Address of the Prelate at the Conference for the Centennial of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome (March 12, 2014)
The virtue of fidelity, the fruit of charity and justice, is invested with great dignity in the eyes of upright people, for it is a participation in the fidelity of God, who in Sacred Scripture, defines himself as “a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut 32:4). St. Paul forcefully assures us: “the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you” (2 Thess 3:3). And he wants his perfections, all of them, to shine forth in the saints and in those who truly strive to attain the goal of union with the Trinity. St. Thomas Aquinas, when reflecting on Christ’s Passion, asks why he chose to follow that path. And he points to a twofold reason why it was appropriate for Christ to do so: in first place, to remedy the evil that man had incurred; and secondly, and no less usefully, to serve as an example for us, for no model of virtue is far from the Cross.
The faithfulness of the saints leads them to this self-emptying that conquers evil; and it gives them the strength to follow the Master’s example, who with infinite joy, and infinite suffering, gave himself for us. Certainly fidelity demands renunciation, but it brings with it the happiness of intimacy with the One who saved us and who has shown us the path we should follow.
I think that this was the path that the life of my venerable predecessor at the head of Opus Dei followed, the soon-to-be-Blessed Alvaro del Portillo. Yesterday was the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The hearts of many people throughout the world were raised in thanksgiving to God, from whom all good things come, for the help received from this good and faithful servant. This gratitude also includes a fervent supplication to our Mother in Heaven and recourse to the intercession of St. Josemaría, asking that both we and all those who are nourished by the spirit of Opus Dei, may walk each day along the path of holiness proclaimed by St. Josemaría, and followed so integrally by Don Alvaro del Portillo. A path of faithfulness that leads to serene joy.
The presentations in this symposium will consider various aspects of the life of my predecessor and his influence on the life of the Church, before and after the Second Vatican Council. I will therefore center my talk on the motto chosen for the conference: vir fidelis multum laudabitur (Prov 28:20), the faithful man will be highly praised. As the decree on the heroic virtues of venerable Alvaro del Portillo issued by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints states: “These words of Sacred Scripture manifest the most characteristic virtue of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo: fidelity. He lived an unquestioned fidelity to God, carrying out his will promptly and generously; fidelity to the Church and the Pope, fidelity to his priesthood, and fidelity to his vocation as a Christian in every moment and circumstance of his life.”
This phrase of Scripture was chosen by St. Josemaría to be engraved above the door of the office where Don Alvaro worked for fifty years. First as Secretary General of Opus Dei, until the moment of St. Josemaría’s going to Heaven; then as President General and later as Prelate, until his last day on this earth, March 23, 1994. Following the founder’s custom, Don Alvaro also usually worked in the office of the Vicar General. It was, and continues to be so now, a way of emphasizing collegiality, an essential characteristic of government in Opus Dei. For those of us who reside in the central headquarters of the Prelature, these words are a continual reminder of our service to the Church, to the Work and to souls: to forget about ourselves completely, with an extreme fidelity to the spirit received from St. Josemaría and with a total dedication to the task that our Lord has entrusted to each of us.
In this regard it seems opportune to cite a paragraph from a letter written by St. Josemaría in May 1962, when Don Alvaro was in the hospital. “Pray,” he said, “because while among you there are many children of mine who are heroic and so many who are canonizable saints (and I’m not exaggerating here), Alvaro is a model, and the son of mine who has worked the most and suffered the most for the Work, and who has best captured my spirit. Pray.” Years later, in 1973, on Don Alvaro’s birthday, taking advantage of the fact that he wasn’t present, he remarked: “he has the fidelity that you should have at all times, and has willingly sacrificed everything personal with a smile . . . And if you ask me, Has he ever been heroic? I will reply: yes, he has often been heroic, very often: with a heroism which seems something ordinary.”
“I would like you to imitate him in many things, but above all in loyalty. In the long years of his vocation, there have been many occasions—humanly speaking—for getting angry, for becoming irritated, for being disloyal. But he has always had a smile and an incomparable fidelity—for supernatural reasons, not because of human virtue. It would be very good for you to imitate him in this.”
In March 1994, in the homily at the Mass for the eternal rest of the soul of Don Alvaro, I said some words that, now twenty years later, seem very timely to me. “When they write his biography, among other relevant aspects of his supernatural and human personality, this has to occupy a very high place: the first successor to Blessed Josemaría Escrivá in governing Opus Dei was—first and above all—a loyal Christian, a most faithful son of the Church and of the founder, a shepherd completely dedicated to all souls and in a particular way to his pusillus grex, to the portion of the People of God that our Lord had entrusted to his pastoral care, in close communion with the Roman Pontiff and with all his brothers in the episcopate. He did so with absolute forgetfulness of himself, with generous and cheerful self-giving, with an ever burning and vigilant pastoral charity.”
