Bishop Alvaro del Portillo
Brief biography of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo (1914-1994)
Alvaro del Portillo was born in Madrid, Spain, on March 11, 1914, the third of eight children of a Mexican mother, Clementina Diez de Sollano, and a Spanish father, Ramon del Portillo y Pardo.
After receiving his secondary education at El Pilar School (Madrid), he entered the School of Civil Engineering, where he completed his studies in 1941. Subsequently he worked in a number of state water authorities. At the same time he took a further degree in history, and in 1944 he completed his doctorate on the early exploration of the California coast.
In 1935 he joined Opus Dei, an institution of the Catholic Church that had been founded seven years earlier by St. Josemaria Escriva. He received formation directly from the founder, with the spirit corresponding to this new path in the Church. He carried out a wide-ranging work of evangelization among his fellow students and colleagues, and from 1939 he undertook numerous apostolic journeys to various cities in Spain.
He was ordained to the priesthood on June 25, 1944 by the Bishop of Madrid, Leopoldo Eijo y Garay, together with Jose Maria Hernandez Garnica and Jose Luis Muzquiz. These were the first three priests of Opus Dei, after the founder.
In 1946 he moved to Rome, a few months prior to St Josemaria moving there, and lived alongside the founder in the years that followed. This proved a crucial period for Opus Dei, which around that time received its first juridical-canonical approvals from the Holy See.
For Alvaro del Portillo it was also a decisive period during which he reflected deeply on the role and responsibility of the lay faithful in the Church’s mission, through their ordinary work and their social and family relations.
“In a hospital,” he wrote years later by way of illustration, “the Church is not only present through the chaplain: it also acts through the faithful who, as doctors or nurses, strive to provide a good, professional service and to show respect and care towards the patients. In any given place, the church building will always be an indispensable point of reference, but the only way of reaching those who don’t attend it will be through other families.”
Between 1947 and 1950 he spurred forward the apostolic expansion of Opus Dei in Rome, Milan, Naples, Palermo and other Italian cities. He promoted Christian formational activities and provided priestly ministry for many people. The impact his work had in Italy is reflected today in the streets and squares that have been dedicated to him in various cities.
On June 29, 1948, the founder of Opus Dei set up the Roman College of the Holy Cross in Rome, an international center for formation, of which Alvaro del Portillo was the first rector and in which he taught moral theology (1948-1953). In that same year, 1948, he obtained a doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical University of St Thomas.
During his years in Rome, the various Popes from Pius XII to John Paul II called upon him to carry out numerous tasks as a member of, or consultor to, 13 entities within the Holy See.
He played an active role in the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII appointed him a consultor to the Sacred Congregation of the Council (1959-1966). In the stages prior to Vatican II, he was president of the Commission for the Laity. In the course of the Council (1962-65), he was secretary of the Commission on the Discipline of the Clergy and of the Christian People.
After the Council, Paul VI appointed him a consultor to the post-conciliar Commission for Bishops and the regulation of dioceses (1966). For many years he was also a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The life of Alvaro del Portillo was closely united with that of the founder, Fr Josemaria Escriva. He remained always by his side until the very moment of his death, on June 26 1975, helping St Josemaria in his work of evangelisation and pastoral care. He travelled with him to many countries to help set up and give advice on the apostolic works of Opus Dei.
At the time of Alvaro del Portillo’s death, an Irish Augustinian, Father John O’Connor, wrote: “The sight of his friendly and unobtrusive figure beside the dynamism of Msgr. Escriva put me in mind of St Joseph.”
On September 15, 1975, in the General Congress convened after the death of the founder, Don Alvaro del Portillo was elected to succeed him as head of Opus Dei. On November 28, 1982, when Blessed John Paul II made Opus Dei a personal prelature, he appointed Alvaro del Portillo the Prelate of the new prelature.
Eight years later, on December 7, 1990, the Pope nominated him a bishop, and on January 6, 1991, he received Episcopal ordination in St. Peter's Basilica.
Over the years he spent as head of Opus Dei, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo promoted the start of the apostolate of the prelature in 20 new countries. In his pastoral visits, which took him to every continent, he spoke to thousands of people about love for the Church and the Pope, and preached persuasively on the Christian message of St. Josemaria about seeking holiness in ordinary life.
As the Prelate of Opus Dei, Mgr Alvaro del Portillo inspired the start of many social and educational initiatives. The Monkole Hospital in Kinshasa (Congo), the Niger Foundation Hospital in Enugu (Nigeria), the Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (CITE, in Cebu, the Philippines) are examples of social development projects carried out by members of Opus Dei, with others, under the direct impetus of Bishop del Portillo.
In addition, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (since 1985) and the Sedes Sapientiae International Seminary (from 1990), both in Rome, and the Bidasoa International Ecclesiastical College (Pamplona, Spain), have trained thousands of candidates for the priesthood, sent by bishops from around the world for the service of their dioceses.
They show the concern of Bishop del Portillo for the role of the priest in today’s world, a theme to which he devoted much of his energies, as evidenced during the years of Vatican II.
“The priesthood is not a career,” he wrote in 1986, “but a generous, complete self-giving, without calculation or limits, to be sowers of peace and joy in the world, and to open the gates of Heaven to those who benefit from this service and ministry.”
Bishop Alvaro del Portillo died in Rome in the early hours of March 23, 1994, just hours after returning from a pilgrimage to Holy Land. On Tuesday, March 22, he had celebrated his last Mass in the Church of the Cenacle in Jerusalem.
Alvaro del Portillo was an author of publications on theological, canonical and pastoral subjects: Faithful and Laity in the Church (1969), On Priesthood (1970) and numerous articles, many of them collected posthumously in the Italian-language volume Rendere amabile la Verità. Raccolta di scritti di Mons. Alvaro del Portillo, which was published in 1995 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
In 1992 the book Immersed in God was published, a collection of interviews with Bishop del Portillo by Italian journalist Cesare Cavalleri, about St. Josemaria Escriva. It has been translated into several languages.
Since his death in 1994, thousands of people have testified in writing to the memory of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo: his kindness, the warmth of his smile, his humility, his supernatural courage, and the peace of mind his words inspired in them.