and forcefully, the path by which sound doctrine reaches all the faithful.”
Paul VI’s desire to bring the Council to an end became a reality on December 8, 1965. In the texts approved there, which are very rich and profound, the Church’s teaching is transmitted in a language drawing deeply on the Scriptures and the liturgy. Among other central points of the Christian message, the Council proclaimed in a solemn way the universal call to holiness and the apostolic mission of the laity, fully entitled members of the Church and called by divine vocation to help perfect God’s creation. In 1969, for the fourth anniversary of the completion of the Council’s work, Paul VI pointed to the importance of these teachings: “the Second Vatican Council . . . again and again called all the faithful, of whatever condition or place in society, to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity; this exhortation to holiness may be considered the most characteristic element of the Council’s teaching, and its final goal.”
I want to stress once again that these were precisely the issues that St. Josemaría had preached about since 1928, when many still saw the role of the laity as a longa manus of the hierarchy, and the call to holiness as a goal attainable only by those who entered the ministerial priesthood or the religious life. In 1979 Blessed John Paul II stated in a homily that Msgr. Escrivá had been “a precursor of the theology of the laity that later characterized the Church of the Council and the post-Council.” This was not an isolated judgment. Many Conciliar Fathers, as well as other ecclesiastical figures, recognized that St. Josemaria had been a precursor of Vatican II in topics central to the Conciliar magisterium.
I would like to conclude this section with a quotation—a bit long—that sums up St. Josemaría’s feelings during the years of the Council. It is from a letter addressed to the faithful of Opus Dei shortly before the end of the Council:
“My daughters and sons, you know the love with which I have followed the work of the Council during these years, cooperating with my prayer and, on more than one occasion, with my personal work. You also know of my desire to be, and that you be, faithful to the decisions of the Church’s hierarchy even in the smallest details, acting not only as subjects of an authority but with the piety of children, with the affection of those who see themselves as, and are, members of the Body of Christ.
“Nor have I hidden my sorrow at the conduct of those who have not viewed the Counsel as a solemn act in the life of the Church, and as a manifestation of the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit, but as an opportunity for personal affirmation, to give vent to their own opinions or, even worse, to harm the Church.
“The Council is coming to an end. It has been announced several times that this will be the last session. When the letter I am writing you reaches your hands, the post-conciliar period will have begun. And my heart trembles to think that this could be the occasion for new wounds in the body of the Church.
“The years following a Council are always important years, which demand docility in applying the decisions taken, along with firmness in the faith, supernatural spirit, love for God and his Church, and fidelity to the Roman Pontiff.”
3. The contribution of St. Josemaría to the reception of Vatican II
Blessed John Henry Newman stated that studying the history of the Councils of antiquity had led him to conclude that after each council there had been, with few exceptions, great confusion in the Church’s life. The fulfillment of the founder of Opus Dei’s fear expressed in the letter just cited from October 24, 1965, points to the truth of Newman’s insight.
The period right after the Council’s close was marked by the spread of publications, translations and commentaries on the Conciliar texts, as well as the first documents for applying its conclusions. At first sight its acceptance was very positive. But the horizon was clouded by the appearance of polemical writings and the spread of behavior foreign to the wishes of the Council and the Pope.
Two rigid and opposed postures came to the fore. On the one hand, starting with a mistaken concept of tradition, some people showed a stubborn resistance to the teachings of the Council. On the other, there were those who desired a radical reform of the Church and sought to pressure the bishops and the Roman Pontiff himself, presenting as proposals aimed at pastoral renovation initiatives that in fact led to subjectivism in the faith. According to the view of an eminent expert in the history of the Councils, Hubert Jedin, “the crisis arose because some people no longer wanted simply to put the Council into practice, but rather to use it as an opening for radical renovations, which in reality left behind the Council’s decrees.” Warnings about the reality of the crisis, and also the pastoral and disciplinary measures adopted by the ecclesiastical authorities, were quite often presented as obstacles to legitimate freedom, or as reactionary postures hostile to progress in the Church.
All of this led to defections from the priesthood and consecrated life, and to confusion among the faithful. The situation became so serious that Paul VI had to intervene several times to explain how Vatican II should be interpreted. In 1966 he said: “the Council is of value insofar as it continues the life of the Church; it does not interrupt it, deform it, or invent it. Rather it confirms that life, develops it, perfects it, and ‘updates’ it.” In a text from the same year he added: “The Council’s teachings do not provide a complete and organic system of Catholic doctrine; this doctrine is much more extensive, as all know, and the Council did not put it up for discussion or modify it substantially . . . We must not separate the teachings of the Council from the Church’s doctrinal patrimony, but rather see how they fit into it, are consistent with it, and provide it with testimony, growth, explanation, application.” In the following years his interventions became quite frequent and increasingly filled with sorrow, even taking on dramatic tones.