During the first Mass celebrated by the Servant of God after his ordination as a bishop, on January 7, 1991, on finishing his homily he added some significant words. Recalling St. Josemaría and the ordination of the first three priests of the Work in 1944, he said: “our Father repeated on that day, and always: “prayer, prayer, prayer”; and I, echoing him, insisted: “fidelity, fidelity, fidelity” while I was lying prostrate on the floor of the Basilica of St. Peter’s. Let us be faithful: it is worthwhile! The only thing that is worthwhile is to lead a consistent life when we have answered yes to our Lord. Let us decide to be faithful! Let it be seen!”
1. A constantly renewed fidelity
Pope John Paul II, whose upcoming canonization we are looking forward to eagerly, said that we can speak of true fidelity only when we have overcome the most demanding proof: the passage of time, which is capable of undermining the best intentions. “It is easy to be consistent for a day or a few days. It is difficult and important to be consistent during our entire lifetime. It is easy to be consistent at the hour of exaltation, and difficult to be so at the hour of tribulation. The only real fidelity is consistency that lasts throughout one’s whole life.”
These words were fully fulfilled in Don Alvaro del Portillo. All throughout his long life—imbued with the joy of knowing himself to be a son of God in Christ—his fidelity was being forged with the passage of time. Already in his childhood and adolescence he gave example in his family home, among other virtues, of loyalty, the human basis of fidelity. Educated by his parents in a solid life of Christian piety, he learned to be consistent with his baptismal commitments; at the same time, in his soul there arose a strong desire to show his closeness, without any fissures or shadows, to his parents and brothers and sisters, to his friends and classmates, and to any person to whom he had given his word.
Don Alvaro’s parents, Don Ramón and Doña Clementina, fostered the growth of the personality of each of their children, respecting their characters and teaching them to prudently administer their freedom. They always showed an absolute trust in them, to the point that, for example, they saw no problem in some of them moving to other places, even outside Spain, for reasons of study, something that was not very frequent in that era. They had a deep concern that their children receive a true Christian formation, in first place within the heart of the family itself, which later on would be the reference point for overcoming the difficulties they encountered in life; and they became true friends of each of them. Don Alvaro always remembered with joy and gratitude the conversations he had with his father.
His mother, after the death of her husband, in the midst of the Spanish civil war, confronted with great generosity and strength the problems that arose. Her character had been strengthened thanks to the spiritual closeness of St. Josemaría to the members of her family. As a good mother, she had deep affection for her son Alvaro, no different than that she showed the others, but still special, since she perceived in him a more responsible attitude and a greater sensitivity towards family problems, always offering to help out.
Alvaro’s sense of responsibility, perhaps unusual in a youth of his age, was shown, for example, in the financial difficulties that his family had to confront. After finishing his secondary schooling, moved by his loyalty, he decided to take on an intermediate profession that would enable him to contribute to his family’s support as soon as possible. Therefore he enrolled in the School of Public Works, because the training was shorter than that for a civil engineer, which he considered his real professional vocation. He had no reluctance in sacrificing his personal preferences, although he also thought that with his professional earnings, he would be able to finance his studies in civil engineering, as in fact was the case, without being a burden on his family.
At home he learned to be understanding, assisted by his good-natured temperament. He learned to be magnanimous, and to adapt himself to the people he dealt with, without judging quickly or rashly the behavior of anyone, even more so if he did not know in detail the circumstances of that person’s situation. At the same time, he showed himself always intransigent when necessary, without worrying about the criticism of others if justice and charity were involved. It was not hard for him to rectify when it was made clear to him that he was mistaken, or when he himself became aware of his mistake. Therefore living with this young man was very pleasant, as was true during his whole life on earth. While still an adolescent, his affection led him to be concerned about his younger brothers and sisters. They all recall his care for them, never skimping on time or effort to help them or teach them when necessary. He was proud in a holy way of his whole family and he behaved in a similar way with his friends and even people he hardly knew. To sum up, from very early on Alvaro was good at fostering friendship, understood as true service, with his agreeable manner, despite a certain timidity that crept in when he had to intervene in public. He made himself liked because his simplicity was attractive and his magnanimity facilitated friendship.
During his youth, while growing in his personal friendship with God, he began to be concerned with sincere affection for those most in need. The poverty that he encountered in some sectors made him suffer; especially the wretched state of many people living in the outlying areas of Madrid. Therefore with a fully Christian motive of concern for his neighbor, he frequently took part in visits to the poor and the sick, with a desire to assist their spiritual and human formation and to alleviate their moral and material misery. With the solid foundation of his human virtues and his life of faith, our Lord was preparing him for his meeting with the founder of Opus Dei, in 1935.
2. His first meeting with St. Josemaría
One of the friends with whom Don Alvaro went to visit the sick in the hospitals of Madrid knew Fr. Josemaría Escrivá and spoke enthusiastically about this priest. Don Alvaro asked that friend to introduce him, and thus, in March 1935, he went for the first time to the DYA residence, on Ferraz Street in Madrid. It turned out, however, to be just a brief encounter, since the priest had to take care of some commitments that could not be postponed. They agreed to meet again and fixed the day and hour of their meeting.
