"Walking to Emmaus along all the Roads of the World," An Address at the Meeting di Rimini, Italy (August 28, 2014)
First of all, allow me to thank the organizers of the Meeting di Rimini for all their marvelous hard work, and for giving me the opportunity to take part in an event so rich in content and reflection. Being present here, my thought and affection go out to Don Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation. I remember him with sentiments of friendship and sincere gratitude for the deeply Christian contribution that the movement inspired by him continues providing society and the Church. I recall his exemplary fidelity to the Church and the Pope, the loyalty he showed even in difficult circumstances, when his spiritual message was at times not well understood. And I pray that his cause of beatification may reach a favorable conclusion as soon as possible
1. The Meeting for this year has as its theme “Towards the peripheries of the world and of life.” It is a theme that has been recurrent in the addresses of Pope Francis, who encourages the Church to “go out” to the streets of the world to proclaim anew Christ’s Gospel, with the strength and daring of the first evangelization. Right from the start, following in the Master’s footsteps, the early Church showed a special predilection for the poorest members of society. Jesus showed compassion for all men and women, especially those most in need of his mercy. During his stay on earth, Christ was concerned about the material needs of the people who followed him, the sick who drew close to him and the sinners he urged to conversion by his grace.
In reading the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul, we see that the early Christians followed the same path. Already in the first years, the apostles chose some in the Church to dedicate themselves to caring for orphans and widows (see Acts 6:1-6). And Paul himself testifies that the early Church was made up mainly of lowly people, thus fulfilling a divine plan: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:26-29).
The Church has always followed the example of the first Christians. Popes, bishops and priests, religious and many lay faithful have been known for their great concern for the indigent. In the atmosphere of justice and charity fostered by Christianity, there have arisen, over the course of the centuries, countless hospitals, shelters for the homeless, centers of welcome for the poor and orphans, schools and institutions to provide access to education at all levels, and, obviously, churches and seminaries open to all. In line with this long tradition, St. Josemaría insisted and told the faithful of Opus Dei that “a person or a society that does not react to suffering and injustice and makes no effort to alleviate them is still distant from the love of Christ’s heart.” The Church, since the beginning, has never left men and women on their own, but has constantly gone out to meet their needs.
A key characteristic of this Christian concern, following in the footsteps of the Master, is not limiting oneself solely to alleviating the situations of material and social poverty of so many people, but of striving to open up for everyone the supernatural horizons to which God calls us. Obviously, this spiritual dimension does not stand in contrast to the material one, but rather rectifies and broadens its meaning. Often urgent daily needs will put the material needs of people in first place, since Christian life is always built on a human foundation. But it is also always guided by a view that surpasses it: “Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity,” Pope Francis wrote, “does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world.”
The goal of the Church has to always be that of offering a living witness to the Gospel, with all of its natural and supernatural consequences for each person. We need to “go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.” The universal Church is present and active in all the particular Churches, endowed with all the instruments of salvation given by Christ. Therefore “its joy in communicating Jesus Christ is expressed both by a concern to preach him to areas in greater need and in constantly going forth to the outskirts of its own territory or towards new socio-cultural settings.”
We should not forget that often the “existential peripheries” the Pope speaks of are not far away, but rather close to each one of us: in our cities, in our work environment, among our friends, in our families… We can find people everywhere who need our help, our understanding, our Christian witness. In our dealings with each person alongside us, our Lord asks us to be bearers of his consolation, his peace and his joy. And the same evangelizing spirit that we want to live and make present in our society, in our daily environment, we will then be able to bring to the distant “peripheries,” as the Church has always taught. I recall so many conversations with bishops, priests, religious, and also laity who, moved by zeal for souls, have gone to countries all over the world to bring Christ’s Gospel there; they told me about their experiences not to highlight their own efforts, but to show their great affection for all the initiatives they were carrying out in favor of the needy. These men of God saw humanity as a family in which we are all brothers and sisters; and they recounted their marvelous adventures, real epics that are often hidden to human eyes, but that shine in God’s presence, as heroic examples of a heavenly charity that each day comes down to earth.
I could go on with these stories, each time feeling a holy pride, because what stands out in them is the holiness of the Church. Where people grow, the Church also grows, advancing on its path. Here we have the treasure of so many saints and martyrs who are the riches of Catholicism, and, indeed, of humanity itself.
When I was invited to take part in this meeting, it was suggested that I might speak about my personal experience of faith. I want to do so, but not by speaking about myself; rather I want to relate several events that I had the immense good fortune of witnessing in the lives of two giants of the faith: St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, and his first successor, the Servant of God Álvaro del Portillo, who will be beatified within a month. I lived at the side of both of them for many years and my personal testimony of faith is linked to their memory and example. Thanks be to God, every day, in every corner of the world, the majority of the faithful of Opus Dei dedicate themselves to serving people of every condition and background. They do so not as a favor, but as the response of someone who wants to be faithful to Christ, who out of love for God experiences the desire and responsibility of serving one’s brothers and sisters.
