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Bishop Alvaro del Portillo

Blessed Alvaro del Portillo talking about Saint Josemaria

Tags: Alvaro del Portillo, Love of God, Generosity, Ordinary life, The Will of God, Josemaria Escriva, calling
In 1992 Blessed Alvaro gave a long interview to Cesare Cavalleri, which was published in book form with the title Immersed in God. In it, the new Blessed, who had lived with St Josemaria for more than forty years, told many personal memories.

The following are some extracts from the book.

You lived for forty years in the company of our Father. I realize that it is practically impossible to describe the personality of our founder, a personality so rich in terms of both natural and supernatural gifts. On the other hand, who could do this better than you?

In general terms, I suppose you could say that both through his supernatural virtues and through his natural gifts (of intelligence, empathy, and character), the Father possessed the perfection of an instrument prepared by the Lord for the mission of founding Opus Dei.

His dedication was never something cold or formal. It sprang from love, and so it expressed itself in sincere demonstrations of affection.

To understand the character of our founder, one must keep in view this basic quality which pervaded everything else: his dedication to God, and to all souls for God’s sake; his constant readiness to respond generously to the will of the Lord. This was the aim of his whole life. He was a man in love, a man possessed of a secret he would later spell out in point no. 1006 of The Forge: “With crystal clarity I see the formula, the secret of happiness, both earthly and eternal. It is not just a matter of accepting the will of God, but of embracing it, of identifying oneself with it – in a word, of loving the divine will with a positive act of our own will. This, I repeat, is the infallible secret of joy and peace.”
His dedication was never something cold or formal. It sprang from love, and so it expressed itself in sincere demonstrations of affection.

His dedication was never something cold or formal. It sprang from love and so it expressed itself in sincere demonstrations of affection and understanding: he had a great and noble heart. He was open to all. He loved the world passionately, since it was created by God. Every human reality attracted him. He read the newspapers, he watched the television news, he liked love songs, he prayed for the astronauts who went to the moon – he was very affable. He knew how to instill confidence and be welcoming to others.

What about when he had to correct people?

In cases where he had to reprimand someone, he always bore in mind the frequency of his dealings with that person. He corrected with immense gentleness those whom he saw only from time to time, and, in contrast, was the most severe with those who were nearest to him. These were just two different ways of helping us, allowing for the difference in circumstances. I have already spoken of how careful our Father was about choosing the most suitable line of conduct for every occasion, how he sought to maintain the right balance between a necessary severity and genuine affection. Well, in the early years, when he saw that something had been done badly, he would think, “I can’t mention this now, because I’m so annoyed. I’d better wait till I can say it in a more detached tone of voice, so that I don’t hurt anybody – that way I’ll be more effective and will not offend God. I’ll talk to this person two or three days from now, when I’m calmer.” But in his later years he decided it was better to take care of things right away. He would now say to himself, “If I don’t say it immediately, I’ll start worrying so much about how much this is going to hurt this daughter of mine, or this son of mine, that I’ll run the risk of never saying it at all.” So he would speak up at once, and he never let anything slide, because he loved his children very much and wanted them to be saints.

But didn’t he ever make a mistake?

Not very often, but when he did, he immediately rectified the matter and, when this was called for, apologized. I remember this one day in January 1955, I was on my way home at noontime, and I was passing in front of the oratory of St. Gabriel, at our headquarters. There I happened to meet our Father; he was with some students of the Roman College of the Holy Cross, among whom was Fernando Acaso. After greeting the Father, I took the opportunity to tell Fernando that he could now go and get certain pieces of furniture that we needed, because we finally had enough money in the bank. Well, as soon as he heard that, our founder begged pardon of that son of his. What had happened was this. Just a little before my arrival, the Father had asked about those pieces of furniture. Fernando started to explain why he had not gone to pick them up, but our Father, without letting him continue, just asked him again if he had picked them up. Then Fernando simply said no, and our founder said that he did not like for us to make excuses. But now, having heard what I said, he realized immediately what had happened, and he hastened to apologize, right there in front of us, for not having let Fernando explain. And as if that were not enough, later on, in the sitting-room of the Roman College, he once again asked Fernando’s pardon and praised his humility. The quickness with which he made amends was truly remarkable, and he did not hesitate to do so in public if he felt that was called for. And it was his desire that everyone should experience this “joy of making amends”.

Now I would like to ask you a question that may border on the indiscreet. For forty years you almost constantly lived and worked with the founder in the closest collaboration: would you like to say something about your own filial relationship with St Josemaria?