But for various reasons that meeting never took place. In the meantime Alvaro was already working professionally as a Public Works Assistant, while also taking courses at the School of Civil Engineering, where he obtained good marks. When summer began, before beginning his vacation with his family in the small town of La Granja near Segovia, he thought that he should go to say good-bye to that priest who, from his first and only meeting, had shown himself to be so likable, and had made a deep impression on him. Years later, when he referred to that decision, he could not find any explanation other than the action of grace; he would say that, remembering the cordiality of St. Josemaría, it seemed only natural to him that he should go to the Ferraz residence before leaving.
He went without any appointment, on July 6, 1935. Fr. Josemaría received him with his usual priestly and human cordiality. They spoke for a long time, touching on various topics in a deep spiritual conversation: work, family, studies, etc. At the end, the priest invited him to a day of recollection that they were having in the university residence on the following day. This friendly invitation, which showed a sincere interest in him, surprised him, for he had never taken part in a spiritual activity of this kind, although—as he recalled—he had received a thorough Christian education in his family and had done his high school studies in a school run by religious. He always thought that, given his slightly timid character, and, above all, because of Fr. Josemaría’s cordiality, he didn’t know how to respond negatively and so he committed himself to come. Very happy after that conversation, he said good-bye and, with full freedom, he altered his vacation plans. This decision would not cause any surprise in his family, because they knew of his professional commitments that at times meant unexpected changes of plan and also because of Alvaro’s maturity and sense of responsibility.
What happened that July 7, 1935 has been recounted in detail in the published biographies of Don Alvaro. That morning, after attending the first meditation given by St. Josemaría, one of those present spoke to him about the possibility of dedicating his life to God in Opus Dei, without giving up his professional work, and Alvaro said yes right away. Years later he spoke about this on several occasions, spurred by his sons’ affectionate insistence.
“I went to the day of recollection, and attended a meditation. After the meditation they spoke to me about the beauty of following God. And I, with God’s grace, said: Here I am. And I didn’t go away for the summer. I remained in Madrid, working and receiving formation in the spirit of the Work. Our Father, who was very tired (it was the end of the school year, and he had worked a lot and had been ill), nevertheless began a course of formation just for me.”
From the first moment, he sensed that a change had taken place in his soul and also in his personality. From that July 7 on, while before he saw himself as timid, he now felt the imperious need to speak more with others and to meet many people, to help them discover the good fortune of being sons of God. Therefore, without worrying what others might think, he invited students and acquaintances to take part in the means of spiritual formation.
Some time later, while outside of Madrid on a trip connected with his engineering studies, he wrote a letter to the founder of the Work in which, among other things, he said: “My enthusiasm is gone.” St. Josemaría used this phrase for a point in The Way: “‘My enthusiasm is gone,’ you write. You have to work not out of enthusiasm but out of Love: conscious of duty, which means self-denial.”
Don Alvaro later said that when he had a chance to speak with the founder of Opus Dei, he made it clear that he had not expressed himself in that way because he found himself in a moment of discouragement or disorientation, but just to say that he lacked the external enthusiasm that up till then he had felt so strongly. He added that St. Josemaría had answered: “I understand, but it seems to me that what I have written is not wasted, but will help all of us.” This episode from The Way, which has done and continues doing so much good to souls, reflects a lived Christian experience, taken from real life, not a mere theory. At the same time, it is a confirmation of what Benedict XVI once said: “The school of faith is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and renewed faithfulness.”
As time went by, there grew in Alvaro the need, the holy eagerness, to acquire an ever deeper formation, in order to respond to the gifts he had received and was receiving every day from God. A few months after that July 1935, St Josemaría began to rely on this student for directing the people who had spent more time in the Work and guiding their apostolate, although logically the bulk of the burden still fell on the founder’s shoulders. To everyone around Alvaro it was clear that, with his eagerness to form himself in order to serve better, he was absorbing the spirit of St. Josemaría with a faithfulness that was striking. No one was surprised when Fr. Josemaría, whenever he had to leave Madrid for some reason, entrusted to Alvaro the task of directing the means of spiritual and apostolic formation for the young people who took part in the apostolic work at the Residence.
After the end of the Spanish civil war in 1939, the apostolic expansion of Opus Dei grew considerably. The founder was no longer able to take on himself the spiritual direction of all the faithful of the Work, as he had been doing, and he looked for assistance from his older sons. Alvaro was the first to assist in the spiritual direction of the youngest ones. St. Josemaría insisted that he needed to carry out this task with great responsibility, since the others would go to him with the same confidence with which they put themselves in the founder’s hands.
Not a few times I heard Don Alvaro remark, years later, that before beginning each of those conversations of spiritual guidance, he would entrust himself to the Holy Spirit to look after these people with the greatest possible care. And he added that, in order to fulfill that task with the greatest possible fidelity, he always advised those listening to him to strive to grow in their union with St. Josemaría. The latter was a point he never failed to bring up with tact and, from what I myself saw, always in a convincing way. He was fully aware that in those moments he was taking the Father’s place, guiding each and every one by the path of a greater self-giving, with a radical fidelity to the spirit received from God.