The fact that this sad situation is already quite well known makes it unnecessary to cite other texts from the Roman Pontiff here. However, we would like to mention just one of them, dated June 23, 1972, in which Paul VI emphasizes once again that the confusion and the crisis should be attributed to “a false and arbitrary interpretation of the Council, which seeks to break with the Church’s tradition, including its doctrine, in order to reject the pre-Conciliar Church and arbitrarily devise a ‘new’ Church, radically ‘reinvented,’ as it were, in its structure, dogma, morality and laws.”
During that time St. Josemaría poured himself out in living a full fidelity to Christ and the Church. He separated himself clearly and decisively from those who rejected the Council and who refused to agree to all, or at least some, of its documents. And he denounced energetically the posture of those who denied that the Council had succeeded in completing the necessary reform of the Church, and who let themselves be guided by the so-called “spirit of the Council,” considering themselves authorized to go beyond the Conciliar documents, or even to ask for a new Council.
St. Josemaría accepted with a living faith all of Vatican II’s teachings. He read and meditated on its documents (I am a witness to this), and sought to draw out all the riches contained there. As I mentioned before, I sometimes heard him say that the Conciliar magisterium did not require any change of direction for his message and mission as founder of Opus Dei, but rather was a confirmation of all that he had been preaching for many years. Vatican II had not only opened up the path for an adequate canonical solution for Opus Dei, but had offered a context and terminology for the faith favorable for the life of Christians in the world, in every profession and walk of life. More than a few times St. Josemaría would go with gratitude to the Conciliar texts to explain an idea that he had been expressing for a long time, and joyfully employ the expressions contained there, because they allowed him to explain more effectively what he had received from God in 1928 and lived so faithfully in the following years.
As pastor of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría strove to ensure that the Council’s decisions were put into practice, following the Magisterium’s indications, and he read the texts in the light of the Catholic tradition in which the Council itself was inserted. He saw the Council’s texts as being directed to all the faithful of Opus Dei, as he made clear in a letter from March 1967. In the same letter he also said that “many present-day mistakes come from viewing the Second Vatican Council as a fresh start in the Church’s history, almost a new kind of Christianity.”
Thus he didn’t like the indiscriminate use of the term “post-conciliar,” because it could give the impression of a rupture from the Church’s teachings prior to Vatican II. And he reminded everyone that each Council is in continuity with the previous ones. For it is always the Holy Spirit, he would add, who is guiding the Church. At times I heard him say, in private and with a touch of irony filled with faith, that in reality the whole history of the Church, starting with the Council of Jerusalem, could be defined as “post-conciliar.” He always strove to foster a full acceptance of the Council in communion with the Church’s tradition and in union with the Roman Pontiff. Therefore I think it is just to say that his attitude coincided with the so-called “hermeneutic of reform in continuity.”
Now I would like to turn to two topics that, among others, were the object of special concern on the part of St. Josemaría: the putting into practice of the liturgical reform and the ambit of Catholic doctrine and morality.
The liturgical books published in applying the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium presented fewer specific indications than previous ones and allowed for a greater freedom of choice. St. Josemaría, besides indicating the need to faithfully follow the new liturgical norms, placed the accent on the personal piety of both priests and faithful. For example, he put great stress on what was established in the rubrics for the Mass, that is to say, that the priest, after elevating the consecrated host and the chalice, “genuflexus adorat,” genuflects and adores. He recommended that the priest should genuflect slowly, with a true and deep act of adoration. He insisted on the need to celebrate Holy Mass as a sincerely pious priest would do, and advised priests to continue observing (always leaving full freedom in what was a matter of opinion) some details from the previous missal that were conducive to piety, where these was not in conflict with the new liturgical norms.
With regard to the second point, the area of Catholic faith and morality, I would like to stress that St. Josemaría made an effort, from the first moment, to ensure that the faithful of Opus Dei and all of those in contact with its apostolic activities might receive the light that emanated from the Council texts. In the international Centers of Study for the faithful of Opus Dei (the Roman College of the Holy Cross in Rome and the Colegio Mayor Aralar in Pamplona, for the men, and the Roman College of Our Lady, for the women), under his guidance the philosophical and theological courses incorporated right away the Conciliar documents. The same happened in all the centers of formation in the various countries where Opus Dei carried out its apostolate.
In addition, he recommended to his sons and daughters that they spread the teachings of Vatican II, by publishing collections of documents and journals for this purpose. He did all he could, in agreement with the Church’s hierarchy in Spain, to make it possible for the University of Navarra to open up a school of theology in accord with the suggestions of the Declaration Gravissimum educationis and the indications of the Decree Optatam totius.