This path of service to souls, in the Prelature of Opus Dei, was opened up by St. Josemaría personally; and he encouraged many men and women to follow that call. As I joyfully recall, among the Gospel texts that he loved the most was that of Christ’s encounter with the disciples from Emmaus. He liked to dwell on that marvelous scene in his preaching. He stressed how Jesus, eager to recover some of his disciples, decided to set out and look for them. They were disappointed and saddened by the recent events, and were returning dejectedly to their previous life, from which our Lord had drawn them by presenting them with a marvelous supernatural adventure. As St. Josemaría wrote:
“Jesus joins them as they go along their way. Lord, how great you are, in everything! But you move me even more when you come down to our level, to follow us and to seek us in the hustle and bustle of each day. Lord, grant us a childlike spirit, pure eyes and a clear head so that we may recognize you when you come without any outward sign of your glory.”
2. In 1928, the year Opus Dei was founded, the peripheral areas of Madrid, then in a phase of rapid expansion, were populated by large numbers of people who lived in miserable shacks, by sick persons who were cared for in public hospitals, and by many poor people who hid their poverty behind an appearance of outward dignity. St. Josemaría himself recalled this scenario a few days before leaving this world, when he gave thanks to God for always having been close to them, right from the start of this divine adventure.
“What do people do when they want to obtain something? They make use of human means. What resources did I have? . . . I went to seek strength in the poorest districts of Madrid. Hours and hours going everywhere, day after day, on foot from one place to another among the shamefully and wretchedly poor, so poor that they had not a thing to their name; among dirty runny-nosed children, but children for all that, which means souls pleasing to God . . . I spent many hours in that work. I’m only sorry they weren’t more. And in the hospitals and in houses where these sick people were, if those shacks can be called houses. They were sick and forsaken people and some of them had tuberculosis, which was then incurable. So I went to all those places to find the means to do the Work of God. Meanwhile I worked and formed the first ones that I had by me. There were people of almost every kind among them. There were university students, working men, small tradesmen, artists….
“They were very intense years, in which Opus Dei was growing on the inside almost without our realizing it. But I have wanted to tell you . . . that the human strength of the Work has been the sick people in the hospitals of Madrid: the most forsaken ones; those who lived in their houses having lost the last vestige of human hope; the most ignorant in the remotest corners of the city.”
This is how Opus Dei was born and how it developed, with the help of our Lord and his most holy Mother. And thus it continues to grow today as well, thanks to the efforts of so many faithful of the Prelature who, following St. Josemaría’s example, seek out the “peripheries,” close or far away, with the sole desire of serving people, so that they may grow in their human and Christian dignity, as children of God. They share this commitment with their friends and their colleagues at work, and they discover how in the service of their neighbor in need, they are the first ones to obtain an enormous spiritual benefit. They learn to see in the sick, in the poor, in the marginalized, a special presence of Christ. Therefore the founder of Opus Dei had an unshakable trust in their prayer and in their offering up to God their illness and suffering.
In this regard, some events from the first years of Opus Dei come to mind. The first is one that St. Josemaría frequently recalled. The protagonist was a mentally retarded woman, to whom he gave spiritual direction, sure that no infirmity could impede familiarity with God. During that period, in Madrid a rabidly anti-Catholic newspaper was being published, which was causing grave damage to souls. St. Josemaría, trusting in the power of God, who acts through disproportionate instruments, asked that woman to pray insistently for an intention of his, which was precisely the shutting down of that newspaper. A number of years later, in a letter written in 1950, he recounted: “Before long Scripture was fulfilled: quae stulta sunt mundi elegit Deus ut confundat sapientes (1 Cor 1:27). God has chosen the foolish in the eyes of the world to put to shame the wise. That newspaper went under through the prayer of a poor simple woman who kept on praying for the same intention. Then a second and a third newspaper that succeeded the first one, and that also did great harm to souls, likewise collapsed.”
The second episode that I would like to share with you was very personal, and therefore St. Josemaría didn’t speak about it in public, so as not to place himself as an example. It was an event that he only referred to on a few occasions before a very restricted number of people, when opening up his heart.
It took place in the first years of the thirties of the last century. St. Josemaría went each day to celebrate Mass in the Church of St. Elizabeth, where he was the rector. Every morning he met a beggar woman on the way, always in the same place. One day he approached her and said: “My daughter, I can’t give you either gold or silver. I, a poor priest of God, give you what I have: the blessing of God the Father Almighty. And I ask that you pray a lot for an intention of mine that will be for the glory of God and for the good of souls. Be as insistent with our Lord as you can!”