It was the unanimous remark of all the faithful of Opus Dei who received spiritual assistance from Don Alvaro: they saw St. Josemaría behind each word of that brother of theirs, especially through the affection and closeness with which he accompanied them.
3. Full fidelity to the spirit of Opus Dei
Right from the start of Opus Dei, the founder saw with absolute clarity the need to proceed with order and with a theological and juridical mentality in the organization of the Work of God, in accord with the lights received from Heaven. In the first years, for more than a decade, he personally took responsibility for even the material concerns, to teach the faithful of the Work in a graphic way how they should seek holiness in ordinary life. At the same time he strove to transmit the specific features of the spirit of Opus Dei through gatherings and classes, and in personal conversations. He also asked for the assistance of a few of them, first of all Alvaro, in typing up the foundational documents he was preparing. Some years later, St. Josemaría asked Alvaro to annotate the Instructions and other documents of the founder. This way of acting, combined with comments and indications he made to those who were helping him, proved to be very useful in showing how deeply they were assimilating the spirit of the Work and how they were striving to put it into practice.
Offered such a clear sign of trust, all of them tried to respond with the greatest possible generosity. St. Josemaría realized right away that Don Alvaro showed, by his concern and his deeds, a full availability, always accompanied by correctness and cheerfulness. And when he was asked for his opinion, it was always marked by great prudence and a very refined sense of government, united to an extraordinary gift for dealing with people. In the working sessions, he also saw clearly the finesse with which Alvaro followed the founder’s explanations, made them his own, and tried to put them into practice.
During the months of the civil war, when the founder of Opus Dei sought refuge in a consulate with several faithful of the Work including Alvaro, and later when this son of his managed to join him in Burgos in October 1938, fleeing from the zone where the Church was being persecuted, St. Josemaría had the opportunity to deal with him more closely. They could converse while walking on the streets of this Castilian city, when Alvaro was being trained as a provisional second lieutenant, and also during St. Josemaría’s visits to Cigales, where Alvaro was assigned by the army, in the first months of 1939.
A few of the founder’s letters have been saved in which he uses the word “saxum” when referring to Alvaro: “Saxum! I am trusting in the strength of my rock,” he wrote on February 13, 1939. And the following month, on March 23: “May Jesus watch over you, Saxum. And, yes, that is what you are. I can see that our Lord is lending you strength and is making my word operative in you: saxum! Thank him for it, and be faithful.” Later, on May 18 of the same year, he insists again: “Saxum! How bright I see the path, a long one, that lies before you! Bright and full, like a field ripe for the harvest. Blessed fruitfulness of the apostle, more beautiful than anything else on earth!” Finally, from Burjasot, Valencia, on June 6, he wrote: “Saxum! Both your Father in Heaven (God) and your Father on earth and in Heaven (me), are expecting a lot from you,” making reference to the spiritual filiation of the faithful of the Work with respect to the founder.
The choice of the name “saxum,” rock, shows that St. Josemaría, at the end of the 1930’s, sensed that this man would be a strong support for him, providing firm help in the task of consolidating and developing Opus Dei.
Also in the historical archives of the Prelature (and this is a notable proof of his loyalty), the manuscript outline is preserved of a meditation preached by St. Josemaría in Cigales, the small village where Alvaro del Portillo was assigned, along with another faithful of Opus Dei, Vicente Rodriguez Casado. Dated February 10, 1939, the eve of our Lady of Lourdes, it is the oldest document in which this term is found. The first point of the outline says: “You are Peter, saxum, rock! And you are such because God wants it. In spite of the enemies surrounding us, in spite of you… and of me… and of everyone who is opposed. Rock, foundation, support, strength… paternity!” In light of the letters cited above, there is no doubt that he was referring principally to Alvaro, although he leaned trustingly for support on all of his children.
Particularly significant is a document in which Alvaro describes the behavior of a person who is truly responsible when confronted with the need to make an important decision, and is unable to get in touch with the person in charge. The note was probably written at the end of 1939, when he had been freed from his military obligations, which had been prolonged for several months after the end of the civil war. In that note, which fills two sheets of paper written on both front and back, Alvaro, at the request of St. Josemaría, briefly describes his own experience, using the military language that was then familiar to everyone. He presents the figure of the “liaison” (who acts as an intermediary between the commander and the troops) to describe how to decide in accord with the mind of one’s superiors, when it is impossible to receive orders directly. Alvaro offers an ascetical reflection, applying military language to the supernatural plane, since Christian life—as Sacred Scripture teaches—is a battle of peace (see Job 7:1) that spurs Christians to struggle untiringly against anything that could separate them from God. Among other considerations, he wrote: “If we really fulfill the norms [the plan of spiritual and ascetical life], if we read the Gospel trying to live it with intensity, making ourselves actors in its scenes, if we pray the Rosary in a similar way, if we fight wherever necessary to keep God always present, then we who form a single body with Christ will become more and more like Him.” He also speaks there about unity with and obedience towards the one who is in charge of the apostolic work, in order to know his spirit well and identify oneself with whomever is governing; and he reflects on the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul, the Communion of Saints and perseverance in the face of obstacles.