I am proud to consider myself – with a holy pride, realizing that I did nothing to deserve this – a spiritual son of our founder, one who is indebted and has no means of paying back what he owes. Among so many other things, I owe him my vocation to give myself totally to God in Opus Dei. It was through him that I received my call to the priesthood, an immeasurable gift of the Lord. And he never stopped encouraging me to serve the Church in absolute solidarity with the Roman Pontiff and with all the Bishops in communion with the Holy See, with that spirit of obedience and adherence to the hierarchy which characterizes the spirit of the Work.

So, yes, I am united to our Father by strong ties of filial regard – a regard that I have for him not only because he gave me an example of heroic sanctity, but also because he served as the Lord’s instrument in helping me find my vocation, my raison d’être.

Our founder was constantly showing his affection for everyone, and as for me personally, I can tell you that I was, on an ongoing basis, an object of that fatherly affection. If ever he saw that I was at all tired, he bent over backwards to watch out for me. This might seem a little thing, but it’s a memory that still moves me every time I think of it – when I went to work at the Vatican, I would always wear my newer cassock; well, it would often happen that shortly before I got home, our Father would say to Fr. Javier Echevarria, “Let’s take your brother Alvaro’s cassock downstairs so that he can change into it, because he will be coming home tired.” He also went out of his way to discover everyone’s tastes, and remembered them. For example, any time I was sick in bed, or had to stick to a certain diet, he would get for me (within the limits of the doctor’s orders) dishes he knew I specially liked.

In February 1950 some discomfort I had been suffering for several years, around the area of my liver and appendix, suddenly became a lot worse. Our founder called in Dr. Faelli, who at that time was treating him for diabetes. The doctor said I had appendicitis and needed to be operated on immediately. Until the very moment the operation was to begin, the Father stayed by my side. I was in severe pain, and he kept trying to distract me and make me laugh a bit. He even went so far as to do a sort of little dance in front of me. He later confided to me what had been going through his mind on that occasion. On the one hand, he knew that I was prepared for death and very united to our Lord, thanks to God’s mercy, so there was no need to console and encourage me with spiritual considerations. On the other hand, it was clear that I was not in immediate danger of death. So, really, the only thing I needed was to forget my pain. And that’s why, in front of me and in the presence of a third person, he had the great charity and humility to improvise that little dance. And he certainly did succeed in his intentions. I couldn’t help laughing; I was highly amused and thought no more of my pain. After the operation he came to see me in the clinic quite often and stayed with me as long as he possibly could. In those visits, so frequent and so prolonged, I was the object of the immense charity he lavished on his children when they were sick. I will never forget it.

With regard to the Father, let me repeat, I feel myself a debtor, and a debtor with no means of paying!
Are these trifling things? They might look that way to someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of love. Wherever possible, he tried to alleviate his children’s suffering. On March 10, 1955, a telegram arrived with the news of the death of my mother. Our Father read it, but because it was late, decided to postpone telling me this distressing news, which would surely have kept me from getting a good night’s sleep. The next day he gave me the telegram and explained, “It arrived last night, but I wanted to let you sleep, so I waited till this morning. But all the prayers you would have said, I went ahead and said them for you, and I also prayed on my own behalf for your mother. Now we will, both of us, celebrate holy Mass for the soul of your mother. She was so good.”

In family life he would carry out all kinds of little services with elegance and with some lighthearted remark designed to keep the recipient from feeling ill at ease. I remember how often he would clean my glasses for me, repeating with an infectious smile a saying very common in Spain: “They’re so grubby you could plant spring onions on them.”

But I could go on indefinitely with demonstrations of his extraordinary good-heartedness. Suffice it to say that I consider it a privilege and a great responsibility to have been witness, for forty years, to his unstinting quest for sanctity. I have often asked the Lord to grant me even a thousandth part of the love I saw in him. It is said that no man is great in the eyes of his valet. Well, I wasn’t a servant of our Father, but rather a son who sought, with the help of the Lord, always to be faithful to him; but I have to say that from 1936, when I started to really get to know him, until June 26, 1975, when God called him home, my admiration for his extraordinary charity towards God and neighbor grew by the day. With regard to the Father, let me repeat, I feel myself a debtor, and a debtor with no means of paying!

Extracts from:
Immersed in God: Blessed Josemaría Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, as seen by his successor Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Cesare Cavalleri, Princeton NJ: Scepter Publishers, 1996. Pp. 31-32 and 82-85.


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