St. Josemaría recounted that, a short while later, he noticed that the woman was not at her usual spot. And later, during a visit to the sick in a hospital, he found her there, gravely ill. “My daughter, what are you doing here, what happened to you?” he asked her. The woman smiled and St. Josemaría assured her that he would offer Mass for her, asking our Lord to give her back her health. She replied: “Father, what are you saying? You told me to pray for something that would give great glory of God and that I should give all I could to our Lord. I have offered him what I have, my life.” “I assure you,” the founder remarked, “that after that poor beggar woman went to heaven, the Work began moving quickly.”
There is another event from St. Josemaría’s life that I want to tell you about, regarding the “existential peripheries” where God calls us to serve and accompany our brothers and sisters. This episode especially reflects the refined charity of the saints, who sense that need to respond to the loneliness of people nearby.
St. Josemaría was preaching a retreat for priests. During those prayer-filled days he tried to speak personally with each of the participants, to listen to them and help them in their personal struggle. He noticed that there was one priest who had not dared to speak with him, and after a few days he approached him and encouraged him to do so. He discovered that he was suffering greatly owing to a bitter calumny based on an unjust accusation. He asked him why he wasn’t united with his brother priests, and he replied: “I am united only with myself.” St. Josemaría suffered a lot on seeing the loneliness of that brother of his who was also a priest, and he said years later. “That coldness hurt me. I was young. I took his hands and kissed them. He started to cry. But I think by the end he no longer felt alone.” His final commentary on this experience is an appeal to our responsibility as Christians, to our duty to serve our neighbor out of love of God: “I treated that priest as I thought Jesus would have done.”
3. I have many others memories of St. Josemaría’s charity and holiness in his relations with people both close and far away. But I think the episodes touched on here are sufficient to show how he “went out to the peripheries of life,” taking Jesus’ place on the road to Emmaus.
St. Josemaría's commitment to the service of his neighbor was shown in his constant apostolic eagerness to begin many projects for the social and human advancement of people in poor countries and in the disadvantaged areas of the great cities. And the men and women of the Prelature continue committing themselves to helping people along this path of human and professional advancement, with the assistance of so many friends and cooperators, some of whom are even non-Christians, eager to contribute to the welfare of those around them.
The same spirit of service, urging people to go out to meet others in the “peripheries of life,” also deeply marked the life of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo, the first successor of St. Josemaría. He himself recalled how the visits to the sick and poor on the outskirts of Madrid, which he made in his youth with some friends and classmates at the university, prepared him for his decisive encounter with Opus Dei and for the divine call to follow our Lord.
“Some companions from the School of Engineering brought me to visit the poor for several months. The contact with poverty and abandonment produces an enormous spiritual shock. It makes us see how often we are concerned about foolish things that are nothing more than our selfishness, our pettiness. We see people who are suffering form grave hardships—poverty, abandonment, loneliness, sickness—and who are happy because they have God’s grace. This produces a shock, which is what prepared me for my meeting our Father.”
During the almost twenty years that he was at the head of Opus Dei, Bishop Álvaro del Portillo started many initiatives to provide educational and professional training to people. They are the fruit of the priestly soul that all Christians (“both priests and laity,” Don Álvaro insisted) should put into effect, acting on the character received in Baptism.
Without trying to make an exhaustive list, I would like to recall here some of the projects that the faithful of the Prelature are carrying out with the assistance of many other people.
In the health field I would like to mention two initiatives. The first, which began in 1988, is the Campus Bio-Medical University in Rome, with its hospital and schools of medicine, nursing and biomedical engineering. The construction of the present site was completed in 2008. The hospital has a capacity for 400 patients and has 18 operating rooms. Today, next to that building, there is a research center and another for the care of the elderly. As a warm gesture, the city of Rome named the street leading to the University after Bishop del Portillo. Today it offers degrees in eight disciplines and has over a thousand students, while the hospital cares for thousands of people each year.
The second initiative is in Africa: the Centre Hospitalier Monkole, which arose on the outskirts of Kinshasa after a trip Bishop Álvaro del Portillo made to Congo in 1989. During his stay there, Don Álvaro spoke with Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, then President of the Congo Bishop’s Conference, who highlighted the need to have a well-equipped hospital that could serve the people there and also the many priests, religious men and women, missionaries, etc. who were working in the country. Bishop del Portillo suggested to some faithful of the Work that they begin a project to provide health care. Today the Monkole hospital center offers specialized medical attention in gynecology, surgery, internal medicine and pediatrics, and provides health education especially in widespread local diseases. Three ambulatory satellites of the hospital bring health care to people in poor outlying districts. The hospital is linked to a nursing school that each year trains 50 new nurses, and a center for continuing education for doctors. More than 50,000 medical consultations take place there each year.