Once the fighting ended, the regiment to which Alvaro belonged was transferred to Olot, in Catalonia, and he remained there until July 18, when he was relieved of his military duties and could return to Madrid. There he quickly resumed his professional work as a Public Works Assistant. And he wrote to a friend, filled with joy: “Today I arrived home from Olot. Finally back in Madrid! You can imagine what this return to my hometown means to me; it is like the definitive end of the war. Up until now it had not yet ended for me.”
During the previous months, physically far from St. Josemaría, he had made several trips to be with the founder of Opus Dei, to speak with him personally and to take part in days of recollection. Besides going to Burgos seven times, he obtained two military passes to travel to Valencia and to Vitoria, overcoming the enormous difficulties of the trip due to the lack of highways and means of adequate transport. Moreover, during those weeks he wrote almost daily to St. Josemaría, to other members of Opus Dei and to various friends. These letters were filled with supernatural optimism and affection, in which his desire to be faithful to his Christian life and to improve the moral situation around him was evident.
After one of these trips on military leave, when he returned to Olot he sent the following letter to the founder of the Work: “I have been thinking about what you told me about the obligation we have to spur the apostolic work forward now very especially. That is what we both want [referring to our Lord and to himself]. And my hope is that, despite everything, you can have confidence in the one who, rather than rock, is clay without any consistency. But God is so good!”
As we can deduce from all the above, St. Josemaría realized—in very different ways—that God had put Alvaro close beside him because he had the special conditions needed for the work of government and for the spiritual and apostolic care of the others. During those years, the founder knew he was the only person responsible before God for the growth of Opus Dei as he had seen it on October 2, 1928, and he was aware that he would have to give an account of how he fulfilled this duty; although without overlooking the initiatives of his children on how to put his teachings into practice.
I have no hesitation in saying that, both at the beginning of his years in Opus Dei, as well as at the end of his life, Alvaro was fully aware of the great importance—of the significant weight—implied by the divine and human adventure of carrying out God’s will, seconding St. Josemaría. He never let himself be disheartened by that splendid panorama that was beyond the strength of anyone, even of an especially gifted person, and he reacted in the way described in the Book of Deuteronomy: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:11-14). He had been a witness to St. Josemaría’s generous fidelity and, moved by grace, he followed in his footsteps day after day, with loyalty, with an equally generous daily struggle.
Alvaro did not lose any opportunity to listen closely to, to meditate on what he heard, to mull over in his prayer the advice and teachings he had received, and he accepted all the tasks St. Josemaría asked of him. At the end of 1939, back in Madrid, the founder appointed him Secretary General of Opus Dei: his closest co-worker. The other faithful of the Work understood immediately that he was not taking on this post as a personal honor, and much less as a “promotion.” On the contrary, they perceived even more clearly his eagerness to grow in his interior life, to work with professional outlook in the various tasks or offices that came upon him, to serve everyone in any circumstance or moment when he was needed. Certainly he had a good teacher in the founder of Opus Dei, who offered each day by his conduct the example of generous self-giving, striving to be heroic in his correspondence to divine grace, both in important jobs and in everyday activities.
Don Alvaro was always, and specifically from the moment he received that appointment, a very solid support for St. Josemaría. From then on, “in his relationship with the founder he showed even greater veneration and respect, with the maximum availability and generosity in putting his qualities at the service of the mission received. He accompanied him in all the trials and tribulations he had to confront. His courage, prudence and readiness to obey were for the Father [for the founder] a support that never weakened. Alluding to him in an implicit but also clear way, St. Josemaría once said: ‘There have never been lacking, in a providential and constant way, brothers of yours who—more than sons—have been for me like a father when I needed the consolation and the strength of a father’.”
Perhaps also for these reasons, after many years had gone by St. Josemaría would remark from time to time that he had not chosen Don Alvaro to work at his side, but that it was God who had put him close by. He added that the fidelity of this man, so constant throughout the years, had “a permanence that had to be something of the Holy Spirit.” And Don Alvaro himself told us on various occasions: “it was not our Father who chose me to have me at his side; he used to say that it was something of the Holy Spirit. The others, for one reason or another, were not able to be close to our Father. Thus God chose me: our founder said this many times.”
I close this section on Don Alvaro’s fidelity to the founder of Opus Dei, as a sign of his fidelity to God’s will, with two very expressive anecdotes by witnesses who were present for them.