All of these initiatives, and many others that could be mentioned here, were inspired by the desire to foster an authentic and deep knowledge of the Council. Thus they were also accompanied by useful orientations for distinguishing between the Council’s true teachings and interpretations that distanced themselves from what it really taught, and therefore from the Church’s tradition. He encouraged people to read and study the writings of the Fathers of the Church and the great doctors, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as the reliable catechisms that existed at that time, such as, for example, that of St. Pius X. Between the years 1966 and 1968 he granted various interviews to the press in which he dealt with topics of interest to public opinion, transmitting with clarity the Church’s teaching. In the decade of the 70s he launched out in a series of catechetical trips, first to Spain and Portugal, and later to various countries in Latin America.
During those years he also wrote various letters to the faithful of Opus Dei to help them to assimilate the teaching of Vatican II and to discern what was of value in the theological literature then being published. Thus, in the Year of Faith proclaimed by Paul VI in 1967, he decided to write a long letter to the faithful of Opus Dei. This was a document of almost two hundred pages commenting on the principal articles of the faith, with abundant citations from Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church. Among these quotes are about 80 texts taken from Vatican II and from interventions by Paul VI during the period of the Council.
Summing up, we can say that his attitude stemmed from two complementary attitudes: from an optimism born of faith, and from a prudence that was the product of a well formed conscience. He realized that prudence was a requirement for every Christian and especially for those “involved in theological research or entrusted with government in the Church, because now especially immense harm could result from a lack of serenity and consideration in the study of these problems.” To these two characteristics we need to add a third, summed up in a phrase St. Josemaría so often used: the doctrine of theologians and the piety of children.
Every person in the Church needs to acquire a solid knowledge of the faith, but a knowledge that is joined to love, to deepening the awareness of our divine filiation, and therefore to prayer.
These are not theoretical statements, but reflect the life of St. Josemaría. Everything the founder of Opus Dei carried out throughout his life, and in particular during the Council and in the post-conciliar period, was preceded and accompanied by prayer and mortification. During those years he made many penitential pilgrimages to various Marian shrines, including that of Divine Love, Guadalupe, and Fatima. Moreover, on May 30, 1971, he consecrated Opus Dei to the Holy Spirit, expressly beseeching the Divine Paraclete for his sevenfold gifts, so that all the members of the Work and all Catholics would remain firm in the faith and persevere faithfully in the vocation each has received from God.
I am convinced that the pastoral action of St. Josemaría can and should be considered as one of the factors that contributed most effectively to a true and lasting reception of Vatican II. Since he himself lived before, during and after the Council, his life is a clear example of a saint and shepherd who strove to sentire cum Ecclesia before, during and after that event. I think that here we find one of the reasons why both John XXIII and Paul VI wanted to frequently get his viewpoint on what was happening in the Church, through Msgr. Capovilla and Bishop Dell’Acqua. And also why John Paul II showed a special joy when he celebrated his beatification and canonization; and why Benedict XVI also expressed, first as cardinal and later as Roman Pontiff, a great appreciation for him and for his message.
I would like to end by citing some words of Cardinal Franz König, written in 1981, some years after St. Josemaría’s death. After referring to his great faith, serenity and supernatural optimism, the Cardinal stated: “the history, still brief, of these years following the conclusion of the Council’s work, the vicissitudes undergone in applying the Council’s decrees, the experiments attempted, have confirmed Msgr. Escrivá de Balaguer’s clairvoyance. He took Vatican II seriously, distinguishing between what came from the Spirit’s inspiration and what came from merely human attempts to interpret the Council. He thus became the model to follow to bring about the authentic image of the Church described in the Conciliar documents.”
St. Josemaría, who prayed and worked so much for the Second Vatican Council, is now recognized as one of the precursors of a number of its teachings, including the role of the laity, the universal call to holiness, secularity, the Christian value of work and, in general, of the world and all human activities. Nevertheless, I don’t think that this limited perspective exhausts the significance of his message with relation to the Council.
St. Josemaría’s life and teachings will continue to provide light for the present and future renewal of the Church, because they help us to grasp deeply its true nature as the People of God and the Body of Christ, and its mission to give life to the world. They also lead, as a result, to a richer understanding of both the layperson and the priest, and to a not only theoretical but also practical perception of the Christian value of all earthly realities.
It is here that we find, in my opinion, the roots of the theological significance of the founder of Opus Dei, already widely recognized but, as with any figure of great importance, still leaving much to be explored. I truly hope that this congress, dedicated to St. Josemaría’s influence on Christian thought, will be an important step in this direction.