Among the educational projects begun by Bishop del Portillo in developing countries, I would like to mention here the Centro Educativo y Asistencial Pedreira, which arose in a district of São Paulo, in Brazil. The social conditions in this area are among the worst in the city, and many young people run a real risk of falling into crime and violence and the drug culture. Now each year the Pedreira center opens its doors to hundreds of students. It also offers courses of basic professional formation for 10 to 14 year old boys, and professional courses in computer networks and telecommunications for 15 to 17 year olds.
In the business sphere, the Institute for Social Responsibility in Business Management was founded in Guatemala City in 1991, at the suggestion of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo. It seeks to foster the study and putting into practice of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. “Let us do everything possible,” he wrote in a pastoral letter, “to try to ensure that the Church’s social doctrine is known and put into practice.”
In Uruguay, the Uruguayan Association of Family Farm Schools seeks to provide greater human dignity for farm workers, by helping to improve their living conditions and those of their families. The first center was inaugurated in 1980. Bishop del Portillo gave an important push to the work of this association, especially during a discussion in Rome, in 1987, with one of its directors. As of now the institution has provided 485 people from a rural background with the training required to develop their own professional projects.
In the eighties a group of women from various professions, as a result of the formation received in the Prelature, began to carry out activities of professional education in Brixton, a multi-ethnic district in the south of London. Besides giving encouragement to the people involved in the initiative, Bishop del Portillo took advantage of a trip to London in 1987 to bless the building. In 1992, the local civil authorities offered to help in expanding the facilities. Today over 500 young women from 48 countries take part in the courses; in addition, through the Homework Club, 900 children from the area receive tutoring assistance in their studies. At the same time, many mothers receive professional training and are encouraged to help their children in their studies.
Projects like these are found in the sixty-seven countries where the Prelature of Opus Dei is carrying out its stable apostolic work: in the Philippines and Bolivia, in the United States and Cameroon, in Lithuania and Sweden, in Australia and New Zealand. Some of these projects are quite large, others of a more modest nature. But, as Don Álvaro often said, “everything is great if it is done with love.” And he insisted: “God wants to make use of small things to place the lever of his mercy there and raise up the world.”
Bishop Álvaro del Portillo’s decisive faith in urging forward all these initiatives came from St. Josemaría’s example and teaching, who always said that God had brought forth the Work to serve the Church and therefore all humanity. In 1957, at the will of Pope Pius XII, the founder received the request that Opus Dei take over the pastoral care of one of the territorial prelatures in Peru. When the Holy See suggested that he choose one, St. Josemaría replied to Bishop Samorè, secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (now the second Section of the Secretariat of State): “Tell the Holy Father to first offer these prelatures to other institutions in the Church; the one the others don’t want, you can entrust to us.” Later on, he gave some advice to the priests who were to make up the prelature’s presbyterate, basing it on his own pastoral practice. Among other things, he told them that they should always remember that there is only one race in the world, the race of the children of God. Whereas before there had not been a single native priest, today that territorial prelature has a minor seminary where 52% of the priests incardinated there have received their training, priests faithful to the Church, to the Pope, and to their bishop.
4. I don’t want to go on any longer. But before finishing I would like to highlight two projects now under way. The first is a project that arose in 2002, after the canonization of St. Josemaría, called Africa Harambee. This initiative has begun programs of human and social development in a dozen sub-Saharan African countries. Finally, in recent months, not far from Jerusalem, construction has begun on Saxum, an initiative in memory of Don Álvaro. This Latin word, saxum, or rock, was the nickname St. Josemaría gave to that son of his in the early days, when he realized that our Lord had placed him at his side as a strong support, as firm as a rock, in the task of building the Work that God had entrusted to him.
I ask all of you to pray that this project may soon come to completion. Saxum seeks to make known to those who travel to the Holy Land for religious or touristic reasons, the great spiritual riches of the places sanctified by the physical presence of our Lord. We want it to be an instrument through which pilgrims, tourists, etc., can have the opportunity for a spiritual conversion in their life.
Providence has seen to it that the buildings under construction are located close to the road to Emmaus—the one that Jesus walked along on the day of his resurrection, in search of the two disciples who had become discouraged and were returning to the “periphery” from which they had been rescued by our Lord’s call
I will stop here. I am grateful for your patience and attention. And I ask that you pray for me and for these apostolates of the faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei. But I especially ask that you always pray for the Holy Father and his intentions. Thank you.