In 1950, Don Alvaro suffered a painful attack of acute appendicitis that put his life in danger and that made surgical intervention urgent. It was February 26. Both because of the techniques used at that time and because of the duration of the operation, which proved more complicated than foreseen, the doctors decided to increase the amount of anesthesia; and as a result the post-operative waking up was slower than usual. In those circumstances there occurred an anecdote, narrated by Encarnación Ortega, which I myself heard on several occasions from the lips of St. Josemaría.
When Don Alvaro was already in his room, one of the doctors came by to check on post-operative developments. He was surprised when he saw that no one had been able to awaken him and he began to be concerned because all possible means had been used without success. This was the situation when the founder of Opus Dei reached the hospital and they explained to him the situation, possibly critical, of the patient. St. Josemaría went up to the head of the bed and, with great calm, whispered affectionately: “Alvaro!” The patient’s response was immediate: “Father!” And then he began to wake up, which up to then did not seem imminent. St. Josemaría remarked with naturalness, as though it was nothing out of the ordinary: “This son obeys me even when asleep.”
An incident mentioned by Juan Masià is also quite significant. “A day or so after the operation,” we read in his testimony, “our Father asked me to accompany him to visit the patient. The three of us were alone in the room, and Don Alvaro was still delirious . . . He kept repeating this phrase: “I want to work alongside the Father, with all my strength, until the end of my life.” Since these were the only words he kept repeating, our Father and I, deeply moved almost to tears, had to leave the room.”
Don Alvaro’s faithfulness was shown in a special way in leading to its conclusion the canonical path of the Work, erected as a personal prelature in 1982. This definitive canonical form assured that the charism St. Josemaría had received on October 2, 1928 would not be diluted, thus strengthening the unity of spirit, governance and jurisdiction of this portion of the People of God made up of ordinary Catholics, laity and priests.
It is both moving and, it seems to me, a special sign of divine Providence that in the last pastoral letter this exemplary bishop sent to the faithful of Opus Dei, in which he asked us to accompany him spiritually on the occasion of his 80th birthday, a few days before his unexpected death, Don Alvaro wrote: “on this anniversary that is so significant for me, and on reaching fifty years as a priest in the upcoming month of June, the best gift you could give me, my daughters and sons, is a deep renewal of our ardent desire for a faithfulness shown in winning new vocations.”
4. Fidelity to the Church and the Roman Pontiff
Fidelity to the fullness of one’s Christian vocation is not a virtue that affects only a few people. Rather it is everyone’s responsibility, since our Lord grants his grace to every baptized person, in order that it may yield fruit in our ordinary life. As Pope Francis said in one of his first homilies after his election as Roman Pontiff:
“Each day the Lord calls us to follow him with courage and fidelity; he has made us the great gift of choosing us as his disciples; he invites us to proclaim him with joy as the Risen One; but he asks us to do so by word and by the witness of our lives, in daily life.” And the Holy Father adds: “This has a consequence in our lives: we have to empty ourselves of the many small or great idols that we have and in which we take refuge, on which we often seek to base our security. They are idols that we sometimes keep well hidden; they can be ambition, careerism, a taste for success, placing ourselves at the center, the tendency to dominate others, the claim to be the sole masters of our lives, some sins to which we are bound, and many others.
“This evening I would like a question to resound in the heart of each one of you, and I would like you to answer it honestly: Have I considered which idol lies hidden in my life that prevents me from worshipping the Lord? Worshipping is stripping ourselves of our idols, even the most hidden ones, and choosing the Lord as the center, as the pathway for our lives.”
I have no doubt that the spiritual biography of Don Alvaro, a “good and faithful servant” (Lk 19:17), offers us an example that we all can imitate. Our greatest aspiration as Christians is to serve the Church, the Roman Pontiff and all souls, as the Gospel teaches us. This was Don Alvaro’s way of acting; he strove with peace and joy, with constancy, to put into practice the spirit St. Josemaría had passed on to him. From the moment that he made it his own, he lived and taught others to live the universal call to holiness. That was the trajectory of his fidelity, first as a young man, then as a member of Opus Dei, marked by the closest possible union with St. Josemaría and with his spirit, during the years he spent at his side, and later during the decades when he directed Opus Dei through his pastoral service.
His Christian and human loyalty to the Church and the Pope grew in crescendo and became even clearer when he definitively moved to Rome in 1946, up to his death in 1994. As I already said above, I won’t stop here to consider aspects that have been amply dealt with in his published biographies: the help he provided in various dicasteries of the Roman Curia during the pontificates of Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II; his work in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council and as secretary of one of the Conciliar commissions; his role in the revision of the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, etc. I will mention here only a few events of which I was an eye-witness during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, for whom Don Alvaro had a deep filial affection.
From the first months of the election of the new Pope in 1978, a close and frequent relationship was established between John Paul II and Don Alvaro. He offered the Pope a wide-ranging assistance in both small tasks and projects of greater importance, since Don Alvaro, with deep faith, discovered God’s will behind every request or suggestion from the Holy Father, as he had always done with the previous successors of Peter. During the first weeks of that new stage in the Church, he offered his support to the Pope when he planned to ordain his successor in Krakow on the altar of Confession in the Basilica of St. Peter. The plan had not been received with warmth in some spheres of the Roman Curia, out of a fear that the Basilica would not be filled. A churchman suggested to the Holy Father that he go to Don Alvaro’s help ensure the attendance of a large number of people. Don Alvaro succeeded in mobilizing many Romans to attend the ceremony, through the apostolic efforts of the members and cooperators of the Work residing in this city. The Holy Father was grateful for that gesture and mentioned Opus Dei at the end of the ceremony.
Something similar happened with the Pope’s wish to restore the Corpus Christi Eucharistic processions through Rome, which had not ventured into the streets of the Holy City for many years. He also assisted another apostolic desire of John Paul II: to begin a custom very much loved by the Pope when he was Archbishop of Krakow. This was the celebration of a Mass for university students in Advent and in Lent, in preparation for Christmas and for Easter, with the attendance also of professors and instructors. Although not a Roman custom, the Pope communicated his desire to Don Alvaro and asked for his suggestions. As a faithful priest, Don Alvaro immediately responded with joy to that proposal, and suggested printing personal invitations to be distributed among the students. He pointed out that it would be a great opportunity to bring young people to the sacrament of Penance and to have present in St. Peter’s Basilica many secular priests (among them some of those incardinated in Opus Dei who were residing in the city) available for confessions for several hours before the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration. Cardinal Martínez Somalo, the Substitute Secretary of State at that time, said that “the response of the students was enthusiastic; and from then on it has always been like this. Influenced by one another, many of them took part in that Mass. Afterwards the priests present remarked that they were surprised at the large number of confessions, thanks to the liturgical celebration of the Pope.”
Another chapter here could be the Pontiff’s pastoral trips. In 1979, John Paul II asked for Don Alvaro’s opinion about going to Mexico, to preside over the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Puebla. Msgr. del Portillo responded that he thought it would be a great good for the Church, in spite of some pessimistic predictions. In preparation for other pastoral trips by the Pope throughout the world, he reminded the faithful and cooperators of the Prelature that they should show their filial affection for the Holy Father in every way possible, and that they should pass on this concern to their friends, relatives and acquaintances through their personal apostolate. This support accompanied the Pope everywhere, and it was especially decisive on some pastoral trips in which people feared that a cold or even hostile reception could be given to the Vicar of Christ.
Also in larger projects, Don Alvaro showed he was very sensitive to the Pope’s desires, and he incorporated them into the pastoral plans of the Prelature. A very clear example of this was the beginning of the apostolic activity of the Work in the countries of northern and eastern Europe.
One of Don Alvaro’s apostolic “dreams” was that Opus Dei would be able to go to continental China, to assist in sowing Christ’s light in that immense country. That aspiration began to become a reality, at least partially, at the end of 1980, when the first center of the Work was established in Hong Kong. Two years later Opus Dei began it apostolic work in another important crossroads of the Far East: Singapore. In December 1982, Don Alvaro informed John Paul II about Opus Dei steps in Asia, and mentioned his desire to go as soon as possible to continental China. The Pope responded that he appreciated that desire, but that he was more concerned about the situation in the Scandinavian countries that had become very distant from the Christian faith. On hearing those words, the Prelate realized that it would be more pleasing to God to change the trajectory of his plans, and to go as soon as possible to those countries of northern Europe.
In fact, in the Christmas greeting card sent to his children a few days later, Don Alvaro wrote: “Now I want to insist that you pray for the apostolic expansion of the Work, preparing with your prayers and your sacrifices, with your joyful and generous dedication, for the work in the cold regions of northern Europe, in the Scandinavian countries.” The apostolate in those countries became a priority for Don Alvaro, and he dedicated great energy to it. He knew very well that it would not be easy to obtain fruit in the short run, but he was convinced that God would provide the help needed. Referring to the difficult harvest faced by the faithful of the Work there, he remarked: “It is very hard! But if it is very hard, we know that we can count on more grace from God, because our Lord, when he sends us to plow a field, always gives us the necessary instruments so that we can bring life to those dried out lands. Going there, he will grant us sufficient graces to move souls.”
John Paul II harbored in his soul a zeal for the new evangelization, and in 1985 he gave a strong impulse to this pastoral priority, above all in the countries of eastern Europe and North America, where the symptoms of secularism were growing at an alarming rate. A symbolic date is October 11 of that year, when the Holy Father closed a symposium for European bishops held in Rome, inviting the Church to a renewed missionary zeal. Don Alvaro right away echoed this apostolic project, and on December 25 of that same year he wrote a pastoral letter to the faithful of the Prelature, urging them to collaborate with all of their strength in this task, especially in the countries of “old Europe.” From then on he redoubled his pastoral efforts in this sector, making frequent trips throughout Europe. The years from 1987 to 1090 were marked by the extension of this effort to other continents: to Asia and Oceania, North America, and finally Africa.
At other times, moved by his zeal to faithfully support other intentions of the Pope, he put into operation apostolic initiatives with a deep impact on the life of the universal Church and the particular Churches, oriented to the formation of priests and candidates for the priesthood in various countries. Especially important here were the obtaining of Church recognition for the ecclesiastical schools at the University of Navarra and the creation of the Roman Academic Center of the Holy Cross, which in a few years became the present Pontifical University. Certainly, it was necessary to overcome many obstacles to see these projects carried out, but he did not cease in his efforts because he knew that it responded to the plans of the Holy Father in his understandable eagerness to make Jesus Christ more widely known, as he had outlined in the encyclicals Redemptor hominis and Redemptoris missio.
Regarding the formation of candidates for the priesthood, and responding to another express suggestion of the Roman Pontiff, Don Alvaro founded two international seminaries with the aim of preparing for the priesthood seminarians sent by their respective bishops: the International Bidasoa residence in Pamplona, Spain, and the Sedes Sapientiae residence in Rome, established respectively in 1988 and 1991, as parts of the University of Navarra and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. With the intention of providing dignified lodging for the students, he asked many people to help with their prayer and their alms in the construction or remodeling of the necessary buildings, both in Rome and in Pamplona.
These projects required the raising of large sums of money, not only for the construction and maintenance of the buildings, but also for many scholarships for students coming from dioceses with few financial resources.
These apostolic initiatives and many others continue to provide a lot of fruit, and are a sign of how our Lord always helps apostolic works begun in his service. Don Alvaro was filled with joy to see how, year after year, the number of students from many different dioceses was increasing in those academic centers. We can cite here are some figures provided by the CARF Foundation, dedicated to channeling financial aid to these apostolic instruments. According to data provided in 2011, since 1989 more than 11,000 students from 109 countries have pursued ecclesiastical studies at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome or at the University of Navarra. These include seminarians, priests, men and women religious, religion teachers, catechists, etc., of whom some 2,500 have received scholarships and more than 1,700 have been ordained as priests. In the International Bidasoa Seminary in Pamplona, and in Sedes Sapientiae in Rome, 776 seminarians have been ordained priests over the years.
Before ending this talk (which has only been able to give a partial picture of the exemplary fidelity to God and to the Church of St. Josemaria’s firs successor and the first Prelate of Opus Dei), I would like to remind you how deeply Blessed John Paul II valued that fidelity. It was widely reported in the media that, a few hours after my predecessor’s death, the Pope came to pray before his mortal remains in the Prelatic Church of Our Lady of Peace. When I thanked him for his presence among us, which brought so much consolation and joy to everyone, John Paul II replied: “era cosa dovuta, era cosa dovuta” (it was my duty).
I have no doubt that this gesture was, on the part of the Pope, a paternal and explicit recognition of Don Alvaro’s fidelity to the Successor of Peter and to his mission as Supreme Pastor. He had already given expression to this on the occasion of Don Alvaro’s 80th birthday, on March 11, by sending him a photograph of himself accompanied by a hand-written message with his blessing. After expressing his “great appreciation for the faithful work he had carried out in service to the Church,” he beseeched for Don Alvaro “abundant heavenly graces for a ministry that has already yielded so much fruit over many years.” And he imparted “from his heart a special apostolic blessing, which I extend affectionately to all the priests and laity of the Prelature of Opus Dei.”
A few hours later, in a get-together with his sons in Rome, Don Alvaro remarked with his usual simplicity: “it is a gift that deeply moved me because I did not expect it; it was a good surprise.”
On the day of Don Alvaro’s death, besides the visit already mentioned to pray before his mortal remains, John Paul II sent me—as Vicar General of Opus Dei—a telegram expressing his heartfelt condolences to all the faithful of the Work, laity and priests, while recalling “with gratitude to our Lord the life filled with priestly and episcopal zeal of the deceased, his example of courage and of trust in divine Providence that he always offered, as well as his fidelity to the See of Peter and the generous ecclesial service as intimate co-worker and well-merited successor of blessed Josemaría Escrivá; and he assured them of “his fervent prayers of suffrage so that [our Lord] will receive in eternal happiness this good and faithful servant.”
A short time later, a postcard Don Alvaro had sent a few days earlier from Jerusalem reached John Paul II’s hands. Addressed to the then personal secretary of the Pope, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, he asked him to present “to the Holy Father our desire to be fideles usque ad mortem, in the service of the Holy Church and the Holy Father.”
This last remembrance seems to me very fitting for concluding my words, in which I wanted to highlight—in a necessarily incomplete and fragmentary way—one of the essential characteristics of Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo, Bishop and Prelate of Opus Dei, founder and first Grand Chancellor of this university: his fidelity to God, to the Church, to the Roman Pontiff, to St. Josemaría, and to the spirit of Opus Dei. I ask him that, through his intercession, we too may follow to the end the same path.
Thank you very much!